Honor-Shame Commentary on Thomas Friedman’s Mideast Rules of Reporting: I

Last December, Thomas Friedman published an updated version of his rules of Middle East reporting. It is a brilliant, witty piece that takes aim at and hits our liberal cognitive egocentrism right on the head. This alone justifies Friedman’s having such a big ego: he deserves his swollen head. No dupe or cognitive egocentrist he! (Hat tip: Desert Brown, Israpundit)

I apologize in advance for adding a clunky, comparatively humorless, academic commentary to these fifteen points. But all really profound and pithy material deserves commentary, and since so many of the tragi-comic paradoxes Friedman outlines relate to honor-shame culture, I thought it worthwhile to unpack them. (Predictably, of course, voices of political correctness have attacked Friedman: “his racism and condescending attitude towards Arabs that has long been implicit in his writing comes out full guns blazing..”

I’ll do them one post per item.

Mideast rules to live by – Thomas Friedman
International Herald Tribune

For a long time, I let my hopes for a decent outcome in Iraq triumph over what I had learned reporting from Lebanon during its civil war. Those hopes vanished last summer. So, I’d like to offer President George W. Bush my updated rules of Middle East reporting, which also apply to diplomacy, in hopes they’ll help him figure out what to do next in Iraq.

Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn’t count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Middle East, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

David Makovsky tells the story about a US envoy to Arafat coming with a letter in English from Mubarak telling him to take a certain “moderate” action (like negotiate with Israel or denounce terrorism), and Arafat laughing in his face and saying, “when I get it in Arabic, I’ll take it seriously.”

The reason the gap between public and private is inverted relates to the impact of honor-shame culture. In private, anything goes because it’s perfectly legitimate in private to tell people what they want to hear, and there’s no price to pay since no one from the peer group hears it. When it’s in public, it’s not necessarily more honest, but it does reflect the critical factor when it comes to what real commitments are — what the peer group thinks and knows. Not that you can’t lie in public too, but that poses a different set of problems. To say publicly that you accept Israel – even if you don’t mean it – is a public humiliation for the collectivity.

In Western (integrity-guilt cultures), a whole range of positions that would be considered dishonorable — like public apologies — are not only permissable, but advantageous. What you say in public — on the record — may be diplomatic, but what you say in private has bearing on your integrity and credibility. This is not to say that Westerners do not lie in public and private, just that there’s a different center of gravity which produces the characteristic skew that Friedman notes here.

This helps us understand the difference between Hamas and Fatah. The only honorable public stance in the Arab world vis-à-vis Israel since 1948 has been the rejection of any contact with Israel that might legitimate it. The very “occupation” of the territories conquered in 1967 derives directly from this Arab refusal to recognize or even negotiate publicly with Israelis — the “Three No’s of Khartoum.” (What’s ironic there is that the Arab League said that “the burden of regaining these lands falls on all the Arab States” — which could have been done by negotiations.)

Sadat paid with his life for violating that principle of “no negotions, no recognition, no peace.” Until 1967, Palestinian and Arab leaders refused even hypothetically (and in English) to grant publicly that Israel had a right to exist. Afterwards, with some prompting from PR advisors in the West, they toned down some of their genocidal rhetoric, but it was a long hard road to get them even in English to make even hypothetical concessions in public.

Many Western supporters found their refusal to mouth the right formulas frustratingly irrational — just think of the advantages of “swallowing your pride” and thereby gaining major, even fatal concessions from the Israelis. But, at least when honor is at stake, the Arabs had to be more honest than their Western advisors counseled. Present themselves as a “secular, national liberation movement” aimed at liberating Arab land from the occupying colonialist, imperialist Israelis, even if that’s not what they were about…? No problem. As long as one could talk about occupied Palestine and mean “river to the sea,” there was no shame in letting eager cretins in the West believe that one meant the “Green line.”

The Oslo process forced Arafat to at least mouth in English and in public his willingness to accept Israel’s existence. There was a formal statement – the signing and hand-shaking on the White House lawn – that publicly accepted (from the Arab point of view) a humiliating stance. With Sadat’s fate in mind, Arafat was quick to reassure his Arabic and Muslim public that he didn’t mean this – the Trojan Horse speech in South Africa only months after the White House ceremony, in which he assured his public that this was only a ruse.

“I don’t consider the [Oslo] agreement any more than the agreement which was signed by our prophet Mohammed and the Qurayish,” he said.

