Verso Books recently inaugurated a series it calls “Counterblasts,” which “aims to revive the tradition of polemical writing inaugurated by Puritan and leveller pamphleteers in the seventeenth century.” Its most recent entry is a book about The New York Times columnist and advocate for all things having to do with US power in the Middle East, Thomas Friedman. This short book shreds any sense of integrity that Friedman might have for the uninitiated, and provides plenty of substance for those needing the polemical ammunition to challenge this powerful spokesman. I recently interviewed the book’s author Belén Fernández via email.
Aaron Leonard: You write about Thomas Friedman’s “Institutionalized habit of self-contradiction.” Can you give some examples?
Belén Fernández: For one thing, he was a cheerleader for the Iraq war without being able to keep track of his rationale. He went from arguing that the war was “partly for oil” to insisting “U.S. power is not being used in Iraq for oil,” to blaming drivers of Hummers [in the US] for U.S. troop deaths in Fallujah. He also defined the war as part of a “neocon strategy” and “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched.” On the Israel/Palestine issue, he observed during the second Intifada in 2002 that Palestinian “nonviolent resistance, à la Gandhi … would have delivered a Palestinian state 30 years ago.” This stands absurdly against what he wrote in “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” on the first Intifada in 1987, that Palestinian stone throwing was compatible with “the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi” and that it indicated a belief in “massive non-lethal civil disobedience.” During his intermittent attempts at environmentalism, he goes from strongly advocating for biofuels to opposing biofuels to supporting the idea of clean coal to rejecting the idea of clean coal to resurrecting the idea of clean coal.
AL: How does he get away with this and still be taken seriously?
BF: I’ve long been perplexed by this. I suppose if one reads him sparingly enough one might not pick up on the contradictions. He actually boasts in Longitudes and Attitudes 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.” For the duration of his column at the Times he has “never had a conversation with the publisher about any opinion I’ve adopted – before or after any column I’ve written.” Obviously the newspaper of record does not view as a problem the fact that its most widely-read columnist is incapable of maintaining a coherent discourse.
AL: You recount a conversation Friedman had with Charlie Rose about a so-called “terrorism bubble.” It is particularly appalling; could you talk about that?
BF: This refers to the “terrorism bubble” that has emerged in “that part of the world.” Friedman told Rose in May of 2003:
What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, um, and basically saying: “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society; you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well. Suck. On. This.
This is a statement consistent with his persistent dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims – whom he portrays as “backward,” disproportionately angry and violent, in need of forced civilization by the West. His demeaning portrayal of the Arab/Muslim world enabled him to write off the loss of human life in the region as an effect of Arab/Muslim defects rather than of U.S. bellicosity. As late as 2011, Friedman still ludicrously asserted that the U.S. had acted as a “credible neutral arbiter” in Iraq.
AL: Why does The New York Times, arguably the most influential newspaper in the world, have a Thomas Friedman?
BF: Friedman is far from alone when it comes to providing a veneer of independent validation to state and corporate hegemonic endeavors – ones in which they are entirely complicit. He just happens to enjoy a special symbiosis with centers of power. He is sought out by Barack Obama to explain phenomena like the Arab Spring (which Friedman obligingly determines was in fact propelled by five “not-so-obvious forces,” among them Obama himself). He receives awards from Goldman Sachs for writing about how important corporate globalization is for human progress. He boasts of plugging the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without perusing its contents beyond the two words “free trade.” He emits grating corporate-military slogans like: “Attention Kmart shoppers: Without America on duty, there will be no America Online.” The New York Times itself is nothing but a mouthpiece for empire and capital. When considered from that perspective, it makes perfect sense that the Times would have a Friedman. And as long as there is no overwhelming uproar over his stupidity, there’s no reason they should dismiss him; it’s a winning partnership.
AL: From your book one gets a sense that Friedman is really a guerrilla marketer for the hotel industry. Could you talk some about his style?
BF: Yes, guerrilla marketer not only for hotels but also computers (e.g., “when I was done interviewing the mayor, I thanked him and started to pack up my IBM ThinkPad laptop)”; airlines (“As I was boarding my Emirates Air flight from Dubai to Pakistan the other day)”; etc.
People often joke that the only normal human beings Friedman converses with – outside his usual circle of CEOs and national leaders – are cab drivers. In fact Friedman has a certain insistence on speaking on behalf of the world’s inhabitants without actually speaking to them first. Readers are instructed to “just ask any Indian villager” for confirmation that U.S.-directed globalization is desirable, and are informed in 1999 that it is “stupid” to oppose globalization: “The [anti-WTO] Seattle protesters need to understand that. The people of Sri Lanka already do.” The latter insight is gleaned from Friedman’s chat with the owner of a Sri-Lanka based Victoria’s Secret underwear factory, who obviously does not qualify as “the people of Sri Lanka.”
AL: What about Thomas Friedman writings on Israel?
BF: Friedman received his first Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Sabra and Shatila, this was where several thousand Palestinians were massacred by Israel’s Lebanese allies in an affair overseen by the Israeli military. He professes in “From Beirut to Jerusalem” to initially take the event “seriously as a blot on Israel and the Jewish people” and 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.” The disillusionment, however, is by no means permanent, and Friedman declares in the same book (published 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.” The phrase “she’s mine” also raises some questions, given that Friedman opposes the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
He nonetheless advertises himself as a serious critic of Israel, though his criticism is primarily limited to the issue of the settlements – which he only criticizes because he wants to avoid a situation in which Palestinians seek equal rights in a single multiethnic democracy (“If American Jews think it’s hard to defend Israel today on college campuses, imagine what it will be like when their kids have to argue against the principle of one man, one vote”).
AL: At one point you remark, “Reality is accorded minimal importance in Friedmanomics.” We actually see that a lot these days – and its not just the irrational Republicans – it feels like we are paying the price for all this post-modernist thinking. Ideologically and politically how would you characterize someone like Thomas Friedman?
BF: Friedman consistently writes on behalf of the corporate elite, which would naturally locate him on the right of the ideological spectrum, yet it does not stop him from endeavoring to portray himself as a “Social Safety Netter” concerned with the plight of the non-elite and a “liberal on every issue other than” the Iraq war. At a presentation at a university in Istanbul in 2010, he announced that he preferred to eschew classification as a Democrat or a Republican, instead defining himself as a believer in 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.” This would be a good place to reiterate that Friedman happened to marry into one of the 100 wealthiest families in the U.S. Essentially his primary ideological commitment boils down to maintaining U.S. dominance over the globe, which in his view will enable perpetuation of his personal privileged status.
Belén Fernández is an editor and feature writer at Pulse Media. Her articles also have appeared on Al-Jazeera, Al-Akhbar English, CounterPunch, Palestine Chronicle, Palestine Think Tank, Rebelión, Salem-News, Tlaxcala, Electronic Intifada, Upside Down World and Venezuelanalysis.com, among others. She earned her bachelor’s degree with a concentration in political science from Columbia University in New York City.