Tom Friedman’s War on Humanity

Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, once offered the following insight into his modus operandi: “I often begin writing columns by interviewing myself.”

Some might see this as an unsurprising revelation in light of Edward Said’s appraisal: “It’s as if . . . what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks.”

According to Friedman, the purpose of the auto-interviews is merely to analyze his feelings on certain issues. Given that his feelings tend to undergo drastic inter- and sometimes intra-columnar modifications, one potentially convenient byproduct of such an approach to journalism is the impression that Friedman interviews many more people than he actually does.

For example, while one of Friedman’s alter-egos considered blasphemous the “Saddamist” notion that the Iraq war had anything to do with oil, another was of the opinion that the war was “partly about oil,” and another appeared to be under the impression that it was entirely about oil, assigning the blame for US troop deaths in Fallujah to Hummer proprietors. Despite Friedman’s identification as “a liberal on every issue other than this war,” competing layers of his persona defined said conflict as “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched” as well as part of a “neocon strategy.”

Other novel interviewing techniques employed by Friedman have meanwhile resulted in anthropological discoveries such as that “[t]he people of Sri Lanka” understand that it is “stupid” to oppose US-directed corporate globalization, which our columnist learns by chatting with the owner of a Victoria’s Secret factory in the village of Pannala in 1999. Friedman testifies that, “in terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work in” the factory — an offer that is not revisited in 2012 when Friedman produces a glowing report on an Apple factory in China.

The gist of the report is that, because the factory reached a daily output level of over 10,000 iPhones simply by rousing 8,000 workers from their dormitories in the middle of the night and administering them each a biscuit and cup of tea, Americans must understand that “average is officially over.” Friedman’s exuberance at the above-average abilities of the Chinese factory workers is occasioned by a “terrific article in The Times by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher about why Apple does so much of its manufacturing in China.” The fact that the same Duhigg produces another co-authored article four days after the terrific one — in which other aspects of Apple factory life in China are discussed, such as explosions, exposure to poisonous chemicals, and worker internment in overcrowded dormitories surrounded by safety netting to impede suicides — raises questions about what sub-average American laborers will have to do to woo jobs back to the US.

This is not to imply that none of Friedman’s personalities harbors any potential sympathy for the concept of workers’ rights. In a 2001 column, for example, he acknowledges that “human beings simply are not designed to be like computer servers. For one thing, they are designed to sleep eight hours a night.” (In the same column, his own above-average qualifications in fields like journalism, technology, and logic are cast into doubt with his reasoning: “I still can’t program my VCR; how am I going to program my toaster?”)

In The World Is Flat, a 660-page treatise on globalization written under the supervision of corporate CEOs, Friedman meanwhile manages a rare favorable citation of someone whose weltanschauung exists in fundamental opposition to his own. Despite such personal convictions as that “[t]he most important thing [Ronald] Reagan did was break the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, which helped break the hold of organized labor over the US economy,” that “the easier it is to fire people, the more willing companies are to hire people,” and — more recently — that “we are entering an era where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people,” Friedman writes approvingly:

In her 2004 book, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, journalist Liza Featherstone followed the huge women’s discrimination suit against Wal-Mart. In an interview about the book with (November 22, 2004), she made the following important point: ‘American taxpayers chip in to pay for many full-time Wal-Mart employees because they usually require incremental health insurance, public housing, food stamps — there are so many ways in which Wal-Mart employees are not able to be self-sufficient. This is very ironic, because Sam Walton is embraced as the American symbol of self-sufficiency… If anything, Wal-Mart should be crusading for national health insurance. They should at least be acknowledging that because they are unable to provide these things for their employees, we should have a more general welfare state.’

Of course, Friedman’s second-hand ode to workers’ and citizens’ rights occurs approximately 100 pages after his enraptured discussion of “‘the Wal-Mart Symphony’ in multiple movements — with no finale,” which is how he characterizes the company’s perfected cycle of “delivery, sorting, packing, distribution, buying, manufacturing, reordering, delivery, sorting, packing…”

Wal-Mart is furthermore honored in the book as “one of the ten forces that flattened the world,” an honor that appears even more out of place when Friedman pleads that isolation and insularity are in fact the cause of flagrant workers’ rights violations on the part of the world-flattening symbol of global integration:

“It is hard to exaggerate how isolated Bentonville, Arkansas [the location of Wal-Mart HQ], is from the currents of global debate on labor and human rights, and it is easy to see how this insular company, obsessed with lowering prices, could have gone over the edge in some of its practices.”

