The following is a the first half of an interview conducted by the new NYTimes eXaminer with PULSE co-editor Belén Fernández about her book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work.
Billed as “an antidote to the ‘paper of record’”, the NYTimes eXaminer‘s Advisory Council is composed of such distinguished figures as Richard Falk, Phyllis Bennis, and Edward Herman.
See Phil Weiss’ comment on the interview at Mondoweiss.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
The second half of the interview will appear in the coming days.