Monday, August 29, 2005

The Two Friedmans

I have long thought that there are two Thomas Friedmans -- the astute, sometimes brilliant, always insightful middle-of-the-road Middle East correpondent/pundit/coumnist and the somewhat muddled, sometimes irritating, and occasionally trite "globalization" expert. This book review in The New Republic (registration, and maybe subscription, probably required) confirms that I am not alone in my beliefs.


Here is the money quotation, the summation of Ronald Steel's argument, from the concluding paragraph of his review:

Friedman seems to think that in the contemporary world being a foreign policy analyst is the same as being a business reporter. But the obligation of a foreign policy analyst is to help his readers see America's interaction with the world in multiple dimensions--political, cultural, military, economic, environmental, psychological--and not through a single lens. This means providing an insight into the complexities not only of money and technology, or the Middle East, but--as citizens of the world's most powerful nation--of just about everywhere. The task is a tough one, but it does not demand a genius. It requires rather a knowledgeable and thoughtful person who can help us understand what we are not getting from the headlines--someone who sees the world in its many aspects, and who is able to connect the present not only to the future but to the past. For this, readers do not need a glib enthusiast or a clever simplifier. And they certainly do not need a salesman for the Next Big Thing. What they need is a cool-headed skeptic who will stay away from airports and technology parks, and instead sit at his desk for a while and think.

That just about sums it up for me. Friedman's columns are still on my must-read list, but more and more if the introduction indicates that he is about to enter into one of his anecdotes-cum-lessons that indicates that he is going to tell us what we must do in the new flat world, I breeze through the piece. Friedman's heart was in the right place in focusing on globalization (whatever that means -- and I am not being facetious), and his sense of the important story is still almost unfailing, but because something is trendy does not make it essential. His work on the Middle East and foreign affairs-qua-foreign affairs has always been essential.

4 comments:

montana urban legend said...

And thanks for stating this; "anecdotes-cum-lessons" is right on. However, although he does know more about the Middle East, given the incremental rate of political momentum and verbosity of the street public in that region, I usually wonder if his predictions aren't too glib in that department as well.

dcat said...

MUL --
I think when any of us engage in prediction, though, our record is going to be muddy. Historians are not very good with predictions, to be sure, but I have never seen anything that indicates that we are any worse than journalists/columnists, or political scientists, or anyone else. Friedman is best on analysis on the ground that ties in to larger issues. From Beirut to Jerusalem is still the one book I would recommend to anyone wanting an entry-level view into the Middle East.
dcat

montana urban legend said...

I think there are many Westerners who simply have no conception of how stark the reality of events in the Middle East are, and how intimately they have shaped the perspectives of the people there. From Beirut to Jerusalem is nothing less than a Hitchiker's Guide, with a narrative style sufficiently visual, personal and honest to appropriately convey that.

dcat said...

MUL -- the Hitchhiker's Guide is a pretty good anaology. They can be some of the most rewarding books to read. indeed, when it comes to Africa, there are a number of books along these lines, and when I teach modern Africa I tend to use them liberally, as students with no background in Africa are simply not prepared to engage with the serious, and often dense and even inscrutable, scholarship.

dcat