“We” — and here I mean people like Peres, Rabin, Ross, Clinton et al. — were equally quick to ignore this critical revelation.

From the honor-shame perspective, Arafat had shamefully accepted a public compromise even though it meant he could better launch the promised offensive… the staged assault. Hamas represented the stance of the old PLO – point of honor: we won’t accept the right of Israel to exist, we will only destroy her. Part of what was so pathetic about the advent of Hamas to power in the elections was how eager the West was just to have Hamas mouth the “moderate” words in English that would allow them to turn on the funding and diplomatic spigots. They virtually handed Hamas the speech necessary to satisfy a Western community desperate to revive the “peace process.” And still, that was too much.

In a sense, the Arab sense of humiliation and the ersatz “honor” they “preserve” by rejecting Israel — which explains many of the pathologies of the Arab world today — makes much of their behavior irrational, even from the point of view of their own “interests.” They could have gotten far more in the way of fatal concessions from Israel had they been willing to “swallow their pride” even temporarily. But they could not do that publicly before the “Arab street.”

And so the major lesson from all of this — one learned and implemented by organizations like MEMRI and PMW — is that only what Arabs say in public and in Arabic matters. Private promises are useless; the “peer group” matters above all.

12 Responses to Honor-Shame Commentary on Thomas Friedman’s Mideast Rules of Reporting: I

  1. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    for quite a long time i could not figure out what i thought to be the stupidity of the pals: if they only SAID what the west and israel wanted to hear, they would end up with israel practically dismantling itself and opening itself up to destruction, which would make it much easier for the pals to achieve their true objective.

    at some point i realized that it was not stupidity per se, but rather the honor-shame factor (one could still consider it stupidity, though).

    be that as it may, it turns out that the honor position was not that bad, it just took more time. within 40 years the pals have managed, despite their honest position towards israel and their murderous genocidal tendencies and hatred towards the west, to 180 degrees turn around of the west’s strong support of israel into israel being a pariah, with hamas dutifully published in the MSM, boycotts, etc., complete with a revival of anti-semitism. even israel has produced suicidal leaders, pal apologetics and attitudes.

    unfortunately, this is not as much the arabs’ achievemnet as it is the west’s total collapse. It has dismissed all the foundations that have brought it progress over the rest of the world.

    for this reason its era is over, which is rightfully deserved.

  2. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    as to friedman, permit me to disagree.

    he has been more often wrong than right. he very seldom has his own insights — he piggybacks on others. he treats issues extremely simplistically — even simple-mindedly. he builds castles on anecdotal evidence, he is shallow and superficial. he talks to a very limited audience — buisness and political elites — and he tells them what they wanna hear.

    reviews of his work demonstrate this very thoroughly and clearly. for example, his position on ethanol was utterly demolished by those with expertise in that area; and so has been his “world is flat” book.

    once in a while he makes some sense, but not that often and he does not say anything that a person with minimal knowledge of the subject does not know. that’s why he is most effective with the ignorami in the elite.

  3. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    note, btw, what is typical friedman:

    if he knew all this, why didn’t he say it at the start of the war? why did not give this advice earlier, when it might have been useful, if followed?

    when does he say it? now, when it is obvious and any informed and able to reason person has figured it out, and when it does not count anymore.

    first he pushed for the war, ignoring all this stuff, because that’s what the elite wanted to hear. now he gives them what they want to hear now.

    yuckh. pathetic.

  4. Bruce Kodish says:

    Richard, go on with your commentary.

    But I have to agree with fp about Friedman.

    He was demonizing the Jews of Yehuda, Shomron, and Gaza from way back. He has long advocated PCP-style concessions by Israelis. And was a strong supporter of disengagement. See http://www.newciv.org/nl/newslog.php/_v256/__show_article/_a000256-000055.htm

    Apparently he can see occasional glimmers of fact through the chinks in his politically correct armor (as your current blogpost indicates), but I’ve seen no indication that he has made any fundamental shifts in his fallback position that the Israelis need to keep on giving up more land while apologizing for their very existence in Eretz Yisrael.

  5. Israelis figured it out even before Camp David. They noted that Arafat and his supporters took moderate lines in English, and made radical statements in Arabic before Palestinian audiences. Western journalists always took their cues from what was said in English. What Arafat and his associates said in Arabic never mattered to Western reporters. Thomas Friedman cannot be too smart, if he is just now figuring this out.

  6. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    “Write your own Thomas Friedman column!”

  7. Eliyahu says:

    Charles, I think that Tom F is claiming to be updating old insights. Of course, Dennis Ross recently has admitted to having come rather late to the realization that you can’t believe the Arab politicians when they speak to Western “peacemakers.” So Ross fits what you said about Tom F. Ross reminds me of the quote attributed to Neville Chamberlain: If only Herr Hitler hadn’t lied to me. Didn’t they know beforehand that he was a liar?

    This brings me to what I think is an article that helps to bridge Neville Chamberlain’s period in Britain and recent events [like the boycott]. It is by Rory Miller of the Univ of London. There are a few academics in Britain who are more or less realistic about the Arab-Israeli situation. Besides Efraim Karsh, there are Rory Miller, Neil Loughrey, Christopher Barder, Silvia Haim, etc.
    Here is a link to Miller’s important piece:

    Miller shows a transition between the anti-Zionism of the Chamberlain period and now. Even then in the 30s & 40s, anti-Zionists might publicly disclaim Judeophobia while being frankly Judeophobic in private. Miller has published several worthwhile articles that show British-Arab cooperation back in the 30s and 40s.
    Now he has come out with a book. What astounds me when reading some of Miller’s writings is that much of what he writes was well known back in the 30s, 40s and 50s [and I started reading about this subject in the 50s]. Yet, starting in the 60s, it seems, history has been rewritten to make it seem as if British policy was unwaveringly, unambiguously pro-Zionist throughout the whole mandatory period. This is blatantly false. But we truly live in the Orwellian era of rewriting history into its opposite. Prime culprits in this enterprise, I believe, include Wm Roger Louis, Tom Segev, avi slime [or Shlaim], Ilan pappe’, eddy said, etc. Note how academics and soi-disant historians –especially “leftists”– have avidly misrepresented British policy as being pro-Zionist when it was not, and when it was quite blatantly not pro-Zionist after the 1939 “White Paper on Palestine.”

  8. Sophia says:

    Eliyahu, generally I agree with you about British policy re Zionism but it was internally split though mostly I concur that it was antiZionist if not outright antisemitic. That has led to confusion regarding the British position toward Zionism and Israel.

    There were some Christian and politically expedient Zionists in Britain as well as antisemites and antizionists. Churchill famously tried to defend the Jewish people and made speeches in Parliament against the White Paper. Lawrence, I believe, expedited the meeting between Faisal and Weitzmann.

    Unfortunately I’ve had the experience of having quotes from Churchill’s speeches, which were cited by Martin Gilbert, questioned as inventions of his biographer and/or Joan Peters and Alan Dershowitz (even though they’re part of the historical record). People will actually accuse eminent scholars of inventing things if they don’t fit a certain historical or political narrative. They will also point-blank deny the historical record on other matters, including the oft-cited Arab immigration into Jewish areas of Mandate Palestine, 19th century Ottoman-region immigration into the poor and underpopulated area, then known as southern Syria, at the behest of the Sultan; and as soon as Mark Twain’s recollections of the emptiness and desolation of the Holy Land are recounted, up pops some account of the waving fields of green and the prosperous and fertile land and burgeoning cities of “Palestine.”

    A whole parallel history has been created.

    Forgive me if I appear to have strayed off topic but it is important in regard to Friedman, because although I admire him and thought his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” was often brilliant, he was partially responsible for creating the idea that Israel was guilty of the crimes at Sabra and Shatilla – and – he equated Sharon with Assad’s actions at Hama – when in fact there was nothing remotely similar about the Assad regime and Israel.

    I think Friedman’s own idealism may have betrayed him. He perceived the fighting of a war, with its attendant ugliness, as a betrayal of the ideals of Eretz Israel. And he compared that to the brutal tactics of Assad against his own people.

    NB: I think that troubles a lot of thoughtful Jews (and others), who don’t like the moral confusion presented by self-defense. Gandhi advised the Jews of Europe to go unresistingly to their deaths rather than fight for life in the East. I think the Brits would have much preferred that scenario too.

    I think people were perfectly prepared to see that happen in 1967 and still do not accept the idea of Jews who fight for their lives. And they continue to believe our presence in the Middle East is per se a crime against the Arabs (in spite of the fact that we are indigenous to the Middle East and most Israeli Jews are Sephardic, Mizrachi or sabra).


