Monday, January 9, 2012

When Elephants Fly

I don’t want to say that Tom Friedman was hallucinating, so I will merely suggest that he had a vision. He thought he saw a bunch of flying elephants.

He was so enamored of the vision that he wrote a column about it. The column’s title: “Watching Elephants Fly.”

You would never guess that the column is about the current state of political affairs in Egypt. Oh, and by the way, it also addresses Friedman’s own failures to understand the situation.

Friedman wants us to think that the impossible is taking place in Egypt. Since it’s impossible to predict the impossible, Friedman wants to be excused for not having foreseen the current state of Egyptian politics.

When I first saw the title of the column, I thought that perhaps Friedman had confused elephants with pigs. When people want to claim that something cannot possibly happen, they often evoke the adnyaton: when pigs fly.

Further research showed me that I had leapt to the wrong conclusion. While it is true that pigs cannot fly, there is one famous flying elephant, whose name is Dumbo.

Granted, Dumbo is a character in a Walt Disney cartoon or even in a Disney theme park.

To give Friedman full credit, I conclude that he was trying to tell us that he lives in a world where elephants fly. That is to say, he lives in a cartoon.

Perhaps he has missed his calling.

Friedman opens his column with a typically grandiose pronunciamento: “Whenever you see elephants flying, shut up and take notes. The Egyptian uprising is the equivalent of elephants flying. No one predicted it, and no one had seen this before. If you didn’t see it coming, what makes you think you know where it’s going? That’s why the smartest thing now is to just shut up and take notes.”

Obviously, Friedman has fallen into deep denial. Last year he was cheering the arrival of democracy in Egypt.

Now that the Egyptian people have voted, it turns out that they do not share Friedman’s liberal values. They voted overwhelmingly for radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.

Tom Friedman, if seems was helping to pave the way for an Islamist takeover of Egypt.

Now, he’s in a bind. He might admit that he was wrong and explain how he was so completely duped by the event.

But, we know that he is not going to do that.

He did not attain to his exalted position by admitting to error. He, like more than a few other columnists, got where he is by refusing to admit to error.

In what is certainly not a profile in moral courage Friedman is telling everyone to shut up. If people start talking about what is happening in Egypt, it will make Tom Friedman look bad. It will make him look like he is living in a cartoon.

What is the reasoning behind his insulting demand? Friedman declares that since no one saw what was coming in Egypt no one has any right to analyze the current situation or to look toward the future.

So, Tom Friedman is ordering you all to shut up.

By implication, he does not believe in freedom of speech or in the marketplace of ideas. Nor does he believe that policy analysts should project different future eventualities.

Besides, it’s better for people to shut up than to start talking about how bad Friedman’s columns are.

Right now, anyone who is not preparing for an Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood is living in a cartoon.

Of course, Friedman knows who won the elections. He just wants to put his own spin on the issue.

In his words: “To not be worried about the theocratic, antipluralistic, anti-women’s-rights, xenophobic strands in these Islamist parties is to be recklessly naïve. But to assume that the Islamists will not be impacted, or moderated, by the responsibilities of power, by the contending new power centers here and by the priority of the public for jobs and clean government is to miss the dynamism of Egyptian politics today.”

Let’s see. On the one hand we have the aspirations of the Egyptian people. They want freedom, justice, jobs, and clean government. But, they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists who have no real interest in any of the above.

By Friedman's logic the Egyptian people, nearly half of whom are illiterate, favor peace between their country and Israel. While I hate to predict the future, what would you wager that a referendum renouncing the peace treaty with Israel passes overwhelming in newly liberal democracy Egypt?

Friedman believes that the Islamists will be moderated by the responsibilities of power. If they fail to deliver for the people, they will be voted out of office. Otherwise, there might even be another insurrection.

It’s a thesis. It may come true. At the least, it allows Tom Friedman to avoid facing the stark realities of today’s Egypt. 

If we want to put his ideas to the test, we can ask which Islamist regime has moderated its policies by the responsibilities of power.

Is Friedman thinking of Afghanistan under the Taliban? Is he thinking of Iran?

Does he recall 1979 when his liberal soulmates were thrilling to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran? Does he remember when they all claimed that the Ayatollah Khomeni would bring democracy to Iran?

In truth, tyrants, despots and terrorists are not inclined to moderate their policies when their policies are not working. Think of Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Mao’s policies produced a famine that killed tens of millions of people. Did he take responsibility and moderate his ideology? Not at all. He launched a cultural revolution to blame everyone but him and his wife.

If Friedman believes that the aspirations of the people will out, then he should provide us with examples of countries that gave power to a bunch of fanatics and extremists, only to see them moderate their policies.

Amazingly enough, Friedman, like his colleague Nicholas Kristof, never seems to consider that his Egyptian interlocutors are simply telling him what he wants to hear.

Perhaps these Egyptians are so well-versed in the art of media spin or so well-mannered and polite, that they do not tell New York Times reporters how much they hate infidels. 

When speaking to liberal reporters they mouth the liberal party line. They do not admit that they hate infidels and want to suppress all the Coptic Christians and Israeli Jews.

And they do not tell Friedman and Kristof that, all things considered, it would be a very bad idea for either of them to move to Egypt today.


stg58 said...

I am also preparing myself for the reality of at least 1000 US M1A1 Abrams tanks that we have sold to Egypt in violation of the Constitution. If some of those tanks show up in an Iranian or Chinese reverse engineering laboratory, I will be ready for that revelation and take according deep breaths. I will also practice that same breath therapy when 990 of them (10 sent abroad for study) roll across the Sinai into Israel. I will also be mentally ready to watch the news and see pictures of United States M1A1 Abrams tanks firing main gun HEAT rounds at protesters, and rolling over protesters with their treads.

JP said...

Being critical of Friedman is kind of like sandblasting a soup cracker.

In any event, isn't Egypt's current problem that it is running out of foreign exchange reserves? I generally look to David Goldman for the really fun discussions regarding the Islamic World and that's one of his themes.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with you about Spengler-- and I often quote his columns about Egypt. I have been doing so from the inception.

Spengler is certainly right about the foreign currency reserves-- though what happens if BHO decides to send them a bunch of taxpayer dollars-- but it sounds like the new Islamist masters do not much care about the consequences of economic decline.

I appreciate your question about Friedman. Why bother with someone who embarrasses himself nearly every time he writes a column.

I asked myself the same question and the best answer I could come up with is that he is enormously influential. People in the White House read him and get ideas for foreign policy from his columns. If that does not scare you nothing does.

So, I feel it is worth the trouble to debunk his bad ideas as they come up.

Malcolm said...

A little off topic,

Good Video "Apartheid in the Middle East"