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Friday, September 19, 2003

Book Reviews

Certitudes and Platitudes: Blaming the World for September 11

Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World after September 11 by Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2002, 383 pages, $26.




I begin with (in) a context, something that we Americans despise. This one in particular — “them” and us” — is a legacy that goes back to our nation’s first days, although what used to be our curse on the world has lately, painfully, become the world’s revenge.

I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are.
— George Herbert Walker Bush
It is a rare president of the United States, in the twentieth century at least, who has not at some point made the statement that the United States is the greatest country in the world….I suspect that the percentage of the US population that would agree…is very large indeed. I ask you to reflect on how such a statement sounds, not merely to persons from poor countries with cultures that are very different from ours, but to our close friends and allies — to Canadians, to the English, and of course to the French. Does Tony Blair think the United States is the greatest country in the world, greater than Great Britain? Does Pope John Paul II think it?
— Immanuel Wallerstein
…[F]or America, there are only two kinds of years, the war years and the interwar years.
— George Will
The time of the victors is always short and that of the defeated unaccountably long. Their space is different, too.
— John Berger

And now some more context, on the subject at hand:

Friedman was in some ways the very embodiment of market populism at flood tide. As the intellectual life of [the Nineties] came to resemble a race…for…the title of most enthusiastic pundit, Friedman was the blue-ribbon boy. He wrote as though his thoughts were somehow pegged to the insanely rising Dow, as though each advance on Wall Street was a go-ahead for a new round of superlatives and hyperbole.
— Thomas Frank

In foreign affairs circles during the last 25 years, the word has been that the cause of Palestine is dead, that pan-Arabism is a mirage, and that Arab leaders, mostly discredited, have accepted Israel and the US as partners, and in the process of shedding their nationalism have settled for the panacea of deregulation in a global economy, whose early prophet in the Arab world was Anwar al-Sadat and whose influential drummer-boy has been the New York Times columnist and Middle East expert Thomas Friedman.
— Edward Said

New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman developed a genre of mid-1990s articles on Clinton “stock market diplomacy” — policies calculated to reassure and support the financial markets.
— Kevin Phillips

The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas….[T]he hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley…is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
— Thomas Friedman

Tenacious opinionmaking
If one really wants to know why “they” hate “us,” Thomas Friedman’s Longitudes and Attitudes is a seminal text. It is difficult to imagine (let alone read) a more self-righteous, hollow, intellectually ramshackle, morally obtuse, and, worst of all, staggeringly arrogant volume than this compendium of (mostly) New York Times columns and (some) diary entries tacked on at the end, “to connect the dots,” according to Friedman (p. x). It makes you understand why the Greek word for newspaper is ephêmeris. It also makes you despair for the future of American journalism.

The last time I read Friedman with any interest, or hope of learning anything, was a couple of decades ago, when he covered the Middle East for The New York Times. I confess that he had me fooled for a little while (after all, it was before the accumulated slings and arrows of POTUS 40-43). It was the time of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (and the first political coming of Ariel Sharon), and there was something direct and unself-censoring about his reportage that immediately attracted me. He actually seemed to be an American reporter who just wanted to report what was going on instead of becoming another ideological bagman for the Israeli propaganda apparat. So, I read him, every day — but, as I said, it didn’t last long. I soon got a sense that while he was clearly honest, there was also a facileness to his perception(s) of events that could — and, in my opinion, did — quickly deteriorate into, first, gullibility, and, then, into that singular intellectual meld of conceit and condescension that are the hallmarks of what is normally referred to as classic American “consensus” but that Tocqueville so astutely described as American “tenacity of opinion.”

Although the United States “perpetually brings new men to the conduct of public affairs, and the administration seldom preserves consistency or order in its measures,” Tocqueville argued, “…the general principles of the government are more stable and the chief opinions which regulate society are more durable there than in many other countries.” He remarked acidly that “once the Americans have taken up an idea, whether it be well or ill founded, nothing is more difficult than to eradicate it from their minds.” He attributed this phenomenon to what he admitted “may at first sight” appear to be a paradox: “namely…the liberty of the press. The nations among whom this liberty exists cling to their opinions as much from pride as from conviction. They cherish them because they hold them to be just and because they chose them of their own free will; and they adhere to them, not only because they are true, but because they are their own.” (Democracy in America, I, XI)

Welcome to George W. Bush’s — and Thomas L. Friedman’s — America. It’s no coincidence that Friedman is a journalist, since, as Tocqueville saw (and foresaw) almost 170 years ago, “the chief opinions which regulate society” in the United States are “firmly rooted” (his words) in its press. Indeed, Tocqueville commented on the union of “freedom of thought and…invincible prejudices.” Thomas Friedman is the current poster boy for that sad conjunction.

