Sunday, March 20, 2005

Friedman Froth

In his latest desperate attempt to shape the tenor of debate on the Middle East and Iraq, The New York Times' Thomas Friedman declares that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani merits the Nobel Prize. Last week, he informed Americans, "Free Lebanon and free Egypt's economy and they will change the rest of the Middle East - for free." Let's put aside the man's revolting tendency to write on Arabs only as objects of US action and reform, never as sentient subjects with their own political projects and aspirations for--horrors!--autonomy and dignity. Speaking to the likes of Egyptian playwright Ali Salem and Egyptian "political scientist" (and Gamal Mubarak crony) Mohamed Kamal doesn't count as treating Arabs as agents. Salem is the craziest man in Egypt, and Kamal can't think an independent thought if his life depended on it. Both of them tell Friedman what he wants to hear; I laughed out loud watching the New York Times' man on his Discovery channel "documentary" listening with contrived intensity to the babblings of Salem and nodding enthusiastically as Kamal insulted his Cairo University students and complained to Friedman that they still adhere to "old" ideas of Palestinian rights and opposition to normalization with Israel. Would Friedman have ever given them a hearing if they were not pro-Israel or at least pro-normalization?

Friedman strikes me as the quintessential salesman: packaging stale and/or defective goods in glossy new packaging: "New and improved!" "More taste without the weight!" Every one of his columns and "books" is a hodge-podge of ambient cultural tropes dressed up as Friedmanesque insight. Let's examine his Nobel for Sistani proposal, which of course Friedman did not think up but picked up from several Internet petitions and discussions circulating over the past few weeks. Sistani "brings to Arab politics a legitimate, pragmatic interpretation of Islam"? Sistani "put the people and their aspirations at the center of Iraqi politics, not some narrow elite or self-appointed clergy"? Sistani as a Mandela or a Gorbachev? What planet is Friedman living on? Since when has he become so enamored of senior clerics claiming the exclusive right to represent their co-religionists, not as individual citizens with rights but as an undifferentiated flock? How precisely has Sistani "put the people" at the center of Iraqi politics? Was it just space constraints that prevented Friedman from mentioning the crucial fact that in exchange for wringing elections out of the Americans, Sistani agreed to their request not to demand an immediate withdrawal of American troops on his party's slate? Did Friedman interview Sistani or read any writings evincing the man's purportedly "pragmatic interpretation of Islam"? Inquiring minds want to know. Was Friedman uncomfortable stating point-blank that Sistani has been a model of cooperation with the American occupying authorities and so felt the need to dress up the man's wily political calculus as "instincts and wisdom"? "Tastes great without the weight"!

Last week's column urged the American administration to hurry up and sign a free trade agreement with Egypt so that an Israel-friendly private sector can emerge and Egyptians can finally "ignore the protests of the old Nasserites who want to boycott Israel." At least in this column, the advocate-pundit is explicit about his desire to have a pro-American, pro-Israeli Arab world where all other dangerous opinions (especially those damn Nasserists) are silenced or marginalized. He seems to think that Egyptian workers who want a cut of the QIZs are automatically pro-Israel; he also thinks new Industry Minister Rashid Mohamed Rashid is "impressive." Well, I guess both must be true if Friedman says so. With his know-it-all
declarative prose and missionary zeal, Friedman might just convince American citizens who know little or nothing about the region.

Friedman is a great peddler, but what business does he have being a journalist? When I think of journalists, I think of the early George Orwell, Ryszard Kapuscinki, Amira Hass, Robert Fisk. Writers who have their very strong politics but who also take their profession seriously, constantly ask themselves and their readers uncomfortable questions, and find it beneath them to be cheerleaders for any government. Writers who above all respect and value their subjects, every word of their quiet, angry, poetic, luminous prose animated by that respect. When I read Friedman, I feel like someone turned the channel to a shrill, hyperventilating infomercial selling defective goods: "Not available in stores, so order now and save!" "Unbelievable savings!" "Buy now, pay later!"