The Quest for Symbols

by Said Shirazi
November 18, 2002

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Uncertain times call for instant books.  The latest of the prose bandages for the nation’s wounded psyche is an elegantly hardbound collection of Thomas Friedman’s columns on foreign affairs for the New York Times.  For those who don’t like Friedman, this could provide just the opportunity to try to put one’s finger on exactly what’s wrong with him.


A seven-hundred-word column can be something like a hit-and-run accident or a one-night stand;  it’s over before you know what happened.  There’s only time for two or three facts, the last of which usually contradicts the first in order to hedge the bet and create the effect of being open-minded.  Afterwards it’s hard to say if it was the argument or the tone or something else you found disagreeable.


It turns out that putting them all together only makes it worse.  If one gets you mad, be warned that ninety-three in a row may have you kicking your neighbor’s dog down the street.  Reading a whole book of columns is like eating an entire box of donut holes at one sitting.  It does not sit well, especially when as in this case more than a few of them have already turned stale.


Friedman is a conflicted technophile and a trade booster, which initially leads him to conceptualize terrorism as a matter of “force-multiplied” and “super-empowered angry men” who act out of frustration at the lack of economic opportunity in their own countries.  He can’t get over the paradox that some anti-modernists would be pragmatic enough to use cell phones, e-mail and encryption software and in his awe of this he loses sight of the basics which haven’t changed for centuries:  assassination, kidnapping and bombs.


Trying to adjust his theory to the fact that bin Laden was a multimillionaire and most of his agents were educated middle-class professionals, Friedman falls back on the blurry rhetoric of Clinton-Gore populism and laments something called a “poverty of dignity.”  As a neo-liberal, he tends to imagine a hands-free no-mess market solution for everything:  opening up to more foreign investment will bring these countries democracy and dissolve their ideological hatreds.  But this logic is circular and misses the point:  it is because they hate foreigners that they don’t want to open up in the first place.


He is also not above the trendy distinction between “hard power” and “soft power,” which implicitly argues that much U.S. influence is not directly military and economic but actually based on admiration of our culture.  These terms seem to drop out as he learns in his travels that if any foreigners actually admire us today, it would be news to them.  We can purr about the velvet glove of pop exports but it’s the iron fist they see. 


Friedman regularly indulges in a grandiose habit of writing know-it-all memos from the desk of various world leaders, which makes me concerned about the security of their office supplies.  His columns on the Afghan war are pompous and disposable.  They usually operate on the same intellectual level as t-shirts and bumperstickers that say America Is Going To Get You, Khomeini/Qaddafi/Osama.  Somehow America never does;  we never seem to get beyond an extravagantly delivered invitation for them to kiss our ass.


There’s still a strong dose of reporting in Friedman’s editorials.  He deserves a lot of credit for being out in the field tirelessly interviewing both officials and citizenry everywhere he goes, trying to take the pulse of the man in the street instead of getting his news second-hand from CNN and the papers.  In this regard he is a sterling example of democracy in action.


I would say he’s right about a third of the time, particularly when he decries the hypocrisy of our hired allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, monarchs and militarists who encourage anti-Americanism in their schools and newspapers to deflect criticism from themselves, and when he tries hopefully to nudge oilman Bush toward declaring a national energy conservation policy.


Friedman’s famous first book was a mix of impressions and analysis from his eight years as a Middle East correspondent.  From Beirut to Jerusalem does a great job of showing how ordinary citizens must learn to adapt to war while their incompetent and self-promoting leaders are profiting from it.


