Belén Fernández, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. London and New York: Verso, 2011.
Jadaliyya: Why did you write this book?
Belén Fernández: I asked myself this question several thousand times, particularly during my third rereading of every Friedman column published since 1995.
The idea for the book came about in a far less climactic fashion than Friedman’s ideas tend to occur—i.e. it did not involve “Quarter-Pounder[ing] my way around the world,” being struck by a “bolt out of the blue that must have hit somewhere between the McDonald’s in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the McDonald’s in Tahrir Square in Cairo and the McDonald’s off Zion Square in Jerusalem,” and unfurling the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, according to which American fast food is the key to world peace.
Rather, in May of 2009, following a four-month hitchhiking trip through Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, I returned to Buenos Aires, where my parents were living at the time. Though up to that point I had been blessedly sheltered from the phenomenon that is Thomas Friedman and had only read a smattering of his dispatches over the years, he happened to publish a spate of articles that summer which caught my attention.
Topics ranged from how Iraqis should appreciate the US military legacy of “a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together” in their country, to how Barack Obama had defeated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Lebanese elections, which somehow indicated a triumph of Lebanese sovereignty. Also reported by Friedman that summer was the encouraging fact that the more than 50,000 Facebook fans of Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi far exceeded the capacity of a mosque, thus reiterating the positive role technology can play in the hands of proper Muslims, as opposed to those concerned with conducting “J.O.L.” (Jihad Online).
I wrote brief responses to several of the articles for various publications, and—based on the relatively enjoyable nature of that endeavor—concluded that it would thus be even more enjoyable to write an entire book about Friedman. The project, which I began in 2010, after covering the coup in Honduras throughout the fall of 2009, was naturally far less amusing in practice than in theory.
I was of course already familiar with the general characteristics of Friedman’s writing—hubris, clichéd jingoism, Orientalism, favoritism of Israel, self-contradiction, a severe handicap in the realm of metaphor construction, reduction of complex phenomena to simplistic and baseless theories. However, reviewing three decades of his work made it clear just how frightening, as opposed to simply laughable, it was that such a character had accrued three Pulitzer Prizes and risen to the position of journalistic icon at the US newspaper of record.
Though in earlier decades Friedman was often constrained to writing about innocuous topics, such as “Iowa Beef Revolutionized Meat-Packing Industry” (published in the New York Times in 1981), his post-1995 incarnation as a foreign affairs columnist—or, in his words, as a “tourist with an attitude”—has intermittently evolved into a license to prescribe military onslaughts and collective punishment, generally in the Arab/Muslim world, in obvious violation of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting such practices.
Consider, for example, his decree in a column published a few days prior to Israel’s devastation of Jenin in 2002 that “Israel needs to deal a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.” Or consider his suggestion during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 that Israel should repeat the strategy it employed in Lebanon in 2006, when the IDF supposedly achieved “the education of Hezbollah” by “exact[ing] enough pain on [Lebanese] civilians…to restrain Hezbollah in the future.”
As Foreign Policy aptly notes in its justification for awarding Friedman slot number thirty-three in the 2010 list of the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers: “Friedman doesn’t just report on events; he helps shape them.”
[Thomas Friedman delivering the commencement address at Rensselaer
Polytechnic in 2007. Photo by Rensselaer/Kris Qua.]
The dismal state of contemporary “global thinking” is further underscored by the fact that Foreign Policy itself hosted the 2006 debut of Friedman’s much-celebrated “First Law of Petropolitics,” according to which the price of oil is inversely related to the pace of freedom. In devising his law, which I prefer to refer to by its convenient acronym (FLOP), Friedman invokes the Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report as evidence of the inverse relationship, and lists the 1993 privatization of a Nigerian oil field as one of three key global events signifying an increase in the pace of freedom. However, if one actually consults the Freedom House report, one finds that 1993 was precisely the year in which Nigeria switched from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.”
J: What made you focus on Thomas Friedman in particular, of all the possible mainstream media voices, and what makes him specifically the "imperial messenger"?
BF: Of course the mainstream media is generally complicit in the business of empire—as seen, for example, during the prelude to the war on Iraq, when there was essentially no separation of press and state. So Friedman is far from alone when it comes to co-opted media figures providing a veneer of independent validation to state and corporate hegemonic endeavors in which they are entirely complicit. Friedman’s exceptionalism lies merely in the extent of his visibility, his proximity to power, and his ability to sell a right-wing agenda as a progressive one.
