Belén Fernández’ book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work was released recently by Verso. The following is an interview with her, conducted by the NYTimes eXaminer.
Q: Why Tom Friedman? And can you talk a little about how the book is organized?
A: My decision to write the book was not the product of any sort of long-standing obsession with Thomas Friedman, whose journalistic exploits I remained mercifully immune to for most of my existence up until 2009.
Then, about midway through that year, the idea came to me suddenly when I noticed the $125 “Russian breakfast” option on the room-service menu at my five-star Havana hotel.
Kidding. In 2009 I watched with simultaneous fascination and horror as Friedman flitted on pedagogical missions from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan to Palestine to Africa, where he discovered the root cause of oppression in Zimbabwe by going on safari in Botswana.
Later that same year, Friedman’s decades-long lecture to the Arab/Muslim world on how to behave reached new levels of absurdity with his pronouncement according to which:
“A corrosive mind-set has taken hold since 9/11. It says that Arabs and Muslims are only objects, never responsible for anything in their world, and we are the only subjects, responsible for everything that happens in their world. We infantilize them.
Arab and Muslims are not just objects. They are subjects. They aspire to, are able to and must be challenged to take responsibility for their world.”
Arab/Muslim subjectivity was of course called into question not only by the fact that Friedman in this very same article instructed the Islamic world to engage in a civil war equal in ferocity to the US civil war, but also by the fact that—approximately 10 days prior to criticizing the infantilizing of Arabs and Muslims—he had remarked to an amused Fareed Zakaria of CNN that Afghanistan was like a “special needs baby” adopted by the US. (Friedman had refrained in this case from throwing in his regular complaint that the US was “baby-sitting a civil war” in Iraq—a complaint he apparently felt was not irreconcilable with his own declaration of the need for an Iraqi civil war.)
Anyway, it was this imperialist hubris and unabashed Orientalism that originally motivated me to write the book, which stars Friedman as mascot for the degenerate mainstream media in the US. Friedman’s treatment of the Arab/Muslim world is the subject of the book’s second section; the first deals with his views on the need for US dominance in the world and the third deals with his special relationship with Israel.
Q: Did you really read every Friedman column since 1995? For me, getting through two a week is challenging enough. What was that like? Were there surprises? Was there a point when you were like, “What did I get myself into?”
A: Yes, I really did read every Friedman column since 1995—three times, in fact. I also read a number of his articles from 1981 to 1995, primarily the ones that the New York Times did not require me to pay for.
“What did I get myself into?” is a conservative way of phrasing the existential questions that plagued me throughout this project. My notes are largely composed of expletives, except for the occasional expression of joy whenever Friedman would go on book leave or be otherwise absent from his column for an extended period of time. Vacuuming and other such activities suddenly became really fun.
As for surprises, persons familiar only with Friedman’s post-95 incarnation as foreign affairs columnist—in his words, “tourist with an attitude”—might be surprised to learn that in previous years he was not licensed to pontificate about the “collective madness” of Palestinians or to prescribe the mass extermination of Arab/Muslim civilians, and that he even used to pen articles with titles like “Israeli Troops Shoot Arab Student Dead at Protest.” His 1984 piece “What’s Doing in Jerusalem,” in which he observed that “One of the most enjoyable ways to see some of Jerusalem’s cultural offerings is to eat your way around them,” meanwhile underscores how much better off the world might be if Friedman’s musings on the Middle East had been restricted to the relatively innocuous realm of cuisine:
“Israeli duckling in a champagne and orange sauce is the house specialty at Jerusalem’s premier French restaurant, the Mishkenot Sha’ananim on Yemin Moshe Street (225110), overlooking the Old City from the west. Dinner for two with wine approaches $100.”
Less surprising, but nonetheless revealing, is Friedman’s admission in his book Longitudes and Attitudes that, as “tourist with an attitude,” he has “total freedom, and an almost unlimited budget, to explore.” This only renders all the more distressing the fact that he does not utilize said budget or freedom to conduct any meaningful human interaction or to report international reality beyond the confines of the mentality espoused by proponents of US dominance and corporate globalization.
