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Why Thomas Friedman is Always Wrong: An Interview With Journalist Belen Fernandez

It has been over thirty years since readers of the New York Times were first subjected to the vacuous prose of Thomas Friedman. Back then he was simply a reporter covering the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, not yet the full-formed apologist for Empire...

by Michael Arria
Apr 20 2012, 3:40pm

It has been over thirty years since readers of the New York Times were first subjected to the vacuous prose of Thomas Friedman. Back then he was simply a reporter covering the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, not yet the full-formed apologist for Empire and dispenser of clunky wisdom that we know today. Friedman has been wrong about so many things for so many years and his dubious indiscretions have earned him a handful of Pulitzers, astronomical speaking fees, and (according to a 2011 story in the NYT) President Obama's ear.

Journalist Belen Fernandez has done the world a selfless favor and read every word that Friedman ever wrote so that others don't have to. The result of her foray into this dark world is an infuriating, yet hilarious, polemic called The Imperial Messenger, part of Verso's Counterblast Series. The book brilliantly deconstructs our subject's remarkably horrendous views and attempts to pinpoint Friedman’s perplexing allure. I talked to her about the writer Alexander Cockburn calls "the silliest man on the planet."

I have long been perplexed by the allure of Friedman’s shtick: in many ways he comes off as this no-nonsense guy simply telling it how it is, an act in tune with the Bill O’Reillys of the world, and he certainly shares a lot of the jingoism associated with the Fox News set, yet he is a self-professed “liberal” who definitely positions himself on a more dignified plane. For instance, he compares the Tea Party to Hezbollah. Why do you think so many people, who might scoff at the idea of taking Murdoch journalists seriously, read and appreciate what Friedman does?

It's curious that Friedman regularly trashes Fox News but then somehow also regularly appears on Fox programs being chummy with the presenters.

I think one of Friedman's great feats has been to conceal his right-wing tendencies with liberal jargon and a purported concern for social safety nets and other liberal trappings—which of course hasn't stopped him from advocating for planet-wide entitlement cuts or railing against the ability of elderly Brits to ride local buses for free.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, he actually quite nicely sums up his effort to shift the spectrum of political discourse to the right with his announcement that the Iraq war is "the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched", an analysis he offers while simultaneously defining himself as "a liberal on every issue other than this war" and the war as part of a "neocon strategy".

As for the liberal following he has accumulated, I think Mike Whitney explained the phenomenon well in a CounterPunch article:

Friedman offers… outrageously callous judgments using his 'trademark' affable tenor that oozes familiarity and hauteur. The normal Friedman article assumes the tone of a friendly stranger, plopped on a neighboring barstool, pontificating on the world's many intricacies to a less-knowledgeable companion. Isn't that Friedman?

'Let me explain the world to you in terms that even you can understand.'

And is he good at it? You bet. American liberals love Friedman; his folksy lingo, his home-spun humor, his engaging anecdotes. Beneath the surface, of course, is the hard-right ethos that pervades his every thought and word but, 'what the heck', no one's perfect.

When I look at how wrong Friedman has been, especially when it comes to foreign policy issues, and how these errors have, seemingly, done nothing to dull the arrogance of his prose, it's striking. Could you talk a bit about how his positions have been modified without a blip, specifically in relation to his columns on Iraq? He doesn’t exactly have a track record readers should feel comfortable about.

Well, the fact that there was no uproar among Friedman's following (and not even a peep of objection from Charlie Rose) when Friedman announced on Rose's show that the entire nation of Iraq needed to "suck. On. This" as punishment for 9/11—after having recently debunked the notion himself of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden—suggests that we are not dealing with a very discerning audience.

Regarding modifications of his positions on certain issues, it becomes glaringly obvious when one reads through the Friedman oeuvre that he is simply not required to maintain a coherent discourse. For example, in 2003 he tells us the Iraq war is "partly about oil", then later that year he tells us that only "Saddamists" think the war has anything to do with oil, then the next year we are informed that in fact it is the fault of Hummer drivers in the U.S. that American troops are dying in Fallujah.

In 2002 we learn that "For too many years we've treated the Arab world as just a big dumb gas station, and as long as the top leader kept the oil flowing, or was nice to Israel, we didn't really care what was happening to the women and children out back"; in 2005 we learn that "It is not an exaggeration to say that, if you throw in the Oslo peace process, U.S. foreign policy for the last 15 years has been dominated by an effort to save Muslims… from tyrannies, mostly their own theocratic or autocratic regimes".

