I and I: The World According to Tom Friedman

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:59

    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.