Devoted to human freedom, you must embrace even the freedom to express stupidity. So I can happily report that a week ago at this writing Thomas Friedman struck a mighty blow for freedom with one of the dumbest columns he has ever written, "Giving the Hatemongers No Place to Hide" (July 22, NYT), although his regular readers may not forgive my distinguishing this column from his regular output.
The theme of the column is captured by one of the pithy bromides of which he is so fond, "Guess what: words matter." To make sure that you understand, Friedman repeats this a number of times with slight variations, a favorite technique of propagandists and, for that matter, police interrogators. You can’t help smiling for here is a man who has spent his entire adult life twisting and torturing words to give imperial hubris a happy face.
As we will see, the words that really matter to Friedman are the ones that disagree with his view of the world and current events. Like an unpleasant, spoiled child Friedman uses a tantrum in print to get what he wants.
Friedman starts in his usual breezy, know-it-all style, "I wasn’t surprised. And I won’t be surprised" at discoveries by English police at a bookstore in Leeds. These include video games, Islamic video games. Friedman ominously explains, "The video games feature apocalyptic battles between defenders of Islam and opponents." I couldn’t help thinking of General Ripper darkly telling a stunned Peter Sellers as Mandrake about fluoride, children, and water in Doctor Strangelove. Good God, Friedman lives in a country up to its armpits in violent video games, violent books and magazines, violent music, and a hell of a lot more genuine violence than the English can even imagine.
Friedman asks, "If the primary terrorism problem we face today can effectively be addressed only by a war of ideas within Islam – a war between life-affirming Muslims against those who want to turn one of the world’s great religions into a death cult – what can the rest of us do?"
Note the cheap trick here of identifying Islam in general with the world’s terrorism problem even while ostensibly distinguishing between life-affirming and death-cult Muslims. Islam in general bears the burden of correction for its minority of extremists. These are the words of someone with murky and undeclared motives.
Terrorism, like any other criminal behavior, is the sole responsibility of those committing the acts, not of the religion or the people with which they happen to be associated. The number of people involved in events in New York was about twenty. The number in London maybe a dozen. The world has about a billion Muslims. Friedman simply has no shame.
He glosses over, another favorite technique of Friedman’s, the death-cult wing of every religion, letting it apply only to Islam. What about lunatics in America who turn Christianity into death cults like those of Jim Jones (900 deaths) or Waco (about 100 deaths)? There are dozens of these, not to mention the weird Aryan-nation people who live in the woods and mountains armed to the teeth. American fundamentalists have gathered innumerable times on hillsides awaiting the end of the world. Many of them stocked their basements with guns, ammo, and freeze-dried provisions awaiting the calamity that was supposed to occur when the calendar turned to the year 2000. What about the pictures of Marines earnestly kneeling at some make-shift alter in Iraq before they head out to kill people? What about America’s Eric Rudolphs? its Timothy McVeighs?
And how can you apply the adjective life-affirming to thousands of ferociously angry settlers in Gaza determined to rip down every brick in place, cut down every tree, root up every vine, people who have been widely reported to be poisoning the land they will have to surrender? It seems to me that Israel itself represents the focus of just such a struggle going on in Judaism, the only difference between it and what we see in Islam being one of numbers.
One thing is certain, if you tried smearing Judaism in general with the bloody excesses of Israeli settlers or charming figures like the late bloodthirsty Rabbi Kahane and his followers, you’d call down a firestorm of anti-Semitism accusations on your head. Yet this is precisely what Friedman feels perfectly free to do with Islam.
Friedman answers his own question, as he always does, another technique familiar to propagandists the world over, "We need to shine a spotlight on hate speech wherever it appears. The State Department produces an annual human rights report. Henceforth, it should also produce a quarterly War of Ideas Report, which would focus on those religious leaders and writers who are inciting violence against others."
