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THOMAS FRIEDMAN’S LIFE AS A PET HAMSTER

John Chuckman

If you ever had a pet hamster when you were young, you know what I mean about hearing its regular scrambling and spinning on the exercise wheel. The squeak-squeak sound becomes an amusing background noise of everyday life.

There is a powerful analogy in the life of a pet hamster to the work of mainline American columnists, but I think there are few it better suits than Thomas Friedman, and I am not referring to his pudgy, whiskered looks.

Apart from time on the wheel, pet hamsters’ lives are pretty well limited to nibbling food pellets and taking refreshment from a water bottle. Thomas receives his pellets and refreshment from the public-influence departments of the Pentagon, the White House, and the State Department. Between feedings and rests to digest, you can hear Thomas periodically scamper over to his wheel for a spin.

I know, I know, he’s a Pulitzer laureate, but people citing this qualification haven’t examined the distinction they make. A serious reader of history knows the Pulitzer has gone to mediocre books while wonderful ones were overlooked. In journalism, the Pulitzer is more doubtful, having been awarded for out-and-out fraud.

Of course, Americans have an obsession with prizes and lists, as though one could count on them as a way of identifying worth and integrity, but the main purpose most of them serve is juicing-up products.

The New York Times spends gobs of money bolstering Thomas the hamster’s aura of authority. He is sent regularly to distant points, but if you go somewhere to gather quotes and local color, absorbing little of its truths, the net effect resembles the blow-dried correspondents on network television who use foreign locations for background shots while droning out what might just as easily have said been said in the studio.

A recent spin of Thomas’s wheel, gave us this, “As far as I’m concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war…. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons….in ending Saddam’s tyranny….”

This is an upgraded version of Ari Fleischer’s demented-person-on-a-subway-car muttering about the absence of any strategic weapons in Iraq meaning the invasion had been exactly what forced Hussein to destroy them. Hussein was a tyrant indeed, but the United States has no history of fighting tyranny. Even World War II was the culmination of America’s long, bitter rivalry with a rising Japan over who would dominate the Pacific. Hitler declared war on America, not the other way around. America’s power has been used dozens of times to put tyrants into power, just so long as they were “its” tyrants.

Squeak, squeak, “So why isn’t everyone celebrating this triumph? Why is there still an undertow out there, a holding back of jubilation? There are several explanations. For me, it has to do with the nature of Iraq and the Middle East. You always have this worry that in the Middle East, fighting evil is like holding back the desert. The minute you fight off one evil, three others blow in to take its place.”

You might think anyone writing for a major publication would be ashamed to see this printed: it very much resembles “Terry and the Pirates in Western Asia” or “The Hardy Boys Join the Foreign Legion.” The people of the desert are mysteriously, inexplicably evil; in fact, they are hydra-headed, and when you hack one head off, several more grow in its place.

Squeak, squeak goes the wheel, “I will whoop it up only when the Iraqi people are really free — not free just to loot or to protest against us, but free to praise us out loud, free to speak their minds in any direction, because they have built a government and rule of law that can accommodate pluralism and stand in the way of evil returning.”

Well, Thomas, that is a truly amazing jumble. Iraqis are supposed to praise the people who have defeated and humiliated them. Indeed, when they do, it will be evidence of their true freedom. This is the arrogance of power, raw and ugly, with no hint of shame. One senses O’Brien setting Winston Smith on the path towards a proper attitude about Big Brother in 1984.

In one jump, after being smashed, the Iraqis are expected to produce a modern pluralistic society, but history’s few examples of that happening are in states which were essentially modern but had temporarily slipped into tyranny under terrible and unusual circumstances; e.g. Nazi Germany. The road to modernism, democratic values, and pluralism through all of history is a long one for states that are underdeveloped. It displays immense arrogance and ignorance to believe you can smash an underdeveloped society and then see a modern one emerge from the ruins.

Squeak, squeak, “France and Russia refuse to acknowledge that any good was done in Iraq because if America’s war ends justify its unilateral means, their power will be further diminished.”

Sorry, Thomas, it wasn’t just a couple of uppity, jealous countries that opposed the illegal invasion of Iraq. It was virtually the entire planet. Only one ally, Tony Blair’s inexplicable Britain, did any real fighting. The other members of Bush’s pathetic “coalition of the willing” gave virtually no material support. They simply agreed to keep their mouths shut following months of Washington’s browbeating and bribing leaders all over the world.

Why is it when Americans like Thomas write about Russian or French or German objections to America’s blasting its way into Iraq that it is always put in terms of their seeing their own power diminished, of experiencing a kind of international penis envy? Does this tell us more about Thomas than the Russians or the French perhaps?

Here, again, is raw arrogance and lack of understanding. It isn’t possible the people of these countries are right to fear America’s four percent of the world’s population arbitrarily invading a place which has not threatened them, violently changing international arrangements affecting everyone, and ignoring the voices of unprecedented world opposition? Where’s the spirit of pluralism or democratic values in this? Thomas, isn’t this precisely what people fear from tyranny?

I won’t go into the immense shortcomings of democracy in America which can, for example, produce a President who was not elected, but even assuming it to be a generally democratic society, do democracies not often do stupid or terrible things? Look at what America did to its black citizens. Look at its bloody slaughter in Vietnam. Look at what Israel does to the Palestinians. Further, America’s voters, maybe two percent of the world’s population, can be viewed effectively as a kind of aristocracy vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Can you not appreciate that, Thomas?

In another recent piece, Thomas, cleverly pretending he is Hussein addressing the President, gives us, “Mr. Bush, I know you’re wondering why I did not do more to avoid this war, which ended my political life. What in the world was I thinking? Who was I listening to? The answer is: I was listening only to myself. Don’t make my mistake.”

But, Thomas, has Bush ever listened to anyone other than himself and his narrow crew of advisors? What else does the invasion of Iraq represent? What else do the lies about terrible weapons represent? What else does sabotaging the UN’s weapons inspectors represent? So, now, this lethal-injection loner from Texas is supposed to act like a gracious world statesman?

You really can’t have it both ways, Thomas. When you embrace this kind of leadership, you take all that comes with it. And that, as it turns out, is a pretty nasty bundle of goods, including the clearest lack of respect and understanding for the rights of Americans themselves and the dignity and worth of everyone else.

Squeak, squeak, Thomas further advises Bush, “Always remember: This [Iraq] is an Arab country. Iraqis want to be first-class Arabs, not second-class Americans.”

I feel fairly confident claiming that few writers can beat Thomas for being crudely patronizing. What in God’s name is a “first-class Arab”? Is it anything like an American black with “a pure-white heart”? And I do think, Thomas, that before you invade a country, kill thousands of people, dismember children, destroy water, sanitation, and communications, thrust everyone into unemployment and anarchy, and manage to have some of the world’s greatest cultural treasures plundered is the time to remember the people belong to a different society.

Squeak, squeak.

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