La Dolce Vita

A few thoughts from Steven Rockford
DECEMBER 13, 2011 10:35AM

Thomas Friedman exposed

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Belén Fernández takes down the NYT columnist

I just finished reading Belén Fernández's excellent new book “The Imperial Messenger – Thomas Friedman at Work.”  It is a comprehensive look at a person whose writings, according to Fernández, are “characterized by a reduction of complex international phenomena to simplistic rhetoric and theorems that rarely withstand the test of reality.”  The book focuses on three main aspects of Friedman’s work: 

o  His obsession with US global dominance 

His views on Orientalism vis-à-vis the Arab/Muslim world 

His special relationship with Israel

Tom Freidman    

Personally, I have always felt that Thomas Friedman “was” a talented and informative writer when he was a Middle East correspondent for UPI and The New York Times in the ‘80s.  It was then that he won his first Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the war in Lebanon.  It was also then that he released his first book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which, as I stated in an earlier post,was critically acclaimed as one of the best analysis ever done on the pre-Gulf War power structure in the Middle East.”    

I continued to follow him closely during the ‘90s as he wrote comprehensive reports from the Middle East.  Then, in 1999, he released his second book entitled “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” which I felt was so far over-the-top that I tossed it out before I finished it. 

In the early ‘70s, I read a best-selling treatise entitled “The Peter Principle” by Dr. Laurence J. Peter.  In it, Dr Peter stated that “in a hierarchy every person tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  Basically he was saying that in any professional field a person rises in status so long as he or she shows a level of competence.  However, some people eventually reach a level were they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and when they do, they stay there.  Unfortunately, it is at this level that these people become most recognized in their field of endeavor, and it is where they remain until they retire. 

This was the level reached by Thomas Friedman in 1999.  He reached (and by far exceeded) his level of incompetence.  

Although I understood and appreciated his previous reporting, reading “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” about the macroeconomic intricacies of globalization, was like jumping from a Martha Stewart article on the proper way to entertain in the Hamptons to her book on interpreting quantum physics.  In other words, Thomas Freidman was way out of his field of expertise. 

“The Lexus and the Olive Tree” represented a fantasy that Friedman developed while viewing the world from his ivory tower.  In his book, he talked about the virtue of the “securitization” of home mortgages: 

Investment banks started approaching banks and home mortgage companies, buying up their whole portfolio of mortgages, and then chopping them up into $1,000 bonds that you and my Aunt Bev could buy. 

This was part of his “Walls came tumbling down” chapter where he emphasized the “Democratization of Investing”, where, according to Friedman, the defined benefit pension plans of the past were rightfully being replaced by “pension reforms” which placed retirement funds into privately controlled investments which “reward the successful mutual funds and punished the less successful.”  Think of where we would be today if Freidman would have fully achieved his wish at that time. 

His analysis of the foreign role in globalization was equally as distorted.  He often quoted Eckard Pfeiffer in his book.  Pfeiffer was the CEO of Compac Computers at that time.  He was known to professionals in Silicon Valley as being a completely uninformed gas bag, but he was loved by the media.  Eckard was eventually fired for implementing the strategies that brought Compac to its knees. 

Based on his interviews with Pfeiffer and other prima donnas in Silicon Valley, Friedman recommended “selling France” because they didn’t support the internet encryption wishes of his Intel interviewees, while at the same time he recommended “holding Italy” because they did.  How wrong was he on that? 

“The Lexus and the Olive Tree” was Friedmans’s sophomoric attempt to enter the sophisticated world of global economics.  He failed. 

Everything that he has written since then has been equally as uninformed.




Update 12/17/11

I received a scathing email today from a friend who is a Friedman fanatic.  He said my post is just sour grapes, and that it is me who is "over-the-top" in my criticism of Friedman's work.  He reminded me that Thomas Friedman has won three Pulitzer Prizes, which is precisely three more than I have won.

I told him that my post represented my personal opinion supported by my interpretation of the quotes that I provided, and I sent him some additional links to other sites with similarly supported views. 

He didn't care.  He said he is a firm believer in Thomas Friedman's writings even though some may feel that they "rarely withstand the test of reality."

It appears that Tom Friedman has a cult-like following. 

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I agree - and have not been a fan of either Fridman or Krugman for years - thanks for putting this up!
Well that's your opinion for which you fell compelled to have Belen Fernandez ' backing.....what has Friedman done to you to attack him so? Your own arguments are vacuous and generic to make much of a case without reading the book you cite.....
I didn't read "From Beirut to Jerusalem" until I'd already long since learned to loathe Friedman; imagine my surprise in finding that he wasn't always so dumb. Of course, that discovery only made me like him even less; he knows (or knew) better, but to this day continues to defend the indefensible. ( And sell way too many unreadable books...)
I read a review of this book from Asia Times and can't wait to get my paws on it. Thanks for an additional push.
It's interesting to hear that Friedman was ever a real journalist, let alone an intelligent one. There are so many intellectuals who lost their common sense and appeared to succumb to a kind of brain fever after 1989, and particularly after 2001, rather like the Germans after the defeat of France in 1940. That is a phenomenon I would like to see analysed some day.