The Barrett Brown Review of Arts & Letters & Civil Decline: Down With Thomas Friedman
[This is an informal, editor-free continuation of my old column The Barrett Brown Review of Arts & Letters & Prison, which won the 2015 National Magazine Award in commentary in recognition of how much better it was than everyone else’s commentary. The background has switched from a medium-security prison in south Texas to American public life in an age of tacky decline, but the focus remains on attacking my perceived enemies, both personal and professional. To learn more about how the problems discussed here may actually be addressed, along with much else, see https://pursuanceproject.org/]
A decade ago I was commissioned to do a book on New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Dutifully, I went through the entirety of the fellow’s output from 2000 on, making a particular note of the predictions and advice he’d given on America’s most crucial national issues. When my inquiry was complete, I evaluated his performance, compared it to what we might hope from someone who had won as many Pulitzer Prizes and been otherwise accorded such a vaunted position in the national affairs of a complex imperial republic as Friedman has been, and promptly came to certain conclusions about the nature of the American political and media establishment. Shortly thereafter I joined up with a radical international insurgency, was captured by a SWAT team, and did four years in prison.
That’s how bad Thomas Friedman is.
This may sound like a joke, but so does World War I if you describe it the right way. It may also seem odd to have put so much emphasis on the failures of a guy who, after all, merely writes a newspaper column, and at a point when the Bush Administration was winding down the most unnecessarily disastrous two terms in American history. But a modern republic can survive a failed political establishment. It cannot survive a failed media establishment.
We may safely characterize an establishment as failed if we consider what it is that it professes to do, and then determine whether or not it actually manages to do it. In the case of the institution of American punditry, we may safely assume that the editors of The New York Times themselves, for instance, would agree to the following points:
1. Major columnists who are read by millions over the course of decades, including a wide body of officeholders, have some substantial degree of influence over the citizenry and its representatives
2. The issues confronting that citizenry and its representatives are of extraordinary importance, involving the domestic and foreign policy of an exceedingly complex world superpower with military and intelligence capabilities that have historically exceeded the public understanding at any given time
3. That the previous points being true, the decision of whom to provide with the vast influence accorded to a national columnist is of some considerable importance
As no one could reasonably object to any of this, it would not be remiss to, say, go back through the output of a major columnist and see whether or not the advice and predictions he put forth have proven to be worthwhile. By doing so, we learn not just about the columnist, but about the people who run the newspapers that employ him as well as the eminently powerful world leaders who consider him a source of useful advice; no less a figure than Barack Obama was spotted with a copy of one of Friedman’s books while on vacation early in his presidency. The possibility that Friedman is in fact entirely incompetent, then, is not a side issue, but rather wholly integral to the inquiries that a deteriorating society such as ours is morally obligated to make into the nature of its own decline. When doctors do a biopsy, they’re not ultimately concerned with whether the tissue in question is diseased; they’re trying to determine if the body has a cancer that may ultimately kill it.
But the real metaphor for the United States involves AIDS. A republic always plays host to certain forces with the potential to corrupt it, to some degree or another, but there usually exists some array of persons and institutions that, while themselves highly imperfect and even deleterious, are capable of suppressing those other, more dangerous forces. In our case, the Establishment has weakened to an extent that it can no longer serve as the white blood cells of the body politic. Now the diseases are advancing.
Most of Thomas Friedman’s columns don’t contain anything hugely egregious; they are more notable for those things that are absent, such as insight. The following is representative of the sort of thing that the New York Times considers to be worth publishing so long as a particular name is attached to it — on this occasion in regards to the Middle East, a region of the world which Friedman considers to be his specialty:
“Given that, I believe U.S. foreign policy out here should progress as follows: Where there is disorder, help create order, because without order nothing good can happen. I will take Sisi over the Muslim Brotherhood. But where there is order, we need to push for it to become more decent and forward-looking… Where there is decent order, like the U.A.E., Jordan or Kurdistan, encourage it to gradually become more open and constitutional.”
Later, we receive the following intelligence briefing:
“But these ISIS guys are smart and still very dangerous. I’d support more bombing and special ops to further weaken and contain them.”
The problem here is not simply that both of these passages are so amusingly conventional that I had to go back and make sure that I did not actually make them up myself. The problem is that Friedman is still being given the opportunity to address the republic on the subject of what we should do about the Middle East despite having been demonstrably wrong about this very topic over and over again, when it mattered most.
Friedman’s turn-of-the-century counsel on the Middle East is best remembered for his counter-iconic practice of kicking the can of personal responsibility down the road of American forgetfulness throughout the opening phase of the Iraq War. In late 2003, when our foray into Babylon had already proven to be a debacle, Friedman proclaimed that “the next six months” would decide if the war could still be success. When six months passed and things got worse, he made the exact same claim about the six months after that. In fact, he would refer to the “next six months” — always as some definitive crucial period during which everyone must continue to refrain from acknowledging the war he’d supported to be a failure some — 14 times during over the course of two and a half years, and only seems to have given up after this shameful and idiotic display led to the coinage and widespread use of the term “Friedman Unit”.
