Belén Fernández, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. London and New York: Verso, 2011.
A researcher once carried out an informal study to try to find out whether or not people actually read the books on bestseller lists. To find out, he put envelopes in the reputedly high-selling books. In each envelope was a note saying that if those who found the envelopes were to send them to a designated address, the researcher would send them five dollars. According to the story, the response rate was zero. After reading The Imperial Messenger, Belén Fernández’s treatment of the life’s work of Thomas Friedman, one can only hope for the sake of American intellectual culture that some of the books included in that experiment were Friedman’s.
Fernández’s book, part of Verso’s Counterblasts series, in which leftist writers take on the leading lay-preachers of the right, is organized around three themes: Friedman commenting on America and the economy; Friedman commenting on the Middle East; and Friedman commenting on the Special Relationship between America and Israel. Cataloging the stumbles of a man who can barely take a step before tripping over another fact was clearly a trying task. There is something altogether manic and dulling about reading the careful pairing of one Friedman statement with another that neatly negates it, again and again.
It cannot have been thankful labor, and it is clear that Fernández set to work with great diligence: reading all of his collected columns and books since 1995, crosscollating them for topicality, and juxtaposing them for their contradictions and inconsistencies.
The results, as befit the crown prince of American nincompoop commentators, are ridiculous. One week will see Friedman calling for US aggression against Iraq so as to “create a free, open, and progressive model in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world to promote the ideas of tolerance, pluralism, and democratization.” The previous week would have seen him announcing that “we can invade Iraq once a week and it’s not going to unleash democracy in the Arab world,” while a third reflection has him describing the invasion as “the most important task worth doing and worth debating,” even though it “would be a huge, long, costly task—if it is doable at all, and I am not embarrassed to say that I don’t know if it is.” This tangled skein and dozens like it that Fernández extracts from Friedman’s nearly endless production attest to a mind that displays total indifference to the consistency of the thoughts and words it commits to paper.
What that says about Friedman’s readership is an altogether different matter, and Fernández’s deft touch is in constant evidence as she lets us draw our own conclusions about that matter. Discussing another Friedmanism—in which he proposes building fifty new schools for every missile fired at Al-Qaeda in Yemen and then urges sticking “close to that ratio of targeted killings to targeted kindergartens,” thereby having a good shot at preventing Yemen from “becoming an Al Qaeda breeding ground”—she comments: “it is not explained whether the kindergartens will teach children not to feel anger when Yemeni civilians are killed by US drones.” And, of course, as Fernández makes clear here, what else is Friedman talking about but blowing innocent people to death?
In this instance and a myriad of others, Friedman’s statements seem like a psychopath’s blueprints for a social engineering project in the Middle East. This is perfect: it has been exactly that for over a half century, as the region has been fitfully organized around American constriction of oil supplies, petrodollar flows, and arms sales (it is at this point that I should note that Fernández approvingly refers to my own work on the topic).
But there are certain places where one has to be a little more circumspect about the real reasons for imperial meddling. For those whose job it is to either imbibe or reproduce the imperial culture (that is, Friedman’s audience), policy has to be either coated with a veneer of disinterested righteousness or translated into an agreeable and consensual imperial ideology.
The common thread running through that ideology is that something must be done about the dusky people living atop the petroleum. It is that aptitude for offering endless justifications for imperial intervention and aggression that makes Friedman so eagerly feted. To call him stupid, which many do (Fernández herself does not), misses the point. His job is not to be smart. His job is to explain imperial policy to people who do not want to think about it too much, and at that task his life has been exemplary.
Friedman also has other gifts. Fernández quotes his rage at the 11 September attacks as not merely justified outrage at the slaughter of innocents, but fury at the violation of American sovereignty. It does not do to delve too deeply into Friedman’s psyche. It is clear enough that outrage at a chink in American power would be a vendible justification for war. What Friedman is selling are balms for the exercise of imperialist power. One can never quite tell whether or not it is cant. Probably it is. An older Friedman used to regularly “report instances of murder and persecution.” He knows but does not care. He does not care because not caring is what sells.
For example, elsewhere he reveals himself to be fully aware of Israeli depredations in the occupied territories. Fernández quotes Friedman calling the claim that Palestinians rule themselves in the West Bank “fatuous nonsense,” a fair claim, especially since the aim of both Israeli and American policy since the late 1970s has been a form of “self-rule,” in the form of dependent village leagues or various modalities of rule-without-sovereignty. But even the existence of the occupation becomes an occasion for finger-wagging at the intransigence of the Palestinian people. She contrasts Friedman’s former statement on the hollowness of claims of Palestinian self-rule with his other claim that Palestinians were busily unfurling tattered “old complaints about the brutality of the continued Israeli occupation and settlement-building.” The first quotation is ripping into Israeli rejectionism, the second into Palestinian rejectionism. Condemning both sides leads to the illusion of balance. That the historical problem has been the Israeli refusal to cede Palestinians substantive statehood somehow gets lost in the mix.
Covering so much terrain so quickly and so nimbly, easily outpacing Friedman, Fernández could hardly be expected to avoid a half-stumble or so of her own. As she writes, the neoconservatives did indeed play the major role in marketing the American aggression against Iraq. But “liberals,” a term admittedly debased beyond reasonable use in the current discourse, certainly signed onto the imperial adventure. They always do. Their job is to cheer for the war and cast it as a mision civilatrice, and thereupon condemn it in an after-the-fact catharsis when the brown bodies start piling up too obtrusively in the charnel houses of the global South.
The trap that Fernández does not fall into is the facile and false claim that America is the errand-boy of Israel, and that in turn as a blithe promoter of American violence abroad America is merely doing Israel’s bidding. Instead, she pays attention to the facts: Israeli and imperial policies either serve the interests of American domestic elites or, in the case of the settlements, those elites are simply not bothered much by Israeli mayhem—certainly not enough to do anything about it.
The other trap around which Fernández deftly navigates is that of seeing racism as the key causal factor behind policy. Iraq was not destroyed because the people there have surplus melanin in their skin. It was destroyed because of what sits in its subsoil and because Lockheed Martin and Israeli Aircraft Industries would benefit from its destruction. In a world in which ideas are relentlessly invoked as explanations for the whirring of the empire, there is something compellingly honest about Fernández’s attention to the material context within which Friedman’s ideas find succor.
That does, however, raise the point of Fernández’s book. And the point must be that it reduces the space within which ideology can operate. As for the fate of Friedman’s career and reputation: this carefully argued, relentlessly well-written polemic will have unfortunately little impact, at least in the short run. There will be many who will continue to read Friedman with sedulous interest, not because he makes them think, but because he helps them avoids that risk entirely. But the number of people aware that readers of Friedman are reading a fool can only rise. It is in the rise of such numbers that there is increasing potential for a world within which Friedman’s ideas lose their fight for survival. And if their demerits used to be in any doubt, Fernández has now dispelled this doubt forever.