Are Americans (or only Terry Gross) outwitted by the theory that the world is flat?
Most of my friends are fans of Terry Gross and listen to her show “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio whenever they can. Terry Gross is arguably the finest “interviewer” in the media today—her conversations with important people in the arts and politics are always interesting, are usually centered on the “interviewee” and not Terry Gross’s ideas, and are never polemical.
Hardly ever, that is. Like nearly 100% of media personalities in this country, Terry Gross makes absolute assumptions about the decades-old conflagration in the Middle East. Whenever she interviews anyone about the Middle East, those assumptions skew her questions and comments and lead both Ms. Gross and her guests down a path of thinking that is rigid, uncompromising, and based in a view of reality that is suspect at best, prejudiced for certain, and dangerous at worst.
Today (August 1, 2006) her guest was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who had just returned from Syria where he was investigating the current tragic Israeli aggression against Lebanon. Terry Gross started her interview by asking Friedman why Syria is the key to sorting out the “trouble” between Israel and Lebanon (and by extension, the rest of the region).
Friedman carefully and in logical detail outlined the “role” Syria is playing in the conflict at the present time. (If you want to know what he said, look it up on NPR’s website—I have no interest in repeating an argument based on assumptions that are false.) If only, he ultimately said, the U.S. would begin talking directly with the Syrian government and reestablish our traditional friendship with it, we could make progress in convincing Syria to forsake its somewhat artificial alliance with Iran. (It is, of course, in Friedman’s mind, the Iranians who are the real source of the trouble in the Middle East.) If Syria forsook its alliance with Iran, the “terrorist” groups in Lebanon and Palestine could not get their armaments, and the whole problem would vanish (presumably into thin air).
I have no doubt that Thomas Friedman’s analysis is based on the “facts” as he perceives them—he did, after all, have access to Syrian government officials, and he has been reporting on events in the area for decades. He is certainly one of the most knowledgeable “wags,” one of the most articulate of the “talking heads” we rely on for our news. He obviously knows what he’s talking about, and Terry Gross led him through the conversation masterfully as she always does.
His analysis and her questions, however, are based on an assumption that is so entrenched in U.S. policy and in Americans’ beliefs about the Middle East that it is almost (no, for most Americans, it is absolutely) impossible even to consider any other way of looking at that part of the world. Changing that entrenched assumption would be an upheaval so radical, a “paradigm shift” so dramatic that for most Americans—both private citizens and public officials—it is unthinkable. It would be a rearrangement of thought as drastic as the acceptance in the 15th century of the reality that the earth is round. It is as necessary a rearrangement of thinking for our time as abandoning the cherished belief in the flatness of the world was for the late Renaissance.
It is an idea so simple that hardly anyone will take it seriously: neither Syria, nor Iran, nor Hezbollah, nor Hamas, nor even Al-Qaeda is the key to peace in the Middle East; the key to peace is the government of Israel.
It is impossible for Americans to fix their minds on the fact that Israel caused the refugee problem in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and Gaza.
It is impossible for Americans to shift the paradigm of their thinking to consider for even a brief moment that Palestinians who fight (yes, sometimes violently and with horrible consequences) simply for the land that belongs to them and not to the Israeli occupiers (as declared by the United Nations) are resisting tyranny and oppression, not “terrorizing” Israel.
It is impossible for Americans to consider that the violence of Hezbollah, Hamas, and, yes, even Iran and Syria, began as a reaction to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Israel’s attempt in the 1980s to destroy the Palestinians who resisted that occupation from across the border in Lebanon where they were living in refugee camps (and have been living since).
It is impossible for Americans to understand that the reason Syria is in a state of conflict with Israel is that Israel annexed the Golan Heights (Syrian territory) and not that Syria wants to destroy Israel.
These are only a few ways in which the entrenched “common wisdom” of the United States prevents this nation from truly promoting peace and freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Israel, not Syria, holds the key to ending the conflagration. As long as our nation remains hostage to the world view perpetrated by Israel, as long as we are unable even to consider that the anger of Israeli's neighbors is justified, and as long as we continue to sponsor Israel's aggression, we can never have peace. Anywhere.
And we might as well go on believing the title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century.