Punditry or parody?
As I said, I don’t read Friedman’s columns — or, rather, I can’t read them. My problem is twofold (besides his unapologetic intellectual conformity, I mean): his breezy, Clintonian-cyberhip, but (equally Clintonian) quasi-plebeian, down-to-earth, McMaven style, compounded with (and necessarily feeding off of) his bizarre historical occlusion. Here’s an example, about Colin Powell’s confirmation hearings:

One way to think about Mr. Powell is this: He spent thirty-five years of his life with America Onduty, as a military officer. But for the past two years he’s been associated with America Online, as a member of the AOL corporate board. So which perspective will Mr. Powell bring to his job as Secretary of State — the perspective he gleaned with America Onduty during the cold war or the perspective he gleaned with America Online in the post-cold war?

These are two different perspectives: America Onduty tends to see the world as being built around walls and America Online tends to see the world as being built around webs (p. 18).

Leaving aside the sheer banality of “thought” (and prose) here, it is instructive that, at the moment, a couple of years after this paean to the “post-cold war” perspective, Time Warner is considering obliterating AOL from its corporate name. (So much for “paradigm shifts,” and for their apostles here on earth.)

Here’s another, truly classic, example, which, if nothing else, made me and my wife crack up as I was reading it to her:

You need only spend an afternoon walking through the Storytellers’ Bazaar here in Peshawar…to understand that America needs to do its business [sic] in Afghanistan…as quickly as possible and get out of here [sic]. This is not a neighborhood where we should linger. This is not Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood.

What makes me say that? I don’t know, maybe it was the street vendor who asked me exactly what color Osama bin Laden T-shirt I wanted — the yellow one with his picture on it or the white one simply extolling him as the hero of the Muslim nation and vowing JIHAD IS OUR MISSION. (He was doing a brisk business among the locals.) Or maybe it was the wall poster announcing CALL THIS PHONE NUMBER IF YOU WANT TO JOIN THE ‘JIHAD AGAINST AMERICA.’ Or maybe it was all the Urdu graffiti reading HONOR IS JIHAD and THE ALLIANCE BETWEEN THE HUNOOD [Indians] AND YAHOOD [Jews] IS UNACCEPTABLE. Or maybe it was the cold stares and steely eyes that greeted the obvious foreigner. Those eyes did not say “American Express accepted here.” They said “Get lost.”

Welcome to Peshawar. Oh, and did I mention? This is Pakistan — these guys are on our side…. (p. 100)

Friedman then describes his visit to the largest madrassa in Pakistan, which also happens to be the alma mater of Mullah Omar (of Taliban infamy).

The air in the Koran class was so thick and stale you could have cut it into blocks and sold it like ice. A sign on the wall said this room was “a gift of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The teacher asked an eight-year-old boy to chant a Koranic verse for us, which he did with the beauty and elegance of an experienced muezzin. What did it mean? It was a famous verse: “The faithful shall enter Paradise and the unbelievers shall be condemned to eternal hellfire.” (p. 101)

What I found most amazing about this column was that it was posted from Peshawar. After reading it, I turned to Melanie and wondered out loud, “He had to go to Pakistan to figure this out?” She was still laughing. (Friedman’s gained a new fan, however. After reading her a couple of his columns, my wife is hooked: she thinks he’s even funnier than Dave Barry.)

If it’s Tuesday, this must be the Hindu Kush
This notion of reality “on the ground” is, of course, pure bunkum nowadays, when, if nothing else, a little bit of hard intellectual slogging will get us most (occasionally, even all) of the information we need to develop (very important that concept) an informed opinion on what is actually happening in Monrovia or Kigali or Ramallah or Kandahar or Brussels or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — or Ground Zero in Manhattan. Except that, in the mediacracy in which we live, even the Gray Lady’s columnistic cocks of the walk feel the competitive (but in truth pathetic and self-demeaning) pressure to “go where the action is,” if only to prove that they actually know what they’re talking about, or at least can defend their professional roost from the growing threat of that bloodthirsty, rabid Fox. The results are, of course, predictably dispiriting: 740 words transmogrified into a 30-second sound bite.

