Today marks the release of yet another book by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ prolific foreign affairs columnist whose articles over the years have exposed such trends as the “collective madness” of Palestinians and the progress in Mexican baby names to more NAFTA-friendly alternatives than Juan, such as Alexander and Kevin.
Friedman’s latest book, endearingly titled That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, is coauthored by Friedman’s “intellectual soulmate”, the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum—a longtime staple of Friedman columns and a purveyor of such predictable notions as that “The real threat to world stability is not too much American power. It is too little American power”.
Despite having admitted to an audience in Istanbul that his two previous bestsellers—The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as wakeup calls concerning globalization and clean energy, respectively—really “have nothing to do with technology or environment at heart” and are instead “basically cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”, Friedman managed to advertise That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America” during an interview with Fox’s Don Imus earlier this year.
Slightly more surprising than Friedman’s continuing habit of self-contradiction is a recent less-than-favorable review of the new book on the website of the Financial Times, the institution that in 2005 partnered with Goldman Sachs to bestow upon Friedman the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for The World Is Flat. Friedman responded to the honor by referring to the pair as “two such classy organizations”, before finally conceding two years after the 2008 financial crisis that Goldman Sachs is perhaps in fact “utterly selfish”.
The FT.com review notes that the phrase “that used to be us” was appropriated from a statement by Barack Obama, in which the president lamented that “it makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us, and Singapore having better airports than us”. FT.com refrains from pointing out that Obama’s complaints in this case are themselves presumably appropriated from Friedman’s own experiences with Chinese trains and Singaporean airports, given the columnist’s de facto position as presidential adviser.
Friedman’s incestuous relationship with centers of capitalist power does not, however, prevent him from being portrayed in the FT.com review as essentially defying reality with his new book by “reinforc[ing] the illusions of [American] exceptionalism” and immunity from historical patterns, and by promoting the “idea that a third-party movement could somehow enable America to avoid the decline that eventually overtakes every great power”.
Friedman will likely remain undeterred in his eternal quest to restore US glory and global domination. However, he may desire a more creative title for his next book than, for example, That Really Used to Be Us: How America Has Fallen Even Further Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.
He might thus consider issuing an anthology of previously published excerpts entitled Thomas Friedman Recycled—which would additionally underscore his unwavering commitment to environmentalism and the notion that reform in the Arab world can be achieved by combining a “geo-green” strategy with the neoconservative strategy of contaminating the earth with depleted uranium munitions.
My book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work will be released by Verso on Nov. 1.