One example Friedman provides of a possible over-the-edge Wal-Mart practice is that “of locking overnight workers into its stores.” Given his recent elation with regard to midnight practices at the Apple factory in China, however — especially when juxtaposed with his assessment in The World Is Flat according to which “Wal-Mart is the China of companies” — it seems that the Arkansas-based behemoth may have instead been demonstrating a commitment to cutting-edge labor policies.

I meanwhile had the fortune to meet Liza Featherstone in person a few weeks ago and thus did not have to rely on an interview with myself to determine how she felt about her cameo in Friedman’s magnum opus. According to Featherstone, the disproportionate reader response she received after appearing in one paragraph of the tome was a rude awakening as to the extent of Friedman’s reach.

As for other beneficiaries of the Friedmanian reach aside from laborers cavorting to the tune of the Wal-Mart Symphony, these include Afghan civilians who, in exchange for being slaughtered by US weaponry, earn immortalization inside quotation marks on the pages of the New York Times in 2001:

“Think of all the nonsense written in the press — particularly the European and Arab media — about the concern for ‘civilian casualties’ in Afghanistan. It turns out many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52’s to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not.”

Friedman does not divulge the source of his insights into Afghan prayers, though the tried and true auto-interview is certainly a possibility. Friedman’s foray into Umm Qasr, Iraq, a month after the 2003 invasion meanwhile turns up further evidence of the inadvisability of seeking indigenous opinions on relevant issues: “It would be idiotic to even ask Iraqis here how they felt about politics. They are in a pre-political, primordial state of nature.”

The following month, Friedman appeared on public television, and — despite having recently debunked the notion of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden — proceeded to outline the “real reason” for returning Iraq to the primordial era: Iraqi citizens needed to “Suck. On. This” as punishment for 9/11. Other popular Friedmanian fatwas issued over the years have ranged from the determination that Palestinians are “gripped by a collective madness” to the idea that Israel’s mass bombing of Lebanese civilians in 2006 “was not pretty, but it was logical” to the notion that Iraqis do not “deserve such good people [i.e. the US military, i.e. the administrators of the ‘Suck. On. This’ directive] if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids.”

Friedman’s predilection for delivering haughty apocalyptic lectures to the over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world who are not suicide bombers leads to the coinage of such proverbs as: “A civilization that does not delegitimize suicide bombing against any innocent civilian is itself committing suicide.” It is not explained why the — historically more lethal — US tradition of non-suicidal bombing of innocent civilians poses no civilizational risks, or why an American columnist who regularly encourages the killing of Muslims is not thrown into the same category as Muslims who kill other Muslims: “completely disconnected from humanity.”

Friedman has done a superb job of delegitimizing himself as a journalist by peddling an array of schizophrenic postulates against a solid backdrop of warmongering apologetics on behalf of empire and capital. It says much about the dismal state of contemporary journalism that his unabashed advocacy for collective punishment, both military and economic, has facilitated rather than jeopardized his prominent perch at the US newspaper of record, his elevation to the rank of Top Global Thinker by Foreign Policy magazine, and his occasional service as dispenser of personal advice to Barack Obama.

It is unlikely that Friedman will ever begin a column by interviewing himself about why his expressions of human empathy are reserved for events such as mealtime in the dining hall at the US military base in Kirkuk and the adoption of “proglobalization” strategies by China, India, and Ireland — which, we are told in The World Is Flat, prompts him to “get a little lump in my throat.”

We might thus take the liberty of casting Friedman in the role of “supply chain” in the following scenario, which he offers in response to Featherstone’s critique of Wal-Mart but which is just as applicable to a discussion of the corporate media symphony starring the New York Times: “[W]hen you totally flatten your supply chain, you also take a certain element of humanity out of life.”