Wednesday, April 16, 2003

"Bloviating Pillars of American Empire" 

Philip Weiss of the New York Observer takes aim at Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, and Tim Russert of Meet the Press fame:

"When the tank pulled Saddam’s statue down in Baghdad, and Iraqis—a small crowd of them, anyway—jumped on it, Tim Russert on MSNBC launched into a lecture to the Arab world. Will they show their people these pictures? he asked. Will they embrace democracy instead of terrorism?

There was something of a bullying tone to the lecture, a warning to Arab culture that it must change, or else. Mr. Russert was expressing an ideology as strong, and self-satisfied, as the anti-communist ideology that was all over the airwaves in the 50’s and 60’s.

The lecture was also a sign of the influence of Thomas Friedman. The New York Times columnist has become the principal interpreter of the Arab world for the well-informed. Everyone reads him; my liberal friends are always quoting him. He’s frequently on television, and Mr. Russert’s lecture could very well have been cribbed from Tom Friedman, and maybe even was. When former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger uses the term "stagnation" in The Washington Post, he’s piping a Friedman word...

...Thomas Friedman writes clearly and emphatically. He is obviously a liberal Beltway Democrat, I’m sure a good supporter of abortion rights, and he has a pleasant mustachioed presence on television.

The problem with Mr. Friedman is that for all his time in foreign lands, he has little ability to see things from someone else’s point of view. There is a secret xenophobia about him. He travels everywhere, and everywhere reports to his wife, according to the diary portion of his latest book, Longitudes & Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11. "You know, honey, the wheels aren’t on very tight out there." Somehow, nowhere are they tight enough for Mr. Friedman except home—when he is in the neat, clean Washington subway or at Camden Yards. (The No. 7 train would probably give him the willies.)

For all his time in the Arab world (including five years in Beirut), it is hard to read his work without concluding that he really is anti-Arab. He cannot abide Arab culture as it is; it is all of it infected by bin Laden–ism. "Mr. Hobbes’s neighborhood," he calls the Arab world in his latest book. "Backward," he said of young Arabs in a recent column. He writes dismissively of "the wall in the Arab mind."

It’s one thing when George W. Bush and the right-wingers demonstrate blanket insensitivity to Arab societies. They would be that way. They would, after all, heedlessly cause the destruction of the Iraqi museum, the dispersal and erasure of its cultural treasures.

But Thomas Friedman’s constituency is liberals, the museum audience. This makes his point of view more significant. For he is fostering a mistrust and disdain in this community for an entire culture and region of the world, precisely when it is the liberals and internationalists—the people who gave America the Peace Corps, the civil-rights movement, affirmative action and multiculturalism—who have a responsibility now to see the variations in that alien world and figure out other ways of relating to it than aggression. In the Peace Corps, at least, they have to speak the language; for all his expertise on the Arab mind, Mr. Friedman told me that he can get along in Arabic, even do an interview in a pinch, but "I’m not fluent—I would never describe myself as fluent."

There is always the sense about Mr. Friedman that he is playing "Gotcha!" with the Arabs, and there is never any subtlety. This is best demonstrated by an incident in his latest book. His plane from London is about to arrive in Riyadh, and an "attractive raven-haired" Saudi woman in the seat beside him begins to fret. She has left her veil at home. She is calling home madly on her cell phone to make sure someone has come to the plane with her veil.

To Mr. Friedman, this is a great sadness. What a waste of time—she is so attractive. Think of all the useless energy she and other Saudi women who seem to actually like the veil are expending, putting on the chains of servitude ….

But Mr. Friedman never really talked to the woman, and the resulting observations are facile and self-serving. A subtle mind, a truly inquiring mind, would be forced to different observations. Like: She is from a very different culture from my own, and she sees a value in this thing that seems hateful and pointless to me. But then, think of all the energy that women in our culture spend to deal with the same essential condition—men stare at them—by prettifying themselves with expensive makeup. Is that a waste of time and resources? Is a free-speech culture inevitably one of public pornography, as these Arabs often say? And what does that do to civilization?

No, Mr. Friedman can be counted on to go into any situation and come back with a hosanna to globalization. He is a sort of modern-day Babbitt. At the dinner table, he advises his girls that they can believe anything they want, but they can never not love America and not thank God that they were born Americans. He repeatedly calls the World Trade Center a "temple" of our "civic religion," which apparently is invention and making money."