Back in the late 1980s, a journalist named Tom Friedman worked as a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. He served in both Israel and Lebanon, and near the end of the 1980s he wrote a book. Later in his career, he wrote several more books. These later books are all unspeakably horrible, as is the column that Friedman currently holds down at the Times. Because of this, I have never been able to believe that the first book, called From Beirut to Jerusalem, could actually be worth reading. Having now read From Beirut to Jerusalem, I am forced to conclude that there was not one, but two Tom Friedmans, and that they collaborated on this first book.
The good Tom writes compellingly about the death in an artillery attack of almost the entire family of a close Lebanese friend. The good Tom writes insightfully of the IDF practice of bringing wealthy American donors to the front in Lebanon, equipping them with flak jackets, and enabling them to follow the course of the artillery bombardment. The good Tom writes of the chaos that afflicted Lebanon during the 1980s in a manner that is clear-headed and sensible. He recognized the presence and strength of sub-national organizations, the dangers of identity-based conflict, and the peril associated with the collapse of national institutions. The good Tom wrote about how the chaos of civil war inevitably produces a perverse incentive structure that kills commerce, civil society, and culture. It is difficult to imagine how anyone who read those pages, much less the man who wrote them, could have ever considered the invasion of Iraq a good idea. The good Tom wrote, as even-handedly as imaginable, about the peril felt by the Israelis and the loss of dignity felt by the Palestinians. Moreover, the good Tom was a fine writer and journalist; he understood that depositing himself judiciously within the narrative made the story more compelling and understandable.
But then sometimes the bad Tom reared his ugly head:
The rhythm of life in the Arab world was always different. Men in Arab societies always tended to bend more; life there always moved in ambiguous semicircles, never right angles. The religious symbols of the West are the cross and the Jewish star- both of which are full of sharp, angled turns. The symbol of the Muslim East is the crescent moon- a wide, soft, ambiguous arc. In Arab society there was always some way to cushion failure with rhetoric and enable the worst of enemies to sit down and have coffee together, maybe even send each other bouquets.
The bad Tom also mucked around with noodling about solutions in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, and wandered into the kind of self-important analogic swamp that has characterized Friedman’s writing since the early 1990s. The bad Tom is definitely in From Beirut to Jerusalem, but the good Tom, for the most part, holds him at bay. Sadly, the bad Tom murdered the good Tom sometime in 1993. I suspect that the bad Tom beat the good Tom to death with a blunt object, probably the very same National Book Award that the good Tom won for From Beirut to Jerusalem. Jessica Fletcher is on the case. Anyway, we’re far enough down the road now to recognize that the good Tom ain’t coming back, but not so far as to feel no sorrow for the fact that all we have left is the self-parody.