Darwin’s Mistake

How, in an age in which “the fast eat the slow,” has Thomas Friedman not been gobbled up?

Thomas Friedman in 2013. The World Affairs Council / Flickr

Indeed, 2007 was a really bad year to stop thinking.

— Thomas Friedman, 2016

The late Alexander Cockburn, reflecting on the work of decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist and neoliberal warmonger extraordinaire Thomas Friedman, once observed: “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.”

But while generators at least serve a rather obvious function, the same can’t usually be said of Friedman, who has just spewed out his latest unnecessarily humongous book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.

In the nearly eight hundred pages that comprise my electronic version of the manuscript, there is approximately one glimmer of hope: the point at which Friedman remarks that this is “maybe my last book.”

The title Thank You for Being Late is a reference to Friedman’s realization that when his Washington, DC breakfast companions are a few minutes tardy, he can use the time not only to people-watch and eavesdrop on neighboring conversations but also to have ideas. Who knew?

The gist of the book — a product, apparently, of Friedman’s conscious decision to occasionally slow down and think in the age of accelerations — is that the world is becoming a very different place thanks to technology, globalization, and climate change, and that we must adapt to the new reality in order to succeed.

As for why anyone would require seven hundred–plus e-book pages to make this point, it’s safe to assume that one cannot accrue $75,000 speaking fees if one’s book is only one sentence long.

To his credit, for many of these pages Friedman manages to avoid generator-under-the-next-table mode in favor of the far more tolerable generator-in-the-next-room mode. Whole paragraphs are devoted to innocuous, non-aneurysm-inducing subjects such as cow-milking robots, the number of lemur species on the island of Madagascar, the definition of “telex” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and the dimensions of Bigbelly garbage receptacles with built-in solar panels.

Things get more annoying as Friedman produces typically grating lines like “Attention, Kmart shoppers” and “This ain’t no cloud, folks!” — the latter being the reason we must henceforth refer to “the cloud” in cloud computing as “the supernova.”

Also on prominent display, as usual, is Friedman’s fascination for the exploitative behemoth known as Walmart. He recounts his 2015 invitation from the company’s CEO to speak at its headquarters in Arkansas:

I told him that I would be happy to do it — I was the warm-up act for Kevin Costner — but that I wanted to be paid, and I wanted to be paid “a lot” — but the New York Times does not allow me to accept money from a company . . . I said I wanted to be paid by having Walmart engineers show me what happens behind the scenes, in the supernova, when I try to make a purchase — we settled on a 32-inch television — on Walmart’s mobile app, using my iPhone.

And you thought your life was cool.

Meanwhile, Friedman’s continued efforts to serve as the earth’s environmental wakeup-call-guy are rendered less than compelling by a number of things — among them his own lifestyle and marriage to the heiress of shopping mall developer General Growth Properties.

The inimitable Matt Taibbi once speculated that Friedman “needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his [11,400 square-foot] house heated.” Taibbi posed the additional question: “Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie, and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a ‘Green Revolution’?”

In my own anti-Friedman book, I point out that Friedman’s praise for the CEOs of toxic corporations like Monsanto — Vietnam-era manufacturer of the lethal defoliant Agent Orange now specializing in genetically engineered crops and the infamous herbicide Roundup — technically disqualify him from any “green” alibi.

Furthermore, Friedman’s promotion of the United States military to the vanguard of environmentalism based on its use of aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds fails to cohere with relevant details — such as the fact that the United States Defense Department happens to be the worst polluter on the planet.

In Thank You for Being Late, we learn that Mother Nature is conveniently a fan of free-trade agreements, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and that she would also advise “eliminat[ing] entirely America’s corporate income tax.” At last: the confirmation we’ve been waiting for of the positive correlation between working-class misery and environmental health.

Mother Nature also factors into Friedman’s explanation of US-bound migration from Central America, land of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that Friedman enthusiastically endorsed in 2006 while boasting that he had never bothered to peruse its contents: “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative [sic]. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”

In his new book, Friedman remarks briefly on the recent “flood” of unaccompanied children fleeing Central American violence — with no mention of the substantial role the United States itself plays in fueling such migration patterns via punitive economic and military meddling in the region. According to Friedman, the situation boils down to this: “Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are among the most environmentally degraded and deforested regions in Central America. They cut their forests; we got their kids.”

It’s as simple as that, Kmart shoppers.

Never mind that the “they” cutting down their forests are less easily dismissed when one recalls Friedman’s favorable profiling of Canadian mining company CEOs implicated in Central American deforestation.

Let’s move on to Friedman’s treatment of the Arab/Muslim world, i.e. the point at which the generator under the next table leaps into bed with you, annihilating any prospect of tranquility and leaving you with only fantasies of a quick death.

Granted, Thank You for Being Late is more civilized in tone than many of Friedman’s previous deployments to the Orientalist battlefront — highlights of which have included:

  1. Instructing the nation of Iraq to “Suck. On. This,”
  2. putting Afghan “civilians” in quotation marks,
  3. declaring Afghanistan a “special needs baby,”
  4. proclaiming it “logical” that Israel opted in 2006 to flatten portions of Lebanon and civilians therein, and
  5. prescribing the same “logical” treatment for the Gaza Strip in 2009.

But while Friedman manages to restrain himself to a relative degree this time around, there’s still plenty of self-righteous huffing and puffing over how — despite the alleged best efforts of the “World of Order” (led, naturally, by the United States and its buddies in Europe) — the “World of Disorder” insists on being a mess.

