Book Review: The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belén Fernandez (Verso Press, 2011).
One year ago, Foreign Policy magazine placed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman at number 33 on their list the Top 100 Global Thinkers, noting that he “doesn’t just report on events; he helps shape them.”
Friedman, who commands a $75,000 speaking fee (more than most Americans make in a year), wrote in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree that when he did his first column as the New York Times’ chief diplomatic correspondent in 1989:
I certainly did not know anything about most of the issues the senators were quizzing [Secretary of State James] Baker about, such as the START treaty, the Contras, Angola, the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) arms control negotiations and NATO…I couldn’t keep straight whether the Contras were our guys or their guys, and I thought the CFE was a typo and was actually ‘cafe’ without the ‘a’.
One could only hope that over the 20 years that followed, the foreign affairs columnist who once referred to himself as the newspaper’s paid “tourist with an attitude” and boasted of eating 14 Big Macs in 14 countries as one of the perks of his job, has acquired more intellectual depth.
It turns out, in Friedman’s case, that hoping for intellectual growth amounts to wishful thinking.
Fast forward a decade and a half to July 2006. In an interview with the late Tim Russert on CNBC (watch video clip), Friedman not only revealed this not to be the case, but boasted, yet again, of not even knowing what he writes about or supports politically:
We got this free market, and I admit, I was speaking out in Minnesota—my hometown, in fact—and guy stood up in the audience, said, ‘Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade Initiative [sic]. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.’
While honesty is an admirable quality in any journalist, Friedman’s bravado combined with his intellectual incompetence and hostility towards the use of facts unveils an enormous amount of hubris. Friedman, despite admitting “he did not know anything about” most political issues of national and global importance, and not being able to recall the name of or knowing the contents of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), still believes he belongs in such a prominent perch covering these issues at “the paper of record.” To make matters worse, it has been reported that President Barack Obama has sought out Friedman for foreign policy advice concerning the Arab Spring.
The fact that this three-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s writing qualifies as serious, award-winning journalism and punditry is why Belén Fernandez latest book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is such an important read.
Fernandez writes that the point of her book “is to demonstrate the defectiveness in form and in substance of [Friedman’s] disjointed discourse, and in doing so offer a testament to the degenerate state of the mainstream media in the United States.”
Fernandez analyzes and critiques Friedman’s journalism and punditry using his columns from 1995 to the present, and his five books, with some additional material gleaned from select interviews and public appearances.
The Imperial Messenger is divided into three sections: America, the Arab/Muslim World, and The Special Relationship [U.S.-Israel]. The book’s conclusion compares the work of Friedman to Dr. Adrienne Pine, an anthropologist at American University in Washington D.C., who blogs at www.quotha.net and whose writing and opinion has appeared in a number of alternative media outlets.
Friedman, who Fernandez concludes relies on “clichéd feel good nationalism” and the “reduction of complex international phenomena to simplistic rhetoric and theorems that rarely withstand the test of reality” serves as the perfect vehicle for making such an indictment of the American mainstream media.
In The Imperial Messenger, Fernandez deftly reviews some of Friedman’s signature theories and policy prescriptions from past years, and evaluates how they’ve stood the test of time.
Take for instance his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” highlighted in The Lexus and the Olive Tree — a theory which Friedman stumbled upon as he “Quater-Poundered [his] way around the world”: no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other. Sure, it’s got a certain ring to it, but never mind the facts: as Fernandez points out, Israel’s occupation and bombing of Lebanon, or NATO’s war against the former Yugoslavia. All of these states, together with the host of NATO members, are graced with the Golden Arches.
Freidman’s “Flat World Theory,” which he floated in his 2005 bestseller The World is Flat, was developed in collaboration with the vice president of corporate strategy at IBM. Friedman, who compares himself to Christopher Columbus for making this “discovery,” argues simplistically that globalization has leveled the playing field among people, countries and companies around the globe. The World is Flat was awarded the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.
