December 18, 2011 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has had an interesting week. In his regular Wednesday column, he criticized a host of leaders for their pandering on the Palestine-Israel conflict. This was a typical Friedman tossed-salad column, wherein Friedman threw together disparate news items to make the same old, obvious point: the Palestine-Israel conflict could be settled if not for the egos of certain interested politicians. Among Friedman’s observations:
I sure hope that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.
This is not really a controversial or debatable opinion – unless you’re a Likudnik. As M. J. Rosenberg wrote in the Huffington Post,
Everyone knows that the only reason there even was a (rare) joint meeting of Congress honoring Netanyahu (for what?) was because John Boehner and Eric Cantor wanted to make it harder for the president to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by demonstrating that Congress supported Bibi and not Obama. And it was because they wanted to put on a show for the lobby…. The pro-Bibi ovation was about as sincere and free of political considerations (i.e, campaign donations) as Newt Gingrich’s sudden announcement that Palestinians are an ‘invented people.’
But Friedman’s remark sure stirred the right wing into action (as if they needed any stirring). Elliott Abrams, a (disgraced) political elitist even more pompous than Friedman, is totally ticked off at Friedman for his observation. The right-wing, English-language Jerusalem Post editors are mad at him for every column he’s written about the Middle East over the last several years. And in Commentary, Jonathan Tobin called Friedman an anti-Semite, a charge Tobin may have borrowed from the “… Israeli official [who] told [the liberal Israeli English-language newspaper] ‘Haaretz‘ that ‘Friedman has crossed a line that true friends of Israel should never allow themselves to cross and inadvertently encouraged anti-Semitism.’”
Through a senior advisor, Bibi himself complained about the Times‘ news and opinion coverage of the conflict in general, and Friedman’s remark in particular. The complaint came in response to an e-mail from the Times‘ editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal “requesting that Prime Minister Netanyahu submit an op-ed to the New York Times.” The Netanyahu advisor, Ron Dermer, wrote, “So with all due respect to your prestigious paper, you will forgive us for declining your offer. We wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘Bibiwashing’ the op-ed page of the New York Times.” Meanwhile, the righty-right Republican Emergency Committee for Israel (of which Elliott Abram’s wife is a board member) ran a disingenuous (to say the least) ad in American newspapers, including a full page in the Times, denouncing President Obama and Secretaries Clinton and Panetta for treating Israel like a “punching bag.” Okay. Good on Friedman.
Too bad for Friedman that not all of this week’s criticism came from far-right partisans. In the New York Times eXaminer (and elsewhere) Cyril Mychalejko favorably reviews Belén Fernandez’s book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso Press, 2011), a work which is highly critical of Friedman. Mychalejko writes, “Friedman’s bravado combined with his intellectual incompetence and hostility towards the use of facts unveils an enormous amount of hubris.”
In a Washington Post op-ed, Prof. Andrew Bacevich mocks Friedman for a pre-September 11 column in which Friedman wrote in favor of U.S. exploitation of its military might: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” Apparently Friedman was long obsessed with the notion of McDonalds as an arm of American international diplomacy. Fernandez calls it his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” – a theory centered on Friedman’s erroneous observation that “no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other.”
At Salon, Friedman’s status is so diminished that he didn’t even make this year’s “Hack List” of prominent hack opinionators. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin won the No. 1 slot. Friedman got only a mention as last year’s No. 3 in a poignant “Where Are They Now?” retrospective:
Thomas Friedman continued to, domestically, demand a centrist third party that acted exactly like our current centrist Democratic party. But his best work, as always, concerned foreign lands. What other columnist would have the balls to go to the scene of a popular revolution and ‘quote’ a native pleading with the wise American columnist to explain what he thinks is going on in her country?
This bring us to Friedman’s column today, where he continues his usual formula of grabbing bits of news and weaving them into a theme that dominates many of his pieces: so-called leaders don’t lead. Today Friedman elevates the theme to a “Help Wanted” headline. Friedman’s bad leaders du jour are Vladimir Putin (a reprise from way last Wednesday) and Hosni Mubarak. Friedman observes that Putin and Mubarak, in appointing themselves presidents-forever were not very democratic. Eventually, in Mubarak’s case, and immediately in Putin’s, citizens objected in the form of public demonstrations against them.
Friedman again repeats his brilliant observation that the Internets and the Tweeters made all this opposition possible. Then, hilariously, he goes on to expand his “Technological Theory of Conflict Arousal” (au revoir, McDonalds) to assert that the anti-Putin/anti-Mubarak uprisings are part of the very same phenomenon that occurred when Americans boldly rejected the Coca-Cola company’s decision to “repackage its flagship soft drink in white cans for the holidays. But an outcry of ‘blasphemy’ from consumers forced Coke to switch back from white cans to red cans in a week.” The Arab Spring comes to Coca-Cola. I’m sorry to say the whole white-can controversy slipped by me. But I take Friedman’s point. “A lot of C.E.O.’s … are finding it hard to adjust to the new power relationships with customers and employees.” Evidently, Friedman has forgotten all about the pre-Internet, pre-Twitter “New Coke” rollout of 1985, a beverage reformulation which proved to be a major dud. See, back in the day, customer “people-power” worked like this: consumers didn’t buy products they didn’t like.
The most stunning aspect of Friedman’s latest column is his simplistic view of, well, everything. To compare repressive, undemocratic regimes to corporate failure to fully market-test product changes seems ridiculous on its face. To attribute anti-government protests to technological advances is to forget most of human history. And to lump significant political revolutions in with consumer rejections of Netflix, Bank of America and Coca-Cola corporate decisions, as Friedman does, is an abhorrent way of diminishing the bravery of real protesters who risk their lives to face off tyrants.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com and until recently was a popular commenter on New York Times op-ed columns.