Friday, January 18, 2013

It Is No Longer Fun to Laugh at Thomas Friedman

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Over the last few years, I have occasionally poked fun at New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman.  Plenty of people do.  He is a bad joke, a phenomenon unto himself, selling millions of books to people who somehow are able to convince themselves that a series of non sequiturs and meaningless anecdotes -- published under almost-clever-sounding titles that do not even say what he apparently means them to say -- add up to something other than incoherent drivel.  And the self-importance.  Oh, the self-importance!

As part of my most recent reference to some prime Friedman nonsense (in my "Fake Centrism, Part 1" post on December 27), I provided a link to a "Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Generator," which Professor Dorf had brought to my attention.  It is hilarious.  After I wrote that post, one of my research assistants sent me a link to the Salon writer Alex Pareene's annual "Hack List," which included a take-down of Friedman (and the much less annoying Nicholas Kristof)  For those who are frustrated by the deplorable op-ed writing in America's major newspapers, the Hack List is cathartic (and addictive).  (Pareene is also the author of the "Simpson-Bowles is Magic" column that I quoted in "Fake Centrism, Part 2.")

All of which actually can be a lot of fun.  After I linked to the Hack List, my sense of excitement grew, as I realized that there are so many people who have eviscerated Friedman.  I also learned that there is an even worse group of hacks on the Washington Post's op-ed page, as well as others at various media outlets.  Mostly, it is a matter of wonderment that these people still have jobs.  Seriously, if someone could explain in a satisfying way (that is, other than clubbiness and inertia) how these people are not all fired immediately, they could solve one of the mysteries of modern American life.  In the meantime, it all seemed like harmless fun.

Inevitably, however, one remembers that these people -- and Friedman in particular -- are very, very influential.  Just last week, after another of Friedman's cringe-inducing pro-austerity rants (this one pairing the wisdom of environmental conservatism with the faux wisdom of budgetary conservatism), I happened to make the acquaintance of a man who holds a position of some influence in Democratic circles.  (He is not a White House insider, by any means, but he is the kind of person who reads the NYT and who is the target audience for Very Serious People.)  He, like a letter-writer to the Times, was quite impressed by Friedman's column, content-free though it was.  The damaging conventional wisdom comes from somewhere, and it remains unchallenged for a reason.  Friedman plays a crucial role in that cycle.

Even so, what was the worst that one could say about Friedman?  It is not exactly his fault that he has not been fired and publicly shamed.  Yes, he is an incredible hypocrite, preaching to people about the need to "tighten our belts" and use fewer of the earth's resources, all the while living in his billionaire-heiress wife's ultra-mansion.  Still, that makes him at worst a creep.

The problem with following the links in the various Hack List posts is that one eventually stumbles upon something truly horrifying, and about which one was previously blissfully ignorant.  I had not, for example, known about CNN host Erin Burnett's shocking comments (uttered three years ago tomorrow) in response to a suggestion by Donny Deutsch that maybe the big US banks should pay a profits tax to help fund the rebuilding of Haiti.  Burnett's loud, angry reaction: "Hold on, Donny! What would they do with ALL THAT MONEY down there in Haiti?!"  (As one critic later put it: "I'm sure they could think of something.")

(This reminds me of a satirical TV show I saw years ago, in which a rich woman's gardener asks for a raise.  The woman's response: "Oh, Jose, why do you need more money?"  "To put clothes on my children's backs, ma'am."  "Now Jose, I've seen the way your family dresses.  It just can't cost much money to buy those things!")

So this is no longer funny, and really quite disgusting.  One can argue with Deutsch's suggestion on various grounds, but Burnett's comments (which, at best, can be read in context as saying that aid money is poorly spent) are a parody of smug, self-satisfied American greed and selfishness.

That, however, is nothing compared to Thomas Friedman's low point.  Some readers might have already known about this, given that it happened almost ten years ago, but it was new to me.  Friedman was being interviewed on Charlie Rose's show after "Mission Accomplished" was in the books, but the "peace" was not going well.  Friedman defended his enthusiastic support for the Iraq War.  (Yes, I know that Friedman ultimately seemed to apologize for his pro-war stance, but he quickly reverted to saying that it could have been the democracy-building success, with freedom flowering in the desert, that he had claimed all along that it actually would be.)

Before reading further, I encourage you to watch the three-minute video:  Seriously, this is something that must be seen.  Readers who wish to continue to think of Friedman as a relatively harmless buffoon should turn away.

This actually made it difficult for me to breathe, after I watched it the first time.  It starts out innocently enough, with Friedman's patented oh-so-serious demeanor on full display.  He defends the war by making a classic Friedmanesque list of three "bubbles" that he had identified from the 1990's: the NASDAQ bubble, the corporate governance bubble, and the terrorism bubble -- the first two based on creative accounting, and the last based on "moral creative accounting."  This is inane, but not really much worse than his gems like "the world is flat" or his penchant for drawing life lessons from taxi drivers in foreign cities.

But honestly, I cannot imagine anything uglier than his actual argument in that interview:

"What we needed to do was go over to that part of the world, I'm afraid, and burst that bubble.  We needed to go over there, basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble.  And there was only one way to do it.  ... And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand?  You don't think we care about our open society?  You think this bubble fantasy -- we're just gonna let it grow?  Well suck on this!'  OK?  That, Charlie, was what this war was about.  We coulda hit Saudi Arabia.  It was part of that bubble.  Coulda hit Pakistan.  We hit Iraq because we could.  That's the real truth."

How does one even begin to assess the moral degradation that this represents?  He readily admits that the people who were dying in Iraq as a result of an invasion (an invasion that was justified with nothing but lies), who were guilty of nothing, and whose government was not responsible for the terrorist attacks on the United States, were being killed simply so that Americans could feel like we had made an example of some people who live in that part of the world.  The seething moral certitude that Friedman conveys seals the deal.  Other than tossing in a quick "I'm afraid" in the midst of that psychopathic bilge, he is clearly pleased with what had happened.

I do not know if Friedman has ever tried to recant or in any way reinterpret what he said.  It does not matter.  This was not an off-the-cuff comment, uttered in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (which would still not justify it).  This was the closest that Friedman ever gets to thinking things through.  In his moral universe, randomly selecting a country to invade, because we could, is justified.  And in his warped vision, when those American boys and girls were going door to door, presumably shooting those innocent people, our soldiers were supposedly saying on our behalf: "Suck on this!"

I do apologize to those readers who were unaware of this.  There is a serious loss of innocence here.  Normally, ten-year-old clips are of minor interest, at best.  But this is just so sick that it permanently changes how one must view Thomas L. Friedman.  He is not funny.  He is not a buffoon.  Re-read what he said.  Watch the video again.  This is moral depravity.  This is not a man to be laughed at.