Jadaliyya recently interviewed PULSE co-editor Belén Fernández about her book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, to be released by Verso Nov. 7. The interview appears in Jadaliyya’s New Texts Out Now (NEWTON) section and includes an excerpt from the book. The following is the start of the interview:
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.”
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.”
Click here to read the rest of the interview at Jadaliyya.