Friday, October 28, 2011

Thomas Friedman Skewered in New Book

Nice to see that someone has finally sat down with all of Thomas Friedman's columns since the 1990s, analyzed them thoroughly, and held them up for some well-deserved - and much overdue - scrutiny.  From Jadaliyya, a portion of a conversation with Belen Fernandez, author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work:

I was of course already familiar with the general characteristics of Friedman’s writing—hubris, clichéd jingoism, Orientalism, favoritism of Israel, self-contradiction, a severe handicap in the realm of metaphor construction, reduction of complex phenomena to simplistic and baseless theories. However, reviewing three decades of his work made it clear just how frightening, as opposed to simply laughable, it was that such a character had accrued three Pulitzer Prizes and risen to the position of journalistic icon at the US newspaper of record.

Though in earlier decades Friedman was often constrained to writing about innocuous topics, such as “Iowa Beef Revolutionized Meat-Packing Industry” (published in the New York Times in 1981), his post-1995 incarnation as a foreign affairs columnist—or, in his words, as a “tourist with an attitude”—has intermittently evolved into a license to prescribe military onslaughts and collective punishment, generally in the Arab/Muslim world, in obvious violation of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting such practices.

Consider, for example, his decree in a column published a few days prior to Israel’s devastation of Jenin in 2002 that “Israel needs to deal a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.” Or consider his suggestion during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 that Israel should repeat the strategy it employed in Lebanon in 2006, when the IDF supposedly achieved “the education of Hezbollah” by “exact[ing] enough pain on [Lebanese] civilians…to restrain Hezbollah in the future.”

As Foreign Policy aptly notes in its justification for awarding Friedman slot number thirty-three in the 2010 list of the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers: “Friedman doesn’t just report on events; he helps shape them.”

Indeed.  And not for the better, I would submit.

Ms. Fernandez devotes attention as well to Friedman's first major book, From Beirut to Jerusalem - which, I now shamefully confess, I adopted as required course reading for the first iteration (mid-1980s) of my undergrad survey course on the history of the Middle East from Muhammad to the Present.  Although I was the creator of the course, I was then just beginning to get some footing in the material I was teaching.  I also was mystified when told later that two of my students (both of them Muslims) had gone to my department chair to complain that I was having the class read a book that, in their estimation, was so biased.

Of course, it didn't take me long to figure out why.  But bear in mind, I was at the time (like millions of other Americans of my generation) still laboring under the impression that the movie Exodus (starring Paul Newman, Sal Mineo, etc., with John Derek - perhaps most famous as later the hubby of short-term hottie starlet Bo Derek - playing the role of the only English-speaking, "good" Arab) was a gem of history-based movie-making that might be suitable for classroom screening as a reliable depiction of the events of 1947-1949.  

Yes, I was indeed that naive, and that stupid - but I never did screen Exodus for that course.  But I might, someday - but for reasons for which its producer (or Leon Uris, who wrote the book upon which the movie was based) never intended.

And if I knew where those two former students were now, I just might send them a personal check to refund them the money I made them waste on buying Friedman's book.

Meanwhile, Ms. Fernandez's book just might be worth a look.

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