Tom Friedman recently wrote a column in the New York Times about democracy and political freedom in the Middle East. Friedman is normally pretty good, in my (TP) opinion. He writes about big topics, and he makes sometimes controversial arguments, and he, like any good op ed columnist, seems to thrive on making people angry. Just what I like. But the disagreements with readers should come from taking controversial stands that involve making a normative judgment about the social world, not from getting the facts wrong. Like, arguing that protectionism is a good idea is fair game, but saying that protectionism doesn’t exist is not, because that’s not correct. Which is why Friedman’s repetition of the conservative mantra that political correctness in American universities prevented the US from promoting democracy in the Middle East is so lamentable.
Admittedly, I’m a sensitive guy on this subject. I find diatribes against liberalism in academia particularly infuriating in terms of attacking the quality of research. This is not to say that I embrace all aspects of intellectualism–the "no confidence vote" against Larry Summers at Harvard was ridiculous, and I believe that it was an irrational response by Harvard faculty against broaching a taboo academic subject. But people who whine about ivory-tower liberalism being some sort of intellectual closemindedness haven’t spent any time in an American university. I guarantee you, the quickest way to get tenure or funding is to take a controversial stand and defend it with good evidence. Arguing is all that faculty members do in universities.
I’ve heard Friedman’s claim a number of times. In essence, the claim is that in Western universities, in places like political science and anthropology departments and Middle East studies work groups, liberals had so hijacked the debate that debate never existed, at least in the 1990s. No one questioned the perserverance of dictatorship in Arab states, because to do so would be to ignore the values that Arab citizens have, or to not respect their own cultures. Doing that would be "Orientalist", a term coined by Edward Said to refer to the tendency of Western scholars and citizens, in good post-colonial tradition, to view the East as different, weak, exotic, infantile, and in need of Western guidance.
OK. I spent quite a lot of time in the 1990s going to conferences, attending classes, sitting in at seminars, watching panel discussions, and the like, at a university. You could make the argument that this university (Brown) was one of the most liberal and politically correct in the country–in a bad way. You’d be right…when I was a senior, a group of students stole a whole issue of the daily newspaper in a protest action for it having run an ad by David Horowitz, who claims that slavery reparations are wrong "and racist too." Pretty dumb, to my mind. I am also quite liberal and politically correct myself. I say "Native American," I don’t believe that we should have 10 Commandments in public places, and I someday will probably walk around in a tweed jacket and affect a fake pseudo-British accent. I was part of the problem.
But there was no problem. Friedman and his ilk are either misremembering, lying, or they just don’t know, when they talk about the intellectual climate of the 1990s. Hardly anyone took the stand that Friedman is talking about. If they did, it was seriously questioned. People vigorously debated the subject, but few–if any–people viewed the existence of dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia as a good thing for citizens of the Middle East. Even then, democracy was propounded as a superior political arrangement. The problem–and this continues the problem–is that invading a country to make it democratic is a coarse tool, and it has costs. The problem was how to make democracy happen given that American politicians, neoconservative, conservative, and liberal, had little interest in invading any countries, and most were content to keep the petrodollars flowing and contain Islamic radicalism. Indeed, the suggestion that current neoconservatives were the ones who "thought up" democracy as a tool for reducing Islamic radicalism is laughable, and wrong.
So when we talk about the reluctance of American policy makers to truly promote democracy in the Third World before 9/11, let’s get it right. Let’s not blame it on Volvo-driving, wine-drinking, politically correct intellectuals. Let’s put the blame where it truly lies–squarely on the heads of the politicians since the 1960s who thought that they had better things to worry about.
Josh April 11, 2005
When I saw the title of this entry I threw up in my mouth a little, but it’s mostly on.
I once read somewhere that Thomas Friedman’s chief talent was succinctly phrasing the current conventional wisdom. Also, google “thomas friedman parody” sometime, you’ll get dozens of results, all different, and all from different wavelengths on the political spectrum. Edifying.
Tom April 12, 2005
Hey man, he’s the one who broke out the “Orientalism” and “Essentialism.” I’m just repeating them. I claim innocence on that one. But if Friedman is repeating the conventional wisdom succinctly, then revisionist intellectual history is a pretty good term for the conventional wisdom.
I just took your google suggestion. My favorite:
“What’s my point? I don’t actually have one–but opening my columns with strings of clichéd cultural juxtapositions really cuts down my workload. You see, since the Cold War ended, we’ve gone from superpowers to spreadsheets, Pershings to Pentiums, the Berlin Wall to suburban sprawl, olive trees to Lexuses. Are you ready? Because the whole world is changing. Unless you are one of the eight-tenths of humanity who at this moment are either hungry, illiterate, or field-stripping an AK-47, in which case I’ll get back to you in some future column.”