Thomas Friedman’s Middle East Bromides
Despite his columns being behind a subscribers-only firewall, Thomas Friedman still manages to capture attention–and inspire confusion–by coming up with clever homilies, analogies, and observations.
- "What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language."
- "If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all — they won’t believe it."
- "In the Middle East, never take a concession, except out of the mouth of the person doing the conceding."
- Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas."
- "The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation."
- "The oft-warring Arab tribes are all wounded souls."
Of course, like most proverbs, they all have problems or have exact opposites that are equally true. (For example, “Haste makes waste” but “A stitch in time saves nine.” Similarly, you should “Look before you leap” yet “The early bird gets the worm.”)
Haven’t we heard that we shouldn’t pay attention to what Middle Eastern leaders say for public consumption but instead pay attention to what they tell other elites?
For that matter, how many Western wars are really about ideas?
Finkelstein is right, too, that such ethnic stereotyping would be condemned coming from a conservative but are somehow treated as little pearls of wisdom when coming from a worldly NYT columnist.
From the same column, Matt Yglesias finds this:
Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?” If you answer yes, you can’t go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, Korea or Germany — not Iraq.
He notes that Friedman used a variant of the same analogy in 2004, seemingly making exactly the opposite point this column makes.
Two years ago the Friedman Theory of Short Distances supported optimism about Iraq, today it supports pessimism. But what is the theory? I can’t even tell what metaphorical claim Friedman is trying to make here. Is it that a straight line is never the shortest distance between two points (in some sense) and this fact has a special significance in the Arab world that it lacks in Japan, Korea, or Germany? Or is that in Japan, Korea, and Germany (and, presumably, here in the USA) a straight line is the shortest distance between two points but this is not the case in the Middle East? And either way what idea is he trying to express? And why is he trying to express it this way?
An excellent discussion ensues in the comments section, mostly supporting my take that Friedman is trying to be clever in observing that Middle Eastern culture requires a different way of handling things than Westerners are used to. Robert Kaplan makes this point about other Third World cultures in Imperial Grunts, so it may be true and generalizable beyond the Arab world.
Commenter mick is particularly harsh:
Friedman is chiefly a manufacturer of pseudointellectual soundbites. They sound great and they are less filling. They are as empty as a whiffle ball. “No two countries that have a McDonalds in them have ever gone to war with each other!”. Wow, Tom what a marvelous insight! It is cocktail party chatter simulating profundity.
I think it safe to say that Digby is not particularly impressed, either:
Truly, Tom Friedman is one of those utterly pompous, psuedo-intellectual Woody Allen characters who have nothing to say but who obscurely blather on as if their gibberish has some great significance. And because he’s been anointed as a “great thinker” everybody nods their head in agreement because they are afraid they’re missing something so profound it’s above their heads.
While I find Friedman occasionally maddening, I think much of this is unfair. Like Kaplan, he’s a journalist who has spent decades traveling to exotic locales, soaking up the culture, and trying to figure out a way to convey the strange world outside Western Civilization to the type of people who read the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly in interesting, pithy, memorable ways. They succeed at doing the latter most of the time and the former at least sometimes.
The problem, aside from a tendency to “go native” and become a bit too impressed with the people they meet, is that they tend to rely too much on induction. They meet a couple of village elders somewhere, drink lots of chai tea, eat some exotic cheeses, and formulate grand conclusions that seem to them very profound. Because they are superb storytellers, they make it seem that way to many if not most of their readers.
The antidote is broad reading of the macro-level literature: histories, social science studies, and the like. Unfortunately, those generally are much more dull and much less memorable. Further, their authors usually make for lousy talking heads, since they can’t explain their theses in 30-second sound bytes. A story about a Lexus and an olive tree is simply more engaging than a discussion of the degree of variance explained by factor X.