The people who continue to provide Friedman with an outlet would no doubt object that many influential people wrongly assumed the Iraq War would go well. And as long as they were setting the bar so low, they’d probably find some way of minimizing Friedman’s preternaturally deranged 2003 monologue in which he explained that Iraq was “unquestionably worth doing” because what Muslims “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 going to let it grow? Well, suck on this!’ That, Charlie, is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia! It was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.”
The problem is that Friedman’s failures extend well beyond the commonplace errors in judgment and bouts of poorly-phrased psychosis that is the hallmark of the modern Establishment hawk. For instance, had Friedman limited his similarly confident assessments of the Afghanistan War to broadly positing that everything would probably work out all right in the end, his defenders would have more to work with. But an actual reading of his columns from that same period reveals not just the relatively excusable wrongness of someone who buys into the prevailing trends of a given time, but an actual talent for identifying specific and more narrow issues about which to be especially and hilariously incorrect.
“Think of all the nonsense written in the press — particularly the European and Arab media — about the concern for ‘civilian casualties’ in Afghanistan,” Friedman wrote in late 2001. “It turns out that many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52s to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not. Now that the Taliban are gone, Afghans can freely fight out, among themselves, the war of ideas for what sort of society they want.”
We risk getting bogged down in an Afghanistan-style quagmire if we stop to analyze every particular thing that’s wrong with this passage, from the inexplicable use of scare quotes around the terms “civilians” and “civilian casualties” — as if Afghanistan had no civilians and certainly none that were being blown up — to his in-passing declaration that the Taliban were now simply “gone”. We’ll merely note that “civilian” “casualties” ended up being one of the great “obstacles” to the sort of U.S. “influence” that might have allowed some “positive” “resolution” to the poorly-conceived campaign that “journalist” Thomas Friedman thought was “over”, and that this was hardly a one-off dynamic that anyone who came of age during Vietnam should have found “surprising.”
“I have no doubt, for now, that the Bush team has a military strategy for winning a long war,” Friedman explained in 2001. “I do worry, though, whether it has a public relations strategy for sustaining a long war.” Friedman’s concern with the Bush Administration, seriously, was that it would be too busy winning wars and otherwise attending to the nuances of policy to give some time over to the necessary but sordid business of political posturing. Presumably he was reassured on this point a few years hence, when the president landed a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier on live television.
Since I’m always looking for strong arguments by which to convince as many people as possible that the U.S. and its peripheral institutions are too dangerous to continue along their current path and must thus be challenged and eventually overthrown, I was naturally interested in what new instances of nonsense Friedman had racked up while I was away.
Aside from the general inanities on terrorism and stability I’ve quoted above, I found the usual instances of moronic wordplay substituting for useful analysis (the 2016 election would pit “Wall People” against “Web People”, just as former AOL board member and armed forces veteran Colin Powell was best understood, upon his appointment to Secretary of State, as either “AmericaOnline” or “AmericaOnduty”, two categories Friedman devised to describe alternate possibilities for how the general would see his role; this seems not to have been much help in assessing the issue since Friedman also decided that “it was impossible to imagine Mr. Bush ever challenging or overruling Mr. Powell on any issue” and that “he can never be fired”, whereas both of these things did indeed happen). There was the same predilection for relying on the opinions of amoral pseudo-experts on complex issues they probably don’t understand much better than Friedman does (Friedman quotes at length Stratfor head George Friedman, whose geopolitical strategy firm has never been particularly great at assessing world affairs but has made a great deal of money through such things helping Dow Chemical spy on Bhopal activists seeking financial compensation for the Union Carbide disaster that killed thousands and maimed tens of thousands more — something I happen to know because I was prosecuted for my peripheral connections to the hack that revealed the firm’s involvement in those activities). There was the unfortunate recycling of phrases that he’d previously used in the course of his most disastrous predictions (one column on the Middle East was entitled, “Take a Deep Breath”, a phrase he’d earlier deployed to counter all the worry-warts in the aforementioned 2001 “Taliban are gone” column before reminding us, correctly enough, that “Afghanistan is far away”).
