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The Foibles of Thomas Friedman

The following is Max Ajl‘s review for Jadaliyya of my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work.

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 MessengerBelén 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.

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Ecuadorian Huaorani photographs by Amelia Opalinska

For more than half a century, indigenous Huaoranis in the Amazonian region of Ecuador have been courted by exploitative entities, ranging from evangelical Christian missionaries who dropped cooking pots on them from helicopters in the 1950s to international oil companies who today facilitate their acquisition of DVD players.

Below is a series of photographs of Huaorani villages by Amelia Opalinska, taken during our hitchhiking trip through Ecuador last year. My essay “Oil and Aguardiente in the Ecuadorian Elections” chronicles our interactions with various indigenous groups in the context of the national elections held on April 26, 2009, and with one of the participants in a Huaorani massacre of members of a tribe existing in voluntary isolation.

Click on each of the photos below to view a larger image.

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