Among his fluctuating notions and self-contradictions, Friedman's most frequent justification for his sustained effort on behalf of the Iraq war was the importance of encouraging a regional democratic model. Reflecting on the war's effects, one can say from an objective standpoint that Friedman was wrong to support a war-based approach to democracy installation. However, given that the devastation of Iraq and the prolongation of conflict in the region is fundamentally in line with U.S. and Israeli interests, this may explain why his track record has not resulted in a loss of credibility among relevant elite sectors.

Another example of a situation in which Friedman was quite clearly wrong involves his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, which posits that no two countries that both possess McDonald's establishments have gone to war with each other since acquiring their respective McDonald's. As I point out in my book, Friedman invokes the Israeli and Lebanese McDonald's as proof of the theory's validity, with no regard for the fact that Israel is at the time of writing engaged in a continuing military occupation of south Lebanon punctuated by deadly bombing campaigns. He meanwhile manages to cast the outcome of the war that promptly breaks out between 19 McDonald's-possessing NATO countries and McDonald's-possessing Serbia as evidence that the Serbs "wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo".

As for your well-put comment about Friedman's continuous errors failing to dull the arrogance of his prose, it is useful to review his 2005 column entitled "Follow the Leapin' Leprechaun", in which he hails Ireland as a model for globalization—for such reasons as that the country has adopted the Friedman motto that "the easier it is to fire people, the more willing companies are to hire people"—and threatens Germany and France with economic decadence unless they "become Ireland".

The Irish economic catastrophe does not prompt Friedman to revisit his previous jubilation, despite encouragement from Ohio Wesleyan University professor Sean Kay in an excellent 2010 article on the Foreign Policy website:

He owes it to both the people of Ireland and his readers to correct the record. His conclusions about Ireland were deeply flawed and yet they were embraced and celebrated by an Irish government that was reveling in excess and deeply entangled with corrupt bankers. The real Irish model that he did not see was deregulation, corrupt crony capitalism, and low corporate tax rates.

Being wrong as an analyst of globalization is fine — that is part of the learning process. But Tom Friedman promulgated a theory of globalization that reinforced a doubling down on damaging economic and political actions in a small and vulnerable country that is now suffering deep pain. As Ireland is now threatening to unravel the entire Eurozone, which would do deep damage to the American economy, Mr. Friedman might at least rethink his 'no apologies.'

The dismal failure of so many of Friedman's economic prophesies has meanwhile not jeopardized his ability to continue recklessly prophesying on the pages on the U.S. newspaper of record, as he did in his recent report on how—because an Apple factory in China reached a daily output level of 10,000 iPhones simply by rousing 8,000 workers from their dormitories in the middle of the night and administering them each a biscuit and cup of tea—American workers must understand that "average is officially over".

I remember, during the WTO protests of 1999, Friedman dismissed those concerned with the detrimental effects of globalization, as “flat-earthers.” Despite the collapse of the American economy, he seems to maintain this view. Although heralded by some as an astute environmental thinker, his green solutions seem to be entirely market-based, which generates obvious issues. His perplexing diatribe about “outgreening Al-Qaeda” comes to mind. Do you think this is an accurate reading?

I think Friedman summed up the goal of his intermittent environmental crusade pretty well himself when he announced that "making America the world's greenest country is not a selfless act of charity or naïve moral indulgence. It is now a core national security and economic interest".

It would appear that his concern for the environment stems from the conviction that "green" is the next big industry and that America can't retain its dominant position in the world without being at the head of it. At a talk in Istanbul a few years ago he went as far as to admit that his environmental tome Hot, Flat, and Crowded really had "nothing to do with… environment at heart" but rather constituted "cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself".

The whole business of "outgreening Al-Qaeda", which I discuss in detail in the book, is completely ludicrous given that Friedman manages to paint the U.S. military, which holds the distinction of being the top polluter in the world, as a pioneer in green consciousness (or, as the great Doug Henwood put it in a radio interview with me, he makes the U.S. Army look like the Sierra Club). Readers are invited to rejoice over the existence of aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds.

Friedman additionally manages to pen glowing appraisals of the CEOs of both biotech giant Monsanto and Canadian gold-mining company Goldcorp Inc. The environmental legacies of these firms dispels any hope that Friedman-the-environmentalist might at least be a less harmful incarnation than Friedman-the-warmonger or Friedman-the-radical-free-trader.