And then there was the same fundamental inability to understand basic aspects of his own country. In the wake of the Boston bombing, Friedman managed to assert that “we have built a unique society — a country where a black man, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather is a Muslim, can run for president and first defeat a woman in his own party and then four years later a Mormon from the opposition, and no one thinks twice about it.” It would not have been necessary to guess that the very next president would be among the tens of millions who were obsessed with denying that black man his very citizenship in order to understand how this broad paean to American racial and religious harmony was patently absurd at the time. One need only have noticed how much racial, religious, and gender-based strife had been exhibited throughout each of those contests. That is to say, one need only have looked at the actual occurrences that make up our political life, rather than pretending them away in service to the idea, questionable then and now, that all is fundamentally well in our society, where “no one thinks twice” about race and religion.
Most of all, I was looking for signs that Friedman had perhaps gained some degree of insight into his own limitations as a thinker and giver of counsel, if not as a composer of phrases — that, over yet another four years of a war that he’d declared to be over a decade beforehand, he might have at some point deduced that there exists some other, more just alternative universe in which he himself is employed at a Milwaukee ad agency, coming up with amusing, wordplay-heavy slogans for the firm’s smaller accounts while Noam Chomsky accepts Pulitzers for his own bi-weekly New York Times columns that William Kristol reads during his breaks at the shoe store his dad staked him in. Oh, how I searched for such signs! But it was in vain!
Instead, I found this:
“There was a moment when it seemed as though it would all be otherwise — when it seemed that Arabs and Israelis would make peace, that China would evolve into a more consensual political system and that Russia would become part of Europe and the G-8. That was a lifetime ago.”
… and this:
“Whenever I visit China, I am struck by the sharply divergent predictions of its future one hears.”
… itself a striking observation from someone who himself made so many such predictions with so little success. In 2000, in the course of a column in which he set out to dispel various “myths” about China, Friedman predicted that the nation would soon face widespread unrest by farmers as American wheat and sugar flooded the country, causing mass rural unemployment. In reality, American wheat and sugar imports made no real inroads whatsoever, all such imports amounted to a tenth of a percent of consumption by 2005, and employment remained stable until 2003, when it began rising. And as for the “myth” that the government would keep censoring the internet: “Deep down, the leadership knows that you can’t have the knowledge that China needs from the Internet without letting all sorts of other information into the country, and without empowering more and more Chinese to communicate horizontally and create political communities.” Three years later, the regime launched Golden Shield, the centerpiece of the Great Firewall, itself the most comprehensive internet censorship and control apparatus of any major country before or since. More recent waves of state legislation have targeted online anonymity, the most crucial aspect of political community in a society that routinely punishes dissent.
Remarkably, Friedman’s proclamations on Russia were even worse. After a 2001 trip to Moscow during which he reported being impressed with the presence of sushi restaurants, the NYT’s roving polymath declared that Putin was on the verge of enacting “modernizing reforms”, ending his column by exhorting Americans to “keep rootin’ for Putin.” Two years later, he called Russia “a huge nation that was tilted in the wrong direction and is now tilted in the right direction.” Four years after that he finally acknowledged that Russia cannot even be termed a democracy anymore. What he didn’t acknowledge was his previous support for the man who finished that democracy off — and whose real nature was evident to all manner of competent observers for years before Friedman took up the fellow’s cause.
The most common thread to Friedman’s various large-scale errors, we see, is his serial habit of giving the benefit of the doubt to whoever happens to hold power. This, along with his identity as a centrist, makes him more dangerous even than similarly incompetent colleagues such as Charles Krauthammer, Friedman’s fellow Pulitzer winner who has been wrong about every major U.S. military engagement since Kosovo but nonetheless continues to enjoy the status of an expert on warfare and geopolitics. It makes him more than just a convenient example of the structural failures of the press whereby it’s always in the career interest of a publisher or editor to pretend away the actual damage its celebrity columnists are doing to the public understanding. It makes him a useful though unconscious ally to a faction which, were he capable of understanding it, even someone as credulous as Friedman would view with alarm.
Which brings me to the one Friedman column I did see while I was in prison: the one he wrote denouncing a man who risked his freedom to reveal to the world some of the ways that opaque U.S. agencies with a documented history of abusing its powers in dangerous ways have now blanketed Americans and populations abroad with cutting edge surveillance techniques, using untold billions of American tax dollars.
“Yes, I worry about the potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat… So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower.”
As with his earlier assurances that Afghanis don’t mind being blown up, Friedman has again managed to pack such an incredible amount of second-rate logic into such a small space that I’m at a loss as to how to address it in any format other than via a numbered list, with points of refutation placed in no particular order:
- Based on the intelligence community’s own accounts, 9/11 would not have been prevented via PRISM meta data collection, since the central figures were known to intelligence and law enforcement.
- Though you wouldn’t know it from reading this Pulitzer winner’s column on the subject, Snowden’s leaks were not limited to, nor driven exclusively by, the particular program that had appeared in the press at the time of this writing, which Snowden and others familiar with the documents made perfectly clear to be the tip of the iceberg. Whether the leak was necessary, then, could hardly be determined by an assessment of whether one small portion of it could be considered consequential.
