Taking on Thomas Friedman, New York Times Imperial Messenger

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The Imperial Messenger

Thomas Friedman is the New York Times' three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist, known for his sustained cheerleading of the Iraq war and his faithful service on behalf of the corporate elite.

In this excerpt from The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Belén Fernández discusses various aspects of Friedmanomics, such as his detection in 2010 of the need for a "Root Canal Politics" to compensate for the global financial recession and the profligacy of the baby boomer generation-defined simultaneously as the offspring of "The Greatest Generation" and the offspring of "the Tooth Fairy."

Writing in the context of the hung parliament in the UK and the Greek riots in opposition to forthcoming draconian austerity measures, Friedman declares:

"Britain and Greece are today's poster children for the wrenching new post-Tooth Fairy politics, where baby boomers will have to accept deep cuts to their benefits and pensions today so their kids can have jobs and not be saddled with debts tomorrow. Otherwise, we're headed for intergenerational conflict throughout the West."

Friedman does not delve into the details of what exactly a Western intergenerational conflict would involve or why it is more worrisome than an inter-class conflict or an international "war of choice" on Iraq costing the United States an estimated $3 trillion. As journalist Joshua Holland points out, Friedman's proclaimed "meta-story" explaining why the events in the UK and Greece may soon be "coming to a theater near you" fails to consider the possibility that 90 percent of U.S. public debt results from past military spending.

Instead, we learn that the Tooth Fairy is to blame for engaging in "bogus accounting" and for "deluding us into thinking that by borrowing from China or Germany, or against our rising home values, or by creating exotic financial instruments to trade with each other, we were actually creating wealth." However, because we are now in a situation in which "that Tooth Fairy, she be dead," it apparently follows that the blame for Western debt must be reassigned:

"In Britain, everyone over 60 gets an annual allowance to pay heating bills and can ride any local bus for free. That's really sweet -- if you can afford it. But Britain, where 25 percent of the government's budget is now borrowed, can't anymore."

Aside from elderly bus riders, other culprits requiring retaliation include Greeks employed in hazardous professions who have been permitted early retirement with full pensions. As for those persons and firms who physically carried out the Tooth Fairy's bogus accounting and false creation of wealth, financial speculators are rehabilitated into "lords of discipline, the Electronic Herd of bond traders," also referred to as "Mr. Bond Market of Wall Street and the City of London." Mr. Bond Market is the Tooth Fairy's sole surviving sibling and the appointed custodian of her progeny -- i.e., the overseer of the job cuts, pay cuts, benefit cuts, education cuts, and entitlement cuts that will supposedly spare baby boomers the wrath of their own children.

Friedman's insistence on the necessity of these punitive measures would not seem to be entirely congruent with his definition of himself as an "Integrationist-Social-Safety-Netter," one of four identity options contained within the "Friedman matrix of globalization politics" devised in the 1990s. The "matrix" consists of two perpendicular lines, the "globalization line" and the "distribution axis." Friedman invites readers to discover their own compound identities by plotting whether they are Separatists or Integrationists on the first line and whether they are Social-Safety-Netters or Let-Them-Eat-Cakers on the second.

The metaphor-heavy discussion of the matrix in Friedman's (already metaphor-reliant) Lexus and the Olive Tree results in a cluttered scene of trampolines, trapezes, wheels, and turtles thrown in among Japanese luxury automobiles and olive trees. Suffice it to say that Integrationist-Social-Safety-Netters believe that "we still need traditional safety nets-social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and welfare-to catch those who simply will never be fast enough or educated enough to deal with the Fast World, but who you don't want just falling onto the pavement," since this would inhibit globalization. Let-Them-Eat-Cakers meanwhile believe that "globalization is essentially winner take all, loser take care of yourself."

Flash forward to 2009 and Friedman's recognition of the fact that the recession-inducing capitalist system wrongfully "relied upon the risks to the Market and to Mother Nature being under-priced and to profits being privatized in good times and losses socialized in bad times." That Friedman decides that the proper response to this scenario is to further socialize losses suggests the potential utility of a new matrix category such as the "Have-Your-Cake-And-Eat-It-Too-ers," especially given that Friedman has been aware at least since 1999 of the hazards of the system:

"Global financial crises will be the norm in this coming era. With the speed of change going on today, and with so many countries in different stages of adjustment to this new globalization system, crises will be endemic. So, dear reader, let me leave you with one piece of advice: Fasten your seat belts and put your seat backs and tray tables into a fixed and upright position. Because both the booms and the busts will be coming faster. Get used to it, and just try to make sure that the leverage in the system doesn't become so great in any one area that it can make the whole system go boom or bust."

Several years before determining that elderly patrons of the British public transportation system should absorb the fallout from the neoliberal airplane ride, Friedman announces his belief that "history will rank [Tony] Blair as one of the most important British prime ministers ever" for making British liberalism "about embracing, managing and cushioning globalization, about embracing and expanding freedom-through muscular diplomacy where possible and force where necessary-and about embracing fiscal discipline." Blair is alternately praised as the only adult in the room during UN deliberations about Iraq and as someone who is "always leav[ing] you with the impression that for him the Iraq war is just one hammer and one nail in an effort to do tikkun olam," a Kabbalah concept meaning "to repair the world."

The socialization of losses incurred via the adult-like forcible expansion of world-repairing freedom becomes a dubious business, however, when the columnist proposing it acknowledges that "in deciding to throw in Britain's lot with President Bush on the Iraq war, Mr. Blair not only defied the overwhelming antiwar sentiment of his own party, but public opinion in Britain generally." What is even more intriguing is that Friedman intends this as a reason Blair should be enshrined in history as a top British leader, and salutes his tenacity: "He had no real support group to fall back on. I'm not even sure his wife supported him on the Iraq war. (I know the feeling!)"

The resulting argument is that it is laudable to promote democracy abroad by anti-democratically taking your country to war.

Despite initially throwing in the towel on Iraq in 2006, Friedman continues in the midst of global recession to churn out justifications for the price tag of military excess, and announces in 2009 that, "as outrageously expensive and as uncertain the outcome, trying to build decent, pluralistic societies in places like Iraq is not as crazy as it seems." The evidence is that "few, if any, Indian Muslims are known to have joined Al Qaeda," which once again highlights how much better Friedman's time would be spent were he to cease repeatedly questioning whether Saddam's personality is a result of the nature of Iraqi society or vice versa and to instead focus his chicken-or-egg philosophical musings on what came first, the U.S. war or Al Qaeda in Iraq.

This excerpt is from The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. Reprinted with permission from Verso Books.

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