The canon of “Have Laptop, Will Travel,” however, seems to have an almost mystical puissance, and authority, for Friedman. His volume is bookended by the proud (and cheesy) claim that he can go anywhere at any time in the proverbial (or, at least, Hollywood-enhanced) “search of the story.” In his introduction, Friedman writes: “I decide where to travel and when….I have total freedom, and an almost [cute touch, that] unlimited budget, to explore” (p. x). In his acknowledgments, he reiterates that the Times has given him “the resources to go anywhere, anytime, and to write whatever I wanted” (p. 381). How cool is that?

Not very, actually, since, according to Friedman, “America [is] at the center of an increasingly integrated global web…of trade, telecommunications, finance, and environment” (pp. 18-19). Well, then, why does he actually have to go to Peshawar to realize that — Omigod! — a lot of people there (and other places) positively hate the United States? Friedman reminds me of Captain Reynaud in Casablanca — except that the transparently cynical captain’s ignorance was an act. Why does Friedman need to go to Tel Aviv to “analyze” the quasi-racist (or neo-colonialist, I’m being kind in either case) motivations behind Arik Sharon’s policies toward the Palestinians, or to Riyadh to deconstruct the structure of the Saudi ruling elite’s grotesque pre-modernist combination of absolutism and theocracy, or to Tehran to understand middle-aged Iranians in despair because while they thought they were overthrowing a (US-sponsored) tyrant in 1979, what they were really doing was building an enormous prison — in the shape of a mosque — with enough cells (and torture chambers) to encompass them all? Friedman has three Pulitzer Prizes. What did he get them for?

The real problem, however, is that even when he travels, Friedman’s modus operandi is to be, almost perversely, and as he himself puts it, “completely home alone” (p. x). This is apparently not a journalist for whom the road expands horizons or broadens minds. Here is an egregious example, again from Pakistan:

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s January 12 [2002] speech to his nation has the potential — the potential — to be the kind of mindset-shattering breakthrough for the Muslim world that has not been seen since Anwar el-Sadat’s 1977 visit to Israel.

Why? Because for the first time since September 11, a Muslim leader has dared to acknowledge publicly the real problem: that Muslim extremism has been rooted in the educational systems and ruling arrangements of many of their societies, and it has left much of the Muslim world in a backward state. But he also laid out a road map [sic] for doing something about it — not just throwing extremists in jail, but confronting their extremist ideas with modern schools and a progressive Islam.

Friedman’s peroration is slightly incoherent and more than slightly absurd:

Driving into Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, I am always struck by how the Parliament, presidency, and Supreme Court are all on one wide boulevard: Constitution Avenue. The only thing not on Constitution Avenue is Pakistan’s Constitution, which is suspended. That is the road Mr. Musharraf has to reopen because it is the only one that will lead him from an alliance with the mosques to an alliance with Main Street. And if he succeeds, well, who knows what other leaders may follow?

Who, indeed? Shades of Ngo Dinh Diem (or Nguyen Van Thieu, we had a lot of choices in that particular crusade), Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Suharto, Augusto Pinochet, George Papadopoulos, and various other messiahs (or mahdis) of “mindset-shattering breakthroughs” east, west, north, and south since Harry Truman announced in Congress assembled that the US would oppose all “armed minorities” seeking to violate the global peoples’ will — except, of course, for those armed minorities that happened to be our own local mobsters, death squads, or, most often, (khaki-covered or mufti-disguised) stratocrats.

