#trashthestache: an unabashedly—but deservedly—fawning review of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

in imperial watch

More sophisticated readers of the New York Times’ editorial pages have, for years, fumed at Thomas Friedman’s inane musings. Even less sophisticated readers, some of which write book reviews and essays for online magazines named after mysterious flatbreads, have bristled at Friedman’s claims, prose and weak reasoning.

There are times, in fact, that one might suspect the Times’ Editorial Board is putting Friedman over on the public as some sort of Onion-style goof, a la Jackie Harvey.

Some readers have an automatic, visceral dislike of his face, alone: the suburban-mall Glamour-Shots photograph accompanying his crimes against logic calls for snarky comment; in it, he appears smug, self-satisfied and eager to be taken as the thinker of deep thoughts that, in The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Belen Fernandez proves he is not.

One sure marker of a great work comes when, having experienced it, one is left with a sense of shame—that somehow, the thesis presented is so clear and well-argued that it was obvious all along, and to have not recognized it without the interlocutor’s help is somehow a grievous, personal shortcoming.

Fernandez’s spit-roasting of Friedman’s career is one of those works, and it is proof that America’s reading public should have itself a come-to-Jesus meeting about whom it reads, and on what subjects.

The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is a grueling, painful read, but it’s a necessary contribution to the greater, shamefully-necessary project of new/alternative media self-justification, vis a vis old media’s privileged place in public discourse; Friedman’s unearned, destructive bully-pulpit, and the appalling influence it holds over, with, and because of Occidental elites, created the need for Fernandez, and critical voices like Chapati Mystery, in the first place.

The rejoinders are getting louder, too—voices such as Glenn Greenwald’s, which puncture the balloons of Imperial hubris, easily, by dispensing with double-standards and applying simple facts to analysis, seem to enjoy greater echo than they might have, even five years ago.

“It’s evidence of a flattening world!” Fernandez joked in a March interview with Chapati Mystery. “These new media provide venues in which Friedman’s bullshit can be immediately exposed as such. Great will be the day in which the NYTimes eXaminer supersedes the Times in readership.”

Like a good doctor, Fernandez comforts us, salving our wounds with clear, caustic prose, doing her damnedest to bring us through a necessary but excruciating treatment. She diagnoses the ailment, explains its causes and effects, and implicitly offers the cure, which is, of course, to strip this yokel of any shred of credibility he might hold in the world of respectable ideas and send him where he belongs, to the backwaters of op-ed commentary, with Cal Thomas and David Broder, where he can warm the top margins of Doonesbury .

The negligent patients that we are—how could we let the infection go this long before seeking help? We didn’t even know we were this sick. It was very nearly terminal. It took Fernandez to show us, exactly, how far the malady had spread.

“To tell you the truth,” Fernandez said, “…I had hardly read the man prior to 2009, when I read a few particularly abominable articles and decided it would be enjoyable to write a book debunking him. It was not…I think Robert Jensen of the University of Texas journalism school explained the Friedman phenomenon quite well in his review of my book for Truthout:

‘Friedman tells the privileged, and those who aspire to privilege, what they want to hear in a way that makes them feel smart; his trumpeting of US affluence and power are sprinkled with pithy-though-empty anecdotes, padded with glib turns of phrases. He’s the perfect oracle for a management-focused, advertising-saturated, dumbed-down, imperial culture that doesn’t want to come to terms with the systemic and structural reasons for its decline. In Friedman’s world, we’re always one clichéd big idea away from the grand plan that will allow us to continue to pretend to be the shining city upon the hill that we have always imagined we were/are/will be again’.”

In Friedman’s case, she says,

“[T]he coordination with power structures is pretty straightforward. The World Is Flat, for example, was designed by corporate CEOs, who then hailed it as an ingenious treatise when it was published (see, inter alia, Friedman’s receipt of the FT/Goldman Sachs book of the year award). Friedman’s entire career at this point is basically thanks to his symbiosis with centers of US power, and his service as imperial messenger is handsomely remunerated…[b]ut as for why to single Friedman out—aside from the fact that his rhetorical incoherence, self-contradictions and mangled metaphors should have ordinarily prevented him from attaining such a prominent journalistic post—Norman Solomon has pointed out that, while Friedman’s astronomical wealth of course does not categorically discredit his work, it’s worthwhile to question whether he would be so intent on selling globalization if he hadn’t been so rich for the past several decades.”

The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work
, as a title, tells us much about how Fernandez views Friedman’s role in the sordid business of justifying, simplifying, and amplifying received elite opinion, and by extension, Imperial policy.

Fernandez divides her indictment into three main infractions: Friedman’s ridiculous take on modern America, his particular disdain for cultures where Arabic is the predominant language and Islam is the faith to which most believers adhere, and, finally, his nearly unqualified support of Israeli foreign and domestic initiatives.

In treating those areas, Fernandez’s explication of Friedman’s heinous prescriptions for a well-ordered world comes rapid-fire. Point by point, column after column, Fernandez compiles a litany of misstatements, historical reductionism, cultural ignorance, journalistic sloth, bald errors, obfuscations, ethnocentrism, banality, nonsensical business jargon, multitudinous contradiction and rank assholery.

For example, she asks us to consider Friedman’s lauding Ireland as a good example of how globally-engaged economies thrive. Friedman claimed, by way of showing the lumbering U.S. how it should be done, that tax revenues generated when Ireland’s leaders gave the commonweal over to corporate interests allowed for greater public spending on domestic programs, including education. This assertion, of course, was false—tax revenues plummeted in Ireland, and the Globalists’ Irish servants were eviscerating their country’s educational system, even at the time of Friedman’s writing.

As he is the richest “journalist” in the United States, one might be tempted to debit the oversight to Friedman’s slavish devotion to pushing whatever policies favor money and power. But it’s possible he took his evidence wholesale from his usual sources, which, as Fernandez points out, happen to be whomever he talked to most recently among Charlie Rose regulars, or whatever odd cab-driver or kraut-vendor he last deigned to engage.

“Friedman’s restricted travel circuit,” Fernandez reminds, “despite his possession of an essentially unlimited travel budget, is symbolic of his intentional exclusion of most human reality from his reporting…[t]he reality facing poor African-Americans, to take one historically maligned group, is thus largely ignored aside from passing references to the idea that too many black males in American inner cities are ‘failing’. Thanks to Friedman’s refusal to explore or convey the circumstances of average Americans in any meaningful way, persons employed at fast food restaurants end up getting to share the blame for the financial crisis while Friedman demands a slashing of entitlements, etc—all while purporting to be a ‘social safety netter.’”

Friedman’s animus against Arabic-speakers and Muslims has passed under mainstream radar, Fernandez says, because “[o]rientalism and anti-Arab/Muslim bias is largely acceptable in US political and intellectual discourse.” Fernandez provides dozens of examples of Friedman’s disgusting racism, most of which have settled in among elite received wisdom without challenge.

In taking passive-aggressive, paternalistic stances toward America’s Muslims and Arabs, Friedman may have done those demanding definition and clarity in discussions of world events a favor.

He has, quite in spite of himself, accidentally admitted what was once verboten: America and its erstwhile allies comprise an empire. And it would seem that empire is bent on not only conquest, but also the promulgation of blowjob metaphors, as when he married his support of the war in Iraq to the phrase, “Suck. On. This.”

…[I]t’s easier to acknowledge a US empire when one is pushing the idea—as Friedman does—that said empire is in fact beneficial to the world as a whole,” Fernandez said.

The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work also offers a complete dissection of the complex and harmful position Friedman holds in U.S. public discourse about the Middle East. Despite the veneer of gravitas and veracity he enjoys as a standing columnist for America’s “paper of record,” Friedman exhibits a shamefully subjective take on “The Special Relationship” between the United States and Israel.

Fernandez documents his time spent there as a young man, his devotion to the ideals of Zionism, his cozy personal relationships with Israeli politicians, army brass, and intelligentsia, and his habit of recommending courses of action for the U.S., and for Israel itself, that align with the aims of the Israeli far right.

As of late, readers may have noticed a greater willingness on Friedman’s part to criticize Israeli policies. Do these nods toward balance indicate Friedman’s evolution to a more balanced, reality-based positions? Not so, Fernandez told Chapati Mystery.

“Friedman himself has been criticizing the Israel Lobby with increasing regularity—a useful façade for his Zionism. The fact that US politicians constantly reiterate their devotion to Israel meanwhile suggests that there is nothing out of the ordinary about permitting a full-fledged Zionist such a position at the newspaper of record. I, however, am not of the opinion that US and Israeli “interests” are in fundamental disagreement; both entities are concerned with perpetuating conflict in the Middle East.”

It’s also worth considering whether Friedman’s enthusiasm for spilt blood in the Middle East has waned because the situation in the U.S. has deteriorated to such an extent that not even he can further cheerlead for expensive military adventurism, at least for the time being. Regarding the headlong rush to war on Iran, Fernandez said, currently,

“Friedman is…not in warmongering mode…given his decision that America must now engage in ‘nation-building at home’.”

But, she warns,

“Once America has been fixed, Friedman wrote in 2011, he will be willing to ‘follow the president “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”.’ ”

The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, concludes with sixty pages of endnotes, which apparently are sixty more than Friedman has compiled in his dastardly career.

Friedman’s lack of documentary support doesn’t seem to matter, nor does Friedman’s narrow point of view, his shallow analyses, nor his dreadful writing style. Fernandez’s book proves that what matters, in Friedman’s case, is his utility to the powers he serves, and his ability to help further whatever designs those powers have on humanity.

But the question remains: what, in the face of so great a Murrow-on-McCarthy style takedown, can be done to obviate the harm that Friedman, this idiot savant, has done to the American—no, the world—body politic?

“Nir Rosen suggested that the book be given as a vaccination to all college freshmen lest they become infected with admiration for Friedman,” said  Fernandez. “I’ve actually heard from a few university professors who admitted to having previously used From Beirut to Jerusalem in their courses and have now pledged to reference my book.”

Atonement is a start, but one fears the cure for having listened to voices like Friedman’s, for decades, will require more of a curative than that. Healing will require a realization of, and rejection of, a demonstrably false notion: the idea that America’s powerful, elite, and wealthy hold the the world’s well-being and best-interests to heart, and when the empire speaks—especially through well-paid mouthpieces like Friedman—that it is not lying through his teeth.


Belen Fernandez is an editor and feature writer at Pulse Media. Her articles have appeared at Al Jazeera, The Electronic Intifada, Counterpunch and many other publications. The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is published by the good folks at Verso Books.

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