The Myth That is Values-Based Analysis

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This post is not about the value of journalism, but about the blind prejudice that infiltrates much journalistic writing about values. I am not talking about the caricature newscasting of a Fox News Geraldo Rivera, who thinks wearing a hoodie is a problem (just like some maintain that a woman wearing a miniskirt is asking for “it”). Rather it is the prize-touting expert-of-all-trades mentality of Thomas Friedman, whose talking-head status is, in journalistic terms, astronomical. Yesterday, Friedman posted a commentary in The New York Times entitled “A Festival of Lies.”

Friedman begins with a quote from the historian Victor Davis Hanson in The National Review:

“Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan. What have we learned? Tribalism, oil, and Islamic fundamentalism are a bad mix that leaves Americans sick and tired of the Middle East — both when they get in it and when they try to stay out of it.”

I certainly agree with Friedman’s gut reaction that “And that is why it’s time to rethink everything we’re doing out there. What the Middle East needs most from America today are modern schools and hard truths, and we haven’t found a way to offer either.” Bravo. Bombs make enemies and schools build friendships: this hardly seems like a new revelation, but it is the kind of truth spoken to power that needs to be voiced time and time again.

But it is what underlies the rationale where I find an all-too-familiar ritual of truths that carry along the heavy baggage of assumptions that belie the argument being made. So Friedman continues:

“Because Hanson is right: What ails the Middle East today truly is a toxic mix of tribalism, Shiite-Sunni sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil — oil that constantly tempts us to intervene or to prop up dictators.”

I agree that this toxic mix does indeed fuel American duplicity in supporting dictators as long as they are seen as “our bastards.” But the mix is toxic because it is a myth, not because it explains the behavior of people in the region. Notice Friedman’s rationale in his ending quote:

“Sorry, but nothing good can be built on a soil so rich with lies on our side and so rich with sectarianism, tribalism and oil-fueled fundamentalism on their side. Don’t get me wrong. I believe change is possible and am ready to invest in it. But it has got to start with them wanting it. I’ll support anyone in that region who truly shares our values — and the agenda of the Arab Human Development Report — and is ready to fight for them. But I am fed up with supporting people just because they look less awful than the other guys and eventually turn out to be just as bad.

Where people don’t share our values, we should insulate ourselves by reducing our dependence on oil. But we must stop wanting good government more than they do, looking the other way at bad behavior, telling ourselves that next year will be different, sticking with a bad war for fear of being called wimps and selling more tanks to people who can’t read.”

Sorry, but when did we obtain sole ownership of something worth calling “our values” that are opposed to what must be “their values” of “a deficit of freedom, a deficit of modern education and a deficit of women’s empowerment.” As noted in the Arab Human Development Report of 2002, these are indeed recognized problems, but why is it so easy to assume that problems must equal values? The United States has a crime problem; so many criminals are in our jails that there is not enough room for them. The FBI reports that 65% of reported hate crimes against a specific religion were anti-Semitic. Thus, by Friedman’s logic this should qualify as one of our “values” and not simply a problem.

It is reported that nearly 90,000 Americans (almost all women) were reported being raped in the United States in 2008. In Yemen, which is probably a country that Friedman does not think shares our values, rape rarely occurs. Rape is obviously a problem in all circumstances and countries, but shall we say that a country with a higher percentage of rapes does not share the same set of values as one with a lower or almost negligible rate of rapes? Women are far safer in Yemen, despite the fact they mostly wear a full-length hijab, than the U.S., so can we make a blanket assumption that “our” values are better than “their” values for a woman’s right not to be molested?

Then there is “tribalism,” a rhetorical black box that is so widely used that it has no coherent meaning. Are we talking about a political system, which often has effective customary law? Are we talking about a state of political development, where there is no state to monopolize violence against citizens? Are we talking about a virtual state of anarchy, a “west of the Pecos” vacuum of civil society? Friedman, like a number of Western scholars that he finds quoteworthy, brandishes the word “tribalism” as though it is a “value” without having a clue to what it means to be “tribal” in a specific social context.

I am not saying that the lack of agency for women, as we find it in a secular society, or the virtual hegemony of ultra-conservative salafi religious rhetoric, or of anarchic clannish thievery are not problems. These are very real problems for people who live in the Middle East. What I object to is the idea that things we do not like in other societies are called “values,” while things we do not like in our own society are simply “problems” that do not reflect our values. Like Friedman, I believe tackling illiteracy, diseases, and lack of basic needs is a far better policy reflecting our values than shipping guns to dictators and drones that inevitably take innocent lives. The clash is not over dueling sets of opposed values, but a product of the historical asymmetry of the way American and Europe have impacted peoples’ lives in the Muslim world, in Africa, and elsewhere. Nowhere are values written in stone, unless we inscribe them from the outside.

Expose the lies, as any good journalist should seek to do, but do not assume the truths or the values are owned by any one perspective.

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