Thursday, February 3, 2011

Friedman clouds important issues ... as usual.

I know this is no surprise to my small audience, but Thomas Friedman - an incredibly influential economist and political commentator - has quite a flawed method of reasoning. Below I will respond to his article "B.E., Before Egypt. A.E., After Egypt," which was published February 1st in the NYT. But I would also like to point out that this is the man who wrote The World is Flat, a naive argument that technology resulting from capitalist globalization creates an "even playing field" for economic actors. While the world of communication has radically altered, creating with it a young global culture, the economics have not caught up and cannot catch up on the basis of capitalist production. Anyway, to the issue at hand.

POINT: Friedman's "retired Israeli general" tells him from the opening, "everything we thought for the last 30 years is no longer relevant.”

REFUTATION: All of the joint US-Israel strategy over the last 30 years was antagonistic to the Arab world. It is not merely "outdated," it was unsustainable, imperialistic, and unrealistic in the first place.

POINT: "The peace treaty with a stable Egypt was the unspoken foundation for every geopolitical and economic policy in Israel for the last 35 years, and now it’s gone. It’s as if Americans suddenly woke up and found both Mexico and Canada plunged into turmoil on the same day."

REFUTATION: This comparison is ridiculous. Israel's border with Egypt is tiny. The US borders with Mexico and Canada, two geographically and demographically huge countries, are likewise enormous. The United States is still able to dictate policy to much of the world (though in a decreasing capacity). Egypt is one neighbor; Canada and Mexico are two, and our only two, and the only two other countries on North America's mainland, at that. Israel and Egypt are both part of a complex overlapping geopolitical network that includes Europe, the Mediterranean, the "Middle East," North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the "Arab World," the "Muslim World" ... the list goes on. The religious complexities of the region alone warrant in-depth analysis, not Friedman's platitudes.

POINT: Friedman hammers home Iranophobia in a not-so-crafty way by quoting a "Tel Aviv strategist" to paint a superficial Middle East backdrop for all of us paying superficial attention: "And it [the Egyptian Revolution] is happening right at a moment when nuclearization of the region hangs in the air."

REFUTATION: This region is "nuclearized." It's an open secret that Israel has WMDs, including nuclear capacities. Shame on Friedman for reinforcing American ignorance about the complexity - and the history - of the weapons situation.

POINT: Friedman says, "The best time to make any big, hard decision is when you are at your maximum strength. You’ll always think and act more clearly," and goes on to point out Mubarak had 30 years to introduce reforms to his country.

REFUTATION: Friedman apparently doesn't understand how a dictatorship works. Having a single strongman give the orders in a militarized security state isn't conducive to progressive developments. If democracy had been Mubarak's goal he would have pressed for changes to Egypt's constitution upon becoming President. A dictator "think[ing] and act[ing] more clearly" means only more thoroughly curtailing freedoms and curb-stomping public cries for liberty.

POINT: "Now he [Mubarak] is trying to reform in a panic with no leverage."

REFUTATION: Appointing new ministers and "promising" to step down in the fall are not reforms. They are executive window-dressing. "Reform" actually involved changes to the laws that keep the dictatorship in place, ending the curfews and the state of emergency. A tyrant will not make reforms; he stoops to grant "concessions." Nothing about what Mubarak has done changes the power of his office or sets a precedent of democracy.

POINT: "[I]t is virtually certain that the next Egyptian government will not have the patience or room that Mubarak did to maneuver with Israel."

REFUTATION: Friedman neglects to mention the U.S.'s vested interest in making sure the transitional government will play ball, and probably any government after that. Will they use force to prop it up? If necessary, you betcha. Friedman is propagating a naivete that harms the worldview of everyday Americans. It is the responsibility of writers, journalist, economists, political nerds, etc. etc. to dig down deep for the truth, not dumb down analysis until it whitewashes the importance of geopolitical strategy.

POINT: "With the big political changes in the region, 'if Israel remains paranoid and messianic and greedy it will lose all its Arab friends.'" Embedded quotation attributed to "Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster."