Once again, Friedman’s prophetic talents are underwhelming. Today, about a year and a half later, Pakistan’s madrassas are not only alive and well, thank you very much, Friedman sahib, but, as we all know, following the unfree and unopen elections ridiculously (even for him) stage-managed by the mindset-shattering Pervez Musharraf, Islamic fundamentalists won the biggest share of the vote they’ve ever gotten in the sad and benighted history of Pakistani elections. They now, more or less, control public discourse in that nation. Naturally, Friedman could have easily anticipated this when he was “in-country” if he had just simply looked around and noticed the Pakistanis rolling their eyes and shaking their heads following Musharraf’s mindset-shattering. Like most American journalists, however, Friedman is indeed “completely home alone.” He has so thoroughly internalized his notions of the world — and, naturally, of “good” and “evil” — that nothing short of a lobotomy can, to echo Tocqueville, “eradicate” them from his mind. (By the way, does Friedman know, or understand, that “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure”? Does he consequently comprehend the intellectual, social, and political ramifications of that national self-appellation and -description?)

Historical three-card monte
The background image on the dust cover of Friedman’s book is of a detail from a painting by Giorgio Vasari of the Battle of Lepanto. It is a weird reference. As vile as the mass murder on September 11, 2001, was, it did not — and does not — begin to equal the national devastation suffered by another country on another September 11 (in Chile, in 1973), let alone the civilizational significance of the bloody naval engagement fought in 1571 in the Gulf of Patras, off Nafpaktos, here in Greece, where I am writing this review. George W. Bush is not the reincarnation of Don Juan of Austria, nor is Osama bin Laden a latter-day Ali Pasha (let alone Selim II). Indeed, we can only wish that September 11, 2001, would have a cultural witness as sagacious, lucid, and deeply conscious of the poignant but disastrous human trait of illusory (and self-delusional) idealism as that eminent survivor of Lepanto, Miguel de Cervantes. And yet, the first image one gets in picking up Friedman’s book is of fighting, drowning, and otherwise dying Ottomans (“them”) and Christians (very aptly “us”). There is something definitely wrong with this picture.

If nothing else (and there is much else, particularly culturally), it betrays a strange historical warp. A considerable part of Friedman’s book is taken up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A considerable part of that part is taken up with berating Yasir Arafat for refusing to accept the notorious Clinton deal that would have “given” the Palestinians “95 percent” of the West Bank for a Palestinian “state.” I say notorious because this was the infamous “Bantustan” arrangement that virtually every Palestinian thought — and thinks — would have sounded the death-knell for any viable national Palestinian future, since it effectively broke up and penetrated (through “security areas,” “bypass roads,” or existing Israeli settlements) this “95 percent” into an arbitrary assemblage of non-contiguous cantons. It would have split the West Bank into three encircled enclaves without free access to Jordan, and isolated Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from each other and from the rest of the West Bank. Edward Said wrote a devastating, and concise, critique of this Clinton “peace plan” for The London Review of Books almost three years ago. (Yes, of course, the London, not the New York, Review of Books — another example, undoubtedly, of “tenacity of opinion” and “invincible prejudices” in what Colin Powell has referred to as “the oldest democracy in the world.”) I quote from his analysis — which, notably, is based on that of an Israeli journalist:

[I]t was a great deal easier, after the failure of the Camp David summit last July, to claim, as Clinton and Barak have done, that the Palestinians were to blame for the impasse, rather than the Israelis, whose position remains that the 1967 territories are not to be returned. The US press has referred again and again to Israel’s “generous” offer and Barak’s willingness to concede part of East Jerusalem plus anything between 90 and 94 per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Yet no one writing in the US or European press has established precisely what was to be “conceded” or quite what territory on the West Bank he was “offering” 90 per cent of. The whole thing was chimerical nonsense, as Tanya Reinhart showed in Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest daily. In “The Camp David Fraud” (13 July), she writes that the Palestinians were offered 50 per cent of the West Bank in separated cantons; 10 per cent was to be annexed by Israel and no less than 40 per cent was to be left “under debate,” to use the euphemism for continued Israeli control. If you annex 10 per cent, decline (as Barak did) to dismantle or stop settlements, refuse over and over again to return to the 1967 lines or give back East Jerusalem, deciding at the same time to hold onto whole areas like the Jordan Valley, and so completely encircle the Palestinian territories as to let them have no borders with any state except Israel, in addition to retaining the notorious “bypass” roads and their adjacent areas, the famous “90 per cent” is rapidly reduced to something like 50-60 per cent, the greater part of which is only up for discussion some time in the very distant future. (LRB, Vol. 22, no. 24, 14 December 2000).

