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Journalismism

New York Times Pays Thomas Friedman To Compare The Middle East To Bugs

4:14 PM EST on February 5, 2024

Given the headline, "Understanding the Middle East Through the Animal Kingdom" is a thought experiment doomed from the start. But New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman made the attempt anyway, and no editor cared enough to stop him.

Part of Friedman's focus at the New York Times is foreign affairs and, in particular, the Middle East. He is a columnist with the clout to interview Joe Biden and Antony Blinken. There are many readers who read his writing not to make fun of it on a different blog, but because they expect him to provide information and context they can't get elsewhere. Some of those readers are government officials who influence policy. The third paragraph of this column published on Feb. 2 is: "How all of these are going to interact, I do not know. Personally, I sometimes prefer to think about the complex relations between these parties with analogies from the natural world."

Israel's slaughter in Gaza serves as the impetus for Friedman's extended analogy, which begins by comparing the United States to "an old lion." The "old" part is intended to be a signifier of Friedman's objectivity: The U.S. is a weakened version of the animal widely identified as extremely cool and dignified, the source of so many motivational posts from athletes. From there, this well-traveled columnist can only compare every Arab or Muslim entity to some sort of insect or arachnid. Hamas is a trap-door spider—because of the tunnels, get it? Others are part of some parasitic relationship:

Iran is to geopolitics what a recently discovered species of parasitoid wasp is to nature. What does this parasitoid wasp do? According to Science Daily, the wasp “injects its eggs into live caterpillars, and the baby wasp larvae slowly eat the caterpillar from the inside out, bursting out once they have eaten their fill.”

Is there a better description of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq today? They are the caterpillars. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the wasp. The Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas and Kataib Hezbollah are the eggs that hatch inside the host — Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — and eat it from the inside out.

In one sentence, Friedman offers his best solution for getting rid of the bugs: "We have no counterstrategy that safely and efficiently kills the wasp without setting fire to the whole jungle." It's not difficult to find an idiot calling for the carpet bombing of the Middle East, but you'd hope they wouldn't be published in the New York Times.

At this point, it seems that Friedman has painted himself into a corner: Now he has to come up with an animal for Israel. He settles on an analogy specifically for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "the sifaka lemur, which I got to observe in Madagascar." Friedman's reasoning is that the sifaka lemur wiggles its arms a lot to look busy, and so does Netanyahu. It's a copout combined with a brag about how he once saw a lemur.

It's also an indication that Friedman's aware of the flaw in his own premise, even before he's finished writing it: Of course he wouldn't compare Israel to a bug, because that would get him and his editors in trouble. And the Times' opinion desk doesn't want any more bug trouble. In 2019, professor David Karpf tweeted a wholly innocuous joke about New York Times columnist Bret Stephens that compared him to a bedbug. In response, Stephens went on an extended tantrum that included a condescending email to Karpf, with Karpf's provost CCed, and an MSNBC appearance. Days later, Stephens wrote a follow-up column on World War II in which he very obviously insinuated that Karpf's bedbug joke could be connected to literally the Holocaust. At least one good thing came out of that saga: Stephens permanently deleted his Twitter account.

"Sometimes I contemplate the Middle East by watching CNN," Friedman writes in his conclusion. "Other times, I prefer Animal Planet." His column is instructive in one way, and it has nothing to do with his opinions on the Middle East. Anything that a New York Times columnist does, however half-assed or racist, can be shuffled into the infinite diversity of opinion without correction or explanation. Friedman is impossible to dislodge as he continues to feed off the newspaper's reputation and resources. A lazier writer might compare him to a tick, but at least ticks can provide nutritional value for other creatures.

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