REFUTATION: Arab friends, huh? Israel has been paranoid and messianic and greedy for the almost 30 years I've been alive. It's astounding to me that they would have Arab friends even now, and any buddies they may have strike me as very good examples of the possible beauty of the human spirit. And also a bunch of people who are very, very scared of the U.S. military. Let's face it: Israel is never going to gain acceptance in the Middle East by siding with the U.S. and pursuing a policy of fear. That is one(?) country and two(?) populations that need to do some serious soul-searching now, as many pundits have pointed out. Let's hope for the sake of the Israeli people (and not necessarily its government....) that this soul-searching won't come too late.

POINT: "What the turmoil in Egypt also demonstrates is how much Israel is surrounded by a huge population of young Arabs and Muslims who have been living outside of history — insulated by oil and autocracy from the great global trends. But that’s over."

REFUTATION: Just the term "living outside of history" is enough to make my blood boil! No one lives "outside of history," no one, anywhere, ever. That is some kind of weird neoliberal fetish. "The end of history." "Stuck in the dark ages." No one is immune to history. Mubarak is falling prey to thinking he could insulate himself from the past. His clique thinks barbed wire can keep out thousands of young folks possessed by memory and empowered by hope. The U.S. thinks it can treat "backwards" - sorry, "developing," that's the word we use now - nations like puppets and pawns. The Middle East has not been "insulated" by the great global trends; it is a shaper of great global trends. Oil and autocracy are facts of the last 100 years. They are a part of our history and give form to our mode of transit, our cities, our foreign policy, our language, our unconscious anxieties and fears and expectations. Until we grapple (never to conquer) with the full dialectical extent of these issues we are victims of history rather than its inhabitants.

POINT: "It is vital for Israel’s future — at a time when there is already a global campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state — that it disentangle itself from the Arabs’ story as much as possible."

REFUTATION: You ever had someone you don't care for, say a family member, or a significant other's friend, come stay with you for a period of time? And at first you don't like them, you rail against their being there, you butt heads a lot? And then perhaps things settle down for a while, you find some common ground, etc. But maybe they don't get a job, or they don't earn their keep, and you get frustrated and tell them, "Shape up or ship out." Israel deserves to exist now partly by virtue of it having existed so long that it has integrated into the Middle East dynamic. It is impossible to "delegitimize" the "Jewish state" by any convincing force of narrative. But I do think it's completely reasonable that the Arabic narrative too take a dialectical change, that the people of Egypt want democracy and they want it to be safe from their militarized neighbors. It's only fair that these people have the opportunity to live in harmony. Good leaders would arrange more dialogue between the populaces of these countries, foster good feelings, talk about cultural values and common grounds. (What a hippy, Dresden!)

POINT: "There is a huge storm coming, Israel. Get out of the way."

REFUTATION: The storm is here. Friedman, you and your bad reasoning are about to get swept to sea.

And perhaps the entire notion, the paradigm even, of America as the City on the Hill, the light of freedom and opportunity for people all over the world, is on the wane, just as our own democracy is on the wane. This country has experienced a dialectical shift from the inspiration and model to the very barrier of the ideals it once pioneered. New models, global models, fueled by communication technology and ideas of participation and new, innovative solutions are in order. They have not yet been born; they have been struggling for form and articulation since the Tennis Court Oath. And there have been false blooms and flashes in the pan but now there are new challenges, new hopes, and America's ruling class paradigms and their dialectical opposites aren't going to cut it. We will be in doldrums for a long time yet.

1 comment:

comrade x said...

I hate that smug attitude that a lot of white " experts" ( liberal or conservative ) have when they sneer at Arabs and say stupid shit like " they are still stuck in the 17th century " or hold up the example of Israel as the only " democracy " in the Middle East. Of course, either because they cherry pick history or are just plain stupid, they ignore the last 70 years where the West had backed these brutal autocracies through intervention and massive resources- and continues to do so even today.