The following is an excerpt from Barrett Brown’s forthcoming book “Keep Rootin’ for Putin: Establishment Pundits and the Twilight of American Competence.” The book will be available on the official Free Barrett Brown website soon.
Thomas Friedman is among the most respected and widely read American pundits working today, which is to say that he is among the most influential. His books crowd the bestseller lists. His lectures are much sought out and attended by the economic elite of every city on which he descends. If one goes home for Thanksgiving and waits around long enough, one will hear him praised by both elderly old Republicans and elderly old Democrats.
Friedman’s 2003 bestseller Longitudes and Attitudes—which is called that—begins, reasonably enough, with an introduction. The introduction is entitled, “Introduction: A Word Album.” You’ve probably heard of a photo album before, but what’s all this about a word album?
The columnist is happy to explain; the book is a composite of columns that he wrote mostly in 2001 and 2002, followed by a great deal of previously unpublished notes from a similar time frame. “My hope is that this collection and diary will constitute a ‘word album’ for the September 11th experience,” he writes. “There are many photo albums that people will collect to remind themselves, their children, or their grandchildren what it was like to experience 9/11. These columns and this diary are an attempt to capture and preserve in words, rather than pictures, some of those same emotions.”
This is the mentality of Friedman and his readership—that it would be reasonable to compose a personal photo album about September 11th and maybe keep it in a special drawer.
Contempt for the media is now ubiquitous but largely misdirected to the extent that these criticisms are based on the view of the media as some sort of monolithic entity.
The news media is the product of a million individuals, each subject to a million impulses. The cable TV news producer in the pink scarf doesn’t understand what’s to be debated on this morning’s program and doesn’t care; she’s in the green room talking to another girl from guest booking about the latter’s old boyfriend and the former’s pink scarf. The freelancer on deadline need not get the feature right if he can just get it done before the girl he’s seeing arrives with a bottle of vodka. The publisher lives in the shadow of the father who bequeathed to him the most iconic paper in America; he knows that many see the paper’s recent failures as deriving in part from his own; he knows what’s said about him in the newsroom; he will prove his worth and his dynamism, he thinks to himself, when he gives William Kristol a column on the op-ed page. Maybe that was too specific.
There is also, of course, the consumer. The woman who subscribes to The New York Times may or may not read the op-ed page, which is to say that she may or may not contribute to the paper’s profitability—and thus its continued existence—based on what appears in that section. If she does read it, she is probably unaware that her favorite columnist has been demonstrably wrong about many of the most important issues facing both the U.S. and the world at large. The columnist’s errors have been pointed out by several bloggers, but she has never heard of them, and at any rate does not bother with blogs as she subscribes to The New York Times, which is a very respected outlet and has been around for well over a century, whereas these blogs seem to have come out of nowhere. The columnist, she knows, has won several Pulitzers, has written a handful of bestselling books, is forever traveling to some far-off place. She has formed her views on foreign policy in large part from his writings as well as from the writings of other, similarly respected journalists, and she votes accordingly.
When systems develop under a free society, no one is minding the store. Things happen because they happen, and things do not necessarily happen because they ought to, but rather because they do. The journalist is promoted to columnist, the consumer finds the columns to her liking, the columnist becomes more prominent, the publisher wants columnists of prominence, the editor is disinclined to cross the publisher and is most likely an idiot himself, the columnist writes more books, the consumer buys them, the columnist’s prominence increases, and at some point we have entered into a situation whereby it is to the advantage of the publisher, the editor, and of course the columnist to maintain the status quo. Whether the columnist deserves any prominence whatsoever does not necessarily come up, particularly after such point as he reaches a critical mass of notoriety. Once a pundit is made, he is rarely unmade.