If he stopped at the first sentence, he’d have my support. There is a need to shine light on hatred, genuine hatred, something that is abundant in Friedman’s homeland. Radio, television, and newspaper columns pour out hatred in the United States around the clock. Dozens of columnists and commentators spew the stuff. Actually, it is this cacophony of hate pervading American media that allows people like Friedman to pass for reasonable, but he is not reasonable by comparison with what is heard and read in other Western countries.
The State Department’s annual human rights report is a document with ghastly shortcomings. Perhaps Friedman likes it because it reflects many of his own qualities – arrogant, insulting, inaccurate, and deliberately incomplete. Everyone outside the United States recognizes the report as biased and used mainly as a bludgeon against countries from which the United States seeks concessions of some kind, usually economic. Incomplete? Just ask Amnesty International, the United States itself very much belongs on any such list compiled without bias: police and prison brutality there are routine, daily events.
Having laid down a principle that seems plausible, Friedman goes on with another of his favorite techniques, casually stretching a principle beyond recognition, trying to make it fit a case it plainly does not fit. Friedman says, "We also need to spotlight the ‘excuse makers,’ the former State Department spokesman James Rubin said. After every major terrorist incident, the excuse makers come out to tell us why imperialism, Zionism, colonialism or Iraq explains why the terrorists acted. These excuse makers are just one notch less despicable than the terrorists and also deserve to be exposed."
Events in London and New York are not related to Iraq or Israel or imperialism? Then why is Bush’s mob intensely pressuring Sharon to quickly complete the evacuation of Gaza? And why are the Bush people suddenly talking about troop reductions in Iraq after all the "stay the course" blather? Of course, they’re related. "It’s the injustice, stupid!" should be on a plaque over Friedman’s desk.
Here is some of what Friedman is actually saying in this passage. He doesn’t care that lists themselves are chilling things, having such horrible associations as the NKVD’s lists for arrest, Senator McCarthy’s lists of Communists, and Nixon’s enemies’ list (disproportionately featuring Jews). We need a list of "despicable" excuse makers.
And never mind, he is saying, that such lists always are abused. America’s no-fly list contains thousands of names included in error or by deliberate abuse, and there is almost no way for individuals to remove their names from this job-threatening list. One of the earliest abuses discovered was Ted Kennedy’s name on the list, but most people do not have Senator Kennedy’s influence to have their names easily removed.
The most frightening thing Friedman is saying is that people who discuss terror and its causes in terms other than his own are "despicable." Yes, words matter, and despicable is a very strong word, a hate-word if there ever was one.
So here is Friedman saying he hates people who disagree with his way of thinking on a subject, blithely managing to identify the people he hates with haters. This reminds me of the time Friedman, in true 1984 Inner Party fashion, tried to get suicide-bomber and all associated terms expunged from the English language, even advocating official penalties for heads of governments in the Middle East who dared use the word martyr.
Friedman is also saying, as he has so many times, that large numbers of people act irrationally. They blow themselves up for no good reason, just for hate. He says, "There is no political justification for 9/11, 7/7 or 7/21. As the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen put it: ‘These terrorists are what they do.’ And what they do is murder."
This is demonstrably false.
Most haters are averse to killing themselves. Haters are generally cowards. Hitler went on until the Russians were almost at the bunker door and only killed himself for fear of falling into their hands. Stalin was only stopped by Nature’s good timing or secret assassination from launching yet another wave of arrests. I don’t know of a single instance of those lynching thousands of black Americans who gave up their lives to get at their object of hate. America’s "Reverend" Jimmy Swaggart threatened to kill any homosexual making a pass at him and weekly spurs his flock to hatred, but he has never offered to lay his own life down for the cause of his seething hatred.
On the other hand, has anyone ever described the Russians who laid down their lives in waves to stop Hitler as haters? I’ve never seen the Japanese Kamikaze pilots who tried desperately to stop the U.S. from reaching their homeland described as haters.
Something is desperately wrong with Friedman’s way of looking at things, and if people like him win the struggle for hearts and minds, the ugly Patriot Act will be only the smallest reason for truth no longer having a place in America.
Maybe that Joe Stalin mustache Friedman sports represents more than a cosmetic effort to add some character to his face?
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada.