By John Robertson, Professor of History, Central Michigan University
With the publication of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Verso Press inaugurated a new series, called Counterblasts, with the intention of reviving a tradition of polemic that it traces back to the fiery political pamphleteers of the 17th century. Obviously, then, Ms. Fernandez was not supposed to produce an impartial, dispassionate analysis of the collected works of the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning chief foreign affairs correspondent. Rather, she has come up with something that the American public in general (and students of US foreign affairs and public diplomacy especially) undoubtedly need more: a systematic, detailed take-down of the neo-liberal bias, myopic US-Israeli chauvinism, and general intellectual shallowness that almost scream to be noticed in Friedman’s writing. Yet, lamentably, Friedman has been enshrined as a sort of American “Everyman’s” go-to guy for understanding what’s happening in the world, what needs fixing, and how “we” can and should do it.
Fernandez’s take-down is based on an almost exhaustive winnowing of Friedman’s NY Times columns as well as his several best-selling books (starting with his 1989 From Beirut to Jerusalem). She structures her presentation within three principal yet frequently overlapping categories of Friedman’s supposed expertise: America, the Arab/Muslim World, and the Special Relationship (i.e., the US-Israel relationship). Throughout, she bolsters her arguments with detail so profuse and tightly packed that a brief review such as this can hardly do it justice. But from that skein of specifics Fernandez is able to draw out specific tropes, methods, and assumptions that are woven throughout Friedman’s work:
- “USA! USA!” : The United States is almost always (and, in Friedman’s view, most obviously) the right model for the rest of the world, and “we” have the right and obligation to fix the world – the Middle East, in particular – whenever and wherever we choose. Just as obviously the right model is Neoliberal free-market capitalism and globalization; just ask the countless factory owners and local elites who tend to be Friedman’s go-to people for sourcing his analyses.
- “They” can “Suck.On.This”: Especially when it comes to the Middle East, Friedman’s prescriptions (all too often posited as what “we should do”) frequently combine the aforementioned assumption that America has the right “to do” something with the swaggering machismo that comes with knowing that “we” have the biggest and shiniest tools in the military box. Teddy Roosevelt spoke of America walking softly and carrying a big stick. Thomas Friedman, on the other hand, has been too eager for “us” to whomp someone (usually a Middle Eastern someone) with that stick, and in the aftermath trumpet “Suck on This” (as he did so infamously during an interview with Charlie Rose after the US invasion of Iraq).
- When push comes to shove, Israel good, Arabs bad. Surely, Friedman has written critically of Israeli policies at times, and he deserves credit for doing so. But over the long haul, he has maintained an almost bred-from-birth conviction in the rightness of Zionism and Israel that he seems completely unable to examine or question. Individual Israelis whom he singles out tend to be heroes, in his estimation. Unfortunately, Friedman consistently couples that with a tendency (which Fernandez is able to spotlight consistently in Friedman’s work) toward a homogenizing reductionism and essentializing of Muslims, Arabs, and “their” culture that would make Bernard Lewis or Fouad Ajami proud. Nor does Friedman’s work tend to demonstrate much breadth or real depth in his understanding of Middle Eastern history. That’s surprising – and disappointing – in the work of someone who undertook Middle East studies at both Brandeis and Oxford. It’s also why the vast majority of mainstream scholars of modern Middle Eastern history cite his work only as a target for criticism.
- Collateral damage. Friedman’s work all too often reflects his seeming refusal to recognize – or inability to empathize with – the suffering and human toll taken by US and Israeli military action. In Friedman’s world view, death and destruction (unless it happens to Americans or Israelis) is all collateral damage for the greater good. This stands in stark contrast to the work of other journalists (such as Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Robert Fisk, and Nir Rosen, all of whom Fernandez recognizes) whose work reflects not only their long experience “on the ground” in the Middle East, but also their much greater capacity to bring basic humanity to bear in their commentary and analyses.
Ironically, among the foremost in this regard was Friedman’s late colleague at the New York Times, Anthony Shadid. (One wonders if they had much contact with each other; it surely doesn’t show in Friedman’s work.) Shadid possessed a remarkable ability to connect with people on the ground, and seemingly in their souls, and then to share those encounters in lyrical, moving prose. Fernandez’s prose, though surely not as lyrical as Shadid’s, is in its own way very moving. It is more precise and intense – and often searingly sarcastic. It is also suffused with impassioned conviction that sometimes bleeds into anger and even ad hominem put-downs that, one might argue, detract from the incisiveness of her analysis.
Nonetheless, what Belen Fernandez makes plain as she scalpels into Friedman’s opus is that his position atop the pyramid of the American foreign-affairs commentariate rests more on attitude than on intellect. Moreover – and much more troubling – it is symptomatic of biases that widely infect the American mainstream media’s coverage of the US’s actions, policies, and attitudes toward the rest of the world in general, and the Middle East in particular.
Fernandez’s book deserves to be read widely and discussed in depth. After doing so, one may be much less prepared to say the same for the work of Thomas Friedman.