I and I: The World According to Tom Friedman

Written by Alexander Cockburn on . Posted in Best of Manhattan, Posts.



I and I: The
World According to Tom Friedman


But Sulzberger had the graces
of an older world, the decorum of the chancery or the embassy dinner. He slipped
over the side quietly one day and was gone. I miss him, and sometimes, nodding
over the Times op-ed with eyes half closed, I fancy I can hear him still:
"I found some interest in both Cairo and Tel Aviv when I proposed the Rafa-Port
Suez line which was the actual frontier between Egypt and Ottoman Turkey at
the start of World War I… Italy might be heading towards a Chilean solution…
opening to the left… nor does time remain…"


Then came A.M. Rosenthal.
Not technically on the "foreign affairs" beat, but still piling up
the frequent-flyer miles. Do I miss him? Does one miss the lunatic on the corner,
his demented screams audible half a block away? But yes, Abe did have his magnificent
obsessions, like female circumcision in Africa, and his departure left a void,
notably in terms of vulgar self-assertiveness.


A void into which stepped
Tom Friedman. I can’t remember if Friedman actually replaced Rosenthal,
and it would be inaccurate to compare him to the lunatic on the corner. Friedman’s
is an industrial, implacable noise, like having a generator running under the
next table in a restaurant. The only sensible thing to do is leave.


In Friedman’s case
the opening sentence is usually enough. July 7: "With the Democratic Convention
around the corner, I would like to join those offering advice to Vice President
Al Gore." July 18: "Visiting Beirut for the first time in 16 years,
I was asked by Lebanese friends what my impression was. Two things stand out–one
new and exciting, the other new and troubling." And so off one scampers
as happily as a schoolboy cutting class.


Friedman exhibits on a weekly
basis one of the severest cases known to science of Lippmann’s condition,
named for the legendary journalistic hot-air salesman, Walter Lippmann, and
alluding to the inherent tendency of all pundits to swell in self-importance
to zeppelin-like dimensions. Friedman’s conceit is legendary. "I have
won not one, but two Pulitzer prizes, and I won’t stand for being called
a liar by the next president," George Stephanopoulos recalls in his memoir
Friedman as shouting down the phone during the Clinton transition in early 1993.


Over Washington dinner tables
people delightedly swap stories about Friedman’s monumental conceit. Not
so long ago St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, held an anniversary bash. During
one session in which a passel of alumni offered their reflections on the state
of the world, Friedman finally burst out, "I’ve got the best job in
the world, and you’re all jealous of me!"


From time to time Treasury
Secretary Larry Summers holds soirees at which pundits and wonks in high standing
muster to chew the fat and ponder the great issues of the day. The morning after
such a session Friedman called one of Summers’ assistants to offer his
postmortem. He had found it irksome, he said, to listen to opinions other than
those of Treasury Secretary Summers and himself. Surely it would have more edifying
for the company, Friedman confided, if the evening had consisted simply of a
dialogue between the two great men.


Just as C.L. Sulzberger
grazed happily across the Olympus of decaying Balkan monarchs, Friedman is never
happier than when foraging in corporate suites. Open The Lexus and the Olive
Tree
to almost any page and one finds something like this: "In October
1995, I flew out to Redmond, Washington, to interview Microsoft’s number-two
man, president Steve Ballmer, in order to ask him one simple question."
(So why didn’t he e-mail him?) "In the summer of 1998, Guilherme Frering,
chairman of the board of the giant Brazilian mining company Caemi Minerção
e Metalurgia, described for me the incredible changes in Brazil’s economy…"


It’s not just that
there are a great many uses of the first person pronoun in Friedman’s work
(e.g., 20 uses of the first person singular by Friedman in the course of one
34-line paragraph that begins on page 20 of the paperback reissue of The
Lexus and the Olive Tree
). This endlessly intrusive I is permanently locked
in an elevator at a Davos Summit of the world’s Important People, to whom
he pays fervent tribute: "…Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Federal
Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Bank of Israel Governor Jacob Frenkel, economists
Henry Kaufman and Ken Courtis, New York Fed president William J. McDonough…
[I omit some names in the interests of brevity] World Bank president Jim [not
James, please note; the affectation of intimacy is important to Friedman] Wolfensohn
all took the time to discuss their views of globalization with me. From the
private sector, Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro, Cisco Systems president John
Chambers…"


