Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why I Haven't Given Up on Tom Friedman . . . Yet

If you've read my book, you know that I respond critically to Thomas Friedman's views of globalization in every chapter. Lately, though, I've found his columns in the New York Times less and less helpful.

But yesterday, he published a column analyzing the wave of unrest in the Arab world that reminded me why he's still worth reading from time to time. We have to remember that he got his start in the Middle East, after he earned an M.Phil. in Middle East studies from St. Antony's College at Oxford. And his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, has some first-rate stories from the region in the 1980s.

In addition to the obvious factors--"tyranny, rising food prices, youth unemployment and social media"--yesterday's column also describes some less obvious ones that contributed to the Arab revolts:
  • The Obama factor (a guy with the middle name of "Hussein" becoming president of the US offers hope). 
  • Google Earth (where poorer Bahrainis could see with their own eyes the large estates of the Al Khalifa family, while they lived in cramped conditions). 
  • Israel (whose top leaders have been arrested lately for corruption, right next door to Egypt).
  • China (which hosted the lavish Olympics despite starting from a position of poverty similar to Egypt's in the 1950s)
  • The Fayyad factor (the current prime minister of the Palestinian Authority Salam Fayyad, who is running the West Bank by promoting clean, effective, efficient governance).
The only problem with this list is that it mostly assumes that Arabs had to look outside their countries to be galvanized into action. It plays down the role that ordinary people played on their own. Did they really need to look at Israel to think that they wanted their corrupt leaders to be held accountable? Were people just sitting there passively?

Still, this is an interesting picture of a networked Arab world, full of young people who watch Al Jazeera and hear about what's happening all across the globe. Surrounding all these Arab revolts is the process of, yes, globalization.

What I mean is this: Taking Manfred Steger as our guide, we can define globalization as referring to "the expansion and intensification of social relations and consciousness across world-time and world-space" (Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed., p. 15). We are seeing in the Arab world the consequences of a whole generation of young people connecting with each other and the outside world, of a whole generation becoming conscious of their power to change the world, and of a whole generation making those changes happen.

Thanks to Friedman, we can embed this global process in localized Middle Eastern contexts.

Footnote to earlier posts: Now it looks like the United Arab Emirates' rulers are trying the old pre-emptive carrot strategy of buying off opposition in advance. They have promised $1.5 billion in infrastructure projects to the poorer of the seven emirates that make up the federation (in addition to the wealthy ones of Dubai,  Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, that would be Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Quwai). That may be a sign of more danger to come.

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