In Defense of Thomas Friedman (Sort Of)
Some guy named Hamilton Nolan has an article on Gawker mocking Thomas Friedman’s latest column. How wonderfully clever and original! I’ve never seen that before, except when McSweeney’s did a far more impressive Mad Libs version titled “Create Your Own Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Column.” Friedman-bashing runs rampant through the left-wing media. You can even find this classy and sophisticated piece by Matt Taibbi that makes fun of Friedman’s mustache!
In 2012, however, the only thing more trite and repetitive than a Thomas Friedman column are pieces that point out how trite and repetitive Thomas Friedman’s columns are.
Look, I’m not going to argue for Friedman’s greatness here: many, perhaps even most of his columns are as banal as the critics say. Supporting the war on Iraq remains his (and my) greatest political blunder, for which there can be no apology.
Nonetheless, I won’t follow the herd and hate on Friedman. On Israel-Palestine, the only topic on which he is a true expert, he usually has interesting things to say. The chapter “Hama Rules” in From Beirut to Jerusalem, which I was assigned as an undergraduate, remains remarkably prescient in its criticism of Ariel Sharon and Anwar Sadat.
Also, in 2002, in a column titled “The Core of Muslim Rage,” Friedman made a simple but powerful argument. Basically, he noted that the Arab/Muslim world goes apeshit (I can curse like Taibbi too!) when Jews kill Muslims but doesn’t give a rats ass when Hindus/Christians/Muslims do the same thing on a much larger scale. As he wrote:
When Hindus kill Muslims it’s not a story, because there are a billion Hindus and they aren’t part of the Muslim narrative. When Saddam murders his own people it’s not a story, because it’s in the Arab-Muslim family. But when a small band of Israeli Jews kills Muslims it sparks rage — a rage that must come from Muslims having to confront the gap between their self-perception as Muslims and the reality of the Muslim world.
There are many reasons for Arab-Muslim antipathy to America and Israel: the poverty and misinformation endemic to parts of the Arab-Muslim world, as well as the daily violence and oppression perpetuated by Americans and Israelis on Arabs and Muslims are prominent among them. But to me, the most important reason is the “poverty of dignity” that Friedman identifies. Muslims imagine themselves in possession of the one true faith, yet they haven’t won a major victory with the West since the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453.
We even see the legacy of this bitterness in the Arab Spring today. The Islamists seek a restoration Sharia law to restore Muslim dignity. Similarly, the secular segments of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere are revolting against a once mighty civilization that has fallen frighteningly behind much of the world. Friedman understands this, which is why when he writes about the Middle East, I will always read, even if I don’t always (or even often) agree.