Friedman is an imperial messenger in two senses. On the one hand, he markets imperial and corporate policies to his domestic audience, encouraging the war on Iraq as “the most important task worth doing” and “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched” (despite simultaneously defining himself as "a liberal on every issue other than this war"), and urging Americans not to oppose the movement of jobs and factories overseas, since outsourcing makes the world safer for our children. Compelling evidence supplied to reinforce this last point is that Indian call center workers are less likely to become suicide bombers than Palestinians, a statistic that fails to account for the respective histories and geopolitical realities of each demographic group and the fact that India is not presently under Israeli military occupation.
Friedman also carries the imperial message to foreign audiences, who—depending on their circumstances and location—are either praised, lectured, scolded, or threatened by our columnist. Not so long before the collapse of the Irish economy, Friedman cheers the country on for “mak[ing] it easier to fire people” and warns Germany and France that failure to follow the “leprechaun way” will result in their own decadence.
In 1999, meanwhile, he contributes to the expansion of NATO power and of neoliberalism in the former Yugoslavia by repeatedly calling for “sustained,” “unreasonable,” and “less than surgical bombing” of Serbia to prevent the inhabitants of Belgrade from continuing to partake in “Sunday merry-go-round rides.” Decreeing the need for “a new Serbian ethic that understands how to live in twenty-first-century Europe,” Friedman threatens the Serbs: “Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.” Curiously, our heroic champion of ethic-inducing pulverization—who around this same time is also advocating for foreign policy moves such as “blow[ing] up a different power station in Iraq every week, so no one knows when the lights will go off [and] us[ing] every provocation by Saddam to blow up another Iraqi general’s home”—manages to simultaneously express his fear that the fact that “America truly is the ultimate benign hegemon and reluctant enforcer” might jeopardize continued American power in the post-Cold War system.
In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman protests that he is “a journalist, not a salesman for globalization,” although readers might be forgiven for mistaking vacuous corporate name-dropping formulas like “Attention Kmart shoppers: Without America on duty, there will be no America Online” for something other than journalism. The duty of American citizens to help bankroll the corporate-military partnership is clearly outlined in the same book:
Indeed, McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. And these fighting forces and institutions are paid for by American taxpayer dollars.
Given that Friedman regularly notes that “Globalization is us” and that it is the US “that benefits most from today’s global integration—as the country whose people, products, values, technologies, and ideas are being most globalized,” it becomes slightly less moving in The World Is Flat when he professes to “get a little lump in my throat when I see countries like China, India, or Ireland adopting a basically proglobalization strategy, adapting it to their own political, social, and economic conditions, and reaping the benefits.” A lump in the throat is never merited, of course, on behalf of the more than one million Iraqis who have perished as a result of the US invasion.
In a 1989 essay for the Village Voice, Edward Said offered the following assessment of From Beirut to Jerusalem, which is useful for comprehending not only Friedman’s Orientalist functions in the Middle East but also the particular brand of hubris that he embodies and that eventually enables his triumph as imperial messenger:
It is not just the comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas that I find so remarkably jejune, or his sassy and unbeguiling manner...It is rather the special combination of disarming incoherence and unearned egoism that gives him his cockily alarming plausibility—qualities that may explain [From Beirut to Jerusalem]’s startling commercial success. It’s as if...what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks.
What Friedman thinks, meanwhile, reaches even greater levels of importance when, for example, the president of the United States seeks him out to explain the Arab uprisings of 2010-11. President Obama presumably was pleased to discover that, thanks to his middle name (Hussein), he himself is one of the catalysts of the revolts, alongside other ludicrous revolt-inspiring “forces” that also happen to be pet topics of Friedman’s: Israel, Salam Fayyad, Google Earth, and the Beijing Olympics.
Said suggested that Friedman “has internalized the norms, if not the powers, of the secretary of state not just of the United States, but of all humanity” in that he “offers advice to everyone about how much better they could be doing if they paid attention to him.” Friedman’s personal haughtiness—which exists in a mutually reinforcing relationship with his haughtiness on behalf of the US—evolves in later years into far more grating and offensive displays of contemptuousness, as witnessed in his pronouncement that Iraqis should “Suck. On. This” as punishment for 9/11, an event Friedman himself admits Iraq had nothing to do with.
