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.

Today’s installment includes a list of Mideast Rules to Live By. Mark Finkelstein summarizes them thusly:

  • "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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. But, Chai tea is good.

    And I like cheese.

  2. LaurenceB says:

    Hmm…

    Joyner agrees with Finkelstein that were Friedman a Conservative, liberals would attack him, but since he’s not, they won’t.

    Then Joyner quotes several Liberals who are attacking Friedman.

    Then Joyner, who is presumably not among the Liberals whom Finkelstein and Joyner agree would defend Friedman, proceeds to defend Friedman.

    OK. 🙂

  3. James Joyner says:

    LB:

    But they’re attacking Friedman for being silly (and because he’s been a staunch defender of the Iraq War, making him a de facto conservative in their eyes) not for stereotyping. If Pat Buchanan had written a similar list, he’d get a different reception, methinks.

    I’m not, by any means, saying that Friedman is a racist. My take on him is expressed in the three paragraphs that close the post.

  4. LaurenceB says:

    You’re right of course, James. I understand what you were trying to say, it just made my head swim how it was said. Feel free to ignore me. 😉

  5. legion says:

    Friedman does have solid education & experience in his subjects, which makes it difficult to simply dismiss his writings unexamined, but yes James, “maddening” is a good word to describe his effect. The writing he puts out with the resources & potential he has is quite maddening…

  6. John Burgess says:

    I worked with Friedman a bit in Saudi Arabia, back in 2002/03. I thought he had a far better grasp of the realities of that country than 99.9% of his colleagues/competitors in the MSM. Instead of going for the stereotypical stories, he focused on actual people and their actual thoughts.

    I don’t object to his writing style, glib though it may be at times. That’s his style and it works for his readers, or most of them, at least the ones who pay him. I don’t think he’s perfectly objective, but he doesn’t pretend to be, either.

    I do think he tries to be as honest and objective as he can be on most issues. That doesn’t spare him from being wrong, of course. I do take what he says seriously. But I also agree that many attribute an undeserved level of sanctity; his every pronouncement isn’t worthy of engraving in stone.

  7. Bithead says:

    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.

    It’s interesting to me that Yglesias embraces this line, by quoting it, while so much of this commentary about what’s happening in Iraq, seems to be based on where we have been successful and where we have failed in Japan, Korea, and Germany.

    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.

    You will forgive me, James, but for my part, I believe we have found in Digby’s case, a working definition for “projection”.

    Mind you, that in any of this, I have no dog hunting. But I am amused by the examples you site, what they will attack, and what historically they have not.

  8. andy beider says:

    the middle east is in desperate need of a massive injection of hope. this offers an alternative thought no one is currently discussing which is a win/win for all parties!