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Why Thomas Friedman is Always Wrong

I was recently interviewed by Michael Arria for Motherboard, Vice Magazine’s technology/media/culture site. The following is an excerpt:

Q: I remember, during the WTO protests of 1999, Friedman dismissed those concerned with the detrimental effects of globalization, as “flat-earthers.” Despite the collapse of the American economy, he seems to maintain this view. Although heralded by some as an astute environmental thinker, his green solutions seem to be entirely market-based, which generates obvious issues. His perplexing diatribe about “outgreening Al-Qaeda” comes to mind. Do you think this is an accurate reading?

A: I think Friedman summed up the goal of his intermittent environmental crusade pretty well himself when he announced that “making America the world’s greenest country is not a selfless act of charity or naïve moral indulgence. It is now a core national security and economic interest”.

It would appear that his concern for the environment stems from the conviction that “green” is the next big industry and that America can’t retain its dominant position in the world without being at the head of it. At a talk in Istanbul a few years ago he went as far as to admit that his environmental tome Hot, Flat, and Crowded really had “nothing to do with… environment at heart” but rather constituted “cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”.

The whole business of “outgreening Al-Qaeda”, which I discuss in detail in the book, is completely ludicrous given that Friedman manages to paint the U.S. military, which holds the distinction of being the top polluter in the world, as a pioneer in green consciousness (or, as the great Doug Henwood put it in a radio interview with me, he makes the U.S. Army look like the Sierra Club). Readers are invited to rejoice over the existence of aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds.

Friedman additionally manages to pen glowing appraisals of the CEOs of both biotech giant Monsanto and Canadian gold-mining company Goldcorp Inc. The environmental legacies of these firms dispels any hope that Friedman-the-environmentalist might at least be a less harmful incarnation than Friedman-the-warmonger or Friedman-the-radical-free-trader.

His courting of Monsanto is especially troublesome given the frequency of his visits to India, where he prefers to exult over the wonders of call centers rather than mention the hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides that have occurred in the country’s recent history—a phenomenon propelled in part by the introduction of Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton. Instead of acknowledge human suffering brought on by the neoliberalism he espouses, Friedman tragicomically encourages his audience to “just ask any Indian villager” about the need for more globalization in India.

Add to all of this the overarching conundrum, to which you allude, of reliance on an exploitative economic system to stop exploitation of the earth.

You write about Friedman referring to Europeans as “eurowimps”, “when they do not exhibit sufficient enthusiasm for US military endeavors against Arabo-Islamic peoples.” Could you talk a bit about how stereotyping is a staple of his prose? The subjects he writes about never seem to emerge as human beings possessing independent thoughts and ideas.

The more flagrant examples of Friedman’s rampant stereotyping include his references to Palestinians as “Ahmed”, “Ahmed and Mohammed”, and “gripped by a collective madness”.

As for reductions applied to other persons operating in the Middle East, Friedman announces in 2007 that Iraqis do not deserve “such good people”—i.e. the U.S. armed forces—“if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids”. This sort of dehumanizing tactic shifts the blame for the bloody conflict in Iraq onto its barbarian inhabitants, who are deprived of normal human affection, and away from the “good people” and their media cheering sections who are in fact (in non-Friedmanian reality) fundamentally to blame for the extermination and maiming of countless Iraqi children, many of whom were presumably loved by their parents.

Friedman’s discovery in Umm Qasr in April 2003 that “It would be idiotic to even ask Iraqis here how they felt about politics. They are in a pre-political, primordial state of nature” meanwhile provides a convenient justification for disregarding indigenous opinion and agency and instead lecturing Iraqis about what to do (like “suck. On. This”).

The danger of allowing Friedman the position of decipherer of and spokesman for Orientals is further underscored when readers of the New York Times learn that, contrary to reports in the European and Arab media, Afghan civilians obliterated by American B-52s are actually not civilians. According to Friedman, “many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52’s to liberate them from the Taliban”, though he explains neither the source of his insights into Afghan prayers nor why opposition to the Taliban would eliminate one’s civilian status. Via maneuvers like these, however, the American public is spared the moral complications that might result were the U.S. media to humanize victims of U.S. violence in the Arab/Muslim world.

It is distressing that Friedman often chooses to humanize only those Orientals who are created in the image of the West, as it were, or who are otherwise useful in the propagation of American cultural hegemony. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, for example, he jubilantly reports on an outing to a Bahraini bistro with Sheik Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (who has been described as Bahrain’s “innovative Crown Prince”, though Bahraini pro-democracy protesters would presumably beg to differ), where he observes a girl seated at the adjacent table who is “dressed like an American teenager and had what looked like a tattoo on her left shoulder”.

Or consider the importance he attaches to reporting the existence of “emphatically pro-Western Saudis, who have studied in America, visit regularly, and still root for their favorite American football teams”, or—on another occasion—the “secularized, U.S.-educated, pro-American elite and middle class in Saudi Arabia, who are not America’s enemies. They are good people, and you can’t visit Saudi Arabia without meeting them”. What this implies is that persons who don’t fit said description are not good people, which as I point out in the book automatically negates the possibility that any fragments of human reality might survive Friedman’s prattle.

As for Friedman’s stereotyping of “Eurowimps”, this comprises the idea that, because Europeans oppose GMOs but continue to smoke cigarettes, this suggests that their opposition to the Iraq war is “deeply unserious”.

Click here to read the full interview at Motherboard.

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