Gawker Book Club: 'The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work'
We enjoy pointing out to the world that mustachioed simpleton New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is, for the most part, a shockingly dull one-trick pony. Those searching for a more thorough and academic destruction of Friedman's career and philosophy would enjoy Belen Fernandez's "The Imperial Messenger," (part of Verso's "Counterblasts" series) an incisive dismantling of the man and his message.
Author Belen Fernandez will be answering your questions LIVE in the Gawker comment section—right now!! Below, an excerpt from the intro of "The Imperial Messenger." Then ask away, in the comments.
"The House Republicans don't seem to have noticed that today's U.N. is not the U.N. of the 1970s when the Soviets and their pals could pass a resolution that the world was flat." -Thomas Friedman, 1995
The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century -Thomas Friedman, 2005
In the first chapter of his bestseller on globalization, The World Is Flat, three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times Thomas Friedman suggests that his repertoire of achievements also includes being heir to Christopher Columbus. According to Friedman, he has followed in the footsteps of the fifteenth-century icon by making an unexpected discovery regarding the shape of the world during an encounter with "people called Indians."
Friedman's Indians reside in India proper, of course, not in the Caribbean, and include among their ranks CEO Nandan Nilekani of Infosys Technologies Limited in Bangalore, where Friedman has come in the early twenty-first century to investigate phenomena such as outsourcing and to exult over the globalization-era instructions he receives at the KGA Golf Club downtown: "Aim at either Microsoft or IBM." Nilekani unwittingly plants the flat-world seed in Friedman's mind by commenting, in reference to technological advancements enabling other countries to challenge presumed American hegemony in certain business sectors: "Tom, the playing field is being leveled."
The Columbus-like discovery process culminates with Friedman's conversion of one of the components of Nilekani's idiomatic expression into a more convenient synonym: "What Nandan is saying, I thought to myself, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? I rolled that word around in my head for a while and then, in the chemical way that these things happen, it just popped out: My God, he's telling me the world is flat!"
The viability of the new metaphor has already been called into question by Friedman's assessment two pages prior to the flat-world discovery that the Infosys campus is in fact "a different world," given that the rest of India is not characterized by things like a "massive resort-size swimming pool" and a "fabulous health club." No attention is meanwhile paid to the possibility that a normal, round earth-on which all circumferential points are equidistant from the center-might more effectively convey the notion of the global network Friedman maintains is increasingly equalizing human opportunity.
An array of disclaimers and metaphorical qualifications begins to surface around page 536, such that it ultimately appears that the book might have been more appropriately titled The World Is Sometimes Indefinitely Maybe Partially Flat-But Don't Worry, I Know It's Not, or perhaps The World Is Flat, Except for the Part That Is Un-Flat and the Twilight Zone Where Half-Flat People Live. As for his announcement that "unlike Columbus, I didn't stop with India," Friedman intends this as an affirmation of his continued exploration of various parts of the globe and not as an admission of his continuing tendency to err-which he does first and foremost by incorrectly attributing the discovery that the earth is round to the geographically misguided Italian voyager.
Leaving aside for the moment the blunders that plague Friedman's writing, the comparison with Columbus is actually quite apt in other ways, as well. For instance, both characters might be accused of transmitting a similar brand of hubris, nurtured by their respective societies, according to which "the Other" is permitted existence only via the discoverer-hero himself. While Columbus is credited with enabling preexisting populations on the American continent to enter the realm of true existence by reporting them to European civilization, Friedman assumes responsibility for the earth's inhabitants in general without literally having to encounter them.
As the world becomes ever more interconnected, Friedman appears to be under the impression that he is licensed to extrapolate observations of select demographic groups, such as Indian call center employees pleased with the opportunities provided them by U.S. corporations, and to issue pronouncements like the following on behalf of humanity: "Three United States are better than one, and five would be better than three." Not surprisingly, Friedman does not respond favorably when elements of humanity fail to internalize the aspirations he has assigned them, resulting in anthropological revelations such as that one of the impediments to freedom in the Arab world is "the wall in the Arab mind." Friedman explains in 2003 that "I hit my head against that wall" while conversing with Egyptian journalists who "could see nothing good coming from the U.S. ‘occupation' of Iraq" and who are thus written off as proponents of "Saddamism."
Friedman initially hocks the possibility of a democratizing war on Iraq as "the most important task worth doing and worth debating," based on a variety of fluctuating reasons, such as that "install[ing] a decent, tolerant, pluralistic, multi-religious government in Iraq… would be the best answer and antidote to both Saddam and Osama." However, Friedman himself reiterates that the real threat to "open, Western, liberal societies today" consists not of "the deterrables, like Saddam, but the undeterrables-the boys who did 9/11, who hate us more than they love life. It's these human missiles of mass destruction that could really destroy our open society." No compelling justification is ever provided for how a war against deterrables whose weapons are not the problem will solve the problem of undeterrables who are the weapons and who by definition cannot be deterred anyway. As for Friedman's speculation in a 1997 column that "Saddam Hussein is the reason God created cruise missiles," this is not entirely reconcilable with his suggestion in the very same article that Saddam be eliminated via "a head shot"-not generally a setting on such weaponry.
Though he never disputes the idea that war on Iraq was a "legitimate choice," Friedman gradually downgrades his war aims to "salvag[ing] something decent" in said country, while appearing to forget for varying stretches of time that the U.S. military is also still involved in a war in Afghanistan. Given the prominence of Friedman's perch at The New York Times, from which he is permitted to promote-and to disguise as pedagogical in nature-bellicose projects resulting in over one million Iraqi deaths to date, it is not at all far-fetched to resurrect the comparison with Columbus in order to suggest that the designated heir is also complicit in the decimation of foreign populations standing in the way of civilization's demands.
Any and all questions about Thomas Friedman go in the comments. You can buy "The Imperial Messenger" here.