The War Against Thomas Friedman

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Thomas Friedman, the world-famous opinion columnist for The New York Times is a figure who divides people.

The opinions the Times pays him to share get a lot of bloggers very, very angry. Some ardently believe that Friedman is an ignorant moron, while others think he’s a more of a sycophantic nutcase. Part of the reason they get so steamed up is that he’s one of the world’s most-read columnists and his books sell millions of copies.

Is it all just political difference? Professional jealousy? Could it be that they simply don’t like his odd little moustache?

Lionel Beehner of Huffpo has decided that Friedman is "a bad reporter, a negligent sycophant who has compromised his duties as a columnist at the paper of record — and he should be let go."

As you can tell, he’s not a big fan. And the exact reason why he thinks Thomas should be given the flick?

"Not because he went from globalisation bible-thumper to born-again environmentalist overnight — columnists are chameleons, cheerleading for whatever cause is hip that day. Not because his columns involve lazy journalism (ie quoting cab drivers), sloppy metaphors (pouring water out of broken vases and such), and a scary reliance on Johns Hopkins’ Michael Mandelbaum and an overused quip about how nobody ever washed a rental car … [but rather, because]he is given tremendous access to the world’s business leaders yet he is so utterly pathetic at questioning what they are up to."

"Case in point: When he writes about India as a beacon of innovation, he loves nothing more than to source B. Ramalinga Raju of Satyam Computer Services…[apparently without noticing]that Raju had fleeced his company (and the World Bank) for trillions of rupees. Instead, Friedman…applauds the fact that Satyam HQ has a zoo. Wow."

So who is Thomas Friedman and why do people hate him?

Friedman has been one of the loudest cheerleaders of free market capitalism and the Iraq war for years. But his area of expertise has not prevented him from writing about Middle Eastern politics, American foreign policy, environmentalism and how awesome he and all his friends are. He has also won the Pulitzer Prize three times, but as many of his critics point out, that was a while ago (in 1983 and 1988 for international reporting, then in 2002 for commentary journalism in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US).

Perhaps his most famous work is his 2005 release, The World Is Flat, in which he argues that the global market place has become "a level playing field". It has been hugely successful, although some have reservations.

Matt Taibbi of New York Press says in his review of the book that as soon as he heard its title he could see some of the pain that was to follow. "Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a very dangerous thing indeed." He elaborates, claiming that it takes "two human words to make sense of each single word of Friedmanese. Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays."

One of the key "flatteners" Friedman describes is the proliferation of the Microsoft Windows operating system and the fall of the Berlin wall. Taibbi writes,

"In a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread the instant a suggestive word like ‘Windows’ is introduced; you wince, knowing what’s coming, the same way you do when Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian. And Friedman doesn’t disappoint. His description of the early 90s: ‘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.’ How the f*ck do you open a window in a fallen wall?"

He continues,

"On an ideological level, Thomas Friedman’s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit… It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we’re not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we’re not in Kansas anymore.) That’s the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that’s all there is."

Taibbi’s ultimate judgement? "Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity."

In 2008, Friedman published Hot, Flat and Crowded which looked at global warming, rapidly growing populations, and the expansion of the global middle class through globalisation. The results, as he saw them, were pretty much summarised in the title’s warning, so he therefore looked more than a bit hypocritical when bloggers posted a description of the huge house Friedman lives in and David Rees (of Get Your War On fame) recently added a photo.

We may be suffering from overcrowding and imminent environmental catastrophe but Mr and Mrs Friedman (their two daughters don’t live with them) are doing OK, and not really setting much of an example.

While his superficial take on economics and ecology might seem like an amusing exploration of ignorance and hypocrisy, it is when Friedman turns his hand to US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, that he transforms from bumbling millionaire metaphor-mangler into something a little more sinister. Friedman applauds, for example, what he sees as Israel’s "logic" in killing Palestinian civilians to "educate" them not to support Hamas.

Former civil rights litigator and best-selling author Glenn Greenwald takes Friedman to task:

"The war strategy which Friedman is heralding — what he explicitly describes with euphemism-free candor as ‘exacting enough pain on civilians’ in order to teach them a lesson — is about as definitive of a war crime as it gets. It also happens to be the classic, textbook definition of ‘terrorism’."

He goes on to quote the US of State Department’s definition of "terrorism" as used in its 2001 publication, Patterns of Global Terrorism

"The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. … [The] term "noncombatant" is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty."

Greenwald asks,

"Isn’t Friedman’s logic exactly the rationale used by al Qaeda: we’re going to inflict ‘civilian pain’ on Americans so that they stop supporting their government’s domination of our land and so their government thinks twice about bombing more Muslim countries? It’s also exactly the same ‘logic’ that fuels the rockets from Hezbollah and Hamas into Israel."

It is Friedman’s punditry rather than his books, however, that have always been the favoured fodder of the blogosphere. In 2006, the term "Friedman unit" was coined by blogger Atrios to describe an amount of time, usually about six months in length, which actually never expires.

"Friedman boiled down the intricacies of the Iraq situation into a make-or-break deadline: ‘Well, I think that we’re going to find out, Chris, in the next year to six months — probably sooner — whether a decent outcome is possible there, and I think we’re going to have to just let this play out.’

"That confident prediction would seem a lot more insightful, however, if Friedman hadn’t been making essentially the same forecast almost since the beginning of the Iraq war. A review of Friedman’s punditry reveals a long series of similar do-or-die dates that never seem to get any closer."

What ensues is a list of 14 near-identical statements since 2003, in which Friedman espouses the importance of, "the next six months".

Friedman’s cheerleading for the Iraq war has evolved over time. On the Charlie Rose Show, he explained that hindsight has given him a greater understanding of what the war was about. He said he believed a "terrorism bubble" had grown throughout the 1990s, during which popular consciousness had accommodated and accepted the idea of terrorism and allowed it to flourish in the Middle East. He said that what America needed to do was:

"To go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble… And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: ‘Which part of this sentence do you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy — we’re going to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.’ That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth."

Crooks and Liar’s Nicole Bell reacted, saying,

"I am so horrified by this macho over-compensation manifesting itself as foreign policy that I must again ask, when you say something so heinous, so egregious, so over-the-top offensive, why in the HELL are you allowed a continued place on the national platform?"

The scavengers of the blogosphere were given some hope that they would, in fact, be thrown Friedman’s carcass when an article entitled "The End of the Experts?" written by "Thomas J. Friedman" was published on nytimes-se.com:

"To have been so completely and fundamentally wrong about so huge a disaster as what we have done to Iraq — and ourselves — is outrageous enough to prove that people like me have no business posing as wise men, and, more importantly, that The New York Times has no business continuing to provide me with a national platform."

"We were all wrong again and again — and the consequences were devastating. Can anyone tell me why any of us should ever be asked, let alone paid, for our opinions ever again? …To err is human, but to print, reprint, and re-reprint error-mad humans like me is a criminally moronic editorial policy.

The "J" in Friedman’s name and the suspicious-looking "-se" in the web address of the website may have tipped you off. The website is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by liberal activists, The Yes Men, late last year. Gawker describes the stunt:

"The Iraq war is over, according to the fake New York Times! This morning a cadre of volunteers has fanned out across New York City to pass out a remarkably good, faux-copy of the Times dated 4 July, 2009. They’ve even set up an entire website with all of the liberal fantasy headlines. Universities to be free! Bike paths to be expanded! Thomas Friedman to resign, praise the Unitarian Jesus!"

For the moment, however, Friedman remains on the loose, armed with crazy talk and not afraid to use it.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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