The Emperor’s Messenger Has No Clothes

Belén Fernández Dresses Down Thomas Friedman

What’s scary about Thomas Friedman is not his journalism, with its under-inflated insights and twisted metaphors. Annoying as his second-rate thinking and third-rate writing may be, he’s not the first — or the worst — hack journalist.

What should unnerve us about Friedman is the acclaim he receives in political and professional circles. Friedman’s New York Times column appears twice a week on the most prestigious op/ed page in the United States; he has won three Pulitzer Prizes; his books are best-sellers; he’s a darling of the producers of television news shows; and he fills lecture halls for a speaking fee as high as $75,000.

Although his work is stunningly shallow and narcissistic, Friedman is celebrated as a big thinker.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was so excited after a 2005 Hardball interview with Friedman that he proclaimed: “You have a global brain, my friend. You’re amazing. You amaze me every time you write a book.”

How does a journalist with a track record of bad predictions and a penchant for superficial analysis — a person paid to reflect about the world yet who seems to lack the capacity for critical self-reflection — end up being treated as an oracle?

The answer is simple: 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 U.S. 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.

As a reporter, columnist, author, or speaker, Friedman’s secret to success is in avoiding the journalistic ideals of “speaking truth to power” or “afflicting the comfortable.” Those ideals are too rarely met in mainstream journalism, but Friedman never goes very far beyond parroting the powerful and comforting the comfortable. Friedman sees the world from the point of view of the privileged, adopting in his own words the view of “a tourist with an attitude” when reporting on the rest of the world.

Here’s the problem with that mindset: Around the world, American tourists routinely are experienced as boorish and smug. Around the world, people smile at American tourists and take their money, all the while despising their arrogance and ignorance. Tourists never quite catch on, wondering why the “natives” don’t appreciate them.

In her examination of Friedman’s work, Belén Fernández explains the danger in America’s affection for its number one Tourist Journalist. Her book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, ((Published by Verso in its new series Counterblasts, dedicated to “challenging the apologists of Empire and Capital.”)) is as much about the cultural and political crises in the United States as it is about Friedman’s flaws. This larger focus transforms what could have been a sarcastic hit-piece that took easy shots at Friedman’s most mangled prose into a thoughtful meditation from a young journalist willing to state the obvious: the emperor’s messenger has no clothes.

After graduating from Columbia University with a political science degree in 2003, Fernández traveled throughout the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. Eventually her travel notes turned into journalism, as her accounts of people she met and interviewed became stories for web publications. Frustrated by the gap between what she knew from her education and reporting, and Friedman’s version of international affairs, she wrote a few short critiques of the Times columnist in 2009. Then she undertook the systematic review of all his columns since 1995, selections from his writing as a reporter, and his books that led to The Imperial Messenger. In an email interview, she explained how that happened and why.

Robert Jensen: What sparks a relatively unknown journalist with no establishment credentials to research a book that argues one of the country’s most well-known journalists is, to put it bluntly, a fool and a fraud? That isn’t going to put you in the fast lane for a well-paying job in mainstream journalism.

Belén Fernández: Prior to 2009, my familiarity with the work of Thomas Friedman was basically limited to his notion that France should have been removed from the U.N. Security Council for refusing to support the Iraq war. When I began reading him more extensively, I couldn’t believe that no one had debunked him in book form and took it upon myself to do so — naively assuming that it would be an enjoyable and relatively simple task. This assumption proved unfounded, as I realized that a book of any real value had to consist of something more serious than 150 pages of making fun of Friedman’s blunders and general foolishness.

What kept me going throughout the months of reading and re-reading decades worth of Friedman’s drivel was anger — at his warmongering jingoism, his blatant racism vis-à-vis large sectors of the world’s population, and the fact that someone unable to keep track of his own arguments and to refrain from continually contradicting himself had risen to a position of such prominence in the U.S. media.

RJ: What word or phrase would you use to describe Friedman’s analytical framework, his way of understanding the world?

BF: Perhaps Friedman’s own decree: “Many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things.”

RJ: Good journalists inevitably have to simplify the complex events they report about. You suggest Friedman’s work is reductionist. What’s the difference between the two?

BF: It’s one thing to simplify events and phenomena so that audiences can more easily understand them; it’s quite another to brand Palestinians as “gripped by a collective madness” and to whitewash war crimes such as collective punishment.

Recall Friedman’s justification [on the Charlie Rose Show] in 2003 for the Iraq war: A “terrorism bubble” had emerged in “that part of the world” and had made itself known on 9/11. In order to burst the bubble, U.S. troops needed to go “house to house, from Basra to Baghdad,” wielding a “very big stick” and instructing Iraqis to “Suck. On. This.” No matter that Friedman himself acknowledged that there was absolutely no link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Or recall Friedman’s reductionist Tilt Theory of History, which applies to situations in which “you take a country, a culture, or a region that has been tilted in the wrong direction and tilt it in the right direction.” Again, “right” and “wrong” as conceived of by Friedman and the U.S. military are passed off as universal truths.