In the same book he boasts that the “only person who sees my two columns each week before they show up in the newspaper is a copy editor who edits them for grammar and spelling,” and that for the duration of his columnist career up to this point he has “never had a conversation with the publisher of The New York Times about any opinion I’ve adopted— before or after any column I’ve written.” Though it may come as no surprise that the Times does not feel the need to prohibit its employees from advocating for things prohibited by international law, such as collective punishment, the publisher might consider at least subjecting copy editors to a lesson in rectifying metaphorical incoherence.
Q: Do you come away with a better understanding of Friedman’s popularity? He doesn’t write well, he’s not an original thinker, he’s not smart (watching him try to talk about anything besides his own columns is painful), he’s not entertaining. For me, it’s far easier to understand why people like Rush Limbaugh than Friedman. Did your research give you any insight into the Friedman phenomenon?
I think Mike Whitney explained the phenomenon well in a 2005 article for CounterPunch, written in response to Friedman’s approval of US-inflicted carnage in Iraq:
“Friedman offers these 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.”
Indeed, Friedman sells the Iraq war as “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched” despite making subsequent assessments such as “The neocon strategy may have been necessary to trigger reform in Iraq and the wider Arab world, but it will not be sufficient unless it is followed up by what I call a ‘geo-green’ strategy.” As I point out in my book, it is difficult to determine how many true “geo-greens” would advocate for the tactical contamination of the earth’s soil with depleted uranium munitions; why not introduce a doctrine of neoconservationism?
Other examples of Friedman’s hard-right ethos masquerading as liberal include his claim to support social safety nets, which in the wake of the 2008 financial recession quickly mutates into a campaign to slash entitlements worldwide. Friedman announces that, although it’s “really sweet” that elderly Brits enjoy subsidized heating and can ride local buses for free, Britain can no longer afford such excesses. Of course, Britain has somehow historically been able to afford other excesses, and Friedman lauded Tony Blair in 2005 as “one of the most important British prime ministers ever” based on the fact that he had gotten the Labour Party “to firmly embrace the free market and globalization—sometimes kicking and screaming” and that he had chosen to promote democracy abroad by anti-democratically taking his country to war: “In deciding to throw in Britain’s lot with President Bush on the Iraq war, Mr. Blair not only defied the overwhelming antiwar sentiment of his own party, but public opinion in Britain generally.”
As for Friedman’s endearing “affable tenor” and “folksy lingo” referenced by Whitney, other examples include the 2001 assessment that an American victory in Afghanistan is possible as long as the US recognizes that “Dorothy, this ain’t Kansas.” Folksy lingo like “God bless America” and “suck. On. This”—the latter being what US soldiers are supposed to tell Iraqis via a “big stick”—meanwhile presumably finds resonance among audiences seeking to defy feelings of individual and/or national inadequacy.
Q: Did you come away with a lower opinion of Friedman or of the people and institutions that continually give him platforms to spew his idiotic, loathsome views? I find it so telling that, when Friedman did his “suck on this” performance on Charlie Rose, Rose just nods and leans in for the next question instead of calling Friedman out for saying one of the most offensive things ever said on television. Or to put it another way: Do you think the New York Times would allow one of their columnists to consistently dehumanize entire groups of people – to the point of openly calling for civilian deaths in Gaza, Afghanistan and Iraq – if those people weren’t Arab/Muslim?
A: Unfortunately, Orientalist dehumanization is institutionalized in US media discourse, the result being that there is no overwhelming public concern when over a million Iraqi lives are lost thanks to America’s bellicose projects or when 1,400 Palestinians perish in a matter of 22 days at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces.
It is utterly appalling that neither Charlie Rose nor anyone else in the US establishment media took issue with Friedman’s obscene proclamation, and that he was never required by his employer to apologize for it in the interest of maintaining a pretense of objectivity. One can imagine the uproar that would have ensued—and over which Friedman himself would have presided—had, for example, Yasser Arafat instructed Israelis to suck on things, or had Osama bin Laden justified 9/11 with similar terminology. Friedman, on the other hand, is permitted to continue blissfully peddling his contemptuous analyses of the Arab/Muslim world, such as his 2007 assessment—with regard to the US military—that Iraqis “don’t deserve such good people… if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids.”
Of course, it is safe to assume that most Iraqis exhibit normal human affection for their offspring, including for those millions of offspring that have been killed, maimed, displaced or otherwise made to suffer as a result of a US military-inflicted sucking, and that the half a million Iraqi children previously killed by US-championed sanctions were probably also loved by their parents.