    One last observation (I promise!): I think the Brits, who ironically got kicked out of India by Gandhi, came to regard him as a hero and projected his vision of how Jews OUGHT TO BEHAVE onto the people in the Yishuv, the Holocaust survivors and later, Israel.

    They came to admire Gandhi who cost them their richest prize but hate to this day the Jews – blockaded, disarmed and struggling with the catastrophe of the Shoah – who kicked them out of the Mandate.

    Go figure.

  9. Cynic says:

    Gandhi advised the Jews of Europe to go unresistingly to their deaths rather than fight for life in the East. I think the Brits would have much preferred that scenario too.

    An Israeli magazine had an article some years back which is in PDF format and worth reading especially as it says something about British behaviour, their Jews included.

    From The Dark Continent… A Dark Secret Is Revealed

    Scroll down to Page 17.
    The cover of the magazine dealt with the article about the Jews of Europe and questioning their possible emmigration to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia today).

    Was There a Haven in Africa For The Trapped Jews of Europe?
    Was It Kept A Secret?
    How Many Jews Could Have Been Saved?

  10. Cynic says:

    In surfing the web I have come across some interesting comments and as Gandhi was brought into this OTically I thought I’d include some links:

    Gandhi branded racist as Johannesburg honours freedom fighter
    but a new statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg has triggered a row over his alleged contempt for black people.

    Gandhi Supported Segregation
    It is also a myth to presume that Gandhi was opposed to racial segregation. Witness this piece of his writing, published in his newspaper, Indian Opinion, of 15 February 1905. It was a letter to the White Johannesburg Medical Officer of Health, a Dr. Porter, concerning the fact that Blacks had been allowed to settle in an Indian residential area: “Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian location should be chosen for dumping down all Kaffirs of the town, passes my comprehension. Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population, and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.” (26)

    The Famous Train Incident ………
    “You say that the magistrate’s decision is unsatisfactory because it would enable a person, however unclean, to travel by a tram, and that even the Kaffirs would be able to do so. But the magistrate’s decision is quite different. The Court declared that the Kaffirs have no legal right to travel by tram. And according to tram regulations, those in an unclean dress or in a drunken state are prohibited from boarding a tram. Thanks to the Court’s decision, only clean Indians or colored people other than Kaffirs, can now travel in the trams.” (25)

    An Indian blog comment
    “A deeper look into the racist nature of Indian society”
    There is a fascinating discussion by Bhikhu Parekh on how Gandhi himself seemed to have internalized the colonial position that Blacks were “inferior.” Note that in his long struggles in South Africa, he never sided with the Blacks;

    All in all I think that a lot of these people meant to be looked up to were in fact nothing out of the ordinary.

  11. Richard Landes says:

    Unfortunately I’ve had the experience of having quotes from Churchill’s speeches, which were cited by Martin Gilbert, questioned as inventions of his biographer and/or Joan Peters and Alan Dershowitz (even though they’re part of the historical record). People will actually accuse eminent scholars of inventing things if they don’t fit a certain historical or political narrative.

    it would be great to make a list of all the statements that people claim are fake and aren’t. they’re the anomalies that undermine the faith.

  12. Eliyahu says:

    RL, by the same token, there are false statements attributed to important people which some fanatics refuse to let go of no matter the lack of documentation. Then there are the deliberately distorted statements. For example, Israelis who believed that the areas captured in the Six Day War, particularly including Judea-Samaria & Gaza & Golan Heights, rightly belonged to Israel by historical right AND by international law, formed a group called “Erets Yisrael haShleymah” [ארץ ישראל השלמה ]. This movement was habitually called the Greater Israel Movement in the Western press by its detractors and even by those who made a pretense of impartiality or who may have sincerely believed themselves impartial. However, the correct translation of the name is The Whole Land of Israel movement. There is a significant difference, in that members of the movement believed that those areas were anciently and by rights part of Israel, whereas the label “Greater Israel” was meant to imply that these people wanted to take territory from others –from Arabs– that did not belong to Israel or that had not belonged to Israel in the past. This misrepresentation of the movement’s name was part of the beginning of the demonization of Israel in the West. There are many other examples of deliberate distortion, misquotation, mistranslation, misnaming, etc., especially directed against Israel but not only against Israel.

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