Friedman does not tell his reader any of this in his columns. (Said’s astute comment that “no one writing in the US or European press…established precisely…what territory on the West Bank” had been offered to the Palestinians anticipates Friedman’s own incredible confusion. In one column, Friedman refers to “95 percent” [p. 15]; in another, it’s “94 percent” [p. 25]; in a third, it’s “more than 90 percent” [p. 121]; his fourth permutation — and my personal favorite — is “close to 100 percent of the land sought by Palestinians” [p. 194]; and his final, and most inconclusive, variation is the utterly nebulous “talks [that] were 90 percent of the way toward…creating a Palestinian state”[my italics, p. 218].)

Another astounding — and, for millions of people in that country, I am sure, deeply offensive — elision by Friedman concerns Indonesia. I quote from the beginning of a column datelined Jakarta, May 2002:

Spend a few days in Indonesia and you’ll find many people asking you a question you weren’t prepared for[!]: Is America’s war on terrorism going to become a war on democracy.

As Indonesians see it, for decades after World War II America sided with dictators, like their own President Suharto, because of its war on Communism…. (p. 244)

First of all, why is a triple-Pulitzer-Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the most sophisticated (and ostensibly liberal) newspaper in the United States not “prepared” for a query on whether the US war on terrorism might possibly turn sour? Haven’t his own fellow Americans — including the publication that employs him — sounded the alarm against Patriot Act I and its sequel(s)? The real kick in the head, however, comes in the second paragraph: “As Indonesians see it, for decades after World War II America sided with dictators, like their own President Suharto, because of its war on communism….” That’s not quite true, of course. There’s one (elephantine) detail that Friedman has blithely glossed over here. The “war on communism” he refers to is what subsequently became known in Indonesia (and throughout the world) as “the year of living dangerously.”

In the fall of 1965, then-General Suharto, newly appointed head of the Indonesian army, unleashed what was arguably to become the bloodiest, and most sustained, pogrom — there is really no other word for it — against the left in the history of the world (if we except Stalin’s own destruction of the Soviet communist party). To this day, nobody knows how many people were butchered when it was all over, but the range is half a million to two to three million. That’s two to three million. People. An official report by the CIA called it “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.” Which means, it was pretty damn unspeakable. Oh, and did I mention (as Friedman would say)? The CIA was involved. From beginning to end.

This was another example of — what else? — “regime change,” specifically, the overthrow of Indonesia’s founder, Sukarno, who had led his country from colonialism to statehood. In 1964, he had the temerity to tell the US ambassador: “Go to hell with your aid.” That more or less sealed his fate. Several years ago, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s most revered writer, who himself was arrested in 1965 and was a political prisoner for 14 years, gave an interview to The Yale Journal of Criticism (9.1,1996, pp. 147-164). I quote a telling excerpt:

On the 15th of August 1945, and then on the 17th of August 1945, first Vietnam, then Indonesia declared independence. If these independence movements had not started, the world would still be under colonial rule. These two countries began a struggle for freedom which spread through Asia and Africa. After this, in reaction against these anticolonial independence movements, the Northern countries began the Cold War. It is not by accident that Sukarno is the one associated with the birth of the Third World. Why 1955 and Bandung? At that time Indonesia was considered at the forefront of freedom from colonial rule. At the present time there is no mention of Asian anticolonial nationalist movements. Nationalism has no priority for the current regime in Indonesia. Their concern today is how to get money. Everything revolves around multinational capitalism….With the fall of Sukarno, the Third World also fell apart.

None of Friedman’s readers will ever learn any of this history from any of his columns. Indeed, a couple of paragraphs after the excerpt cited above, Friedman quotes “the prominent Indonesian commentator Wimar Witoelar,” who tells him, “Indonesian democrats have always depended on America as a point of reference”! (p. 244) I have no idea who Wimar Witoelar is, but I do know why Friedman has solicited this grotesque testimonial, and I can only say — and I hope the reader forgives me — that it is precisely in reaction to such appalling presumption that certain people are led to violence and even terror.

We are the world
What makes reading Friedman so unremittingly maddening (and depressing) is the continual sense one has, not that he just doesn’t get it, but that he refuses to. This, after all, is the hard core of American tenacity of opinion, that asphyxiating smugness that is also, unfortunately, the cultural characteristic of any imperial orthodoxy — and which, as such, Americans share with Islamists of all nationalities. Reading Friedman, one wants to scream, “What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?”

