Before we get to the what, let’s start with the why. Why he would write a column that my emailer succinctly described as “so bad it's like he parodying himself. Or like Taibbi is ventriloquisting him.”
Egypt, Tunisia, et al should have been Tommy’s Charlie Sheen moment, shuttling from studio to studio so he could explain to us what was really going on. (Sorry – every blog post I’ve read this week has had an awkward Charlie Sheen reference and I’m pretty much a follower). After all, for years he’s been our Middle East expert, the one we turn to for Gladwellesque oversimplifications and fact-free meta-narratives so we can sound cocktail party literate and give our racist impulses a nice pseudo-intellectual veneer.
But it didn’t happen. First, Kristof beat Tommy to the punch. Badly. While Kristof was writing riveting accounts from Tunisia, Tommy was taking his annual 6-week X-mas vacation. Tommy didn’t reach Cairo until a full two-weeks after January 25, when everyone who was anyone was already there; hell, Anderson Cooper had already been beaten up by the time Tommy finally filed from Tahrir Square. (Tellingly, Kristof went on to Bahrain and Tripoli while Tommy retreated to Bethesda).
More damaging than being late was the fact that suddenly he had a lot of competition. Who needs Thomas L. Friedman when our pundit class, after locating Tunisia on a map (or not), was instantly transformed into experts on Arab history & culture, regional political parties, etc . . . ? Or when the Brookings Institute alone has 9,000 on-call Middle East experts to remind to stop being so enthralled with the exhilarating images because what really matters is how this will affect the U.S. and Israel. (Less cynically, the sheer volume of time spent on events, not to mention our access these days to all sorts of delicious media, meant that lots of us were having our eyes opened by lots of brilliant people we’d never heard of before.)
So if I had to guess about today’s column, it’s Tommy’s attempt to put his unique stamp on the events of 2011. And give credit where credit is due. It is, um, unique. Tommy’s list of not-so-obvious factors begins with:
THE OBAMA FACTOR Americans have never fully appreciated what a radical thing we did — in the eyes of the rest of the world — in electing an African-American with the middle name Hussein as president. I’m convinced that listening to Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech — not the words, but the man — were more than a few young Arabs who were saying to themselves: “Hmmm, let’s see. He’s young. I’m young. He’s dark-skinned. I’m dark-skinned. His middle name is Hussein. My name is Hussein. His grandfather is a Muslim. My grandfather is a Muslim. He is president of the United States. And I’m an unemployed young Arab with no vote and no voice in my future.” I’d put that in my mix of forces fueling these revolts.There’s something almost touching about the fact that Friedman thinks everyone thinks the way he does: Meaningless observation about two things sorta having something in common (“Obama has a penis . . . )” leads to light bulb moment! Never mind that Friedman’s fictional young Arab actually has nothing in common with President Obama besides the fact that Tommy named him Hussein. After all, Obama is not actually a Muslim and (h/t Fire Tom Friedman’s Sister) in Egypt, where the median age is 24, our 49-year-old President is almost certainly not considered young.
But this puzzling paragraph becomes clearer as Tommy lists the rest of his “factors”: Obama. Google Earth. Israel. The Beijing Olympics. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. It’s not Five Not So Obvious Factors. It’s Five Things Tommy Really Likes! (If Egypt have revolted 10 years earlier, it would have been golf, Taco Bell, Wikipedia, and the Amazing Race). Write about your passion – isn’t that what they say? Even if it doesn’t have a fuckin’ thing to do with what you’re ostensibly writing about.
And besides, have you used Google Earth? You can find your own house on it! And no matter what you think of the Chinese, you gotta admit they throw one helluva an Olympics. Surely there was at least one Egyptian kid out there who said, “Holy shit! Look at those fireworks. Time to get rid of my U.S. backed torture regime!” As for Prime Minister Fayyad – Tommy’s already invested several columns in predicting that he would be the change agent in the Arab/Muslim world. It’s really important for the Friedman brand that he keep peddling that one, even though no matter how laughable people who actually know something about the region may find it. And while its true that Fire Tom Friedman's research team was unable to find a single instance of a young Egyptian citing Fayyad as inspiration, it's also true that we don't have access to the thoughts of the young Arabs Tommy invents for supporting evidence.
With all the breathtaking changes going on in the world right now, isn’t it comforting to know that some things, some people, stay absolutely the same?
Fire Tom Friedman