The Better Rhetor

Friday, January 24, 2003
Is Thomas Friedman Irrelevant?
The Rhetoric of a New York Times Hawk

He is, it seems, everywhere ascendant. Whether in his award-winning books, his appearances on political chat shows, or in his twice-weekly column for the New York Times, a space that critic Howard Kurtz has called "a globally important patch of journalistic real estate," Thomas L. Friedman pronounces upon your world.

And the parts of the world about which he most often pronounces, the Middle East and the Islamic world generally, have become the most volatile locations on earth. Americans these days find themselves paying close attention to such formerly obscure places as Yemen, the Kashmir, Aceh, and Kabul. Perhaps more than ever, Americans find themselves seeking informed opinion on the Islamic world and how to respond to what seems to be its intense amd growing hatred of the United States.

And this is the beat of Thomas Friedman, who travels frequently to such places, consults with local journalists, academics, and politicians, and returns to tell his readers about The Way Things Are. His columns are assumed to be widely influential, and fellow pundits lavish him with praise.

With all this, it seems strange—counter-intuitive—to ask if Thomas Friedman has become irrelevant to serious discussions of the Middle East. Given his power portfolio, his long experience, and that patch of journalistic real estate, how could Thomas Friedman be irrelevant?

Yet he may well be, if we define "relevance" in terms of offering fresh insights into the continuing problem of America’s relation to the Islamic world. If we define "relevance" in terms of what Friedman adds to this discussion—and not in terms of his exalted position in the media stratosphere—then it may be time to close the curtain on the Tom Friedman Show.

I was struck by this while reading Friedman’s most recent piece in Wednesday’s New York Times, which sounded just like every other Thomas Friedman piece I have read in the last few years. By now the rhetoric has become numbingly familiar. The customary tropes include the wonders of globalization, the Arab peoples "humiliated" by their "failed" states and their jealousy of America, and the inherent goodness of American military power. All of it delivered in smart, snappy, tough guy sentences, which are Friedman’s way of establishing his credentials as a "realist" in world affairs.

Wednesday’s column had it all. Ostensibly an essay on what "liberals" need to know about declaring war on Iraq—meaning why liberals should agree to attacking Iraq—the piece reprised all the familiar Friedman moves, by now almost entirely predictable.

What threatens the United States, Friedman argued, are not the "deterrables," the "twisted" dictators such as Saddam Hussein, who can be bullied by American military power, but the "undeterrables," the "angry, humiliated" Muslim youths living in the "cement mixer" of "faltering Arab States." These "humiliated" youths represent the real threat to Western democracy because they "hate us more than they love life." America must address the problem of these "undeterrables" before we can ever truly feel secure.

In the world of Thomas Friedman, however, these are effects without causes. Twisted dictators such as Saddam Hussein are an unfortunate fact of life and must be dealt with, preferably with Tomahawk cruise missiles. Less often does Friedman dwell upon the historical role of the U.S. in creating and supporting such dictators, including Saddam Hussein, who once shook hands with Donald Rumsfeld and obtained nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile technology from U.S. corporations. Friedman knows these things, of course, but they are not the focus of the story he wishes to tell.

Similarly, Muslim youth are "humiliated" to the point of self-annihilation as a result of the "failings" of their cultures, states, and leaders. These angry people are jealous of American freedoms, education, and enlightened attitudes toward women, and so they wish to destroy us. Deep down, however, they secretly admire and want to be like us. Their humiliation comes from living in "failed states" that are not more like ours.

This extraordinarily self-serving narrative may be comforting to American readers, but one wonders whether such youths might instead be "humiliated" by U.S. policies in the Middle East, such as American support for the Israeli military, for U.S. sanctions against Iraq, and for the ultra-repressive and ultra-corrupt Saudi dictatorship. Perhaps it is America policies that cause humiliation, and not jealously of American ideals.

But it is in his prescriptions for addressing problems around the world that Thomas Friedman has become most predictable. Never mind the question: The answer is war. "Give war a chance," is a favorite Friedman cheer.

In Wednesday’s column, for example, Friedman argued that the best way to restore the faith of "humiliated" Muslims, the "undeterrables," is for the U.S. to invade Iraq. Once we conquer that nation, we can establish a functioning democracy and earn the gratitude of admiring Arabs throughout the region. That’s what Arabs want anyway, Friedman tells us. And how do we know this? "Trust me," the pundit writes. Ethos is truth.

