Tom Friedman: Being a Columnist Means Never Having to Say You Researched

One thing Thomas Friedman demonstrates over and over is that you don’t need to know much to be an expert. Take today’s column (New York Times, 4/13/11), which is based around a contrast between the European wave of democratization in 1989 and the current “Arab spring”:

Think about the 1989 democracy wave in Europe. In Europe, virtually every state was like Germany, a homogenous nation, except Yugoslavia. The Arab world is exactly the opposite. There, virtually every state is like Yugoslavia–except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

That is to say, in Europe, when the iron fist of Communism was removed, the big, largely homogenous states, with traditions of civil society, were able to move relatively quickly and stably to more self-government–except Yugoslavia, a multiethnic, multireligious country that exploded into pieces.

In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers–except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities. So when you take the lid off these countries, you potentially unleash not civil society but civil war.

Does Friedman remember 1989? Not just Yugoslavia, but also the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia ended up dividing along ethnic lines. In fact, of the 20 formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe, only five–Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Albania–are not the result of these ethnic splits. And the countries that remain are far from homogeneous, either ethnically or religiously: Latvia is only 59 percent Latvian, Ukraine is 78 percent Ukrainian, Russia is 80 percent Russian, Moldova is 78 percent Moldovan (and involved in a secession battle with the other 22 percent). And so on. (I get these figures from the CIA World Fact Book–handily available online for use by columnists and media critics alike!) Even Germany, which is Friedman’s model of homogeneity, is just 92 percent German.

As an example of the lack of homogeneity of the Middle East, Friedman cites Saudi Arabia as being 90 percent Sunni and 10 percent Shi’ite Muslim. Compare that with supposedly monolithic Bulgaria–83 percent Bulgarian Orthodox, 12 percent Muslim. Or, for that matter, with Egypt, which Friedman says had an easy transition from authoritarianism because it’s an exception to the region’s multiculturalism–yet has a Christian Coptic minority that makes up 9 percent of the population.

Friedman starts off his column with an anecdote about an Egyptian hotel worker who, when she finds out he works for the New York Times, asks him, “Are we going to be OK?” I’d advise her to ask the next guest who checks in at random–she’s almost certainly going to an opinion that’s at least as well-informed.

Corrected: Replaced a “Christian” that should have been “Muslim.”

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.