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

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.

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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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Dale Marlowe

Writer, teacher, lawyer. Ignorance of a topic has never stopped me from holding forth on it at length.

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

  1. The Orientalist Express: Thomas Friedman Wraps Up the Middle East (Edward Said)

    [1989]

    On the face of it, From Beirut to Jerusalem is a reporter’s journal of a decade in the Middle East spent first as UPI correspondent for a couple of years, then as New York Times bureau chief in two major centers. Between 1979 and 1984 Friedman was stationed in Beirut where he covered the civil war, the Israeli invasion of 1982, and the country’s tragic dissolution thereafter. He then moved to Jerusalem (traveling rather ostentatiously across the Lebanese-Israeli border with his golf clubs), where he wrote about the Israeli political scene, with particular attention to the intifadah. He remained in Israel until mid-1988. He then returned home to become the Times man in Washington. For his Middle Eastern coverage Friedman won two Pulitzer prizes, both of them, interestingly enough, about major Palestinian events: the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the uprising or intifadah that began in late 1987 and continues to the present.

    Friedman is no ordinary reporter, however. He is, as he tells us right from the start, a young American Jew who grew up in Minneapolis, was galvanized into Zionist enthusiasm by the 1967 War, studied Arabic and Jewish history first at Brandeis and then at Oxford, and went on to become a major figure in discussions and policy analysis of the Middle East. The complexity and richness of his personal background thus make Friedman’s book a compendium of autobiography, journalistic reportage, philosophical reflection laced with a political theory whose main idea is that by virtue of their power and enlightened attitudes Israel and the United States set the standards to which in the end the less gifted and culturally backward Arabs must conform. Yet Friedman is also something of a craftsman. From Beirut to Jerusalem, for all its gargantuan length, doesn’t often flag or bog down except, it must be said, when Friedman either gets mushy with testimonials about his feelings, or when he offers advice to everyone about how much better they could be doing if they paid attention to him. The result is therefore an interesting book, as much a collection of anecdotes as it is clever writing studded with eye-catching but symptomatic bits of analysis.

    What keeps it together as a book is Friedman’s own “insider” voice — smart, frequently vulgar and tough, sententious, effortlessly knowledgeable. When Arabs or Jews do things, it is not what they do but how their actions register on Tom’s sensibility that matters. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is a strangely ignorant book: Friedman’s two main sources of illumination are trusted gurus (e.g., the “philosopher” David Hartman, who — we are not told this — runs a strange religious school in Israel largely on U.S. funds; he doesn’t seem to have any “philosophical” works to his credit) or bits of expert and/or folk wisdom, unconnected to specific works or research, asserted rather than argued or proved. I do not disagree with Friedman, for example, in his account of how Hafez al-Assad ruthlessly destroyed Muslim opposition in Hama by massacring thousands of his own citizens; Friedman takes the incident as a case of “Hama Rules” and attributes them to “different political traditions” in the Arab world whose true origin, he pronounces, are such things as a “tribalism” learned in the desert. 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.

    These ludicrous reductions do have sources: In the case of tribalism it is the Israeli “Bedouin expert” Clinton Bailey; in the case of the Arab political tradition “Lebanese Shiite scholar” Fouad Ajami. Friedman deploys these ideas disingenuously, as if there wasn’t a fairly active controversy seething in all departments of knowledge about the Middle East. In fact Friedman belongs very clearly on one side, the side associated with classical anti-Arab and anti-Islamic Orientalism, the world according to Bernard Lewis, Ajami, Bailey, and their ilk. Of course Friedman is perfectly entitled to his views, which are not always unsympathetic, but what is particularly shady is that Friedman palms off his opinions (and those of his sources) as reasonable, uncontested, secure. In fact they are minority views and have been under severe attack for several decades now. They represent a narrow consensus associated not with desirable political change but with the equally political, basically conservative perspective of the status quo. People in this camp characterize themselves as pragmatic and realistic, labels that are intended to dismiss the theories of Marxists, non-Western and non-white nationalists, feminists, political economists. The point, of course, is that what Friedman and the Orientalists espouse is a threadbare repertoire of often racist clichés, all of them bearing the marks of colonial knowledge now allied with Naipaulesque disenchantment. People can’t change, Friedman says in effect; they are what they are forever. Give Ahmed, or Sambo, a place in the bus and he’ll simmer down.

