Culture

Fear and Loathing at The New York Times

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We've got Thomas Friedman all wrong. He's no button-down pundit trying to explain the outside world—he's a gonzo madman who downs unlabeled pills & describes his hallucinations. Or at least that's one way to explain this lede:

Tom Friedman goes to hotel bathroom, mistakes sink for phone, accidentally interviews toothbrush. It says things will look up in six months.

When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: "Do you have a corporate rate?" I said, "I don't know. I work for The New York Times." There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: "Can I ask you something?" Sure. "Are we going to be O.K.? I'm worried."

I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square. We're just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her—in Egypt and elsewhere.

God only knows what really happened in that conversation. Maybe he called room service. Maybe the phone wasn't plugged in at all. Maybe the exchange did happen, but he accidentally called a Marriott in Miami. Whatever Friedman experienced, he processed it from deep in Inner Space: some private world where helpless natives—even the ones who sound modern!—beg the Great White Father from The New York Times to tell their fortunes. And in that world, what the Arabs need is a strong guiding hand, the sort of firm paternal leadership that will ward off civil strife:

The Arab world desperately needs its versions of South Africa's Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk — giants from opposing communities who rise above tribal or Sunni-Shiite hatreds to forge a new social compact. The Arab publics have surprised us in a heroic way. Now we need some Arab leaders to surprise us with bravery and vision. That has been so lacking for so long.

Another option is that an outside power comes in, as America did in Iraq, and as the European Union did in Eastern Europe, to referee or coach a democratic transition between the distrustful communities in these fractured states. But I don't see anyone signing up for that job.

A coach. The Arabs need a coach. Or a referee. They're pretty much the same thing, right?