Poking fun at New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is something of a parlor game for people who closely follow the Middle East. His penchant for starting columns with quotes from anonymous taxi drivers who, with astonishing regularity, confirm his own views of the world and what needs to be done, inspired a parody account on twitter called Taxi Wisdom (sample response to a Cairo journalist writing "Cab driver from Cairo airport explained everything to me. Going home now." Taxi Wisdom: "How it's done!") He also frequently gets strings of basic facts wrong when making his arguments.
Well, after two recent columns in which he cites anonymous young women turning to him for advice, an enterprising band of writers have decided to broaden the circle of women who can turn to the Pulitzer Prize winner for his wisdom. Their blog is called "Mr. Friedman, could I ask you a question?" and it's my favorite of the genre so far.
First, some background. The amusement (or anger, depending on your point of view) really kicked into overdrive last year following a March 1 column in which he proposed a series of "not-so-obvious" factors contributing to the Arab uprisings that, to be generous, were not-so-obvious because they were completely disconnected from unfolding events.
The first factor he cited is President Barack Obama, and the scenario he invented was breathtaking in the completeness with which it was made up entirely from thin air. "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 have spoken to hundreds of young Egyptians both before, during and after the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Not one of them has ever uttered a statement even remotely like this. The experience of almost everyone else with ties to Egypt is the same. That Mr. Friedman was a priori convinced of what was going on in the hearts and minds of millions of Egyptians based on -- well, nothing but his own opinions -- speaks for itself.
And the assumption that local folks were incapable of recognizing they were living in economically desperate conditions, ruled by autocrats, without events abroad to enlighten them didn't end there. His second example was "Google Earth," on the theory that Shiites in Bahrain were enraged about unequal distribution in land there after using the internet-based map. Actually, they have been well aware of this daily fact of life for some time.
He then goes on to cite Israel (since it convicted a former president on corruption charges), the Beijing Olympics (because it show-cased China's economic progress and the benefits of professionally-managed authoritarianism), and Palestinian Authority President Salam Fayyad because, in Friedman's take, he was running the West Bank like China. Friedman even coined a new "ideology" he calls "Fayyadism," which says "judge me on my performance, on how I deliver government services and collect the garbage and create jobs — not simply on how I “resist” the West or Israel. Every Arab could relate to this. Chinese had to give up freedom but got economic growth and decent government in return. Arabs had to give up freedom and got the Arab-Israeli conflict and unemployment in return."
This list drew chuckles from just about everyone who has covered the Arab uprisings on the ground. The West Bank under the Palestinian Authority is seen by almost no Arab as a model to emulate. Obama's Cairo speech, well-received at the time, ultimately disappointed a young Arab public that felt the US president had promised much, and delivered nothing. Their feelings about Israel go without saying. In Cairo journalist circles, the acerbic Sarah Carr's take on all this became legendary.
The requests from women that Friedman cited follow the traditional pattern of his columns -- an anonymous young woman asking to have the world explained to her by Friedman, which he then obliges. In the first, an anonymous receptionist at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo asks him after he requests a corporate rate for the New York Times: "'Can I ask you something?' Sure. 'Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.'” (Friedman writes that "I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person"). In the second, from a few days ago, an anonymous young Egyptian woman approaches him at a conference in Istanbul and says: "Mr. Friedman, could I ask you a question? Who should I vote for?” (Egypt's presidential election is tomorrow, and the run-up has been very rocky).
The "could I ask you" blog has a lot of funny digs at the Friedman oeuvre. My favorites so far: "Mr. Friedman, how does one get from Beirut to Jerusalem?- Jawahar, Shatila refugee camp;" Mr. Friedman, does my self-determination make me look fat? - Aisha, Al Hamlah;" and "Mr. Friedman, what could you teach me about globalization and democracy in the Middle East if you took a ride in the cash cab? - Lindsey, Manhattan."
Well worth a few minutes of your time. (Of course, I'm just jealous, jobbing hack that I am, that I never get asked these questions.)