Blindingly obvious, Tom Friedman division.
Every journo, probably most people, would wish to have been present for the first patient treated with penicillin, the invention of the silicon chip, the first showing of The Jazz Singer. Pundits, in particular, trade in "big new ideas" and are never more blissful save when they believe to be introducing one.
This is the stock in trade of the Richard Floridas (creativity is the chief driver of economies), Peter Druckers (most of what we call management is getting in the workers' way), the Francis Fukuyamas (his unfortunate best-known book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that the contest of ideologies was over and liberal democracy had won, eight years before Islamic fundamentalists destroyed the World Trade Center), and not to forget Tom Friedman, for whom The World is Flat. Or at least it was on publication five years ago when Friedman's path to bookstore signings and speaking-gig podiums was strewn with rose petals.
The trouble with this line of work, it will be obvious to see, is that genuine breakthroughs - think Newton's laws of motion - are rare. Fukuyam's History was long ago consigned to the dustbin of history. John Naisbitt's Megatrends, I believe, is now best known as an unrelated game available as an iPhone app. And the world is not flat, a paradise of globalization, after all. Yet the oracular writers' raison d'etre is to be always in search of that next bestselling big new idea. We should have learned from Naisbitt's and Alvin Toffler's bunkum to wean ourselves off this airport reading. But we too want to seem at least in proximity to prescience. So we buy the bestselling futurist claptrap in order to get off an erudite line or two as we top off the guests' pinot noir.
Friedman has studied the tea leaves in North Africa and the Middle East (the credibility injector of Friedman's thoughts arising "since being in Egypt" is fair warning of what's to come), and has discerned that the election of Barack Obama, the advent of Google Earth and Al Jazeera, the Beijing Olympics and "Fayyadism," a term Friedman hopes will join the lingua franca of this new century, have been among the previously undetected forces of radical change sure to spread worldwide. Friedman's latest column doesn't hang together as a unified "big new idea," not yet, but this prolific author is working on it, you can be sure.
Friedman acknowledges the "big causes" of the current upheaval - "tyranny, rising food prices, youth unemployment and social media" - and unwisely does not leave matters there.
Actually, social media has been widely debunked as a catalyst - very few Tunisians, as it happens, possess cellphones. Matter of fact, outside North America, very few people have smartphones. In N.A., anything less than a smartphone is looked down upon as a mere pager. But outside N.A., those devices that billions of folks are walking around with are primitive cellphones, capable only of making and receiving calls. They don't take pictures or record video, and don't provide access to the Internet. Which means that Facebook, Google Earth and so on are not yet available in unsettled regions to nurture the mass resentment and coordinated calls to action that topples dictators.
Citing a five-year-old WaPo article about a bright young (comparatively affluent) thing who did have access to Google Earth, Friedman latches onto how all Libyans must be able to see aerial photos of the mansions of Gadhafi, while families of 17 are crammed into squats in Tripoli. That's simply not true. And in any event, Saddam had 19 palaces, and it took a U.S.-led invasion to blast him from power, so uninformed or uninterested was the populace regarding Mr. Big's residences.
Obama's 2009 fence-mending speech with the Muslim world at Cairo University, a milestone event for Friedman, actually was seen by relatively few Muslims. And anti-U.S. sentiment around the world is only scarcely less virulent than it was prior to that speech. (Obama also beamed a speech into Iran for the benefit of dissidents there, also seen by very few.) Libyans have lately taken to begging America and other Western powers not to intervene in a revolution they're desperate, out of understandable national and ethnic pride, to bring off themselves, absent outside "assistance."
China's Olympics did prove that the Middle Kingdom has eclipsed Egypt in dynamic economic growth, even though the two regions some decades ago were of equal economic status. But China also remains home to the world's largest poor population, at 800 million people. India's new middle class of 400 million is similarly matched by unchanged deprivation for about 700 million.
Neither China nor India are to be envied their own totalitarianism and bureaucratic sclerosis, respectively. (Actually, it's both in China). As for Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad's commitment to stripping Palestinians of freedom in exchange for making the trains run on time, how this is a leap in progress and civility from, say, Mussolini escapes me.