There are even moments of terrible beauty that stay with you.  “When a car packed with one hundred sticks of dynamite explodes on a crowded street,” Friedman explains, “the force of the blast knocks all the leaves off the trees and the road is left choking with them like an autumn lawn (p. 40).”  After the Syrians destroy a rebel town, they bulldoze the buildings and even flatten the rubble with steamrollers;  several weeks later, Friedman is among the first journalists to arrive and his taxi pulls up in the middle of a flat field of stone.  “For a moment,” he writes, “I felt the same light-headed sensation I used to have as a boy when in winter we would drive our car out to the middle of a frozen lake in Minnesota to go ice fishing;  it was that uneasy feeling of standing on top of something you know you shouldn’t be on top of (p. 86).”  The beauty of these images comes from their sublime inappropriateness to the situation, which reminds us of the underlying innocence we share, the better world we should all be living in.


More common though is the off-putting fatuousness of comparing Lebanon to Spielberg’s “Poltergeist”, taking us through a favorite Doonesbury panel by panel, and closing an important section with the old vaudeville joke about the brother who thinks he’s a chicken.  To read Friedman is to drive through an aesthetic minefield.  Every twenty pages or so, he says something so offensively jokey or tactless that it makes you just want to up and quit.  He seems to be operating on a two-track system:  he gives you the complicated explanation first and then a simplistic one which insults your intelligence.


If you’re smart you’ll soldier on, aware you’re learning far too much to give him up.  After all, you can’t get all your history from beautifully written books, nor can you get the news you really need from people who already agree with you.  There is no alternative to the burdensome drudgery of picking your way through an argument point by point, no royal road to knowledge.  Perhaps there is even something healthy about Friedman’s obtuseness which gives him the courage to rush in where analysts fear to tread.


At his worst, Friedman is the Erma Bombeck of foreign policy.  One can easily imagine him coming out with a volume called The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side Of Where The Berlin Wall Used To Be.  “Even in their darkest moments,” he tells us on page 50, “the Lebanese never forget how to laugh.”  Maybe, but I doubt they were cracking up much over Friedman.  To me his comment says more about being an American abroad;  we’re the ones who can’t quite take their problems seriously.


Another of the book’s flaws is the overrepresentation of his own cozy expat coterie.  A typical anecdote involves a retired Englishman who bravely continues to play golf every day despite the shelling.  He’d go crazy if he didn’t, he tells Friedman modestly.  (This bit is reused several times by Friedman in the years to come;  it appears again in a column in this year’s collection.)  Another involves an American professor bravely recovering some Oriental carpets stolen from his house.  The worst is the British bank manager who after closing down the local branch and returning home receives an unexpected telex from the native office-boy he left behind to guard the place;  he is startled to find that Munzer can speak English!


Friedman’s third and undoubtedly greatest weakness is an addiction to superficial anecdotes wedded to vast generalizations.  You can imagine him finding a penny on the street and getting a week’s worth of columns out of it:  This lucky penny, abandoned like the hopes of the ordinary citizens of Beirut, has not been lucky for some...  His life is a constant search for the golden anecdote that will become a parable.  Hearing about a landlord so tough he eats an egg in its shell, Friedman pounces:  this is what Middle Eastern politics are about, the egg and the shell.  He comes across a Bedouin legend of a man whose tribe loses respect for him after his turkey is stolen and he does nothing, and now Friedman can explain the massacre at Hama.  “That is why Hafez al-Assad…  could order the killing of 20,000 of his own citizens,” he says on page 91.  “Because on some level Assad…  saw them as members of an alien tribe… who were trying to take his turkey.”  You’d hate to see what he would have done if someone had moved his cheese.


Friedman’s belief in symbols verges at times on the comic, as in this attempt on page 127 to explain why the European Jews were able to build a state while the Palestinians were not.  “Men in Arab societies always tended to bend more;  life there always moved in ambiguous semicircles, never right angles.  The religious symbols of the West are the cross and the Jewish star – both of which are full of sharp, angled turns.  The symbol of the Muslim East is the crescent moon – a wide, soft, ambiguous arc.”  Arab men are thus soft, ambiguous, and have a marked tendency to bend, all of which can be discerned from just looking at their flag.


Friedman can never resist the temptation to try to distill his message into a single image.  He is constantly looking for the icon, the emblem, the symbol that replaces the explanation.  He knows the dangers of political myths, and yet the entirety of his work is a quest for a symbol. 


In tracing the showmanship that Arafat used to bring the Palestinian cause to the world stage and the showboating that kept him from realizing its aims, Friedman argues that Arafat does not function as a conventional leader, who would be held responsible for the success or failure of his actions, but as a symbol of his people.  P. 168:  “Arafat’s ability to turn himself into a symbol of Palestinian survival, a human Palestinian flag, as it were, enabled him to remain the leader of the PLO as if the summer of ’82 had never happened;  a movement may trash its leaders, but it would never trash its own flag.”  (Far from being biased against Arafat, Friedman went so far on page 124 as to offer his opinion that “terrorism, while morally repugnant, was functionally relevant for the PLO at its takeoff stage.”)


Even the famous stone-throwing turns out to be symbolic.  It is not that the Palestinians were too poor for anything else;  they had guns but they knew that if they used them the Israelis would retaliate massively.  Throwing a stone was not about clunking some guy on the head, it was an act of civil disobedience and a way to remind the Israeli soldiers that they were not welcome in the territories.


Friedman is equally forgiving of the Israeli need for myth, in this case the terrible lie of a People Without A Land who just happened to stumble upon a Land Without A People.  P. 141: “This myth was one of the oldest and most enduring in Zionist history.  In the early twentieth century, when the Zionist movement was just taking off, it may have been a necessary myth.  To be able to convince Jews to pick up and leave their homes… and come to settle in Palestine, the Zionists had to look through the Arabs to some extent.”


Perhaps Friedman is tolerant of such myths because his search for a symbol to mystically embody complexities is a search for a new myth of his own.  But in politics myths are always dangerous.  Sometimes the most important thing to understand about a complicated situation is just that it is complicated.  Inevitably Friedman’s quest for simplicity leads him to the ultimate symbol, America, and he goes from being an observer of the follies to becoming a patriot himself, and a dangerous one.


Why do they hate us?  It’s a great testimony to the human imagination to see how many ingenious answers the American press can come up with that do not mention the name Israel.  You have to feel a little sorry for a country whose best minds in mortal danger can do no better than the high school cheerleader theory that people who hate us are just jealous.  This is Dr. Seuss with bin Laden as the Grinch.


I suppose one can’t credit a fanatic like bin Laden with meaning what he says, that he opposes the U.S. support of the corrupt Saudi monarchy, the occupation of Palestine and the sanctions on Iraq.  But Friedman goes so far as to claim that we are dealing with a new kind of nihilistic terrorist who has no political program, which is untrue.  In every Arab country he visits they tell him the problem is Israel and he stubbornly insists it’s unemployment.


The ignorant masses who do hate America know almost nothing about it.  They have never been here.  They live in countries with one state-run channel.  Islam keeps them pure of all outside information.  I was struck recently, seeing new pictures of Saudi women on the BBC as they went to the mall looking like black Halloween ninja ghosts, that they must know far less about our lives than even the little we know about theirs.  Their anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are almost indistinguishable:  America is one big Jew to them.  According to the papers they read, Jews not only run the country but they even blew up the towers themselves in order to make the Arab world look bad.




Nowhere does Friedman explicitly make the case for war with Iraq;  he seems to think it’s not only obvious but merely of secondary importance.  Instead he discusses our strategies for getting there, like continuing reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan for the sake of our credibility, resuming Israeli-Arab peace efforts in order to ease regional pressures, and above all cultivating Islamic moderates as allies.


The disastrous invasion of Lebanon he himself witnessed in 1982 might serve as an object lesson for those who think that the U.S. can roll into Iraq for a couple months and set up a friendlier government.  The Israelis came in like tourists on tanks, snapping photos and shopping for gifts to send home.  If Israel with its much-vaunted intelligence agency could misread their own neighbor as badly as they did, how accurate do you think the U.S. image is of Iraqis longing only for our signal to join us?  What method do you think the Defense Department is using to see into the hearts and minds of a closed police state?  I strongly suspect it’s wishful thinking and orders from above.  Hussein’s regime will not crumble at the blowing of a ram’s horn.  If it was that easy, they would have done it last time.


