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New Left Project: Review of The Imperial Messenger

David Wearing of New Left Project has written a brilliant review of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. The following is an excerpt:

Why, in the midst of a historically severe depression caused by a crisis in the least regulated part of the private sector, is the political class of the global north prioritising an assault on the free-market bogeyman of “big government”? Why, after a decade of military disasters in Western Asia, are so many prominent voices advocating a military response to the non-existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iran? One answer is that the material interests of class and state power are reinforced by an intellectual culture which advocates policies that serve those interests, irrespective of “externalities” such as the costs to the non-powerful. Power and wealth use the louder voice they can afford to drown out dissent and hardwire a set of assumptions, a conventional wisdom, a conceptual framework into the political discourse, which will tend to produce the same answers irrespective of the question, or the facts. It follows then, for those of us who choose to challenge power, that undermining, critiquing and disrupting that conventional wisdom is a vital task – a prerequisite to persuading the general public that another world is possible.

Few single voices play a greater role in propagating the dogmas of neoliberalism than Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and leading columnist on international affairs for the world’s leading English-language newspaper, the New York Times. In his articles and books, Friedman articulates a world view firmly grounded in the core assumptions of the dominant ideology. Corporate-dominated capitalism is seen as a progressive force for the general good, Western civilisation is taken to be obviously superior, and Western military power is viewed as a benign actor, securing and extending the reach of that civilisation. What Edward Said described as the “comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas” is unavoidable. But so too, unfortunately, is their reach and significance. In engaging with Friedman’s body of work, and subjecting it to forensic critical analysis, Belén Fernández has produced a book that is sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying in what it exposes, always readable, always thought-provoking, and of clear political importance.

*****

At one level, Fernández’s job is made easy by Friedman himself, whose writing style borders on the self-satirising. His penchant for cringe-inducing, quasi-corporate-speak reflects a lack of both substance and coherence, roughly forcing the world into clunky and simplistic concepts. “Two hundred pages into The World Is Flat”, Fernández notes, “Friedman defines Globalization 1.0 as the era in which he was required to physically visit an airline ticket office in order to make his travel arrangements – whereas, according to the definition he provides at the start of the book, Globalization 1.0 ended around the year 1800”.

Friedman’s critics are unavoidably drawn to his difficulties with logical consistency, and his illiterate use of imagery and metaphors. In his brilliant review of Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat”, Matt Taibbi quotes the following passage:

“The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been–but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.”

Taibbi comments as follows:

“How the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened? Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?”

Fernández produces a fresh example of Friedmanesque nonsense along these lines every two or three pages, which focus on the laughably absurd also serves to emphasise by contrast the altogether less amusing aspects of his output.

Friedman is incoherent. Friedman is also wrong, often catastrophically, as in his proud declaration of 2005: “it is obvious to me that the Irish-British [economic] model is the way of the future”. Friedman the visionary also treats us to his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” which holds that “no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its own McDonald’s”. Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006 did little to reinforce the “theory”, and nor did the war between NATO and Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, which Friedman then attempts to dismiss as “not even a real war” despite having said at the time that “like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation”.

Friedman is incoherent, Friedman is wrong, and Friedman is prejudiced, holding some truths to be simply self-evident with blithe, unrepentant disregard for the facts. He proudly admits that “I wrote a column supporting the Caribbean Free Trade initiative [sic]. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade”. To be strictly accurate, Friedman didn’t know what was in it, what the “Central American Free Trade Agreement” was called, or even what geographical region it applied to.

Occasionally, one is almost moved to pity by the spectacle of a grown man perpetually baffled that the world does not conform to his preconceived ideas. In Brussels in 1999, he is confronted with the sight of “a Russian journalist, circling the Coke machine, under the CNN screen, speaking Russian into a cell phone, in NATO headquarters, while Kosovo burned – my mind couldn’t contain all the contradictions”. Later, the discovery in Kuwait City of the female owner of an internet café reduces the New York Times’ leading columnist to a quivering wreck:

“Look, I’m a little confused. Do the math for me. You are wearing an Islamic head covering, you are obviously a religious person, but you were educated in an American university and now you are bringing the Internet to Kuwait. I don’t quite see how it all adds up”.

It is when the bigotry in Friedman’s lazy thinking becomes unavoidable that the smile falls from the readers face, as when Fernández quotes his statement that “to be a French educated Arab intellectual is the worst combination possible for understanding globalization. It is like being twice handicapped”. The sinister side to Thomas Friedman is never far from the surface, and nothing brings it so comprehensively to the fore as the sight of his beloved Western militaries engaged in armed conflict.

Click here to continue reading at New Left Project.

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