Periscope Depth

leave all your love and your loving behind

Should I pick on Tom Friedman? I don’t know. Seeing a new Tom Friedman column is like running into a Lyndon LaRouche agitator in Park Street station, scratching his thinning hair, asking me which subway goes to Harvard. I could point out his mistakes, sure, but I’m much more likely to send him on the wrong train.

Tom Friedman, welcome to Mattapan:

Just when you think the Egyptian uprising is dying down, more Egyptians than ever waited in long lines on Tuesday to get into Tahrir Square to ask President Hosni Mubarak’s regime to go. One reason the lines get so long is that everyone has to funnel through a single makeshift Egyptian Army checkpoint, which consists of an American-made tank on one side and barbed wire on the other. I can never tell whether that tank is there to protect the protesters or to limit the protesters.

Fuck me standing, I hope this is a joke. This has to be a joke, right? Or at least the mustache’s attempt at breezy irony? Protect the protesters from whom, Friedman? From the other tanks?

Thinking about this for literally no more than 30 seconds makes the answer obvious. Tanks are not defensive elements. They’re offensive. They’re meant to roll across rough terrain and blow holes in fortifications or massed lines of infantry. But you wouldn’t ring a city with tanks to protect the city. A tank loses one of its biggest advantages, mobility, when it’s sitting still. At that point, a couple of decent grenades could wreck its treads. In fact, the only sort of force a tank could defend against would be … civilians with improvised weapons.

Right now Egypt’s respected army is staying neutral — protecting both Mubarak’s palace and the Tahrir revolutionaries — but it can’t last. This is a people’s army. The generals have to heed where the public is going — and today so many Egyptians voted with their feet to go into Tahrir Square that a friend of mine said: “It was like being on the hajj in Mecca.”

It says a lot of how target-rich a Friedman column is that I can overlook the merely laughable (“respected army”, “people’s army”, “the generals have to heed”) to zoom in on the picayune. To call the Tahrir Square protests “voting with [one's] feet” isn’t even a euphemism; it’s an insult. Protests are a raw, risky and passionate means of expressing one’s ideology. Voting is safe and civilized. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about voting is that it’s a more peaceful alternative to rioting in the street every four years. Protesting isn’t “voting with your feet”; voting is “protesting peacefully.” It’s like calling murder “a disagreement over knifability.”

But Friedman’s got a theme, damn it, and the conventions of the English language get run over like protestors under a tank’s treads so he can get there. Friedman’s questionable thesis – that the army is holding back because they love the anonymous masses more than the guy who signs their checks – requires that the generals pay attention to the protestors. So, if the army is listening to the people … and the people are in the square … then … then the army must be in the square! So that’s why Tahrir Square is surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards! It’s the transitive principle, silly!

The Tahrir Square uprising “has nothing to do with left or right,” said Dina Shehata, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is about young people rebelling against a regime that has stifled all channels for their upward mobility. They want to shape their own destiny, and they want social justice” from a system in which a few people have gotten fantastically rich, in giant villas, and everyone else has stagnated. Any ideological group that tries to hijack these young people today will lose.

Except Friedman, of course. Friedman isn’t just “any” ideological group; he’s THE ideological group.

The rest of the column is typical Friedman: his “post-ideological” worldview that is, in fact, highly ideological; his desire to reduce everyone’s motives to not just a paycheck, but a 401(k); his theory that everyone in the world wants to be a sales engineer Segwaying to work and making iPhone apps in their spare time. That’s stock Friedman and I can’t fault the man for owning his schtick.

But the hoops he has to leap through to pretend that the Egyptian army is a neutral third party to the whole affair! “Hrm, APCs aren’t rolling through the streets machine-gunning civilians. Are we on the verge of a new Arab democracy?” No, you twit.

I’m no expert on the Nile, but I feel safe in assuming that when the same man has ruled the country for 30 years, no one enlists with him unless they want power. And now that Mubarrak’s in danger, the grunts are waiting to see what the officers are doing. The officers are waiting to see what the generals are doing. And the generals are waiting to see if Suleiman can take the reins as Mubarrak tumbles off the horse.

So everyone with something to lose is biding their time and covering their ass. Which, come to think of it, fits pretty well with Friedman’s “the world is a corporation” theme. Even a blind squirrel finds a stopped clock twice a day, or something.