We would have to trust him, because logic hardly supports this claim. Will "humiliated" Muslim peoples feel empowered when U.S. missiles inadvertently kill children and mothers, as happened in the last Gulf War? Will Arab youths swell with pride when airstrikes crush another crowd of Iraqi civilians cowering in their bunkers?

Nor have recent U.S. wars done much for our standing in the Muslim world. The U.S. war in Afghanistan did away with the backward and repressive Taliban regime, yet there has been no resulting swell of Arab rejoicing over the work of U.S. bombers, no upsurge of Muslim pride. Indeed, things seems to be getting worse, especially in Pakistan, which presumably has no shortage of "humiliated" Muslim youths. How is it that they have not been won over by our war in Afghanistan? Wouldn't Pakistan be the test case of Friedman's theory?

Here at Better Rhetor, we are far from the gears, levers, and fulcrums of power. But we wonder whether the mechanized slaughter of another U.S. war is a better way to win over "humiliated youth" than such things as ending our support for Israeli occupation of the settlements, lifting the sanctions against the Iraqi people, and infusing an impoverished part of the world with the funds for medicine, roads, and schools. Is this a more sensible and humane approach? Not in the rhetoric of Thomas Friedman, which suggests we can better capture hearts and minds by sending in the Special Forces.

Is Thomas Friedman irrelevant? If "irrelevant" means having no influence or access to power, then, no, Thomas Friedman is not irrelevant. He continues to matter by virtue of his position at the New York Times. More, he continues to be admired both by conservatives, who approve his hawkish rhetoric, and by liberals, who relish his tough criticisms of the Bush administration. And many people, we suspect, are drawn to his portrait of a world in which Americans are admired, even by those who hate us, and in which the terrifying violence of the U.S. military is always a force for goodness.

But if "irrelevant" means offering the same self-justifying answers regardless of the question, of pronouncing on effects while ignoring causes, of ignoring evidence when it is inconvenient, and of making personal "trust" the basis of an argument, then, yes, Thomas Friedman has become irrelevant to serious discussion about America and Islam, a discussion that calls for the presentation of multiple perspectives and a tolerance for infinite shades of gray. Friedman’s work, in contrast, is written in black-and-white, populated by caricatures, and drawn reflexively to violence as the solution to social and political problems.

When you know what the answer will be even before the question is asked, eventually you stop listening—even when the one answering writes for The New York Times.

Monday, January 20, 2003
He Saw the Promised Land

[Excerpt from the Martin Luther King Speech, "I Saw the Promised Land," delivered just before his assassination, Memphis, 1968. For the complete speech and more on King, visit MLK Online.]

And they were telling me, now it doesn't matter now. It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Sunday, January 19, 2003
People vs. Pundits

The conventional narrative tells us that progressive politics in America are dead. In this story, the Republican right is triumphant, drunk and engorged on its own power, while Democrats scurry timorously towards the center, trying not to get crushed. Progressive politics, such as those represented by the late Paul Wellstone, are said to have all the relevance of an antique brooch in a curio shop.

This, at any rate, is the story told on the Sunday morning political talk shows, in the major weeklies Time and Newsweek, and in the op-ed pages of many major newspapers. And it is true that if you listen long enough to, say, Cokie Roberts soliciting George Will’s views on why the Democrats got skunked in the last election, or subject yourself to an hour of what passes for analysis on FOX TV, you are likely to conclude that the struggle is really, truly over and the other side really, truly won.

There’s just one problem with this story. It’s wrong. More precisely, it ignores all those Americans who aren’t cowering before the GOP behemoth and don’t want to see Democrats slinking toward the center. The conventional narrative does not account for Americans who object to the coming war in Iraq, reject the corporate trashing of the environment, refuse the idea that the rich need another tax break, and repudiate racist politicians, judges, and other public figures.

But in a climate dominated by the corporate media it’s sometimes hard for that message to be heard. Most of us don’t own newspapers, radio stations, or television networks—which is to say we are human beings, not corporations—and people who question Official Truth are often ignored by the pundit classes.

One place where you can still find progressive discourse, however, is the Letters to Editor section of most daily newspapers. Letters to the editor are a great American tradition, a space where it is still possible to protest—in a small space on a daily basis—the narrative that the right wing reigns triumphant and the rest of us are just along for the ride. Every day in American newspapers it is possible to find acts of dissent, refusal, and courage in the writings of American people.

