June 13, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
I cannot tell you how difficult it is to be a New York Times columnist. Luckily, Tom Friedman can:
When you write a column twice a week, that takes such discipline. A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I’d love to be a columnist.’ I say, ‘Really? What column would you write this week?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, I’d write this.’ And I’d say, ‘That’s great. What would you write on Sunday?’ ‘Oh, I’d write that.’ ‘Okay, what would you write next Wednesday?’ Silence. So when you have to write two columns a week that are going to be read by a lot of people around the world, you can’t just mail it in. You’re thinking all the time.
Today, Tom Friedman mails it in from Istanbul, Turkey, where he has been lecturing the locals on the Arab Spring. Thinking all the time as he strolled along some of his favorite paths that overlook the Bosphorus, it occurred to Friedman that
Turkey these days is neither a bridge [between Europe and the Middle East] nor a gully. It’s an island – an island of relative stability between two great geopolitical systems that are cracking apart: the euro zone that came into being after the cold war, and the Arab state system that came into being after World War I are both coming unglued.
(Never mind that if Friedman read, say, the New York Times, he would discover that Turkey had a few problems of its own.) It turns out that from Friedman’s wonderful paths, one can see a lot further than the Bosphorus:
The island of Turkey has become one of the best places to observe both these worlds. To the west, you see the European Monetary Union buckling under the weight of its own hubris – leaders who reached too far in forging a common currency without the common governance to sustain it. And, to the south, you see the Arab League crumbling under the weight of its own decay – leaders who never reached at all for the decent governance and modern education required to thrive in the age of globalization.
What a view! From his vantage point in Istanbul, Friedman sees a connection between the problems of Europe and the Middle East: “In Europe, the supranational project did not work, and now, to a degree, Europe is falling back into individual states. In the Arab world, the national project did not work, so some of the Arab states are falling back onto sects, tribes, regions and clans.” Although the causes for Arab and European crises are obvious to Friedman, “One question historians will puzzle over is why both great geopolitical systems fractured at once?” Hark, hark, historians. Drop your quizzical expressions, relax your furrowed brows. Tom Friedman has solved the puzzle. (Why these dimwitted historians have not consulted Friedman’s oeuvre in the first place is a mystery. Friedman’s one-answer-fits-all-questions is well-documented in a number of repetitive, best-selling big-thinker books of which Friedman is the sole or co-author.) And the Correct Answer Is:
… the intensifying merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, which made the world dramatically flatter in the last five years, as we went from connected to hyperconnected.
Now, here’s a slightly different thought, one that has not occurred to the Big Thinker: every place in the world inhabited by humans, from prehistoric times to today, has been in constant flux and turmoil. True, there have been brief lulls in the discord in various corners of the world as the participants rested up from the last fight and geared up for the next. But human nature is what it is. Conflicts continue. Sometimes they lead to bloodshed. In Europe, instead of waging war, political leaders are jockeying on how to solve a currency crisis which has created significant fiscal instability. Arab countries are experiencing varying degrees of success and failure in changing their political and economic systems. Setbacks and resistance from interest groups and dictators are hardly unexpected. Friedman BFF Francis Fukuyama’s report of the death of history was greatly exaggerated. There is nothing even slightly remarkable about turmoil in Arab countries occurring at the same time Europe is having trouble coming to grips with its flawed common currency. These are two entirely separate sets of circumstances that happen to be occurring simultaneously. There is no evidence, of which I am aware, of a causal relationship between the two. Friedman certainly does not present any evidence that the ability to communicate globally has exacerbated human discord.
Friedman claims that “In the Arab world, this hyper-connectivity simultaneously left youths better able to see how far behind they were – with all the anxiety that induced – and enabled them to communicate and collaborate to do something about it, cracking open their ossified states.” But several studies demonstrate this is largely untrue: social media had scarcely penetrated the region. The media that were more important to the movement – television, radio, newspapers and telephones, not to mention word-of-mouth – have been around for a long time.
Friedman writes that,
In Europe, hyperconnectedness both exposed just how uncompetitive some of their economies were, but also how interdependent they had become. It was a deadly combination. When countries with such different cultures become this interconnected and interdependent – when they share the same currency but not the same work ethics, retirement ages or budget discipline – you end up with German savers seething at Greek workers, and vice versa.
We should probably just leave that as “offensive stereotyping.” But, instead, let’s indulge in some of our own: think of young French people sitting around in bistros and cafes, smoking and reading newspapers in 1955. They had no way to know what was going on in Spain and Italy. (We’ll have to assume those newspapers were just props, designed to complement the berets that made the cafe patrons look so much more French.) Some accordion music, please. Okay, enough of that. Communication may be faster and more convenient today than it was in 1955, but Europeans weren’t living in national vacuums from which the Internet suddenly freed them. In fact, the problems that arose with the financial crisis of 2008 were largely the faults of the European policymakers who planned a common currency that worked well only in good times, but that worsened bad times because individual countries could not “print their way out” of economic recessions and otherwise tinker with their own economies. Twitter had nothing to do with it.
The history of the world is a history of wars and other conflicts. Tom Friedman may be thinking all the time, but thinking is not helping him much. Friedman seems to have missed thinking about the history of the world.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com