Thursday, July 17, 2008

Missing the Point About Missing the Point

Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald take aim at Thomas Friedman's column from yesterday, basically calling him foolish for allegedly not understanding why America is widely disliked in the world. They're both misreading what Friedman actually said.

First, Yglesias misstates the thesis of the piece:
Tom Friedman is really pissed off that people around the world take a dim view of the United States even though despite our flaws our government is less repressive than China's and we've had a much more constructive policy toward Zimbabwe than has South Africa. One wonders if he really doesn't understand this, but it's the hegemony, stupid.
Of course Friedman understands that it's the hegemony. That's why he said this:
Maybe Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans don't like a world of too much American power — "Mr. Big" got a little too big for them.
So, given that Friedman points out exactly what Yglesias said he didn't understand, I can't imagine where Yglesias is coming from. Unfortunately, this slip-up is just one of many in Yglesias's post - one that has an uncharacteristically casual relationship with reality and logic.

There's a brief bright spot right after Yglesias's opening salvo, but then the post descends a second time into misreadings and poor reasoning.
America has long sought to play a global leadership role, and under Bush has sought to play this role almost exclusively through methods of coercive domination. Under those circumstances of course America's sins and flaws look exaggerated. We can write self-congratulatory newspaper columns whining about this, or else we can try to put our policies and our position in the geopolitical structure on a more sustainable basis.
Ok, so the first two sentences are correct - and, in fact, are part of Friedman's argument anyway. But Yglesias's conclusion is just wrong. Putting aside the fact that Friedman has written several columns about sustainable, responsible foreign policy for the U.S., the column is neither self-congratulatory nor whiny. In fact, it was insightful. Friedman's point is not that the U.S. is unfairly disliked, it's that a world with too little U.S. power is worse than a world with too much U.S. power, because the leadership vacuum left by U.S. decline could be filled by emerging superpowers whose policies are considerably nastier. Is he chastising the world for being bothered by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? No - he's responding to this finding:
Polls tell us how China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States.
Friedman's response, understandably, is that people who prefer Chinese leadership should be careful what they wish for. It's a reasonable point, and I remain surprised that Yglesias - whose commentary is normally incisive and intelligent - totally missed the point.

I'm less surprised about Glenn Greenwald. Now, Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald are both intelligent, but Greenwald is awfully preachy, so you can expect this sort of thing from time to time (even when he's right, which in this case he is not). Let's get to what he said:
Tom Friedman is befuddled. He cannot understand "the decline in American popularity around the world under President Bush" and is specifically upset about the fact that "China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States."
See the tricky thing Glenn did there? He lied about Friedman's thesis by saying that he "doesn't understand" and "is befuddled," even though Friedman has a laundry list of U.S. screw-ups in the first paragraph of his column. Then he made it sound like Friedman is specifically confused about dislike for President Bush, which is less of a lie and more of a deliberate misrepresentation, since it makes Friedman sound like a Bush fan, even though his disapproval of Bush is no secret. Way to go, Glenn! But that's not all:
Friedman generously allows that "[a]n America that presides over Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay deserves a thumbs-down" -- a "thumbs-down": what a playful movie critic says about a boring film. In listing America's small imperfections that have caused this worldwide unpopularity, Friedman forgot to mention America's invasion and occupation of Iraq, which Friedman himself cheered on.
Oops! Turns out that Glenn, by this point, is just making shit up! Let's have another look at the column in question, which supposedly omits Iraq:
We should have done better in Iraq.
See that? That's a direct quote. In fact, it's the fourth sentence in the column, so if you read for more than 8 seconds, you probably saw it. I know I did, which is why I thought, "Hmm! That's not true!" when reading Glenn Greenwald this morning. Could Friedman have elaborated on that point? Well, maybe, but seeing as he's written about 1,549 columns about the failure of the Iraq War - and space is limited to make his point about American vs. Chinese power - I can forgive him. But Glenn can't, because he's still pissed about a single dumb remark Friedman made five years ago. Then Glenn works himself into an even preachier rage because John McCain can be a jerk sometimes:
What other country in the world has leading members of its political class who justify unprovoked attacks on other countries -- who casually justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people -- in such depraved and sadistic terms? And, for that matter, what other country has a leading presidential candidate who sings songs about bombing another country and who continues to joke openly about killing its citizens?
I'd address the rest of Greenwald's screed, but I think you get the idea. Blah blah blah, Tom Friedman is the same as George W. Bush, he's caused the deaths of thousands of people, he's a warmonger, etc. The faulty associations with Bush aside, the whole rant is based upon a totally wrongheaded approach to what Friedman actually said in yesterday's column.

There's a terrible trend in our politics that I was discussing with someone the other day. We have a tendency to canonize people who were right on one or two important issues and to alienate people who were wrong on one or two important issues. How's this for a change: we embrace the idea that sometimes people make bad judgments or say dumb things, but - absent an obvious trend - their overall judgment might not be totally flawed. Someone who was wrong about Iraq could be right about things in the future, and someone who was right about Iraq could be wrong about things in the future. I sense that this sort of attack is the left's retaliation against Friedman for being pro-war in 2003. It would be a big mistake to discount the insight and intelligence of Friedman; he's been a consistent and effective advocate for many liberal policies, and his writing about the Middle East (particularly From Beirut to Jerusalem) is top-notch. It's time to let him out of the dog house, and we can start that process by listening to fewer self-important ranters like Glenn Greenwald.

1 comment:

Alexander Haddad said...

Here in Phoenix the thermometer registered a jump this morning. Possibly have something to do with the heat thrown off from the boiling blood of one Ohio blogger?