His courting of Monsanto is especially troublesome given the frequency of his visits to India, where he prefers to exult over the wonders of call centers rather than mention the hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides that have occurred in the country's recent history—a phenomenon propelled in part by the introduction of Monsanto's genetically modified cotton. Instead of acknowledge human suffering brought on by the neoliberalism he espouses, Friedman tragicomically encourages his audience to "just ask any Indian villager" about the need for more globalization in India.

Add to all of this the overarching conundrum, to which you allude, of reliance on an exploitative economic system to stop exploitation of the earth.

You write about Friedman referring to Europeans as "eurowimps", "when they do not exhibit sufficient enthusiasm for US military endeavors against Arabo-Islamic peoples." Could you talk a bit about how stereotyping is a staple of his prose? The subjects he writes about never seem to emerge as human beings possessing independent thoughts and ideas.

The more flagrant examples of Friedman's rampant stereotyping include his references to Palestinians as "Ahmed", "Ahmed and Mohammed", and "gripped by a collective madness".

As for reductions applied to other persons operating in the Middle East, Friedman announces in 2007 that Iraqis do not deserve "such good people"—i.e. the U.S. armed forces—"if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids". This sort of dehumanizing tactic shifts the blame for the bloody conflict in Iraq onto its barbarian inhabitants, who are deprived of normal human affection, and away from the "good people" and their media cheering sections who are in fact (in non-Friedmanian reality) fundamentally to blame for the extermination and maiming of countless Iraqi children, many of whom were presumably loved by their parents.

Friedman's discovery in Umm Qasr in April 2003 that "It would be idiotic to even ask Iraqis here how they felt about politics. They are in a pre-political, primordial state of nature" meanwhile provides a convenient justification for disregarding indigenous opinion and agency and instead lecturing Iraqis about what to do (like "suck. On. This").

The danger of allowing Friedman the position of decipherer of and spokesman for Orientals is further underscored when readers of the New York Times learn that, contrary to reports in the European and Arab media, Afghan civilians obliterated by American B-52s are actually not civilians. According to Friedman, "many of those Afghan 'civilians' were praying for another dose of B-52's to liberate them from the Taliban", though he explains neither the source of his insights into Afghan prayers nor why opposition to the Taliban would eliminate one's civilian status. Via maneuvers like these, however, the American public is spared the moral complications that might result were the U.S. media to humanize victims of U.S. violence in the Arab/Muslim world.

It is distressing that Friedman often chooses to humanize only those Orientals who are created in the image of the West, as it were, or who are otherwise useful in the propagation of American cultural hegemony. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, for example, he jubilantly reports on an outing to a Bahraini bistro with Sheik Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (who has been described as Bahrain's "innovative Crown Prince", though Bahraini pro-democracy protesters would presumably beg to differ), where he observes a girl seated at the adjacent table who is "dressed like an American teenager and had what looked like a tattoo on her left shoulder".

Or consider the importance he attaches to reporting the existence of "emphatically pro-Western Saudis, who have studied in America, visit regularly, and still root for their favorite American football teams", or—on another occasion—the "secularized, U.S.-educated, pro-American elite and middle class in Saudi Arabia, who are not America's enemies. They are good people, and you can't visit Saudi Arabia without meeting them". What this implies is that persons who don't fit said description are not good people, which as I point out in the book automatically negates the possibility that any fragments of human reality might survive Friedman's prattle.

As for Friedman's stereotyping of "Eurowimps", this comprises the idea that, because Europeans oppose GMOs but continue to smoke cigarettes, this suggests that their opposition to the Iraq war is "deeply unserious".

Friedman earns astronomical speaking fees and has been awarded three Pulitzer Prizes. What does his success tell us about the state of contemporary journalism?

It's no secret that in contemporary mainstream journalism truth and humaneness are willfully subverted on behalf of power and profit.

I think it's worth citing University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen's assessment of Friedman's success, which appeared in his review of my book for Truthout:

"Friedman tells the privileged, and those who aspire to privilege, what they want to hear in a way that makes them feel smart; his trumpeting of US affluence and power are sprinkled with pithy-though-empty anecdotes, padded with glib turns of phrases. He’s the perfect oracle for a management-focused, advertising-saturated, dumbed-down, imperial culture that doesn’t want to come to terms with the systemic and structural reasons for its decline. In Friedman’s world, we’re always one clichéd big idea away from the grand plan that will allow us to continue to pretend to be the shining city upon the hill that we have always imagined we were/are/will be again."

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