- Nonetheless, PRISM itself was consequential enough that had it been the only program leaked, it would have been worthwhile to do so, for reasons we’ll consider momentarily.
- Whether any PRISM abuse did “not appear to have happened” at the time of Friedman’s writings was hardly relevant given that the sort of inquiry necessary to reveal any abuse also hadn’t “happened.” Later, when it did, abuse was indeed revealed.
- By phrasing things such that 9/11 “has already happened once” but that abuse of PRISM hadn’t — even though it had — Friedman has set up a narrative in which any past terrorist act is relevant to the liberty vs security debate whereas the only danger that we must take into account from an all-seeing state equipped with opaque and extensive intelligence apparatus is the degree of abuse that the public is aware of having occurred under the auspices of a single program that was just revealed a few days prior and which had yet to be effectively audited. Put another way, if 9/11 “has already happened once,” why has Watergate not “already happened once”? Why has FBI founder Hoover’s wiretap-driven blackmailing of presidents not “already happened once”? Why has COINTELPRO, the FBI’s decades-long surveillance and sabotage campaign against antiwar and civil rights activists that Congress later found to have committed widespread crimes — and which was only revealed after activists stole documents and leaked them — not “already happened once”? Is the CIA’s illegal domestic surveillance program CHAOS not relevant to the debate? Does the now-established fact that the NSA served a central role in lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which lead directly to further U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and thus millions of deaths simply not matter in the midst of a debate about how much more power the NSA should be allowed to accumulate in secret lest 3,000 more people possibly die in the cinematic way that actually makes an impression on most Americans? And is it relevant that even when such things do get discovered, they remain well below the threshold of awareness of people like Thomas Friedman, who are nonetheless cast by the establishment as the nation’s best sources of perspective on life-and-death decisions? I mean, Jesus fuck.
- Having framed the debate with cooked spaghetti, Friedman actually goes on to cite The Wire creator David Simon as pointing out that the government is clearly not actually paying attention to every single American’s phone calls and e-mails. He finds Simon’s argument so compelling that he spends the second half of his column quoting it at length. And it certainly would be, if the prospect of the NSA knowing what random housewives are making for dinner was the only risk entailed by giving vast new powers to an intelligence community with a documented history of assaulting democracy at home and abroad.
But the real risk is not that such things will be used to monitor the many. It is that they will be used to monitor the few — the small segment of a society that, at any given time, does the hard and dangerous work of exposing and fighting back against the evil that has always been ubiquitous whenever men have been given power over others. These are the people that leaked the Pentagon Papers, exposed COINTELPRO, and shot down Jim Crow, and they are present in every human society, down to the level of the neighborhood, wherever someone has abused his authority. They routinely face retaliation by those authorities to whom. And their job becomes all the more difficult in a society where 9/11 is counted as the only lesson to be learned from a modern history in which tens of millions have been starved to death by their own governments, tens of millions more thrown into gulags, millions more gassed to death, millions more killed in wars with no objective, and a billion consigned to semi-slavery by governments that cite outside threats as the justification for everything they do — all within the memory of many still living.
We need not go into the countless other serious instances of state misconduct that Snowden’s single leak made know as newspapers like the New York Times continued to go over the documents provided (without attracting similar ire from its employee Friedman, oddly enough). We may note in passing that Congress itself eventually found fault with the NSA’s activities and took measures to reign it in, however slightly. But it’s worth emphasizing that Friedman’s take was nonsensical even with the limited knowledge available at the time.
Indeed, it happens that I attacked this column from my jail cell, in an op-ed I wrote in pencil for The Guardian. And I pointed out some of what we did know, right then, about the other things that the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities and certain private interests had been doing, not twenty years prior, but two, and which had only been thwarted, at least temporarily, because that same small segment that evaluates institutions based on what they actually do, rather than what they claim to do, had intervened, exposed the plot, and then waited in vain for Congress to finish the job. Instead, the FBI had come after me, serving search warrants on the website we used to compile our discoveries and looking for any more data I might have on the firm that the DOJ had set against journalists and activists they deemed inconvenient to their interests, and to the interests of the powerful firms that hire ex-government officials at vastly increased salaries in exchange for their consideration.
And for writing that piece, which the DOJ complained to be “critical of the government,” I was placed under a gag order.
“Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11,” Friedman concludes. “Allow me to blow that whistle.”
This is a man who can happily write such a phrase as “Allow me to blow that whistle” and even place it at the end of his column that it might be more thoroughly admired on account of its stern and virtuous pluck.
(See https://pursuanceproject.org to learn about the crucial project to build a viable, agile framework for crowd-sourced research and mass civic collaboration.)