Recognizing this, the Better Rhetor continues its semi-regular feature, "People vs. Pundits," in which we re-print letters published in newspapers from around the country, letters that demonstrate the intelligence, conviction, and courage of Americans who are refusing to go along, and who are ahead of the pundits who are supposed to be enlightening the rest of us.

Letters are chosen at random and with bias. Topics are diverse and include, in today’s edition, war and peace, wealth and taxes, and—one of our favorite topics—Attorney General John Ashcroft. All of the writers reprinted here are considered Better Rhetors. For writers’ full names follow the bouncing links.

War and Peace

Tacoma News Tribune
Bush policies threaten U.S. more than Iraq does

President Bush says Iraq is a threat to the American economy and must be invaded. Since when has being an economic threat justified invading any nation? Most countries present an economic threat to American labor, farmers or manufacturers.

The greatest threats to the economy of the United States are the policies promoted by George W. Bush. He says the wealthy pay an unfair share of taxes, ignoring who gains the most from the military and economic might of the U.S. - the wealthy. The might of America protects the wealthy and seeks to strengthen the international position of large American businesses, including oil. Why shouldn't they pay the largest part of federal taxes since they gain the most and have the most to protect? Yet large American businesses pay little or no taxes.

The overriding policy of the administration is clearly to reward the friends of the president and punish those who oppose him or opposed his father. As did his father, "W" learned well from Ronald Reagan that it is extremely important to reward your friends even if it tanks the economy. Under "W" the nation can afford to go to war but can't afford higher wages or health care.

In the name of "homeland security," civil service and union benefits must be denied to thousands. George W. Bush poses a threat to the American economy and the freedom of all Americans.

Gig Harbor

Detroit Free Press
In the name of peace, during a push for war

While the United States prepares a pre-emptive war on Iraq, the country has set aside a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps we should forgo parades and platitudes on the birthday of King this year, and spend the day studying his message and committing ourselves to wage peace, whatever the cost. King's prophetic witness, particularly regarding the Vietnam War, has too often been sanitized for the history books. Let us remember where the road he walked led.

With the economy in shambles, civil rights in serious jeopardy and war being planned with little regard to human cost, we must ask the question that King asked 30 years ago: "Do we have the morality and courage required to live together as brothers and not be afraid?"

King also said, "We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."

Kim R.
Dearborn Heights

New York Newsday
Oil as Motive

For quite some time now, the foreign press has been reporting that the impending war with Iraq is all about oil. Upon reading "Plan: Tap Iraq's Oil" [News, Jan. 10], I was glad to see that the truth is finally coming out.

Could this be the reason why a judge threw out the case against Vice President Richard Cheney's secret Energy Task Force? Were plans being discussed at these meetings to engage in a war with Iraq only to seize its oilfields? Americans deserve to know exactly what happened at these secretive meetings. After all, it is our government.

This war is truly about oil and not alleged weapons of mass destruction. Are the lives of our service personnel and the lives of innocent Iraqi citizens worth the price of the United States seizing these oilfields? Sadly, under this administration, the answer to that is yes.

It is about time we seriously explore alternative energy means to sever our ties with foreign oil. Lives are truly dependent upon us doing so.

Mary M.
Sound Beach

Wealth and Taxes

Des Moines Register
Past Mistakes

As a high school social studies teacher, I try to justify the importance of studying history, for by failing to study the past, we may
repeat its mistakes.

President Bush's economic-stimulus plan has been tried, and it resulted in record deficits with the gap between the rich and poor widening even more. "Trickle-down" economics didn't work in the 1980's, and the fundamental problems with it then still exist today.

The principle of giving tax breaks to the wealthy so they can invest it back into the economy and create jobs sounds good at face value. Unfortunately, the money doesn't find its way to the middle or working class. It winds up as bigger packages for CEOs. Can you say Enron? Worldcom?

The largest segment of the population in the United States is middle and working class. Although they don't own the majority of wealth, doesn't it make sense to give them the tax breaks and put more money into their pockets? They are the ones who are going to turn around and spend it.

Only 1 to 3 percent of the general population falls into the "upper" class, but approximately 15 percent of the members of Congress are millionaires, as is President Bush. It doesn't take a genius to understand why the rich get richer, and the rest of us live paycheck to paycheck.

Dave S.

Florida Times Union
Tax cuts for the rich will not help

I have read many of the opinions of letter writers and muse at the concept that tax breaks for the rich drive the economy.

The truth is that money earned in business transactions drive a business and thus makes it grow. Tax breaks don't do it; customers do it.