"Add it all up and what does it say?" Friedman exclaims, pulling back the curtain on a new world for us to see. "It says you have a very powerful convergence of forces driving a broad movement for change. It says we're just at the start of something huge." Yes, something completely different, save for Brits at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and Yanks in the 1770s. And again when Americans embraced truly "big government" in the 1930s.
Actually, if the world is fortunate, we're at the start of an agonizing process of introducing a system of genuine justice, honest and efficient government, and transparency in public and private enterprise in a region where it has never existed. It is, at best, an incremental step. Even that, if the backsliding into corruption and opacity in Russia since 1991 is any indication, the world might not be so fortunate to see a new order of things in this region.
Those "big causes" Friedman brushes aside before enumerating his "back-of-the-envelope" speculations have been chewed over by so many chroniclers, even if they are true, which drives Friedman to discern his uniquely own causes. Too bad for Friedman's readers, since young-adult unemployment, in particular, is perhaps the force to focus on. Arab nations built scores of universities over the past two decades, and their graduates have emerged to find no jobs. This is no short-term phenomenon, but a chronic malaise of the past decade. Combined with soaring prices for food and other basics, a long-suffering new population of unprecedented formal educational training was not likely to wait forever for its promised measure of affluence.
Worse than that, so far as the longevity of this Friedman's "huge" thing goes, is that graduates of Arab-world universities, especially in Egypt, were long accustomed to emigrating upon graduation to Western Europe, where jobs were plentiful. The Great Recession put an end to that, not incidentally coinciding with uprisings back home. Come the Western economic recovery, now coinciding with declining populations in European nations, demand for skilled immigrants will soar. How committed to change in their homeland will Egyptians be when a job at Siemens or Michelin or Nestle once again beckons? Speaking of huge, there is a sizeable Arab diaspora in Western Europe and North America eager to be re-united with friends and family left behind.
As I write this, two regimes have toppled, both in North Africa. Gadhafi is showing surprising resilience. And much more important, the "contagion" of insistence on better governance has not spread in any meaningful way outside North Africa, not even to Iran, whose underground dissident movement is large and of long standing. Apparently this is Friedman's moment, but not yet theirs. Not as long as a tyrant's old-fashioned control of armed forces and a police state remain secure. Which, sadly, is the case from Tehran to Damascus to Kuwait City.
In my seasonal country, the "hugest" thing this spring, I expect, will once again be the appearance of the first robins. Otherwise, it will remain that we must wait on events, which unfold according to a pace and design of their own, and not tied to a craving to spin another bestselling yarn about how the world, this time, surely, has changed utterly and irrevocably.
Future historians will long puzzle over how I was given an international platform to freely pontificate on the Arab people and be remunerated handsomely for it. It is true that I am not the only person in the world who formulates dubious theories based on scant or no evidence which I then harangue people with. Other people do it. They are called taxi drivers. But they are not as rich as me and haven’t been awarded three Pulitizer Prizes.
Since I’ve been here in Egypt I’ve been putting together a list of “the-absolutely-irrelevant forces” that have captured the captive Arab mind and ignited the simmering coals of the instant garden BBQ that is the Middle East. You might ask why, since I am in Egypt, I don’t ask an Egyptian – possibly two Egyptians – about what inspired them to completely ignore my theories on the Arab peoples and take to the streets. The answer is this: I am Thomas Friedman and I write a column in the New York Times.
I started my last extremely important column with an introduction in which I listed tyranny, rising food prices, youth unemployment and social media as the “big causes”. Rather than just stop there, I did a Google “surprise me” search and chose five of the random results for my special “mix of forces” which inspired the Arab mass revolts. These included Barack Obama, Google Earth and the Beijing Olympics.
Ms. Carr then has Friedman divining import from other factors overlooked by inept rival pontificators, namely "My Moustache," "Home Shopping Network.com," and "The Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake Near Gloucester," among others.
Please read this. Ms. Carr has done a far better job handling it than I. And since it's a widespread, troublesome phenomenon in what too often passes for journalism, she provides us more than mere entertainment.