Monday, February 28, 2005

At the risk of mentioning Thomas Kuhn and Malcolm Gladwell in the same breath,

I nonetheless must note the little competition between David Brooks and Thomas Friedman in this weekend's op-ed pages of the New York Times. On Saturday, Brooks invoked Kuhn to wonder if what we are seeing in Lebanon is a paradigm shift:
Thomas Kuhn famously argued that science advances not gradually but in jolts, through a series of raw and jagged paradigm shifts. Somebody sees a problem differently, and suddenly everybody's vantage point changes.

"Why not here?" is a Kuhnian question, and as you open the newspaper these days, you see it flitting around the world like a thought contagion. Wherever it is asked, people seem to feel that the rules have changed. New possibilities have opened up.

The question is being asked now in Lebanon. Walid Jumblatt made his much circulated observation to David Ignatius of The Washington Post: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world."

So now we have mass demonstrations on the streets of Beirut. A tent city is rising up near the crater where Rafik Hariri was killed, and the inhabitants are refusing to leave until Syria withdraws. The crowds grow in the evenings; bathroom facilities are provided by a nearby Dunkin' Donuts and a Virgin Megastore.

Perhaps Brooks has a new intern who had a roommate who read Kuhn, or something. I don't recall that Einstein solution's to the problem of gravitational red shift was raw or jagged. Maybe because fewer car bombs were involved? (Since Kuhn's insight was about the philosophy of science, maybe the better lessen we can draw from Kuhn has to do with the way people like David Ignatius can drive the rest of us to think something has suddenly changed in Lebanon.) (Maybe there has been a paradigm shift in Lebanon, and the Lebanese have suddenly realized that the large body distorting what they see has been Syria all along. We shall see.)

Working references to Dunkin' Donuts and Virgin Megastores into political commentary on the Middle East is, famously, Tom Friedman's turf, and so Friedman one-upped Brooks on Sunday by framing his column with the philosopher of science whom the pundits and cognoscenti might actually have read, Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe Gladwell doesn't have Kuhn's staying power or prestige yet, but his sales are a lot better. Wrote Friedman:

The other night on ABC's "Nightline," the host, Ted Koppel, posed an intriguing question to Malcolm Gladwell, the social scientist who wrote the path-breaking book "The Tipping Point," which is about how changes in behavior or perception can reach a critical mass and then suddenly create a whole new reality. Mr. Koppel asked: Can you know you are in the middle of a tipping point, or is it only something you can see in retrospect?

Mr. Gladwell responded that "the most important thing in trying to analyze whether something is at the verge of a tipping point, is whether it - an event - causes people to reframe an issue. ...A dumb example is the Atkins's diet, which reframes dieting from thinking about it in terms of avoiding calories and fat to thinking about it as avoiding carbohydrates, which really changes the way people perceive dieting."

Mr. Koppel was raising the question because he wanted to explore whether the Iraqi elections marked a tipping point in history. I was on the same show, and in mulling over this question more I think that what's so interesting about the Middle East today is that we're actually witnessing three tipping points at once.

Three tipping points at once!?!? We know that two tipping points can't work, because what you've got is a see-saw, but three tipping points -- that works, because you tip, you tip back, and then you tip again. I recognize at this point that what I'm saying has neither fidelity to Gladwell nor usefulness to anyone trying to understand the Middle East. Call it an homage to Friedman, who could turn next to another question posed in The Tipping Point. "Have you ever thought about yawning?"

Anyhoo, here are Friedman's three points:
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.

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." Lebanon went from a country where few dared whisper "When will Syria leave?" to a country where nearly everyone was shouting it, and Syria was having to answer.

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. The issue for the Palestinians is no longer about how they resist the Israeli occupation in Gaza, but whether they build a decent mini-state there - a Dubai on the Mediterranean. Because if they do, it will fundamentally reshape the Israeli debate about whether the Palestinians can be handed most of the West Bank.

See, the thing is, these aren't tipping points anymore than they are paradigm shifts. We have Iraq being "reframed," Lebanon becoming a new "story," and the Israeli debate being "fundamentally reshaped." I haven't read this Lakoff book that everyone is talking about, but I'm thinking that work on how our media turns their attention from one story to another would be a little more appropriate -- if perhaps too self-referential -- for explaining the phenomena that Brooks and Friedman really are describing.

I wouldn't call Gladwell a philosopher. I can't say for certain, but I think generally he's not articulating new ideas nearly so much as premiering existing ones in a popular format. Most of his ideas I've been lumping under social psych or business psych. Anyway, in this half century I don't see the man becoming disassociated with journalism, and while philosophers can be journalists, I'd say journalists can't be philosophers. Nothing's on TV so I'm mincing words.
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