Thomas Friedman is forever calling things things. He introduces his readers to the concept of 21st-century trade thusly: “These global markets are made up of millions of investors moving money around the world with a click of a mouse. I call them the Electronic Herd, and this herd gathers in key global financial centers—such as Wall Street, Hong Kong, London, and Frankfurt—which I call the Supermarkets.” He elsewhere informs us that he is “a big believer in the idea of the super-story, the notion that we all carry around with us a big lens, a big framework, through which we look at the world, order events, and decide what is important and what is not.”
Friedman is correct that it is wholly necessary to conceptualize our data into understandable frameworks in order that we might better understand it. But the framework into which Friedman has forced the world is almost entirely dependent on wordplay, on convenient structural similarities between unrelated terminology, on rhymes and sayings. In 2000, the columnist composed a “super-story” regarding Colin Powell, whose nomination for secretary of state was expected to be confirmed later in the week.
One way to think about Mr. Powell is this:
He spent thirty-five years of his life with America Onduty, as a military officer. But for the past two years he’s been associated with America Online, as a member of the AOL corporate board. So which perspective will Mr. Powell bring to his job as Secretary of State—the perspective he gleaned with America Onduty during the cold war or the perspective he gleaned with America Online in the post-Cold War?
No serious discussion of Powell’s record or policies follows; no new information is provided; it is never acknowledged that perhaps Powell is capable of thinking of the world in both the terms of a military officer and the terms of an information-age corporate advisory board member even though Powell has clearly served as both of these things. After all, Friedman has already coined the term America Onduty, contrasted it with the term America Online, and provided some allegedly clever distinction between the two mentalities represented thereby. We are informed, for instance, that those who fall under the category of ‘America Onduty’ enjoy the film A Few Good Men and see the world in terms of walls and nation states, because, you see, a character in that very film delivered some line to that effect and it seems to have made an impression on Friedman. Those associated with the ‘America Online’ mentality, by contrast, enjoy the film You’ve Got Mail because such people as these understand that the world is now integrated, and that the receiving of e-mail is a wonderful metaphor for the relatively recent dynamic whereby things occurring elsewhere now effect us all directly and with complete immediacy (“When a Russian financial crisis occurs, we’ve got mail”). Wrapping up the column, Friedman restates the question: “So which lens is Mr. Powell wearing—the one he developed with America Onduty, or with America Online?”
Even such an insufferable framework as this would be of value to the extent that it truly assists in helping Friedman and his citizen-readers to understand Colin Powell and the mentalities that inform him, to draw useful conclusions from this understanding, and to make wiser and better-informed decisions in terms of the manner in which they vote, contribute, advocate, purchase, and otherwise interact with the various entities into which man’s efforts are organized. If the public understanding is increased by dividing Powell’s consciousness into that of America Online and some variant of that brand name and then characterizing in turn each of these mentalities by reference to concepts from popular films, then there’s really no problem here other than that the whole America Onduty thing is lame.
Suppose, however, that such frameworks as these do not seem to grant Friedman any particular insight into a particular subject, and in fact seem to lead him and his admirers astray. This might indicate to us that such frameworks are not actually useful, and that those who compose such frameworks may perhaps not be worth listening to, and that to the extent that they contribute to the national understanding they have damaged it in so doing, and that to this same extent they are responsible for the astounding errors that have been made in our country’s recent past. Suppose all of that!
Friedman’s frameworks provide him with nothing. What he does is fine for writing a reader-friendly column in a pinch, but his cute semantic tricks do not translate into accuracy as much as we might hope that they would. He was not able to provide any useful predictions regarding Powell, for instance, although he certainly tried, announcing in another column that “it was impossible to imagine Mr. Bush ever challenging or overruling Mr. Powell on any issue.” Moreover:
Mr. Powell is three things Mr. Bush is not—a war hero, worldly wise and beloved by African-Americans. That combination gives him a great deal of leverage. It means he can never be fired. It means Mr. Bush can never allow him to resign in protest over anything.
Of course, Powell did indeed leave the administration under circumstances that we may ascertain to involve firing, resignation, or some typically Washingtonian combination thereof—after having first been overruled by Bush on several decisions involving the most significant question of that presidency. To Friedman’s credit, his failed prediction was based on the standard media narrative of the time as well as popular assumptions made solely on appearances, which is to say that it was sourced.
