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 readingThe 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.
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