Saturday, February 9, 2013

More Thomas Friedman Nonsense re Iraq and Syria

OK, I'm supposed to be hunkered down with revising my way-way-overdue book manuscript (a history of Mesopotamia/Iraq - you can already find it advertised on - so I can't take time to take this latest Thomas Friedman piece apart the way I'd really like to.  But you'll find in it so much of what's wrong with Friedman's method and style as a commentator - and so much of why people who really have capacity for insight into Middle Eastern history and politics become so regularly infuriated both with him and with the underserved adulation he receives from so many quarters, including the White House.

His jumping-off point for telling us what India thinks about the mess in the Middle East is the opinion of one journalist, probably garnered over drinks at some high-end club. TF is not a streets-guy

He ascribes what's going on to deep, timeless histories that he vastly overgeneralizes, and to easy binary oppositions like Arab v Kurd and Sunni v Shia.  No room for nuance or complexity - which is probably why so many in the general public buy his books.  I mean, Gee, he makes things so easy to understand.  

But then, at the end, in his inimitably cutesy fashion, he sorta throws up his hands and resorts to a cheap out: "It's the Middle East, Jake."  For those of you not of a certain age, Friedman is stealing from the very last line in one of Jack Nicholson's early movies, "Chinatown."  Nicholson's client and love interest (played by Faye Dunaway) has just been gruesomely shot in her car, on a busy street in Chinatown.  Looking on is her father, played by John Huston, with whom she had had an incestuous relationship that produced a child, who's also looking on, screaming in horror while her father/grandfather tries to comfort her.  Surreal, no?  Nicholson's character (Jake) has just watched all this go down.  He is confused, angry . . . whereupon the police captain, his former colleague, tells him, "Go home, Jake; it's Chinatown" - the insinuation being that Chinatown is where things wacky and inscrutable have always gone down.   No way you can figure it out, Jake.  Why even try?

Just like in Thomas Friedman's Middle East.

As Belen Fernandez demonstrates in her masterful take-down of Friedman as an "expert" in international affairs (full disclosure: I reviewed her book, quite favorably, here and here), there's no other region on the planet upon which Friedman has lavished more attention, and for which he claims more "expertise," than the Middle East.  Yet, perhaps no other mainstream commentator has done more to relegate that region to the category of "Other" as far as the West is concerned.

By my lights, that hardly recommends him as an expert to whom Americans, or anyone else, ought to be turning for insight into the peoples of a region they so desperately need to  understand. 

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