Elsewhere in this column, Friedman notes that it “will be interesting to see who emerges to balance Mr. Powell’s perspective.” That person, who ended up not so much balancing Powell’s perspective as smothering it in its crib, was Cheney. The vice president was not exactly a “war hero,” “worldly wise,” or “beloved by African-Americans,” which is to say that he was in many ways Powell’s opposite number—which is to say in turn that Friedman’s assumptions regarding what sort of person would have the greatest degree of influence over Bush were not just wrong, but almost the exact opposite of the case.
Friedman spent much of 2001 in contemplation of technology. The New York Times sent him off to the Davos World Economic Forum in January of that year; Friedman sent back a column entitled “Cyber-Serfdom,” announcing therein that the Internet would soon be replaced by the “Evernet,” itself the next step in the trend towards greater connectivity. But was humanity walking the dog, or was the dog walking humanity? One might well ask!
The year 2005 loomed large. By that year, Friedman explained, “we will see a convergence of wireless technology, fiber optics, software applications, and next-generation Internet switches, IPv6, that will permit anything with electricity to have a web address and run off the Internet—from your bedroom lights to your toaster to your pacemaker . . . People will boast, ‘I have 25 web addresses in my house; how many do you have? My wired refrigerator automatically reorders milk. How about yours?’” This thing that didn’t end up coming anywhere close to happening was of great concern to the columnist. “I still can’t program my VCR; how am I going to program my toaster?” Much of the column was presumably cribbed from an Andy Rooney monologue circa 1998.
Later that year, there occurred an unprecedented attack on U.S. commercial and military assets. This shifted Friedman’s lens back towards the Middle East, where he would begin sifting the sand in search of super-stories. Our protagonist knew the Middle East well, having won two Pulitzers in recognition of the reporting he did from that region throughout the ’80s. Back then, the system had identified him as worthy of advancement, and today it would call upon him to inform the citizenry’s decisions on a matter of extraordinary importance. The future of the United States and that of several other nations was now, to some small but measurable extent, in the hands of Thomas Friedman.
It was a month into the war in Afghanistan. “A month into the war in Afghanistan,” Friedman wrote, “the hand-wringing has already begun over how long this might last.”
Hand-wringing is something that old ladies do. They are always wringing their little hands, worrying themselves over some matter that is actually well under control. Friedman, confident that Colin Powell had things under control over at the White House, was not so neurotic as to concern himself with the potential length of a military intervention in such a place as Afghanistan. “This is Afghanistan we’re talking about,” he explained. “Check the map. It’s far away.”
While others wrung their hands due to their misinformed takes on the situation, Friedman expressed doubts based on his knowledge of ongoing events—though not significant doubts, of which he had few. “I have no doubt, for now, that the Bush team has a military strategy for winning a long war,” he explained, although one element of the plan did strike him as worrisome. “I do worry, though, whether it has a public relations strategy for sustaining a long war.” Obviously the Powell administration would win in Afghanistan, but would President Bush and his top advisers be too busy winning wars and otherwise attending to their duties to give any thought to influencing the opinion of voters?
Just in case, Friedman utilized subsequent columns in defending the administration’s aforementioned “military strategy for winning a long war”:
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 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.
As seen, Friedman in those days took to using the terms “civilian” and “civilian casualties” in scare quotes, as if such terminology does not really apply. As dead as these Afghans may be, they do not really mind being killed or maimed—this, at least, is how it “turns out,” as if Friedman is suddenly privy to some new information that confirms all of this. In the space of two sentences, then, the most respected columnist in the country has attempted to imply the inaccuracy of demonstrably accurate and crucial elements of the question under discussion. And he has followed this up with a significant assertion regarding that question based on some unspecified new information that plainly doesn’t exist. All of this is followed by an announcement that “the Taliban are gone.”