“The process of mutual aggrandizement in this case is straightforward,” writes Fenandez. “Friedman writes a book about globalization under the guidance of corporate executives, corporate executives hail book as blueprint for world, accolades propel Friedman’s fame to further reinforce elite power structures,” she writes. Friedman attributes his motivations to his professed desire to see “large numbers of people escape poverty”, evidence be damned.
Fernandez also notes that the same year when Friedman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “clarity of vision…in commenting on the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat,” he wrote a column called “ Crazier than thou,” in which he noted “No, the axis of evil idea isn’t thought through—but that’s what I like about it.”
“Crazier than thou” was a response to criticism from Chris Patten, the European Union’s Commissioner for External Relations at the time, of the Bush Administration’s “absolutist and simplistic” and “not thought through” lumping of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an allied existential threat to world peace. Friedman goes on to suggest that Bush introduce these countries to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who’s “even crazier than you.” His assessment of Rumsfeld’s mental faculties is one of the few reasonable things he’s written. Friedman goes so far as to dismisses European and Arab concerns of civilian casualties in Afghanistan as “nonsense,” because according to him, Afghans would rather be blown up by our B-52’s than continue to live under Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
In 2009, Friedman compared Afghanistan to a “special needs baby” that the U.S., an unemployed couple, has decided to adopt. This “is merely one manifestation of a tradition of unabashed Orientalism that discredits Arabs and Muslims as agents capable of managing their own destinies and sets up a power scheme in which the United States and its military simultaneously occupy the positions of killer/torturer, liberator, educator, and parent/babysitter,” writes Fernandez.
Even when it seems it can’t get worse, it does. Friedman suggested that the Bush Administration should make Iraqis “ Suck. On. This” as compensation for 9/11 (which Iraq had nothing to do with). “We can only assume that haughty refrains of sexual-military domination find resonance among audiences seeking to defy feelings of individual and/or national inadequacy,” writes Fernandez. “It is meanwhile not clear why Friedman subsequently purports to be scandalized by the sexual military goings-on at Abu Ghraib.”
Friedman also once suggested that if the Serbs don’t acquiesce to NATO demands the population should be pulverized with a “ less than surgical” bombing campaigns, and if necessary militarily-“pulverize” the country back into the 1300s. It can be assumed that Friedman either never bothered to read the Geneva Conventions, or shares the Bush Administration’s view that they are irrelevant.
Friedman often has a penchant for contradicting himself. One strong example of his contradictory positions can be gleaned from two columns on Indonesia, written just a year apart.
In a May 1998 column, Friedman describes Suharto’s regime in Indonesia as “possibly the most corrupt regime in the world today,” an analysis that bordered on accurate, though is still a little euphemistic, especially in light of the US-backed dictator’s genocide against the Timorese. But a year later, in another column, Friedman chastised the US Congress for blocking the sale of fighter jets and US-training to Indonesia’s military because the country is “ too complex to be a pariah.”
Other examples of Friedman’s pearls of journalistic and political skills pointed out by Fernandez include suggesting that Washington recruit the Russian mafia in the fight against Osama bin Laden, flooding Iraq with counterfeit money, or reducing his benign criticisms of Israel, a country he noted “had me at hello,” solely to its continued illegal settlement building.
“Friedman’s accumulation of influence is a direct result of his service as mouthpiece for empire and capital, i.e., as resident apologist for military excess and punishing economic policies,” writes Fernandez. This comes through in the following quote from The Lexus and the Olive Tree:
The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U. S. Air Force F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is a meticulously researched book, written with wry wit and an unrelenting critical eye, that should be read by both Friedman’s fans and critics alike; not just for what it reveals about his journalism or the New York Times, but for what it says about the state of American journalism as a whole. In short, if New York’s “paper of record” wanted to start rectifying its own journalistic deficiencies, it would do well to start by replacing Friedman with Fernandez.
Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, a website covering activism and politics in Latin America.