It is meanwhile illuminating to review the manner in which Friedman conveys the imperial message to his own children. In his post-9/11 Longitudes and Attitudes, Friedman makes the rounds of US colleges and determines that there is presently a lack of freedom of speech on campus, where “[t]he idea that there are radical Muslims who hate us because they see us as ‘infidels’ and blame us for all the ills that plague their own societies is simply not allowed to be said.”
Of course, what better way to combat the trampling of basic freedoms than to curtail freedom of thought in one’s own household:
It was…these college visits that prompted me to turn to my daughters at the dinner table one evening and tell them, “Girls, you can have any view you want—left, right, or center. You can come home with someone black, white, or purple. But you will never come in this house and not love your country and not thank God every day that you were born an American.”
J: What particular topics and issues does the book address?
BF: The book is divided into three sections. The first is called “America,” and deals with Friedman’s views of the role the “benign hegemon” must play on this earth. Topics include how the proper response to an economic system in which profits are wrongfully “being privatized in good times and losses socialized in bad times” is to further socialize losses by cutting entitlements and preventing elderly Brits from riding the local bus for free. Other topics range from the green-washing—in none other than Friedman’s environmental tome—of the Pentagon, currently the top polluter on the planet, to the transformation of the US into “the United States of Fighting Terrorism,” an entity that makes Friedman check his tweezers at the airport and reconsider his declaration of 9/11 as the onset of World War III.
The second section is called “The Arab/Muslim World” and deals with Friedman’s Orientalist attitude and his arbitrary notions of democracy in said region, where he intermittently deems members of various monarchies to be democratizing visionaries and progressives. Also discussed is his inability to keep track of his own thoughts on the Iraq war endeavor, as well as his utter disregard for human life in the region—observable, for example, in his reference to “all the nonsense written in the press—particularly the European and Arab media—about the concern for ‘civilian casualties’ in Afghanistan. It turns out many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52’s to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not.”
The third section is called “The Special Relationship” and deals with Friedman’s pro-Zionist agenda, which is aided considerably by his ability to market himself as a serious critic of Israel. His qualifications as critic are limited to intermittent denunciation of Israeli settlements—criticism which is itself only levied in order to ensure the survival of the ethnocracy and to deter Palestinians from pursuing a one-state democracy with equal rights for all citizens. Friedman’s berating of the Palestinians in 2002 for failing to realize that “nonviolent resistance, à la Gandhi…would have delivered a Palestinian state thirty years ago” is meanwhile entirely irreconcilable with his own reporting on the first Intifada in 1987, which he characterized in From Beirut to Jerusalem as an example of “massive non-lethal civil disobedience.”
[Belén Fernández. Photo via the author.]
J: What do you hope to achieve with this book?
BF: Author and reporter Nir Rosen has defined the duty of conscientious journalists as “speaking truth to the people, to those not in power, in order to empower them.” Friedman’s function, of course, is the exact opposite—to speak untruth to the people, on behalf of power. My aim in this book is to document his machinations for the record.
I realize, and appreciate, the fact that the majority of the people in this world have far more immediate concerns than what a rich American columnist writes on the pages of an American newspaper. However, via his service as resident apologist for US military excess and devastating economic policies, Friedman is directly implicated in much of the suffering that occurs across the globe. My goal is thus to contribute additional testimony regarding the incestuous and criminal relationship between the state, the press, and big business to the ongoing collective campaign in favor of a more human system, rather than one motivated by concerns for corporate profit and US dominance.
As for the claim by certain observers that Friedman is too easy a target, my response is: Of course he is. Or rather, he should be—except that he’s advising US presidents, accruing Pulitzer Prizes for “clarity of vision” after assigning “moral clarity” to George W. Bush, and being given celebrity treatment on The Daily Show. Can’t Jon Stewart at least come up with a joke about “Suck. On. This”?
Excerpt from The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work
The following passage concerns Friedman’s relationship with Israel and his treatment of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, during which several thousand Palestinian refugees were slaughtered by Israel’s Lebanese allies. The event took place during Friedman’s service as New York Times bureau chief in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and, as he recounts in From Beirut to Jerusalem, constitutes “something of a personal crisis” for him. His report on the massacre earns him his first Pulitzer Prize. [Note: All quotes and figures in this passage are footnoted in the book.]
