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December 21, 2006

Thomas Turns on the Arabs
Posted by Shadi Hamid

The surest way to lose your street cred with the Arab/Muslim community is to say anything remotely positive about Thomas Friedman. This has always been a mystery to me, since I’ve generally found TF to be pretty fair, balanced, and insightful. More importantly, it seemed like he had a genuine empathy for the Arab people, their hopes, tragedies, and dissapointments (a lot of those).

In any case, some of my friends began to suspect I was a “sell-out” when I started quoting Friedman a couple years ago. They would look at me with worried, wary eyes: “Shadi, what’s going on buddy? You okay?” Partly because I believed it and partly because I was being contrarian, I would passionately hail From Beirut to Jerusalem as the single, best book on the Middle East ever written (well, it isn’t, but it’s damn good). I met Friedman for the first time in September at a reception hosted by the British ambassador. We talked a bit about whether or not Hamas could or would moderate. I was quite impressed by what he had to say.

In any case, I’m starting to get worried about Tom. Maybe my friends had a point after all. His latest column on the "rules" of Arab politics is one of the most cringe-worthy things I’ve read in recent memory. For starters, I share Matt Yglesias’s confusion about what this metaphor could possibly mean:

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.

I think he’s saying either that Arabs are irrational or that nothing is as it seems in the Middle East. Let’s hope it’s the latter. But it gets more offensive, with gems like this:

Rule 3: 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…

Gone is the empathy, that’s for sure. Of course, Friedman knows better then to peddle inane generalizations such as these, but he’s angry, frustrated, and, like many of us, feels betrayed by the own sense of hope he had, not long ago, that maybe – just maybe – things were beginning to change in troubled Arab lands. I read somewhere yesterday that “hope is always driven by fear.” I’m not sure this is correct. I hope it isn’t. Sometimes I wish I was a pessimist so I wouldn’t always get disappointed by reality. Maybe this is why we liberals get depressed easier, because we really do believe that people can change, that life can change for the better, that great things are in fact possible. But reality bites and things never quite go as planned. Republicans (and realists) realize this, which is why they seem to have an easier time of reconciling themselves with the disappointments of life, love, and politics.


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And how about TF's comments a few weeks ago that Iraq is largely the Iraqis fault and we should be "harder" with them (i.e. kill them more)? It seems like he is trying desperately to rationalize his enthusiastic support for the war and searching for anyone to blame but himself. To be honest, while he can sometimes be sensible, I think his brand of big, smiley, soft-toned "moderateness" is extremely dangerous since he represents a class of people so insulated from reality, yet who believe that they are somehow privileged to profound truths, that listening to them is a recipe for disaster.

Friedman also called the whole Middle East - or at least the Arab and Muslim portions thereof - a "freak show" on Meet the Press this past Sunday.

Let's reflect a bit, shall we, on what Friedmanian liberal "optimism" consists in, and the causes of the bitter disappointment and depression to which that supposed optimism gives rise. The spirit here is not much different from the missionary zeal of the religious men who accompanied the conquistadors to the New World, and worked to save souls in the wake of the conquerors' depredations. And the old debate between skeptics and missionaries goes much the same way:

Skeptic: The people of region X have a complex and enduring culture, with their own unique moral, religious, legal and political attitudes. They have shown no particular interest in converting to our way of life, and there is no broad-based and home-grown movement to produce such change. The attempt to inflict such a change upon them is likely to result in dislocation, resentment and violence.

Missionary: Since the culture of region X is evil, my opponent is a cynic, who believes the people of region X are stubbornly and unalterably evil, and incapable of change. I, on the other hand, am an optimist. I believe the people of region X are good at heart and so are capable of being converted to the enlightened values of our culture.

After it turns out that the attempt to convert the heathens only succeeded in sowing conflict, violence and death, we get a change of heart:

Missionary: I was wrong. The people of region X are not eager to receive enlightenment after all. Our attempt to instigate this change has resulted in a cascade of resistance, conflict and violence. Therefore, the people of region X really are evil. They are morally and intellectually defective beasts whose perverse and convoluted throught patterns cannot discern the straight line of progress from their evil form of debased existence to the enlightened truth.

Note that the so-called optimism consists right at the beginning in a haughtily chauvinistic and thoroughly contempful attitude toward the cultures of other people, along with a "hopeful" attitude of one-dimensional moral arrogance, and an expectation that the brutish natives will see the light and can be converted or transformed. Once that "hope" is thwarted, the deceptive bigotry of the optimistic missionary turns into the rank and blatant bigotry of the frustrated moral snob.

If a population rejects your ideology, then in a zero-sum world, there is something wrong with either the population or your ideology.

What Dan said, though Joseph Conrad said it better:

It was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to [the natives] in the nature of supernatural beings -- we approach them with the might as of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence -- of words -- of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!' -- Heart of Darkness

Tom Friedman, Deptember 28, 2005:

That will become clear in the next few months as we see just what kind of minority the Sunnis in Iraq intend to be. If they come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and we should stay to help build it. If they won't, then we are wasting our time. We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind.


Friedman is incapable of any other feeling than a sort of contempt for the Arab people...his "freak show " remarks shows him in his true light!!.
But what the surprise..Friedman is a hard line Zionist,and like all of that crew,nothing matters to them but the Jewish Homeland ..strip them back to basics and its only the Jewish homeland that they wish to save...certainly not the USA..they would sacrifice a generation of US soldiers for the Jewish homeland." is it good for the Jews"they will ask .that is their only concern..all else is Zionist propaganda.
The American people must throw them out of their government...never again allow any of them near the machinery of government..or the media either !

Shadi, you were impressed by what "Tom" said to you in September regarding HAMAS, but obviously not impressed enough to be able to recall his points.

Since you are surprised at Friedman's latest racist rant, you obviously haven't carefully read what he's written before.

Your love affair with prominent center-left writers is a bit mindless.

So, can or will Hamas moderate?
(I find it to be an asinine question for asinine chichat with an asinine--and racist-man.)

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