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Thomas Friedman plots a return to US glory

(Photo: EPA)

The following is my review for Al Jazeera of Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book That Used to Be Us.

In a January 2011 Fox Business interview, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman – famed begetter of the notion that the US military should make Iraqis “Suck. On. This“- described his forthcoming book That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America”.

Published last month with the subtitle How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented – And How We Can Come Back, the treatise is co-authored by Friedman’s proclaimed “intellectual soul mate” Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins professor who appears on an excessive basis in Friedman’s columns and who is credited with coining the mantra that “people do not change when you tell them they should; they change when they tell themselves they must”. Said mantra does not stop either character from cheerleading the US war on Iraq, which Friedman additionally manages to cast as “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”.

As for Friedman’s assertion that the current book is the first one he has really written about America, this is not entirely reconcilable with his announcement during a 2010 presentation at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University that his then – latest bestseller Hot, Flat, and Crowded “is really about America”. He adds that The World Is Flat, as well as Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as groundbreaking texts about globalisation and the environment, respectively, “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”.

This particular presentation occurred two weeks after the Israeli commando attack on the Turkish Mavi Marmara, part of the Freedom Flotilla endeavouring to deliver aid to besieged Gaza. It may appear more than slightly illogical that a US columnist who has just written off as a “setup” the slaying of nine Turkish humanitarian activists by a US-funded army in international waters – and who has furthermore placed the word “humanitarian” in quotation marks – is now lecturing an auditorium full of Turks on how “a lot of bad stuff happens in the world without America, but not a lot of good stuff”.

Friedman’s postulation that “green is the new red, white, and blue, oh yes it is, baby” is meanwhile only subsequently amended to reflect the geographical circumstances: “And it’s the new red and white in Turkey”. No relevant amendment is available, however, when it comes to Friedman’s declaration of political identification not as a Democrat or a Republican but rather 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”. Given that what Friedman got in life includes marrying into one of the 100 richest families in the US, owning a house valued in 2006 at $9.3m, and accruing $75,000 per speaking appearance, non-billionaires and foreign audiences might be excused for failure to sympathise completely with Friedman’s stated aim to pass on a similar climate of opportunity to his own children.

Victoria’s Secret and the tooth fairy

As author and current congressional candidate Norman Solomon has pointed out:

“It’s reasonable to ask whether Friedman – perhaps the richest journalist in the United States – might be less zealously evangelical for ‘globalisation’ if he hadn’t been so wealthy for the last quarter of a century. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the corporate forces avidly promoting his analysis of economic options are reaping massive profits from the systems of trade and commerce that he champions”.

A simple example of the incestuous relationship fostered by Friedman’s incessant bleating in favour of free-market capitalism and neoliberalism is his receipt of the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for The World Is Flat, itself written under the guidance of CEOs and other corporate officials. Friedman repays the honour by referring to the investment banking firm – and soon-to-be primary culprit in the 2008 financial meltdown – as a “classy organisation … who take[s] business and business reporting seriously”.

Our columnist’s own seriousness in these realms is meanwhile continuously affirmed by such events as his 1999 chat with the owner of a Victoria’s Secret factory in Sri Lanka, thanks to which he discovers that in fact all Sri Lankans understand it is “stupid” to oppose globalisation, and testifies: “[I]n terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work in [said factory]”.

Friedman’s corporate mentality naturally dictates his response to the global financial crisis, which he prefers to blame on “The Tooth Fairy” and which enables him to embark on a campaign for planet-wide entitlement cuts in order to rectify current, allegedly unsustainable arrangements. These include the ability of elderly British citizens to “ride any local bus for free” and the ability of Greeks employed in hazardous professions to retire early with full pensions.

Mandelbaum’s ideological qualifications for co-chaperoning the restoration of US glory and global domination in That Used to Be Us are meanwhile underscored by his revelation as early as 2006 that “[t]he greatest threat to America’s role in the world today is not China. It’s Medicare”.

The US as a beacon of stability

The gist of the new manual is that, because Americans were once capable of “doing big, hard things together”, we can, through “collective sacrifice”, recuperate the ability. In other words: “That used to be us. And because that used to be us, it can be again”.

This is, of course, a delightfully straightforward formula for national renaissance – until one starts trying to determine what exactly the “big, hard things” of the past were. According to the book, they ranged from “settl[ing] a vast and wild continent”, a big, hard thing that was undoubtedly appreciated by said continent’s native inhabitants, to responding collectively to the threat posed to US power by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. Friedman and Mandelbaum do not explain why the host of “things” that occurred during the glorious epoch between Sputnik and the onset of US decline in the early twenty-first century – “the Terrible Twos” – should merit nostalgia, given that the “things” included the US air force’s secret unleashing of the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on neutral Cambodia in the 1970s, US support for a military regime in Guatemala that presided over the extermination of over 200,000 Guatemalans, and the US Public Health Service’s experimental administration of syphilis to poor black males in Alabama over a period of 40 years.

Click here to read the rest of the article at Al Jazeera.

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2 Comments

  1. MRW says:

    Belén,

    I just read your entire Al-Jazeera article. EXCELLENT! I am looking forward to your book.

    I stuck your AJ article into Instapaper and enjoyed it so much I read it three times.

  2. Belén Fernández says:

    Thank you so much–I’m truly flattered!
    Take very good care

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