Liberalism in the tankKen Silverstein
To understand just how Thomas Friedman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Gail Collins have been repurposed as purveyors of bold new ideas, it helps to see how the world of liberal think tanks has been upended, ever so gently, by a steady onrush of corporate funding—and corporate-friendly policy agendasTry to conjure up the dullest, most vapid intellectual experience you can possibly imagine. A Matthew Perry film festival. A boxed set of Kenny G’s entire discography. Al Gore “in conversation” with Wolf Blitzer.
Now imagine something worse. Far, far worse. Once you’ve hit the speculative bottom of the unexamined life, you’d be hard pressed to outdo Thomas Friedman holding forth on “Climate Change and the Arab Spring.” What’s still more disturbing is that Friedman’s maunderings—unlike the foregoing litany of intellectual failures—actually took place, and were recorded for posterity, during a panel event this February at the Center for American Progress, America’s most influential liberal think tank. The great globalizing muse of the New York Times op-ed page was joined on stage by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton University professor and former State Department deputy to Hillary Clinton.
You may be assured that the trite speculations came fast, flat, and furious. Between numerous mentions of his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded (not to be confused with 2005’s The World Is Flat), Freidman offered a mix of insights, delivered with his trademark flair for anecdotage in the vein of a Mad Libs pamphlet. Friedman informed the audience, for example, that algebra is an Arabic word—and so clearly the challenge ahead for the tumultuous Arab world is to integrate algebra as well as Islam into its emerging governments. He then went on to sagely counsel the crowd that understanding the Islamic world requires examining ethnic and religious divisions, as opposed to more recent national rivalries—as though no one else had ever heard about the nearly 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia split that emerged after Muhammad’s death.