Day By Day

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Framing the Issue

Tom ["Excitable"] Friedman's column today is interesting, not so much for what he says as how he says it. Friedman writes for the NYT and is a three time Pulitzer winner. You don't get any more establishment than that. No matter how much he twists and turns in pursuit of his latest enthusiasm [which changes on nearly a weekly basis] he is in a position to define, rather than reflect, the common wisdom of the journalistic community. That is why it is important to note how he frames a subject.

Friedman first invokes Malcolm Gladwell's concept of a "tipping point" which has entered the popular lexicon as a replacement for the once ubiquitous "paradigm shift." It refers to the point at which people reframe an issue. Friedman then writes that we are seeing three "tipping points" emerge simultaneously; one in Iraq, another in Lebanon, and a third in Israel.

He writes:
Thanks to eight million Iraqis defying "you vote, you die" terrorist threats, Iraq has been reframed from a story about Iraqi "insurgents" trying to liberate their country from American occupiers and their Iraqi "stooges" to a story of the overwhelming Iraqi majority trying to build a democracy, with U.S. help, against the wishes of Iraqi Baathist-fascists and jihadists.
That's the first tipping point. The second:
In Lebanon, the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which Syria is widely suspected of having had a hand in, has reframed that drama. A month ago, Lebanon was the story of a tiny Christian minority trying to resist the Syrian occupation, which had the tacit support of the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and a cadre of Lebanese politicians who had sold their souls to Damascus. After the Hariri murder, Lebanese just snapped. Lebanon became the story of a broad majority of Lebanese Christians, Muslims and Druse no longer willing to remain silent, but instead telling the Syrians, and their Lebanese puppet president, to "go home."
The third:
The Israel-Palestine drama has gone from how Ariel Sharon will use any means possible to sustain Israel's hold on Gaza, which he once said was indispensable for the security of the Jewish state, to being about how Mr. Sharon will use any means possible to evacuate Gaza - with its huge Palestinian population - which he now says is necessary for saving Israel as a Jewish state.
This is not a particularly perceptive account, but note what is missing. Friedman ignores other possible tipping points such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, Lybia, and maybe Egypt that might suggest a much broader phenomenon than he is currently describing, and [most significantly] he at no point in his article mentions the one figure who arguably has brought this broad transformation into existence -- George W. Bush.

In fact, Friedman takes pains to cast each case in a local context. It was the bravery of the Iraqi people in the election, the outrage of the Lebanese at seeing a popular politician killed, and the ability of Sharon to take advantage of Arafat's demise, that brought change to the Middle East.

I am an historian and this is one of our oldest tricks of the trade. If you want to diminish or deny the importance of some general phenomenon or historical agent, narrow your focus to a few carefully chosen examples and then assert that unique local conditions or actors brought about change in each case. This seems to be the direction that liberal commentators are going in their attempt to define the received wisdom about Bush's impact. If successful he will be seen as a guy who was lucky enough to be in office when momentous events took place around the world, sorta the way Reagan has been portrayed by some as a guy who was lucky enough to be around in the era of Gorbachev.

And also note this; Friedman writes:

"For Iraq to be tipped in the right direction, it was necessary to have the election we did...."
See the "we"? And this: "And if we can keep all three tipping points tipped, it will be incredible."
Here Friedman is belatedly hopping onto Bush's bandwagon and in doing so is symbolically bringing along with him all the doubters and doomsayers who rejected and in some cases actively obstructed Bush's freedom initiative. He is attempting to ensure that if things go well, as now seems possible, Bush's critics will be able to claim a share, perhaps even the lion's share, of the glory.

Thus is an issue framed. For an alternative framework, see David Brooks recent article, also in the NYT, "Why Not Here" in which he wrote:

This is the most powerful question in the world today: Why not here? People in Eastern Europe looked at people in Western Europe and asked, Why not here?People in Ukraine looked at people in Georgia and asked, Why not here? People
around the Arab world look at voters in Iraq and ask, Why not here?


this is clearly the question the United States is destined to provoke. For the final thing that we've learned from the papers this week is how thoroughly the Bush agenda is dominating the globe. When Bush meets with Putin, democratization is the center of discussion. When politicians gather in Ramallah, democratization is a central theme. When there's an atrocity in Beirut, the possibility of freedom leaps to people's minds.
Here Bush's use of American power is the crucial historical agent provoking global change. Commentators and historians will contend in coming years seeking to frame the events of this era to their advantage. I hope that Brooks wins the frame fight in the Times, but knowing the state of the journalistic and historical professions today, I doubt it.

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