It takes customers with cash in their pockets to spend to buy the vendors' products. If you don't have customers, then your business goes belly-up.

The trickle-down theory didn't work for America under President Reagan and it won't work for America under President Bush.

It is so simple that I can't figure out why everybody doesn't see it. If you look at the pie chart of who pays the taxes, everyone can clearly see that the wealthy carry the burden. After all, they are the ones who profit, massively.

If you completely eliminated taxes on the lower scale, and put that cash back into mainstream America, the wealthy would earn more income and, thus, would pay more taxes, but they did earn more income.

If you drain all the money out of the segment of the economy that is the engine that actually drives it, then a stall is bound to occur.

Once you drain the coffers, giving all the overtaxed rich tax breaks, then the only thing that can happen is raising taxes on the common population, and that means everyone. It's inevitable.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush took office and gave the rich a massive tax cut. I saw none of it. Did you? Now this term, there's no money. Where did it all go?

Now the talk is about cutting social programs, which means programs for the common man. We are still paying our share, but the overtaxed are now not paying theirs.

Make a product, sell it and use the profits to grow the business. Tax breaks only put the money back in the hands of the extremely wealthy and do nothing to drive our economy.

Big-ticket items, such as cars and so forth, will always sell, regardless of price. The small businesses, restaurants and strip stores are the ones that will suffer. Why? Because the engine that drives this economy was choked.

If these small businesses fail, then their suppliers suffer, then the distributors suffer and, then, massive layoffs in manufacturing and processing plants, and so forth up the line.

What we really need for America is a trickle-up program.


Anchorage Daily News
Harsh Reality

Reality TV seems to be popular with viewers today. Let's get real; reality TV is about as real as the Bush White House.

If you believe that the Nixon southern strategy went out with Trent Lott, get real. District Judge Charles Pickering is once again nominated and Bush is weighing in on the affirmative-action case at the University of Michigan. The Nixon southern strategy is doing just fine, thank you.

And if you think President Reagan's trickle-down economic strategy went out with Reagan, get real. No tax on stock dividends is just that. The double-taxation argument doesn't hold up. Large corporations pay little in the way of taxes, because the tax code is written for them. Most of us outsiders have our money invested in 401ks and IRAs. No help for us, but Bill Gates and Martha Stewart will do just fine, thank you.

And what about the economy? We're now talking about a $300 billion deficit, which we're going to fix by rewarding the rich in Bush's economic plan? Get real. This president has seen an average of 69,000 jobs evaporate each month since he got into office. Clinton created 230,000 jobs each month he was in office. That's eight years of growth. That's real.

Ken F.

John Ashcroft

Denver Post
AG's hidden agenda

Re: "Ashcroft pitches faith; In Denver, AG lauds aid for religious groups," Jan. 14 news story.

And where, Attorney General Ashcroft, would you say organizations like the United Nations Population Fund fit on your "level playing field"? Last year, the Bush administration blocked $34 million appropriated by Congress to help support the fund's mission of improving access to quality health care for family planning, safe motherhood and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.

If your agenda of pushing narrow and specific religious values with taxpayers' money is hidden, it's not hidden very well!


A little document

It appears our esteemed Defender of the Faith feels that religious groups have been unfairly prohibited from competing with secular institutions for federal funding due to "fear, ignorance and occasional bigotry."

Now, I would never presume to question the wisdom of a man who apparently sits at the right hand of God Himself, but I seem to recall something in my past that makes me think it is not "fear, ignorance and bigotry" that prevents this sort of thing, but rather ... oh, yes, now I remember: the Constitution of the United States.

You know the one I'm referring to, Mr. Ashcroft? It's a little unrecognizable these days, but if you look closely, you might still be able to make out the words. It's the doormat you've been using to wipe your feet on every morning for the past two years.


'I will help you, but...'

The most telling sentence in that article was: "Pressed on that issue Monday, Ashcroft said, 'Any citizen who's offended ... can leave the service."'

Having a needy person on one side, food and help on the other, and a Bible in between has always been the M.O. of religious help organizations. It is also the most un-American activity that these organizations do. I do not want ANY of my tax dollars going to fund these "I will help you, but ..." organizations.

Religion is, and always has been, a special consideration when it comes to constitutional liberties. This is why we have the separation of church and state. Both institutions remain purer in the absence of the other. The mingling of the two shall surely contaminate both. All Americans should be wary of George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives.

Fort Collins