Case in point:

When 250,000 people are killed in a civil war… it is safe to say that Syrians forgot how to be human in Syria. That is true of a lot of people in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, the Congo, Rwanda, Ukraine, and Bosnia as well — way too many of them reached a point where they hated each other more than they loved their own children. That is what forgetting how to be human actually looks like.

Remembering to be human, on the other hand, clearly looks like inciting the Iraqi nation to engage in a collective blowjob of military hardware while cheerleading Israel’s obliteration of Arabs.

On the Israeli front, Friedman reminisces about his post-9/11 experience in Tel Aviv, where he took advantage of the opportunity to conduct morning-after interviews with Israeli intelligence experts about the phenomenon of Palestinian suicide bombing. According to Friedman, the upshot was that some suicide bombers would always get through Israeli intelligence networks, “unless the Palestinian village said ‘no,’ unless the village said that this is not martyrdom that we approve of but murder that we don’t approve of.”

This is a sentiment regularly regurgitated by Friedman and others sharing the view that the World of Disorder is to blame for not containing violent reactions to oppression inflicted by — who else? — the World of Order.

Palestinians are to blame for reacting to Israeli territorial confiscation and ethnic cleansing; Iraqis are to blame for failing to curb suicide bombings and other activities that never existed at all prior to the US devastation of that country.

One is left with the sneaking suspicion that the “super-empowered angry man” against whom Friedman is constantly railing — including in Thank You for Being Late — is perhaps an exceptionally apt example of psychological projection. But Friedman occasionally sets aside his rage to do things like nominate the murderous US military for Nobel peace prizes or drop hints as to that military’s fundamental purpose:

Indeed, McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Lest we deduce that the ever-elusive fist might thus have its work cut out for it in the supernova-powered age of accelerations, Friedman turns around and complains that, “unfortunately, there are so many huge defense industry lobbies that promote funding the tools for killing people and so few advocates for funding the schools for building people.” Apparently, we need to balance the number of people we kill with the number of schools we build — as Friedman argued in a 2010 dispatch on the proper “ratio of targeted killings to targeted kindergartens.”

Finally, no discussion of Thank You for Being Late would be complete without Ayele Z. Bojia, the sexagenarian Ethiopian parking attendant whom Friedman credits with providing the “framework for this book.”

The short version of the story is this: One fine day in 2014, Friedman retrieves his car from the parking garage beneath the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, Maryland, where Bojia recognizes him but is rebuffed as Friedman is “itching to be on my way home.” Fast forward one week and the two meet again in the same garage. This time, Bojia informs Friedman that he runs his own blog and writes down the address for him, sending our hero into a tizzy: “Holy mackerel! The parking guy is now my competitor! The parking guy has his own blog! He’s a columnist, too! What’s going on here?”

Friedman peruses the blog, which he notes “displayed a strong pro-democracy bent . . . The subject didn’t greatly interest me, though, so I didn’t spend a lot of time on the site.” The disinterest isn’t enormously difficult to explain, given that recent subjects on Bojia’s blog include a tribute to Fidel Castro and an indictment of Israel’s forcible administration of contraceptive drugs to female Ethiopian immigrants.

Lack of interest notwithstanding, Friedman professes to be intrigued by Bojia: “I decided I needed to pause — and learn more about him.” And from that pause the book is born.

While Friedman’s immediate categorical rejection of the possibility of learning anything from Bojia’s worldview would seem to demolish this whole premise, keep in mind that this is the same Friedman who was permitted to write a book about globalization based on a room service experience in a Tokyo hotel.

The path to learning more about Bojia is fraught with obstacles, as Friedman tells us: “I didn’t have his personal e-mail, so the only way for me to contact him was to take the subway to work every day and park in the public garage to see if, by chance, I could bump into him again.”

Indeed, who better to guide us through the technological revolution than an award-winning reporter who fails to realize that Bojia’s email address is — as one might expect — prominently displayed on his blog. (I myself emailed Bojia and received a response the very same day from his T-Mobile 4G LTE Device, as Friedman would no doubt find it imperative to mention.)

Our detective eventually tracks down his prey, and the two have coffee — after which Friedman e-mails Bojia two memos about how to write a column. Friedman confesses:

I had never thought this deeply about my own craft and what makes a column work until our chance encounter prompted me to do so. Had I not paused to engage [Bojia], I never would have taken apart, examined, and then reassembled my own framework for making sense of the world in a period of rapid change.

In the end, the character of Bojia is useful as a captive audience for Friedman’s auto-validation of himself as a writer as well as a human being in a book that repeatedly stresses the importance — and, more importantly, the marketability — of empathy in the accelerated world.

Considering Friedman’s previous admission that his job as globe-trotting Times columnist is one of “total freedom, and an almost unlimited budget, to explore,” it is nothing short of appalling that a simple interaction with a Bethesda parking lot attendant is such a novelty — and that it requires such a conscious effort on his part. Near the end of the book, another basic interaction with another non-CEO — this time a Somali rental car attendant in Minnesota — merits the endearing observation: “I seem to have a thing with parking garage attendants.” Should Friedman opt to not yet retire his author’s pen, there’s always the possibility of an impending bestseller along the lines of The World Is a Parking Garage.

Meanwhile, the burning question remains: How, in an age in which “the fast eat the slow” — as our columnist himself has put it — has Friedman not been the very first thing to be gobbled up? A high-school student or robot could do his job better for a fraction of the cost — not to mention the Thomas Friedman Op/Ed Generator, which has impressively replicated the “industrial, implacable” noise of the generator under the next table.

Regarding Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, Friedman remarks that “this book is one giant column about the world today.” But as long as Friedman continues to thrive in the age of accelerations, there are few reasons for optimism. As Cockburn advised long ago: “The only sensible thing to do is leave.”