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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.

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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.

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'Thomas Friedman: The imperial messenger'

The following is an excerpt from my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released today by Verso. The excerpt, originally published at Al Jazeera, begins with late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s criticism of the Orientalist tendencies Friedman exhibits in his 1989 bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem. All quotes appearing in this excerpt are properly cited in the work itself.

Edward Said has challenged Friedman’s superimposition of desert scenery onto the contemporary Middle East in his explanation of the Hama massacre of 1982, which Friedman attributes in part to the notion that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad viewed the Sunnis of Hama as “members of an alien tribe – strangers in the desert – who were trying to take his turkey”, something we are told happens in Bedouin legends. Said comments:

So astonishing a jump, from modern, predominantly urban Syria to the prehistoric desert, is of course the purest Orientalism, and is of a piece with the moronic and hopelessly false dictum offered later in the book that the Arab political tradition has produced only two types: the merchant and the messiah.”

It should be noted, however, that Said’s original conception of Orientalism as Eurocentric prejudice must be amended slightly in Friedman’s case to incorporate his generalisations about Europeans themselves, collectively denounced as “Eurowimps” when they do not exhibit sufficient enthusiasm for US military endeavours against Arabo-Islamic peoples. Friedman alternately cajoles particularly intransigent language groups with persuasive slogans like “Ich bin ein New Yorker”, advocates removing France from the UN Security Council because, “as they say in kindergarten, [it] does not play well with others”, and warns Spain that a withdrawal from Iraq in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings of 2004 is a potential modern-day equivalent of the European appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

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