    But since this is not a scholarly book, one might say, why shouldn’t Friedman traffic in these discredited myths? Because Friedman presents himself as more than a reporter, his book as more than a personal chronicle. No one watching television these days has not seen Friedman, “the expert,” on all the right programs — the detached, impartial, authoritative observer who is a sizable cut above the smaller-scale partisans who are so transparently militant and therefore less credible. From Beirut to Jerusalem is the marketing strategy by means of which a young reporter consciously elevates himself to the rank of foreign policy sage, there to reap rewards and, alas, to recycle the illusions of American power and visionless realism. In the Middle East, he tells us, America should alternate between being “obstetrician, friend, grocer, and a son-of-a-bitch.” Among the prototypes for these largely unattractive roles are Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger.

    It is not just the comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas that I find so remarkably jejune, or his sassy and unbeguiling manner, or his grating indifference to values and principles by which, perhaps misguidedly, Arabs and Jews have believed themselves to be informed. It is rather the special combination of disarming incoherence and unearned egoism that gives him his cockily alarming plausibility — qualities that may explain the book’s quite startling commercial success. It’s as if — and I think this is true of his views on both Arabs and Jews — what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks. Not only is there scarcely a reference in From Beirut to Jerusalem to the latest work on Arab history and society, but Friedman is also quite innocent about the latest in Israeli scholarship that has analyzed the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem, or the birth of Israel, or the internal dislocations within Israeli society.

    I do not want to suggest that Friedman is nowhere capable of uncompromising analysis — his remarks on the creepy similarity between Labour and Likud parties are especially trenchant — or that he flinches when it comes to reporting the dreadful, virtually insensate ugliness of recent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. He is clear about these matters, but he feels somehow that his prized sensibility, saying one thing in one breath and then contradicting it in the next, can carry the whole burden of interpretation and evaluation. And underlying his overestimated sensibility is a patronizing attitude toward all the little people who do not have quite his olympian perspective. Israeli Jews, he tells us in one passage, are closer to the West because their symbol, the star, is close to the cross, “both of which are full of sharp, angled turns. The symbol of the Muslim East is the crescent moon — a wide, soft, ambiguous arc.” From such entirely dubious materials he draws conclusions roughly equivalent in explanatory power to theories about a natural sense of rhythm among inferior races that have been discredited at least since World War II. A little later in the book Friedman informs Palestinians that they do not belong to the “biblical super story through which the West looks at the world” — when you come to think of it, not many people have that privilege — and they are “lucky” to have had the Jews as their enemy.

    Inside this serenely untroubled cocoon of the purest race prejudice the Friedmanian sensibility ambles from subject to subject. When he arrives finally at the vexed problem of press coverage, he warns us that the media are unfair in their relentless fixation on Israel (this from the journalist-author of a 600-page book on the subject), then he compliments the Israelis on manipulating the media brilliantly, then he blathers on about Israeli troops beating up three-year-olds, and how that vigorous form of outdoor exercise provides them with self-knowledge! Friedman seems to have no inkling that people were and have been killed or beaten when he and his media colleagues were not there to report the story, or that such things as imperialism, or demography, or conflicting ideas played a role while he wasn’t around to comment on the case. He does not seem quite to have apprehended that other peoples besides Westerners with sharp-angled symbols and superstories might have had a sense of nationhood, or that when a whole society is shattered and its people dispersed and stripped of their lands, it might on its own, without a Biblical superstory or a sharp Western symbol, try to reforge itself and create a new independent society.