Friedman, of course, prides himself — like all liberal American jihadis, from the Truman Doctrine to the current ideological hermaphroditism, which combines nicey-nicey multiculturalism with super-Dubya unilateralism — on his polymorphously diverse sensibilities. Indeed, that is his definition of America. In a column entitled, “Eastern Middle School,” Friedman describes “meet-the-teacher night at…my daughter Natalie’s…public school in suburban Washington [which has] forty different nationalities among its students.” Friedman quickly launches into the de rigueur post-September 11 patriotic riff. This one is so cloying and shameless, however, that it would have embarrassed Norman Rockwell. “Before the teachers were introduced,” Friedman comments, “the school’s choir and orchestra, a Noah’s Ark [sic] of black, Hispanic, Asian, and white kids [no Native Americans?], led everyone in ‘God Bless America.’ There was something about the way those kids sang together, and the earnest, if not always melodious, way the school orchestra pounded out the National Anthem, that was both moving and soothing.” Friedman is positively Capraesque in his climax: “As I took in the scene, it occurred to me how much the Islamist terrorists who just hit America do not understand about America.” (p. 65)

And what about American hyperpowerdom?

…[W]hat this [Islamist] view of America completely misses is that American power and wealth flow directly from a deep spiritual source — a spirit of respect for the individual, a spirit of tolerance for differences of faith or politics, a respect for freedom of thought as the necessary foundation for all creativity, and a spirit of unity that encompasses all kinds of differences. Only a society with a deep spiritual energy, which welcomes immigrants and worships freedom, could constantly renew itself and its sources of power and wealth.

America’s greatest chroniclers, from Mark Twain to Murray Kempton, are spinning in their graves. Does anybody — can anybody — take this third-rate, Thanksgiving-Pageant mummery seriously? When was the last time that power and wealth flowed from “a deep spiritual source,” unless one’s definition of “spirituality” is unbridled ecclesiastical authority? (Lord Acton’s famous remark about power is always stripped of its context: Pius IX’s invention of the theretofore-heterodox notion of papal infallibility. As a devout but liberal — and learned — Catholic, Acton was scandalized by this willful perversion of Church doctrine, and he opposed it. He lost, to absolute power acting absolutely.) As for Friedman’s juvenile New Ageism, far from American power and wealth flowing from his touchy-feely “spirituality,” they have actually flowed from the same place that Dutch and British (and even, in mercantile anticipation of waning religious writ, Venetian) power and wealth once flowed: from what Max Weber famously termed the “disenchantment of the world.”

Weber was referring to the modern social liberation from any defining religious determinations or mysticisms or “spiritualities”: the world’s secularization, that separation from the divine that was probably the most profound cultural consequence of the Renaissance (and Reformation that followed) and which led directly to the Enlightenment and…the United States of America. Hasn’t Friedman ever read the Declaration of Independence? It’s there, in the very first sentence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….” The Laws of Nature and, more to the point, of Nature’s God. Nature’s God, not God’s Nature. Nature defining the Divinity, in other words, not the Divinity determining nature. If we just attempt to grapple with these first words of the annunciation of the United States of America, we will become conscious of how far we’ve strayed as a nation in our sad peregrination from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush — and from Tom Paine to Thomas Friedman.

Which is why Friedman’s got it all wrong. Respect for the individual, tolerance for different faiths or politics, freedom of thought as the fundament of individual creativity (and social progress), and unity in difference, are all civic virtues and political rights deriving from and embedded in our foundational charter as Americans, and from its first ten amendments. They have absolutely nothing to do with spirits or sprites or totems, let alone Allah or Jehovah or the Buddha or Vishnu or the King of Kings. Even to infer such a thing is an egregious historical distortion. Moreover, it was never “a deep spiritual energy” that made the United States a haven (at times) for immigrants, but the immigrant origins of the country itself, which gave immigration a political purchase it could never have in the Old World. As for “worship[ping] freedom,” Americans have always worshipped their respective Gods (or none at all), but have pledged allegiance to liberty (instead of the ideological simulacrum, “freedom,” which has become the mot injuste of right-wing political correctness) and, lest we forget, justice. The Statue of Liberty (that gift from the cheese-eating surrender monkeys) — just a rocket-propelled-grenade’s launch away from Ground Zero — is not a site of worship or religious pilgrimage. It is a civic statement (do we even understand the concept any more?) and a public affirmation of political purpose.

