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 is not at all afraid to go over there; he has been all over the Arab world, and gotten three Pulitzer Prizes to boot. All the books about Islam that people bought after 9/11 tend to gather dust; they’ve proved complex and difficult to penetrate. But Mr. Friedman is not at all difficult to penetrate.
He believes, in essence, in the clash of civilizations-that the anti-Americanism in the Arab world, from which 9/11 flowed, had little to do with American practices and everything to do with the Arab world’s failure to participate in globalization. These are stagnant societies that cannot play in the new arrangements of capital and talent that the computer and the end of the Cold War brought about. They don’t have democracy, which would allow them to participate; they don’t harness the engines of education, free speech and women’s rights, which maximize human capital. They are falling behind. This leaves their embittered, underemployed men to sit around burning with resentments against their own society and ours, and thus to become the playthings for Osama bin Laden.
“He poses as Friedman of Arabia,” says the author James North. “He is influential because he speaks with total assurance about matters that any intelligent and knowledgeable person would have plenty of doubts and hesitations about.”
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.
And in the wake of the war, he can be counted on to bash Arab societies because their media and elites have failed to recognize the American “liberation” of Iraq. They are guilty, in his view, of “Saddamism,” anti-democratic backwardness.
I would like Arab society to change as well, for Islamic fundamentalism to soften. But bullying and dismissals of “the Arab mind” won’t achieve that. And we shall see about the removal of Hussein. Can you simply wave a wand and change a culture? Their traditions may not suit democracy, not in the form that we have it here; the absence of women in public life seems more complex and consensual than the assertion that they are oppressed; and their brand of capitalism will surely be different from the “civic religion” that Mr. Friedman worships at Wall Street.
The belief he states in his book, that you can separate church and state in the Arab world, is at odds with the view of Islam offered by Muslim scholars, say Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his book Islam .
The description of Wall Street as a civic religion is inherently anti-spiritual. Spiritual life involves non-material issues, and Islamic people have a strong spiritual life. They meditate on who they are, on what happens in this life and the next one-the sort of questions that secularists have drained from public life in the West. Obviously, some Muslims’ answers to these questions are hateful and murderous. The adherents of those views deserve our attack by whatever means-but who are we to tell Arab cultures that they should begin to worship capitalism? The insistence on this point suggests the stagnation in our own intellectual culture. We seem to have embarked on a new McCarthy era, when bellicose centrist voices echo one another with a corporatist, self-justifying air.
The war has not only demonstrated the supremacy of our military, but the willingness of American reporters to serve as flacks. The use by the networks of banners like “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Let Freedom Ring” is an abandonment of objectivity, when who knows for sure what mayhem we have created. The example of Peter Arnett, voicing criticism of American strategy and getting fired, sends a clear signal. After Christiane Amanpour observed, during the statue jubilation, that Afghanistan a year later is being carved up by warlords, you didn’t hear much from her. What you do hear often seems jingoistic. Chip Reid talks about an “absolutely beautiful” outpouring by Iraqis thanking American troops, and reporters routinely referred to General Ali Hassan al-Majid as “Chemical Ali.”
Or there was George Stephanopoulos on his ABC Sunday-morning show, giving several minutes to an American weapons inspector denouncing General Amir al-Saadi, the Iraqi weapons chief who had turned himself in the day before. General Al-Saadi had said that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, and Mr. Stephanopoulos showed pictures, from German TV, of him kissing his wife goodbye and then getting into an American truck. But he never let the official, who spoke English, speak for himself. Incurious George was merely observing the new rules: You can’t give a voice to the other side, merely summarize it and denounce it.
The right has always reveled in this sort of arrogance; now the center left has joined it, with the ideology of which Mr. Friedman is the prime spokesman. Mr. Russert’s self-congratulatory lecture, and Mr. Friedman’s civic religion, are soulless advertisements for our way of life, and the hint of a totalitarianism-It’s our way or the highway-worthy of the Soviet Union. Now more than ever, democracy’s best hardest lesson is tolerance.