Then we, of course, have the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, which posits that no two countries that host McDonald’s establishments have gone to war with each other since each acquired its McDonald’s. This delightful discovery regarding the harmonious effects of American fast food and U.S. corporate dominance is cast into doubt when, shortly after the theory’s birth, 19 McDonald’s-possessing NATO countries go to war with McDonald’s-possessing Yugoslavia.

Around this same time, Friedman’s reductionist assessment that “America truly is the ultimate benign hegemon” is contradicted by such things as his simultaneous entreaties for “sustained,” “unreasonable,” and “less than surgical bombing” of Serbia.

His economic reductions meanwhile rarely withstand the test of reality. Friedman exulted over the Irish economic model in 2005, threatening Germany and France that they had better follow the “leprechaun way” — by, inter alia, making it easier to fire workers — in order to avert economic decadence. The leprechaun way merits no further mention following the collapse of the Irish economy.

RJ: Friedman seems to defy easy political categorization. He doesn’t fit into the categories of liberal or conservative typically used in mainstream politics in the United States. What word or phrase would you use to sum up Friedman’s politics?

BF: Schizophrenic? For example, he advertised the Iraq war as “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched” while simultaneously defining himself as “a liberal on every issue other than this war” and the war as part of a “neocon strategy.” During an encounter with Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit in 2003, Friedman described the alleged war for democracy in Iraq as not a war that the American masses demanded but rather a war of an elite.

Friedman’s consistent championing of policies benefiting the corporate elite — most recently in his campaign to slash corporate taxes and entitlements in the aftermath of the financial recession — would locate him on the right of the ideological spectrum, though he intermittently endeavors to disguise himself as a “Social Safety Netter” or a “radical centrist.” According to Friedman, the current key to establishing a “party of the radical center” is a bizarre entity called Americans Elect, which will field a third presidential ticket in 2012 elected via “internet convention” and which Friedman acknowledges is funded with “some serious hedge-fund money” courtesy of investor Peter Ackerman. Centrism indeed.

At a presentation at a university in Istanbul in 2010, Friedman classified himself politically as neither a Democrat nor a Republican but rather a disciple of billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s theory that “everything I got in life was because I was born in this country, America, at this time, with these opportunities and these institutions.” Friedman reiterated his duty to pass on a similar situation to his children. As I say in my book, foreign audiences and non-billionaires might be forgiven for a lack of complete sympathy.

RJ: You decided to focus on three subjects in the book: “America,” “the Arab/Muslim world,” and the United States’ “special relationship” with Israel. Why did you pick those?

BF: No book on Friedman would have been complete without a section on his grating patriotic obsession with the United States and his view of the country as a global role model and civilizing force. Given that the Arab/Muslim world is so often on the receiving end of the U.S. military’s civilizing endeavors, I decided it was also crucial to devote a section to Friedman’s unabashed Orientalism and his dehumanizing and patronizing contempt for Arabs and Muslims, which he naturally attempts to disguise as concern for their freedom.

The “special relationship” with Israel is more a reference to Friedman’s own function as an apologist for crimes committed by the Jewish state. He purports to be a serious critic of Israel, but his criticism is largely restricted to the issue of settlements, which he criticizes because he views them as jeopardizing the perpetuation of ethnocracy and Israel’s ability to continue denying Palestinians equal rights in a single multi-ethnic democracy. Right-wing Zionists are increasingly condemning Friedman as anti-Israeli and a pro-Palestinian militant, which raises a question — with enemies like Friedman, who needs friends?

RJ: Your own political views are clearly at odds with Friedman’s. How would you answer critics who might suggest your book is just a polemic about those issues, not about Friedman?

BF: One of the most fundamental problems I have with Friedman is that he uses his elevated position to belittle human suffering and to encourage the slaughter of civilians, as he did during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-09), when he invoked Israel’s “logical” mass targeting of civilians in Lebanon in 2006 as an optimistic precedent.

I don’t think it’s possible to reduce this to a clash between political views. As I point out in the book, it is not up to Friedman to decide that the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting collective punishment and targeting of civilians in wartime is illogical. Given his influential position in foreign policy circles, I don’t classify his promotion of the notion that some human beings are inherently inferior and more expendable than others, and that corporate profit supersedes human life in importance, as merely politically misguided. I classify it as criminal, and I consider him to be personally responsible and not just a product of the system in which he flourishes.

RJ: After this rather unorthodox start to your publishing career, what comes next?

BF: For the moment my plan is to travel to Peru and Bolivia and see what happens, and hopefully to not encounter anyone who has ever heard of Thomas Friedman.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.