Belen Fernandez: The Imperial Messager; Thomas Friedman At Work

Before I talk about Belen Fernandez’s book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman At Work, I want to relate a story from my childhood.  When I was about four years old I was watching a movie on television about the American Civil War.  I didn’t know anything at all about the Civil War, but I could see there were two sides fighting each other — the “blue” and the “gray”.  So I asked my mother which were the good guys, and which were the bad guys.

My mother told me both sides were Americans, and there was no “good-guy/bad-guy.”  Now I guarantee you my mother understood the moral implications of the American Civil War.  But she also understood that the mind of four year old probably wouldn’t, and she didn’t want me getting into the very destructive habit of seeing people as “good” or “bad” without understanding the context of their situation.  Much later in life, I saw this quote: “In war, the first casualty is truth.”  As George Will would say: “well.”

That brings us round to Belen Fernandez and Thomas Friedman.

Thomas Friedman is a very, very controversial figure (see Thomas Friedman: In Your Face).  I have reviewed The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and I am finishing up a review of The World is Flat. I have read From Beirut to Jerusalem as well.  I am familiar with the territory.

I think Friedman’s writing reveals him to be a silly, self-indulgent and pompous man, so captivated by the sound of his own voice that he goes off track all too often.  He strings anecdotes along, connects them with unwieldy metaphors, supports them with quotes from famous people, and tosses in a few “facts”.  His constant bashing of Arabs is tiresome, and his pious overtones are boorish.  He seems to thoroughly lack any appreciation for historical context.  The closer you look, the less sense his writing seems to make.

To put it as Friedman might, you start pulling on one of those threads and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down like the Berlin Wall.  A few hundred pages of that kind of writing makes for a long read.  Why anybody takes him seriously is a point I will come back to later.

He goes to great lengths to say very little.   His newspaper columns are a little better because they are shorter.

But he is a Pulitzer Prize winner, works for the New York Times, gets on Charlie Rose frequently, and I suppose all that counts as success.  Me?  Well, not so much.

Now we have Belen Fernandez, a very articulate writer with a keen sense of humor.  She is a far better writer then Friedman, and in just a few pages of The Imperial Messenger it’s obvious she works hard, way harder then Friedman, to make her points clear.  She has 50 pages of footnotes for a 143 page book.  This is a scholarly intellect at work.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that it’s not until the last paragraph in the book that she makes it clear what the value of the book actually is: “speaking truth to the people” and “exposing those journalists who do not” speak the truth.  Secondly, and I think worse yet, Fernandez doesn’t actually ever say what is obvious: she is a pro-Palestinian partisan.

Both of those points are the kind best made in the beginning, not buried or left unsaid. I don’t care who the author is or the topic, a solid dissertation needs the central argument to be defined at the start.

With respect to being pro-Palestinian, I have no ax to grind there.  As I said at the beginning, the whole “good-guy/bad-guy” thing doesn’t work for me.  If the Middle East wants peace, than the principle antagonists are going to have to find the right context.  Both sides are accountable for finding that context.  “Good-guy/bad-guy” is no excuse.  In any case Fernandez should come out from behind Thomas Friedman and tell us what she thinks is true about Palestine.

Now we come back to point number one: journalists who by intent or incompetence mislead people need to be exposed.  This is because “the consequences of such bad reporting … justify the killing of innocent people.”  I’m going to reinterpret this a bit and give Fernandez and Nir Rosen (who Fernandez was quoting) the benefit of the doubt and assume they mean the following: journalism drives decision making.  I know it’s an oversimplification, but Ithink it’s what they meant.

At the very least Rosen and Fernandez are saying that the kind of misinformation Friedman is spreading hides the facts and allows our government to do things in our name that we would oppose, if we knew the facts.  So: people take Friedman seriously and we get what — the Iraq war?  And continued war in the Middle-East?  That’s on him?

Well what then of the availability of all that “truthful information in contemporary circulation, accessible through the din of establishment media”? So in one sentence Friedman gets criticized for being a propagandist, in the next sentence we find there are alternative sources?

No. People in the United States have access to all kinds of information, and elect government officials at every level, and those officials make the laws, set the policy directions, and oversee the people who carry out the directives.  If you are going to say that misinformation drove those decisions to elect all those officials by all those voters, then make that case.   Don’t waste time slamming Thomas Friedman when the real issue is American “hegemony” or “imperialism” or whatever.

Belen Fernandez has done her homework on Friedman’s excesses.  But if Friedman is guilty of stringing together nonsense to misdirect us, Fernandez is guilty of stringing facts together that really don’t get to the heart of the issue.  Why do people take Thomas Friedman seriously? It’s because it validates their view.  If that makes him influential, so be it. Let’s get on with the business of holding our leaders accountable for making better decisions.

At the end of the day, the reason things are the way they are is because both sides are not heard.  But I don’t think Belen Fernandez is helping as much as she could.

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5 Responses to Belen Fernandez: The Imperial Messager; Thomas Friedman At Work

  1. Eric Garland says:

    Wow, it’s not very often that you read such a great critique on a critique of a body of work – and still manage to learn more about the entire dynamic at play. This is terrific analysis!

  2. Pingback: Belen Fernandez: Coffee with Hezbollah | The Writers Block

  3. scharles says:

    Doug: now that you mention it, I don’t know where the line actually is. I think perspective informs agenda. But I think your point is that allowing perspective to substitute for facts and reasoned debate is a road to trouble. I think Friedman’s objective is to be at the center of the conversation, and to sound really, really intelligent.

    Belen Fernandez has an agenda, and a perspective. She doesn’t like American foreign policy, and she holds Friedman responsible to the extent that he supports things she doesn’t agree with. My point above is that she should make her specific arguments and let them stand on their own merits. Using Thomas Friedman as a stand in for American policy doesn’t seem to me to be particularly useful.

    Best wishes and thanks for stopping by!

  4. Doug P says:

    Interesting read. When does perspective become an agenda? And since you mentioned George Will, (whose columns I love-when they’re about baseball) I’ll talk about a column he wrote on the price of oil, not too long before the 2008 crash. The point he made was that the price of petroleum does not follow the laws of supply and demand because oil is a “friable” commodity. What? The price of oil did indeed follow the laws of supply and demand a few months later and dropped more like a rock than a “friable”commodity. Mr Will’s agenda warped his reason to the extent he looks the fool now. His supporters will never notice, because, to a great extent, their agendas closely match Mr Will’s.

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