    One would not fault as seriously From Beirut to Jerusalem for its numerous shortcomings were it not that as a collection of anecdotes or as a report on his own apparently omnicompetent sensibility Friedman’s writing aspires to an almost regal authority and inclusiveness. There is little self-irony, no twinge of doubt in what he ladles out; mockery and sarcasm are reserved entirely for local Arabs and Jews, not for earnest Times reporters. Read his prescriptions at the end of the book and you will quickly realize that Friedman has internalized the norms, if not the powers, of the secretary of state not just of the United States, but of all humanity. Do this, he tells the Israelis; do this, he tells the Palestinians; do this, he tells the Americans — and anyone else who happens to be listening in. His formulas suggest that everyone should try for limits and realism, except, of course, Friedman himself.

    His book would have been more interesting had his account of himself included some narrative of how he achieved such awesome powers, or of how being a reporter for the Times in the Middle East elevates one to institutional status, or of how the selection of what’s fit to print (for example, Friedman’s use of the word indiscriminate to describe Israel’s 1982 bombing of Beirut was removed by then Times editor A. M. Rosenthal; Friedman makes no mention of the episode in his book) has a lot to do with what is considered “important” by various powers and interests. I would have also liked to read his opinion of the wall-to-wall coverage of terrorist Shaikh Obeid’s kidnapping in which the fact that Israel has been in military occupation of a handsome swathe of South Lebanon is almost totally suppressed by the Times and all the other independent U.S. media, along with the fact that although Obeid is an unattractive clerical zealot, he hasn’t been concretely accused of any greater or more specific “terrorism” than fighting the Israeli military who have taken over his homeland. Or then again I’d like to have read Friedman’s account of how the Times’s editorial pages are dominated by the opinions of William Safire and A. M. Rosenthal (whom Friedman credits with having helped his career), opinions about the Muslims and Arabs that could not be printed about any other people on earth.

    A treatment of these facts would have been fairer and perhaps less grand than asking Arabs and Jews to bear the brunt of Friedman’s ponderous judgments on their infractions and departures from the essences and fates decreed for them by Friedman and his dubious authorities. Yet despite the distorting prism of his official self, Friedman does indeed have an understanding of how people hang on — e.g., the young Palestinian defenders of Beirut in 1982 — or of how a self-serving myth of victimization still controls the Israeli self-image. Compassion and affection thus occasionally get through Friedman’s remorseless machine, but the really curious thing is how little he seems to be interested in these genuine accomplishments, and how much more determined he is to be an all-knowing White Father composing the ultimate how-to-do-it book for the Middle East.

    Published in The Village Voice, October 17, 1989.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this review. Belen Fernandez is extremely courageous to have written this as her first major project. As you can see from the comment, people are scared even to think truthfully for themselves. Verso was great to publish her and all the great blogs such as Pulsemedia.org and yourselves for reviewing her work. I feel very optimistic that Friedman’s fuzzy analysis will be seen for what it is soon enough.

  3. Janab Sahib,

    It is time for us Pakistani danishwar hazraat to come to terms with a simple fact “There are a lot of of pro-Israel writers in America”. We do not need to cry big tears if one of them pens an essay in support of Israel. That tiny country is no threat to us because we as a nation are no threat to them. Why we must involve in someone else’s fight? Especially when Arabs never cared about us crying over Palestine.

    We have enough of trouble at home. It is time we kiss the big rock of Pali-Israli fight, goodbye.

    On the other topic of economics, Tom F represented global exuberance of the 90s like so many others including 1000s of Indians, Chinese, South Koreans, and Japanese and the residents of Dubai.

    Money was aplenty and the whole world seems to be reaping the fruits of globalized trade. Now that the bubble is burst, Western economies are going through correction, Tom Friedmans of this world will be writing about something different.

    That’s how the world goes. I never bought into flat earth of Tom, but give him a break. Will ya?

    Pakistanis must learn to calm down then figure out how we can improve our country’s financial situation.

    For us Pakistanis, shouting on or about Tom Friedman won’t help. Working hard like South Koreans, Chinese, and Indians will.

    Thank you

    Dr. Qazi

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