Those who compare Saddam Hussein to Stalin should remember that no one ever proposed we try to invade and occupy Russia.  If the analogy holds, it is another point for containment.


I can’t imagine that the stupidest person alive would believe the U.S. government gives a rat’s ass about the fate of the Kurds.  If they did, why didn’t they help them when they needed it?  And if anyone genuinely thinks our military is surgically accurate, let them prove it by having Rumsfeld shoot an apple off their child’s head with a bow and arrow.  It’s actually probably safe at the bull’s eye:  if you can remember back even six months you know we don’t come that close to our targets.  Fighting a war with bombers is like getting a haircut from a circus knife-thrower.  And even if the strikes were accurate, the intelligence we rely on to choose targets is not.


If there is such a thing as an Iraqi opposition, give them money, weapons, training and propaganda, but not troops.  Because once the troops go in we start fighting for the wrong reasons:  to defend our positions, to avenge our losses, to speed the end by giving license to greater short-term brutality.  We do not have the human wisdom it would take to keep our heads on straight during a war.  Let us hope for the American wisdom to keep ourselves out of one when we should.


Since 1647, the basis of the international system has been minding your own business not because this is always the right thing to do but because not doing so would be disastrous.  The U.S. does not choose the head of Iraq or the PLO and the fact that so-called democrats like Friedman have forgotten this shows what a new low diplomacy is at in our time.  Who to kill and who to replace, thoughts that were once scandalous enough to bring down administrations, are now discussed quite openly.




Was war once more civilized than it is today?  I don’t think so.  There have always been looting and massacre, rape, mutilation and torture;  now we have journalism to go with it.  You can argue that after the machine gun or the bomber jet, face-to-face contact with an enemy was so diminished that the sense of their humanity was lost.  But people without modern weapons are still hacking their victims to death with machetes one at a time, ignoring their last desperate pleas.  The old ways are hardly more humane.


If war does seem worse today it may even be that we are a tiny bit better inside and can see more clearly the horror, that men should kill and kill until a ruinous frenzy abandons them, and fight for dirt until they get a couple shovels full to lie under for their trouble.


Wild dogs still eat corpses just as they did in Homer’s day, and victors still drag the dead behind their cars.  War is still the chill in the bowels, the merciful last confusion of lightheadedness, the blood poured out on the ground, the lives unlived.


Tomorrow’s atrocities will be named for the towns where they occurred, just as they have always been, the names still waiting for now until violence makes them new emblems of our worst nature.  If the U.S. goes into Iraq, where will the next atrocity be, the next place where a hard man steps in to goddamn it get the job done?  Will it be in Surdash?  Could it be Karbala?  The CIA will set up the Kurds to do the dirty work of door-to-door slaughter while they keep the lookout, and afterwards our poly sci bigwigs will theorize in the Sunday paper about the stubbornness of tribal identity.


They will tell you that no reasonable person can be 100% anti-war all the time, that we’ll always need to keep that option close at hand, as if war could be kept safe on the wall in a canister under a sign that says In Case of Hitler, Break Glass.  I say that if someday the majority of the world’s population were even 60% anti-war, people like Hitler could never come to power in the first place.


Cowardly terrorists refuse to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  Pacifists should refuse the distinction in the opposite direction:  what is a soldier but a kid who couldn’t afford college, where they might have had a shot at learning to think for themselves?  Instead they live in a world of one heavy unread book that means whatever fanatics tell them it means.  They could be falling in love, cheering for a soccer team, arguing about Plato and algebra, looking up in awe and fear at the stars.  They’re just like you or me, maybe a little more like me.


For God’s sake, please don’t kill them.


Said Shirazi was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in New York City.  His writing has appeared at Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Habits of Waste and Flaneur.



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