Like most journalists who
spend their time in the corporate elevator, Friedman is an assiduous bootlicker.
Out of interest I checked his citations of the Monsanto chairman, Robert Shapiro.
Page 87: "Robert Shapiro…is a classic example of a chief executive who
revamped the center of his company so the buck could start, not stop there."
Page 182: "Robert Shapiro…once remarked to me that his company is not
on a crusade for spreading anticorrupt practices. But not paying bribes is how
it does its own business, and he is keenly aware that in so doing Monsanto is
helping to seed the world with people who share its values." Page 226:
"Robert Shapiro…likes to say that there are always a few things that
it pays to keep secret…" Page 281: "As Robert Shapiro of Monsanto
likes to say: ‘Human population multiplied by human aspirations for a middle-class
existence divided by the current technological tool kit is putting unsustainable
strains on the biological systems that support life on our planet.’"


Yes, this is Robert Shapiro,
the world-class asshole who took a company making a buck or two out of Roundup
and who almost destroyed it with megalomaniacal overreach with bioengineered
crops; whose influence-peddling rampages constitute some of the slimiest pages
in the history of the Clinton administration; whose technological tool kit in
Bt corn has threatened to wipe out the monarch butterfly.


Friedman is so marinated
in self-regard that he doesn’t even know when he’s being stupid. "While
the defining measurement of the Cold War was weight–particularly the throw-weight
of missiles–the defining measurement of the globalization system is speed."
Sounds good in a corporate roundtable, means nothing. The man just isn’t
that smart, beyond the dubious ability to make money out of press releases praising
the New Globalism and American power.


At the start of The Lexus
and the Olive Tree
Friedman boasts: "How to understand and explain
this incredibly complex system of globalization? The short answer is that I
learned you need to do two things at once–look at the world through a multilens
perspective and, at the same time, convey that complexity to readers through
simple stories, not grand theories. I use two techniques: I do ‘information
arbitrage’ in order to understand the world, and I ‘tell stories’
in order to explain it."


That’s one way of putting
it. There’s another. Back in 1984 I remember my brother Patrick, then working
for the Financial Times in Beirut, describing an exacting day covering
bloodshed and mayhem in the company of Friedman, at that time the Times
Beirut correspondent. They returned to the Commodore hotel, thankful to be alive.
Friedman went up to his room to file. Patrick went to the bar, which was deserted.
He poured himself a stiff whiskey and sat at a table sipping quietly. Enter
a Shiite gunman, who reviewed the bottles of booze with displeasure and proceeded
to smash them methodically with his rifle butt. He didn’t notice Patrick,
who was glad to be thus unperceived, concluding that (a) journalists drinking
Scotch were unlikely to be viewed with fondness by the fundamentalist gunman,
and (b) he was drinking the last Scotch likely to be consumed in the Commodore
for quite a while.


Eventually Friedman descended,
and Patrick described the episode. A couple of days later a Friedman dispatch
noting it appeared in The New York Times. But it wasn’t long
before the "I" took command. In Friedman’s 1989 book From
Beirut to Jerusalem
we find, "My first glimpse of Beirut’s real
bottom came at the Commodore Hotel bar on February 7, 1984… I was enjoying
a ‘quiet’ lunch in the Commodore restaurant that day when…"
And lo, suddenly it’s Friedman who sees the bottle-smasher at work, Friedman
who vividly recounts how the Shiite "stalked behind the bar" and Friedman
who arbitrages the story toward a Deeper Note: "The scene was terrifying
on many levels…"


He wasn’t there, according
to my brother. I’ll bet that by now Friedman probably believes that he
was. In the capsule of his immense ego, the world is what he wants it to be.


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