Even if Charlie Rose et al. fail to comprehend that sucking orders do not qualify as proper journalistic etiquette, they should at least be able to comprehend that Friedman’s argument for why the sucking should occur is in complete defiance of logic. According to Friedman, Iraqis must be made to suck so that the US can effectively combat the “terrorism bubble” that has developed in “that part of the world” and that poses a “fundamental threat to our open society,” something Americans discovered on 9/11. However, this very same Friedman also explains that the real threat to “open, Western, liberal societies today” consists not of “the deterrables, like Saddam, but the undeterrables – the boys who did 9/11.” The resulting argument—made by someone who himself criticizes the Bush administration for implying a link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein—is that war against deterrables whose weapons are not the problem will solve the problem of undeterrables who are the weapons and who by definition cannot be deterred anyway.
Regarding your question of whether I have a lower opinion of Friedman or of those who encourage and promote him, they are all part of the same system that rewards the willful subversion of human empathy on behalf of empire and capital. The system would naturally exist without Friedman; he just does his part to sustain it.
As for whether Friedman will ever be made to atone for his crimes, I’ve personally found that one effective means of stress relief is to ponder reincarnation options for him, an activity that he himself actually used to engage in on occasion in order to highlight what he deemed to be unethical behavior by certain sectors of the US citizenry. In a 2004 column entitled “In My Next Life,” for example, Friedman sarcastically described his desire for reincarnation as a college or professional athlete:
“For a mere dunk of the basketball or first-down run, I want to be able to dance a jig, as if I’d just broken every record by Michael Jordan or Johnny Unitas. For the smallest, most routine bit of success in my sport, I want to be able to get in your face – I want to know who’s your daddy, I want to be able to high-five, low-five, thump my chest and dance on your grave. You talkin’ to me?”
Why athletic grave-dancing is more offensive than telling entire populations to “suck. On. This” is unclear.
I would meanwhile suggest Friedman contemplate reincarnation as an Afghan civilian, an aspiration that might merit the following description (as well as sudden re-reincarnation):
“Yes, in my next life I want to be an Afghan civilian. I want to meet my demise by American B-52, and, when I do, I want the foreign affairs columnist of the US newspaper of record to place the ‘civilian’ portion of my identity inside quotation marks. I want him to take time out of his busy schedule of complaining about his own horrific experiences and the tendency of other diners to interrupt his restaurant meals with their cell phone conversations, and I want him to debunk the blasphemous idea espoused by the European and Arab media, according to which I had not actually been ‘praying for another dose of B-52’s to liberate [me] from the Taliban.’”
Q: Did you find that Friedman tries to rewrite his own role in history, even though it’s quite easy to fact-check these days? For instance, I’ve noticed he often claims that he called for a $1/gallon “Patriot Tax” on gas on 9/12/01 when, in fact, he didn’t call for one until more than two years later – after both wars he had cheerled for were well under way.
Yeah, it’s not clear whether Friedman intentionally rewrites his own history or whether the rewriting is just a byproduct of the fact that he is employed in a position that does not require him to understand or keep track of what he himself thinks about things.
To give a very simple example of self-contradiction, Friedman announces 200 pages into his book The World Is Flat that Globalization 1.0 was the era in which he was required to physically visit an airline ticket office in order to make his travel arrangements. According to the definition provided at the start of the book, however, Globalization 1.0 ended around the year 1800.
On the subject of India, Friedman goes from arguing that “Indian democracy” and “economic liberalization” have enabled the high-tech industry in Bangalore to flourish, to arguing two years later that Bangalore high-tech firms “thrive by defying their political-economic environment, not by emerging from it.” Indian “democracy” is meanwhile additionally credited with the fact that “rioting didn’t spread anywhere” after the 2002 pogrom incited by the Hindu nationalist government of the state of Gujarat, in which several thousand Muslims were massacred. The article is perplexingly titled “Where Freedom Reigns,” in spite of the massacre of Muslims.
