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Tom Friedman as Midwife

This piece appeared at Jacobin magazine.

In the aftermath of Pulitzer champ Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times offering, “Syria Is Iraq,” commentators have begun to question whether Friedman himself has not discovered the joys of Friedman-parodying.

As Matt Taibbi remarked at Rolling Stone: “This column today is so crazy I have to think Friedman is kidding.”

To put it in Friedman-speak, this is a Friedman column on steroids, a distilled cornucopia of his signature journalistic maneuvers. In the first two paragraphs we learn:

[T]he lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics. My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.

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A Counterplea for Retracted U.S. Military Engagement

This is an excerpt from my recent piece for The Diplomat.

Former Defense Department officials Michèle Flournoy and Janine Davidson’s new article, “A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement,” may contain some surprises for followers of contemporary history. The piece begins:

The recent global economic downturn has generated doubts about American resilience and our ability to lead in the world. Far from being a nation in decline, however, the United States’ global standing remains unmatched and the imperative for it to lead in today’s tumultuous environment is clear. Those who assume that in order to recover economically the United States must close its overseas bases and bring its military forces home misunderstand the role the U.S. military plays in promoting global prosperity.”

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Gawker hosts The Imperial Messenger

The popular Gawker website ran an excerpt today from my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, introduced as follows by Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan:

We enjoy pointing out to the world that mustachioed simpleton New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is, for the most part, a shockingly dull one-trick pony. Those searching for a more thorough and academic destruction of Friedman’s career and philosophy would enjoy Belén Fernández’s “The Imperial Messenger,” (part of Verso’s “Counterblasts” series) an incisive dismantling of the man and his message.

I’ve been responding to reader comments and questions on the site; click here to check it out.

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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10 of Thomas Friedman's Dumbest "Big Ideas"

The following is an excerpt from my piece for AlterNet on 10 lesser-known Friedmanian gems.

In conferring the honor of “Wanker of the Decade” on New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, blogger Duncan Black observed that “truly great wankers possess a kind of glib narcissism, the belief that everything is about them while simultaneously disavowing any responsibility for anything.” The sorry “state of the world is what it is,” Black continued, “in large part because people in positions of great power think this absurd buffoon of man is a Very Serious Person.”

Most readers are presumably familiar with the most prominent theories to have emerged from the brain of Thomas Friedman over the course of his career. To name a few here:

  1. The world is flat.
  2. Countries that have McDonald’s do not go to war with each other—except when they do, in which case it is preferable if the outcome of the conflict indicates that Serbs “wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo.”
  3. By pure coincidence, the 2011 Arab uprisings were caused by some of Friedman’s own favorite topics: Barack Obama, Google Earth, Israel, the Beijing Olympics, and Salam Fayyad. (See blogger Sarah Carr’s response, in which she notes the additional revolutionary impetus provided by the 2008 Cheese-Rolling Competition near Gloucester, England.)

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Tom Friedman’s War on Humanity

The Spring 2012 issue of Jacobin Magazine has just been released and I’m honored to have a featured essay: “Tom Friedman’s War on Humanity”. The following is an excerpt. Click here to subscribe to the magazine’s print edition for a modest sum.

Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for theNew York Timesonce offered the following insight into his modus operandi: “I often begin writing columns by interviewing myself.”

Some might see this as an unsurprising revelation in light of Edward Said’s appraisal: “It’s as if … what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks.”

According to Friedman, the purpose of the auto-interviews is merely to analyze his feelings on certain issues. Given that his feelings tend to undergo drastic inter- and sometimes intra-columnar modifications, one potentially convenient byproduct of such an approach to journalism is the impression that Friedman interviews many more people than he actually does.

For example, while one of Friedman’s alter-egos considered blasphemous the “Saddamist” notion that the Iraq war had anything to do with oil, another was of the opinion that the war was “partly about oil,” and another appeared to be under the impression that it was entirely about oil, assigning the blame for U.S. troop deaths in Fallujah to Hummer proprietors. Despite Friedman’s identification as “a liberal on every issue other than this war,” competing layers of his persona defined said conflict as “themost radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched” as well as part of a “neocon strategy.”

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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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