Hotheaded, Flat-Footed & Powerful
February 15, 2012 | by Scott McLemee
Reviewed: The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belén Fernández (Verso, 240 pp., $16.95). The press enjoys "power without responsibility": So goes Rudyard Kipling's classic coinage. Though meant as a denunciation, it actually makes journalism sound fairly enticing.
It's a gross overstatement, though. Most working reporters I've met have been very conscientious in exercising whatever little clout they wield. Become the foreign-affairs columnist for one of the world's leading newspapers, though, and all fetters are off. The only limits that remain are those of the imagination, as Thomas Friedman has been proving for a couple of decades now.
In The Imperial Messenger, journalist and Pulse Media editor Belén Fernández takes a devastating tour of the world according to Friedman, whose regular dispatches to The New York Times and all-too-frequent books make him a contemporary Walter Lippmann: a pundit whose writings are memos to the powerful.
The biggest difference is that Lippmann had clear and carefully argued ideas, while Friedman just improvises geopolitical "theories"—the world is flat, democracy advances in tandem with low oil prices, the international spread of McDonald's franchises has a pacifying effect—as he goes along, usually on the basis of an epiphany he had about wi-fi access in Cambodia or some such. And all of it in prose that doesn't so much abuse the English language as torture it into submission.
To dig through his books and articles in search of a deep level of coherence seems like a thankless task, and a hopeless one, which makes Fernández's book rather heroic. She documents at length, and in his own words, how thinly informed Friedman's pronouncements are, and how utterly careless he is about being wrong. He was for the Iraq war—before he was against it—but that's not the only case where his bloviation has had severe consequences.
A man who gets $75K for a speech tends to have the ear of decision-makers. He wrote a column in support of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and denouncing its opponents in Congress as "antiglobalist Gaullist Luddites." After it passed, he mentioned that all he'd known about it was that "free trade" appeared in the title. A visit to Ireland inspired Friedman to endorse the "Leapin' Leprechaun" model of neoliberal reform, which among other things made it easier for employers to fire workers.
Since then, the leprechaun has committed hara-kiri (to wax Friedmanesque for a moment), but we should expect no reassessment, let alone an apology. "Goodbye Tooth Fairy politics, hello Root Canal politics," he wrote last May, decrying Baby Boomer entitlement. He now champions the "Root Canal politics" of austerity, and anyone who defends social services doesn't understand that "that Tooth Fairy, she be dead." (The odds that Friedman grasps the implications of alluding to Heart of Darkness are just about nil.)
Cringe-inducingly dumb as such imagery is, there's a pattern, as Fernández demonstrates persuasively. It becomes especially clear in the pundit's "intermittent reliance on infant terminology to analyze parts of the Arab/Muslim world." This tendency "reached unprecedented levels in 2009 when Friedman refers to Afghanistan as a 'special needs baby' that the United States has decided to adopt." The U.S. is also the region's "babysitter." But its paternalistic gaze also falls on large stretches of the European and American public, indulging illusions about the Tooth Fairy.
"We are entering an era," Friedman wrote in 2010, "where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people." If you think "people" here includes billionaires, then clearly you haven't read much Friedman, and are to be envied.
The Imperial Messenger scrutinizes, with incredible patience, the role Friedman played in celebrating and rationalizing all aspects of American power, soft and hard, throughout the '90s and '00s. I'd like to think the book is an epitaph. It's not like Friedman can still carve the globaloney these days—the leprechaun ate it all.
Scott McLemee, a widely published critic, writes the "Intellectual Affairs" column for InsideHigherEd.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.