Which is all to say that for somebody who wants to defend the United States, Friedman does a pretty sorry job of it. And he really mucks it up horribly in the end. In the “Diary” section of his book, Friedman writes that “[t]he impulse to blame America first is a disease on some American college campuses, not to mention Europe” (p. 312). He then tries to explain why he wrote a particular column in response to this “disease”:

It was this political correctness that prompted me to write the column “Yes, but What?” about all the people who were saying “Yes, this September 11 attack was terrible, but somehow we deserved it.” It was also these college visits that prompted me to turn to my daughters at the dinner table one evening and tell them, “Girls, you can have any view you want — left, right, or center. You can come home with someone black, white, or purple. But you will never come in this house and not love your country and not thank God every day that you were born an American.

I repeated this story at a NATO conference….A French academic…came up to me afterward and said, “I agreed with your analysis, but Tom, what you said to your daughters — that was too much.” For some reason people are really uncomfortable with American academics, intellectuals, journalists, or commentators, expressing any sort of patriotism or love of country. (p. 313)

The French academic was much too kind. I don’t know how else to characterize Friedman’s “counsel” to his daughters other than — there’s no other word — reprehensible. I was actually shocked to read that sentence, even though it had been preceded by the previous 312-plus pages. I could not believe that a man of Friedman’s apparently liberal social and political convictions, and, more important, ostensible connection and openness to the world would actually give such advice to his children — especially after September 11. It is in this astoundingly revelatory moment that Friedman proves how shallow his notions are of diversity, of the American experience — which, by the way, also covers the citizens of those countries north and south of us — and, most of all, of patriotism. (And, oh yes, one other — big — thing: I don’t know of any sober critic of the United States, native or foreign, who’s said that we “deserved” September 11; what’s been consistently said was that, given our continuing stance in the world, it was inevitable.)

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Here is Friedman again, in what is actually one of the few thoughtful columns in this collection, entitled “Foul Wind”: “There is something about this new, intensely violent stage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is starting to feel like the fuse for a much larger war of civilizations” (p. 199). Then he continues, and proposes:

I still believe that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Muslims, do not want this war. But until the passive majorities are ready to act against the energetic minorities, the minorities will have their way. That’s why our choices are becoming clear: either we have civil wars within the communities — with Israel uprooting most of the Jewish settlements, the Palestinians uprooting Hamas, and the Arab regimes dealing with their fundamentalists — or we could end up in a war of civilizations, between communities, with America also being pulled in. (p. 200)

Leave it to Friedman always to start with the best intentions and quickly end up in hell. He might be a prizewinning journalist, but the gross syntactical cum intellectual sin above would have been cause for admonishment in Composition 101. Notice that we begin with four subjects — Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and Muslims — but end up only with three political predicates: Israel uprooting most (but not all) Jewish settlements, Palestinians uprooting Hamas, and the Arab regimes (which are apparently synonymous with “Muslims”) dealing with their fundamentalists. But where are the Americans? Where have they magically disappeared to? What do they have to do?

Nothing, it seems — except avoid “bring pulled into” other peoples’ messes (massacres). What is truly astonishing here is that Friedman is inciting “civil wars” for everybody else — which, if he were equally uncompromising, I could even agree with — but divine indifference (and spectation) for Americans. (A more cynical critic could say that he’s just promoting globalization, American-style, in which the US picks up the pieces in country after country and then puts them “in order” according to its own interests.) I don’t know what Friedman learned in that high school back in that “small suburb of Minneapolis” he writes about in one of his columns (pp. 12-14), but I suspect — Minnesota being a model both of progressive education and progress in general, at least in the Sixties — that one of his history teachers must have explained to him that our nation was born of civil war (among Britons) and received “a new birth of freedom” in another civil war (among duly constituted Americans this time). In the event, which is the “much larger war of civilizations” he talks about, it strikes me that we could definitely use another, political and nonviolent, civil war, which would take on our own fundamentalists — in our government especially.

