PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Laughing and Crying with Thomas Friedman
I often laugh and cry at the absurdities of Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ arch-liberal columnist that we love to hate. Recently Tom wrote that he sometimes both laughs and cries too, as he did at an Onion satire that had Rudy Giuliani running for “president of 9/11.” But Tom’s anti-Rudy passion turned him serious and inspired him to actually write something really intelligent:
“Since 9/11, we’ve become “The United States of
Fighting Terrorism.” … Our government has been exporting fear, not hope.” Tom even confessed that he bears some of the
blame for our plunge ever deeper into fear: “Our reaction to 9/11 -- mine
included -- has knocked
Coming after a string of thoughtful environmentalist
columns, this piece made me wonder if Tom had really converted to the party of
common sense. So I was prepared to laugh along with him yesterday at his own
satire, cleverly explaining why the Republicans resist Democrat David Obey’s plan for a special tax to fund the war in
I was still chuckling as I read further on that Obey doesn’t really expect his tax plan to become law. He’s offering it as a piece of political theater, to dramatize the point that the American people don’t want to pay for this war. They want the war to end.
But my laughter turned to tears, and my hope for Tom’s
political soul faded, as he returned to his usual neo-liberal form. The war in
Tom, is this how you think we’ll “get things right again” and “unite around a common purpose, not a common enemy”? Don’t you see that your “struggle against radical Islam” is just as much a theatrical production as Bush’s war or Obey’s tax proposal? The only difference is that Obey’s script can inspire a small ray of hope, just as your “president for 9/12” column did.
But when you fall back to mouthing the old platitudes of the “global war on terrorism,” you are just mounting another horror show. Or perhaps it’s a classic Western, where the guys in the white hats have to keep shooting until all the black hats bite the dust. Did you forget that just a week ago you told us so eloquently why these kinds of shows are really bad for us all?
(By the way Tom, since words are the only tools you have for earning a living, you ought to be careful with them. There is indeed “radical Islam,” which wants to transform the roots of Islam to lead it in more progressive directions. But that’s not the enemy you want us to fight. Your villain is “reactionary Islam,” the kind that wants to pretend the challenges of modernity have never happened. For dramatic purposes, though, you can just call it “bad Islam.” The audience will get the point. )
Friedman’s vacillating words matter because he is perhaps the most widely read and (pardon me while I choke) best respected foreign policy pundit in the nation. More importantly, he’s a bellwether of the (pardon me while I choke again) more liberal wing of the Democratic elite.
If a Democrat becomes president in ’09, he or she will
get advice from a broad spectrum of foreign policy advisors. Some will be liberal
hawks, of the kind Tony Judt condemned on the same
page as Friedman’s “fight of our generation” warning. The hawks will urge the
president to show
What policies will these “moderates” urge? They’ll surely continue to live by Friedman’s famous motto: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas.” They may just advise brandishing that fist a bit less often.
Judt illustrates the point
when he argues that the hawks who cheered us on in
Judt’s example of an “urgent
case” is Kosovo in 1998, where “there was a demonstrable and immediate threat
to rights and lives.” The threat that upset him came from Serbs responding to
the violence of
Judt does inform us that
“war should always be the last resort,” though the source he cites to endorse
this view is a curious one:
With advisors like these on the left hand to balance the hawks on the right, a Democratic president is likely to be another 9/11 president, staging yet another production of the GWOT Show, talking much about common purpose but still uniting us around a common enemy, talking much about hope but still exporting fear.
There is still a glimmer of real hope, though. If Tom
Friedman could see the light, even on just one day, and explain so clearly the
need for a radically new direction for
That’s a good enough reason to vote for the Democratic candidate for president, whomever it is. The lesser of two evils is still lesser. It’s also a good enough reason to keep pressuring the Dems everywhere and every way we can to read, re-read, and ponder deeply Friedman’s confession. Since 9/11 he, and all of them, have been following Bush and Cheney down the road of fear and despair. Republicans are incapable of taking the other road. Perhaps Democrats can at least catch a glimpse of it.
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