The Israel Friedman encounters during the war in Lebanon is “not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with.” This is not surprising, given obvious aesthetic differences between, on the one hand, scenes of an Israeli invasion that kills 17,500 people, primarily civilians, and scenes from high school summers spent at a kibbutz south of Haifa on the other. The latter hand merits recollections like: “Everything and everyone in the country seemed larger than life. Every soldier was a hero, every politician a statesman, every girl a knockout.”
Friedman’s description in From Beirut of the role of the Six-Day War in igniting the “romance” between Israel and American Jews, who “could not embrace Israel enough; they could not fuse their own identities with Israel enough” comes with the accompanying affidavit: “I know. I was the epitome of this transformation.” Friedman elaborates:
It was Israel’s victory in the 1967 war which prompted me to assert my own Jewishness—not five years of Hebrew school as a young boy, not five summers at Herzl Camp in Wisconsin, and not my bar mitzvah. Hebrew school only embarrassed me, because I had to get on the Hebrew bus in front of the Gentile kids at my elementary school, and my bar mitzvah bored me, except for opening the envelopes stuffed with money. But Israel as a badge of pride actually saved me as a Jew at a time when I easily could have drifted away, not only from religious practice, but from Jewish communal identification altogether.
Someone who openly adopts a state founded on a policy of ethnic cleansing as a personal “badge of pride” does not, of course, qualify as an unbiased commentator on the Middle East. Consider Friedman’s celebrated treatment of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which he professes to initially take “seriously as a blot on Israel and the Jewish people,” and which causes him to “boil...with anger—anger which I worked out by reporting with all the skill I could muster on exactly what happened in those camps.” Laboring “day and night” on a four-page spread for the New York Times, Friedman acknowledges being driven by “conflicting impulses” to both “nail [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and [Ariel] Sharon...in the hope that this would help get rid of them” and to “prove Begin and Sharon innocent.” Surmises the impending Pulitzer recipient: “Although an ‘objective’ journalist is not supposed to have such emotions, the truth is they made me a better reporter.”
Actually, the truth is that Friedman’s emotions enable him to cast himself, and not the two thousand slaughtered Palestinians, as the real victim of Sabra and Shatila, an arrangement spelled out quite clearly in his recounting of his exclusive interview with the Israeli commander in Lebanon, Major General Amir Drori:
I must admit I was not professionally detached in this interview. I banged the table with my fist and shouted at Drori, "How could you do this? How could you not see [what was happening in the camps]? How could you not know?" But what I was really saying, in a very selfish way, was "How could you do this to me, you bastards? I always thought you were different. I always thought we were different."
Friedman’s questions remain rhetorical, and “so the next morning I buried Amir Drori on the front page of the New York Times, and along with him every illusion I ever held about the Jewish state.” The burial is hardly as dramatic as Friedman implies, though it does contain many more details of Arab suffering than he is inclined to report in later years. Acknowledging that the Israelis equipped the Lebanese militia assassins “with at least some of their arms and provisions and assisted them with flares during nighttime operations,” and that the southern end of Shatila camp “can be seen very clearly with the naked eye from the Kuwaiti Embassy traffic circle—the site of the telescope and binocular-equipped Israeli observation post,” Friedman nonetheless finds it necessary to temper the incriminating truth with the following bizarre disclaimer: “Whether the Israelis actually looked down and saw what was happening is unknown.”
Compare this assessment with that provided by veteran British journalist Robert Fisk, who does not possess a badge of pride called Israel and has never harbored any illusions as to Israeli “purity of arms.” Entering Sabra and Shatila immediately after the massacre, Fisk reports, regarding its perpetrators, that “their handiwork had clearly been watched—closely observed—by the Israelis, by those same Israelis who were still watching us through their field-glasses.” It is safe to assume that, had the positions of the Israelis and Palestinians been somehow reversed in the camps, Friedman would have wasted no time in reasoning that persons inside observation posts observe.
The conclusion of Friedman’s revolutionary, Pulitzer-inducing exposé consists merely of a toned-downed version of the Israeli fabrication that there were two thousand Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas inside Sabra and Shatila: “Clearly there were some, but the weight of the evidence suggests that the number was in the low hundreds at most.” As for the permanence of the burial of illusions about the Jewish state, Friedman writes in From Beirut in 1989: “I’ll always want [Israel] to be the country I imagined in my youth. But what the hell, she’s mine, and for a forty-year-old, she ain’t too shabby.”
[Excerpted from Belén Fernández, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. © Belén Fernández 2011, published by Verso Books, reprinted with permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]