You are what you breathe
Friedman was in Jerusalem on September 11, and he lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was on 47th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed, and I live on 15th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. It makes a difference. It certainly makes it personal.

So personal, in fact, that, when the Twin Towers collapsed, you could smell it, and breathe it. Literally. I don’t know if Friedman visited Manhattan — especially downtown — in the days following the attack, but if he had, he would have noticed a peculiar, nauseating, odor lingering in the air. It was the smell of a million and a half pounds of rubble mixed in with the remains of roughly 3,000 human beings. It was what my wife and I quickly termed, in disgusting self-awareness, “the crematoria smell.” Auschwitz-on-the-Hudson. Oh, and did I mention? That sickening stench lasted for weeks, almost two months (that’s right, I counted).

What lasted a lot longer were the individual flyers and posters of the missing from the World Trade Center, men and women, young and not so young, all “races” (what exactly is a race?), from a lot of countries, all over the bloodily globalized globe, that appeared immediately, and were soon layered, one upon another, all over Manhattan, but especially where I lived, downtown. I always walked home after work, from 47th Street. Around 34th Street, and especially after 23rd, the faces of those we all knew were dead just stared at us who were not, from every surface it seemed, whether walking our dogs, going out for a coffee, or just ambling to a movie or a bite to eat with spouse or friend or neighbor next door. Hundreds of faces. Of incinerated human beings. Not merely dead but pointlessly dead, unjustly dead, gratuitously dead because…. Because why? (There’s that Auschwitz comparison again.)

And, yes, I live just a couple of minutes from Union Square, which became the fleeting, open-air temple of a kind of popular cult that reminded me — very much in fact — of an improvised and postmodern Santería, of a genuine attempt (mostly by New Yorkers much younger than me) to come to terms with the crime of it all, but without making criminals of everybody, trying to figure out how to call on the orishas for help, since we were so clearly inadequate in defending ourselves against the big, formal, deadly organized Gods: Allah, Jehovah, He-Who-Speaks-to-George-Bush. (I was moved by the decency and genuineness of these kids, but, when I was young, we thought democracies are made, not inherited. I still do.)

And then, of course, there was the little problem of our own private Berlin right on 14th Street. That’s where the wall went up — invisible, but a wall nonetheless. Friedman hates walls. They represent the “division” of the Cold War, in which the “world was a divided-up, chopped-up place, and whether you were a country or a company [sic], your threats and opportunities…tended to grow out of who you were divided from.” For Friedman, “this…system was symbolized by…the Berlin Wall,” and it was succeeded, of course, by its ideological (and existential) opposite, globalization, which “has one overarching feature…integration” (p. 4, his italics). Well, I wonder what he would have made of living on 15th Street and not being able to cross14th? When my wife and I did manage, the next day, to sneak into the rest of our city, our downtown, just a block away, we almost felt as if we were indeed stateless, having passed into another existence, truly into “a divided-up, chopped-up place,” which — just the day before — we thought had been the city we lived in, knew intimately, and most of whose streets we’d walked down or up one time or another. We weren’t a country (or a company), of course, we were just two human beings, but, far from “integrating” our city (and us), it seems that Friedman’s rapturously embraced globalization had completely disintegrated it.

In the name of another rapture, of course. So, here we are, two years later, and we New Yorkers are still caught in the middle of competing raptures. You know what? I never signed up for this. And I’ll be damned if some guy from Silver Spring, Maryland, or Crawford, Texas, or Anywhere, USA, tells me I did or that, signature or no, I’ve got to get with the program. No way. Especially when I think the program is the agenda from hell. I live in New York. In Manhattan. Not in Silver Spring, Maryland, or Crawford, Texas. And the last time I checked, New York County voted for Al Gore — remember him, the guy who won the last election — and I voted for Ralph Nader (and, no, I don’t regret it). In my case, there was a reason for my decision. Walking through the ash of lower Manhattan on the first (beautiful) Sunday following Black Tuesday, and thinking that the residue I was stepping on might actually contain the last traces of human beings, made me realize in the most stomach-churning way that I knew what the reason was, and that I was right, and that, no, patriotism is never the last refuge of scoundrels, it is the first.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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