Post image for Eat. Pray. Ugh.

Eat. Pray. Ugh.

by nkronos on April 14, 2011

As noted previously on this blog, it is necessary to give Thomas Friedman some credit for his ability to provide other writers with such ample lampoon-worthy content: never have so many owed so much to so little. In contrast to Waylon Jennings–who used to sing about something called the Wurlitzer Prize in his mournful hit titled “I Don’t Want to Get Over You”–Friedman in a perfect world could warble karaoke lyrics to the same tune:

They gave me another Pulitzer Prize

For all the blogs I gave cheap content to

Writin’ these columns ’bout

Nothing clever or very new

Just a personal anecdote or two.

In Friedman’s latest offering, he outdoes himself in centering his piece on the most trivial of incidents, which is a neat trick, indeed, considering his Blakean history of holding the world in the palm of his hand and seeing eternity in a grain of sand.

When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings.

Isn’t your heart already thumping like the only she-camel in a herd of bulls? Because Friedman spends most of his time at his hotel the best way to be “closer to the action” requires re-locating his quarters. And could any base of operations offer the more authentic, gritty experience of the Egyptian street than a Cairo Marriott? A lounge chair at poolside would probably be near enough to the demonstrations, after all.

The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: “Do you have a corporate rate?” I said, “I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.” There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: “ Can I ask you something?” Sure. “Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.”

I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square.

Please.  How much buffoonish self-parody can one columnist compact into two paragraphs of prose?

  • Friedman–connoisseur of Marriotts and 30-year NY Times veteran–has no idea whether he’s entitled to a corporate rate?
  • A local asks Friedman, based solely on his employment, whether her country is “going to be O.K.”? Instead of relocating within Cairo, perhaps he should go back to New York City…because New Yorkers know the real deal.
  • “She sounded like a modern person”? The Marriott often hires either cave women or time travellers from the Renaissance, so you have to judge the reservation clerk’s modernity by the timbre of her voice?
  • Should a typical “modern” woman have been at Tahrir Square? When I look at most photos of the demonstrations, men predominate and the relatively few Egyptian women tend to dress conservatively. Perhaps a wise modern woman would know better than to attend. Ask Lara Logan.

Anyway, this trivial exchange is enough to spark Friedman’s mental propane barbecue, and he’s ready to grill him some chicken nuggets.

Let’s start with the structure of the Arab state. Think about the 1989 democracy wave in Europe. In Europe, virtually every state was like Germany, a homogenous nation, except Yugoslavia.

Czechoslovakia? Ukraine? Latvia? Does Friedman understand why Eastern Europe was so contentious before the Cold War forced conformity?

In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers — except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities.

Well, I’m confused. After all, Friedman previously wrote of the uneventful conversation that started the windmills of his Don Quixote-like mind turning, “We’re just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her — in Egypt and elsewhere.” If Egypt isn’t one of the Arab countries likely to explode from multi-ethnic violence, then how could that be what the clerk’s comment was about?

Perhaps her question was in fact a concern over the amount of alcohol Friedman had charged to his credit card limit and the “are we going to be okay?” was a polite way of putting it before “we”–she and her hotel–went on the hook for a room reservation.

Friedman now lists which nations he expects to evolve in which ways. Yet it’s not as though the Middle East hasn’t before gone through periods such as the one facing it now. After all, most states previous to their current rulership had colonial periods, and if they succeed in ousting local dictators, the aftermath will be akin to when colonial rule ended. Without any changes to the formula, it’s likely to produce identical results.

With Eastern Europe those states that would have most likely transitioned to representative democracy without Stalin’s intervention after World War II presumably would be the ones to do so after the Cold War ended. At least that’s what we would have predicted in the case of Europe. Which Arab states are those?

There’s the rub: in Eastern Europe an external power prevented political evolution. In the Middle East a home-grown power base–fundamental Islam–declares representative democracy to be its implacable enemy. Does anyone doubt that remove Islam from the equation and political modernization of the Middle East would be a much easier proposition? Yet the word “Islam” remains curiously absent from Friedman’s column.

It is not multiethnicity alone or even primarily that hobbles the hopes of a politically liberal development of the Middle East, but Friedman wants to ignore the real elephant in the room.

To be fair, Friedman does discuss the Sunni and Shiite problem in Saudi Arabia, but only as another form of tribalism. That is, he does not address that fundamental Islam is opposed to the idea of democracy, even when other tribal divisions are absent. Otherwise, why would Sunnis in a 90 percent Sunni nation have any problem with pluralism–at least locally?

So what’s Friedman’s solution? The rise of a super-human “giant” such as Nelson Mandela or external “coaching” by the West–an idea at least as old as Kipling but not near as popular as it was 100 years ago. (The UN and President Obama apparently think a black face fronting the white man’s burden will make it more palatable to the locals.)

Absent these two conditions, Friedman says we should “prepare for Yugoslavia”…in a part of the world that supplies something a bit more critical than junky subcompact cars.

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