Thomas Friedman is a big noise in US journalism. His columns in the New York Times have launched him into the stratosphere of ‘court journalists’ who today ensure that a tradition of imperial boosterism holds sway in the US media. Friedman is considered a (if not the) leading commentator on international relations in the US. His columns are reprinted all over the English-speaking world. He is widely sought after as an ‘expert’ by the TV networks from the rabidly conservative Fox to the liberal(ish) Public Broadcasting Service. He is a best-selling author of several books including the oft-reprinted and oft-updated From Beirut to Jerusalem, which first hit the stands in 1989. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes in all, the most recent in 2002 for ‘clarity of vision’ when commenting on the ‘worldwide impact of the terrorist threat’. He is a man widely regarded as having the ear of those in power.
Friedman is a real enthusiast when it comes to corporate globalization. His most recent books – The World is Flat and The Lexus and the Olive Tree – are serenades to the power and possibilities of this brave new world. In The World is Flat the ever-creative Friedman coined the phrase ‘zippies’ to describe his latest heroes of the age of globalization – the children of burgeoning Indian and Chinese capitalism. His euphoria reaches incredible heights, as in ‘soon everyone will have a virtual seat on the New York Stock Exchange’ – which will for sure be welcome news to those Haitians surviving on less than a dollar a day in Port-au-Prince’s Cité de Soleil slums.
Not that Friedman doesn’t see the problems. He lays out the disruption and despair but then shrugs and says there is no choice but to get with the programme. This is his strength as a booster. He has understood your doubts but assures you there is no real need to worry. Friedman admits problems (marginalization of the poor, destruction of traditional security protections, despoiling the environment) but then goes on to discount them. It’s a kind of ‘bait and switch’ strategy – talk about the problems but then propose more of the neoliberal same as the only possible solution. And for those who persist in their foolhardy opposition he has no time. He characterizes the anti-globalization movement as ‘a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix’. He repeddles a lot of free trade nostrums from the British-based business weekly The Economist portraying these new social movements as ‘The Coalition to Keep the World’s Poor People Poor’.
Friedman’s enthusiasm for globalization leads quite naturally to a worry about the security needed to keep markets free – for without these no real democracy is, after all, even thinkable. To achieve this he has stepped up to the plate as a champion of a muscular US military presence in the world and a champion of the occupation of Iraq. He happily throws away his liberal credentials and embraces the hawkish US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld: ‘He is just a little bit crazy, and in this kind of war, they always count on being able to out-crazy us, and I’m glad that we’ve got some guy on our bench – who’s just a little bit crazy, not totally, but you never know what the guy is going to do, and I say that’s my guy.’ Great – our own Al-Zaqawi with real weapons of mass destruction this time.
But Friedman is, after all, an expert on the ‘Arab mind’. It is on the Middle East beat that he earned his spurs. His previous two Pulitzer Prizes were for his coverage of the region: the first in 1983 for his reporting on the Israeli invasion of Beirut and the second for overall regional coverage in From Beirut to Jerusalem. His coverage of the Middle East can be insightful and balanced. He obviously knows more about this than he does about the slippery economics of globalization. He recognizes the grievances of the region’s poor and alienated, particularly those of the Palestinians. His recent warning that Sharon’s policy (the Wall institutionalizing a West Bank land-grab) is backing Israel into a de facto one-state solution and a demographic squeeze that will end up endangering the Jewish character of the state, is a good example.
For Friedman any resistance from below is futile, the Palestinian intifada is a ‘reckless, pointless, foolish adventure’. When he shifts to Arab society and politics you can almost see him shrug his shoulders in ‘knowing despair’. He wrings his hands over the sad difficulty in ‘producing a self-sustaining, multiethnic democracy in the region’. He has no doubt that this is the work the Pentagon has set itself and strongly urges ‘staying the course’ in Iraq whatever the faint-of-heart may say.
Friedman is obviously a man of the greatest self-regard. His personal website claims that The World is Flat is a ‘brilliant new book’ and The Lexus and the Olive Tree a ‘brilliant investigation of globalization.’ But it must be said that others go to great lengths to pump up his ego. When he appeared a couple of years ago on the national TV show Hardball, host Chris Matthews closed the interview with: ‘You are the future, my man. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.’ Friedman: ‘Thanks, Bro.’ Matthews: ‘The smartest columnist in the world!’
Smart, maybe. But intelligent?