Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. Belen Fernandez. Verso Books, London/New York, 2011.
Thomas Friedman is a writer whom I have avoided reading over the past several years, mainly due to my distinct disdain for his writing and his thinking. It was therefore very good to be able to read Imperial Messenger and be brought up to date on some of his current punditry.
I should have stayed with him, because in his own way he does reveal the true nature of the U.S. empire—arrogant, myopic, self-centered, and self-contradictory. My favorite quote from him, in the Lexus and the Olive Tree (Anchor/Knopf Doubleday, 1999), is amazing in that it is both so supremely right and supremely wrong at the same time:
“Indeed, McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. And these fighting forces and institutions are paid for by American taxpayer dollars.” (p. 464)
So supremely right in that it is true. So supremely right in that it is false.
It is true that the U.S. military backstops the U.S. economy around the world, although it is not quite the “hidden fist” that Friedman might want it to be. It has been doing so for centuries, from the slaughter of the indigenous people of North America, through the Spanish defeats in Mexico and later abroad, on into the wider spaces of Asia, until arriving at today’s global full spectrum dominance, or at least the attempt to get there. From railroad barons, through banana and sugar cane barons, and oil barons, all the way through to the barons of the financial world, the U.S. military has been part and parcel of the corporate consumer deal at home and abroad.
It is false in that Friedman intends this as a positive attribute of the U.S. system, one that is of benefit to the world, reflecting all the hubris and patriotic jingoism that the U.S. self-defines as being the “essential” country for its moral and democratic leadership. It is false in that it makes ‘free enterprise’ not so free and it makes democracy and liberty anything but the ability to pay homage to the great superlative ethics of the U.S.—or be destroyed attempting to deny them.
Happily, it only took Belen Fernandez nine pages to reach this quote in the first section of her book discussing Friedman’s views on the U.S. From there, she proceeds to display Friedman’s incessant lack of intelligent thought.
The Arab/Muslim world
Personally, the writing took on more importance when Fernandez began discussing the Arab/Muslim world, not that U.S. domestic postures do not affect the world. Rather than simply stating the obvious fallacies of his texts as she does in the first section, the Muslim/Arab section is more focused on deconstructing the nature of Friedman’s writing. While presenting to the reader her desire for a “better contextual understanding” of Friedman’s work, Fernandez places more emphasis “review[ing] certain defining characteristics of Friedman’s writing, as well as key historical events—namely 9/11—that have influenced his perspective.”
Immediately he is criticized as having a reliance “on overly simplistic and baseless analyses of international phenomenon”, and in a similar vein, for tending “to downplay the importance of the historical milieu in which populations exist and events occur.” Associated with this is “[t]he jingoistic bombast and sense of vicarious delight in military punishment” contained within his writing. The third characteristic comes from Friedman’s restrained recognition that some of the things the U.S. does are not the “best…this should not have a sustained negative impact on its global image or arouse undue suspicion about its present motives.” These characteristics are indicative of his position, a “testament to the advantages of having a news job in which one is not required to maintain a coherent discourse.”
Fernandez’ largest criticism is “Friedman’s intermittent reliance on infant terminology to analyze parts of the Arab/Muslim world…one manifestation of a tradition of unabashed Orientalism that discredits Arabs and Muslims as agents capable of managing their own destinies.” She divides his orientalism into pre- and post- 9/11 with the pre- 9/11 described as “a subtle tendency toward ethnic stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims”—although I would disagree here, as even from her own examples, it is rather blatant stereotyping.
Along with the language factor, Friedman “anchor[s] Oriental subjects in antiquity, where they remain in perpetual need of civilization by the West and its militaries.” Accompanying this “mission civilatrice” is Friedman’s interpretations of women and their role in both Arab/Muslim societies and their rescue by the U.S.
Other factors come into play, more general than the specifics of the Arab/Muslim world. She describes Friedman’s “failure to keep abreast of his own views on certain issues,” and his “institutionalized habit of self-contradiction.”
All that is truly criticized for the Arab/Muslim world remains true and even more seriously highlighted for Israel /Palestine. According to Fernandez, Friedman’s overall position is being “able to advertise himself as a serious critic of Israel while simultaneously reiterating that the nation ‘had me at hello,’” which “shifts the spectrum of permissible discourse such that any substantive criticism can be rejected as extremist.” Friedman himself is a self-confessed ‘Israelite’, and as a result “Someone who openly adopts a state founded on a policy of ethnic cleansing as a personal ‘badge of pride’ does not of course, qualify as an unbiased commentator on the Middle East.”
Other factors affect Friedman’s writing on Israel/Palestine. He operates with full double standards when it comes to Israel; his “predilection for double standards favoring Israel is visible time and again, as is his predilection for calling attention to double standards not favoring Israel.” His ability to change his arguments to suit his story is an example of “historical revisions” that also serve “to excise from the record his own previous reports.”
While discussing Friedman’s unquestioning support of U.S. support for Israel, Fernandez critically says “History may yet produce a term along the lines of ‘schizofriednia’ to signify self-contradiction, selective memory, and failure to integrate one’s thoughts.” Finally, she offers,
“Friedman’s warmongering, apologetics on behalf of empire and capital…attest to this representative role in Western mainstream media…largely composed of journalists who ‘perpetuate the dominant ideology’ and act as ‘the functional tools for a bourgeois ruling class.’”
But I much prefer Friedman’s own probably unrealized ironic statement on that issue: “When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact checking, we have a problem.”
I have not delved into the many detailed examples that support Fernandez’ arguments on the above statements. The work is readily accessible for any reader, whether familiar with criticism of empire or not. The many contradictions, bad metaphors, revisions, and other examples are so rapidly presented and intertwined that the worst danger is becoming dizzy with the confusion of ideas drawn from many different sources. For all that, Friedman is worth reading from an informed viewpoint, as he truly does represent the empire at its best in terms of apologetics, contradictions, arrogance, and misrepresentations of facts. However, Fernandez’ work, Imperial Messenger, should be the companion volume to any and all reading of Friedman.