A month after declaring the war-based democracy experiment in Iraq “the most important task worth doing,” Friedman announces that he doesn’t “want to hear another word about Iraq” given that there is a sniper on the loose in Montgomery County, Maryland, who is forcing him to become well-acquainted with the delivery man from California Pizza Kitchen and to “duck… behind a pillar” while filling up his car with gas. He fails to add this to the list of reasons America must cease its dependence on oil, though he does subsequently go from insisting that George W. Bush renounce his limousine and set a “geo-green” example to exulting the following year over the fact that he himself is being chauffeured around Budapest in one. (Friedman goes as far as to provide his driver’s website—www.fclimo.hu—so that everyone can witness the capitalist evolution and integration into the global economy of a “Communist-era-engineer-turned-limo-proprietor,” but refrains from mentioning that none other than Bush is listed as a reference on the company’s website.)
A few more quick examples of Friedman’s historical revisions:
In 2005 Friedman declares the need for “a proper civil war” in Iraq. In 2011 he miraculously displaces the blame for civil war-mongering: “For all of the murderous efforts by Al Qaeda to trigger a full-scale civil war in Iraq, it never happened.”
In 2002 Friedman informs Saudi crown prince Abdullah that “the Jews of the Clinton administration are gone” and that their replacement “WASPs” of the Bush administration “couldn’t care less about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It is not an issue that resonates with them at all.” In 2003 Friedman announces that the Bush team “has fallen so deep into the pocket of Ariel Sharon you can’t even find it any more” and that Bush may “be remembered as the president who got so wrapped around the finger of Ariel Sharon that he indulged Israel into thinking it really could have it all—settlements, prosperity, peace and democracy.”
And so on.
One of the more intriguing things about Friedman’s rewriting of history is that he relentlessly plugs his friend Dov Seidman’s book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything … in Business (and in Life), according to which the centrality of blogs, Facebook, and YouTube to modern life ensures that “more and more of what you say or do or write will end up as a digital fingerprint that never gets erased.” Friedman provides the following illustrative anecdote in 2007:
“Three years ago, I was catching a plane at Boston’s Logan airport and went to buy some magazines for the flight. As I approached the cash register, a woman coming from another direction got there just behind me — I thought. But when I put my money down to pay, the woman said in a very loud voice: ‘Excuse me! I was here first!’ And then she fixed me with a piercing stare that said: ‘I know who you are.’ I said I was very sorry, but I was clearly there first.
If that happened today, I would have had a very different reaction. I would have said: ‘Miss, I’m so sorry. I am entirely in the wrong. Please, go ahead. And can I buy your magazines for you? May I buy your lunch? Can I shine your shoes?’
Why? Because I’d be thinking there is some chance this woman has a blog or a camera in her cellphone and could, if she so chose, tell the whole world about our encounter — entirely from her perspective — and my utterly rude, boorish, arrogant, thinks-he-can-butt-in-line behavior. Yikes!”
It goes without saying that defending Israel’s strategy of inflicting mass civilian casualties in Lebanon in 2006, for example, does not in Friedman’s world qualify as rude, boorish, or arrogant behavior. This item from 2010 meanwhile suggests that Friedman is not overly preoccupied with the prospect of domestic cell phone cameras and blogs.
Q: Punditry, like banking, seems to be a profession free of accountability. The more Friedman is wrong, the more Sunday morning shows he gets invited on. Is it time to Occupy Tom Friedman’s house? (He certainly has the room.)
A: It is definitely time to occupy Friedman’s house. I would advise incorporating an Arab and/or Muslim military into the endeavor and referring to the “occupation” only in quotation marks, as Friedman does following the US invasion of Iraq.
Incidentally, given the schizophrenic nature of his discourse, Friedman could conceivably be persuaded to advocate for the occupation of his own house if he were assured that in doing so he would somehow remain relevant to the effort to recuperate US glory.
Despite marrying into one of the one hundred richest families in the US, Friedman recently attempted to co-opt Occupy Wall Street by classifying it as an “effective” movement (in an interview with MTV, no less). Perhaps as a next step he should consider channeling his affection for Google Earth and the role it allegedly played in sparking the Arab uprisings—by alerting Bahrainis to the dimensions of the ruling family’s palaces—into an investigation of what his own 11,400-square-foot house looks like from the air.
The Imperial Messenger is additionally excerpted at Al Jazeera.
Belen Fernandez is a journalist, author, and co-editor at Pulsemedia.org.