Tom Friedman In China

(Oriental Outlook Weekly Magazine via New Century Net)  The Globalization Evangelist -- Thomas Friedman.  By Michael Anti.  November 24, 2006.

[an incomplete translation]

In my mind, there are two Thomas Friedmans.  The former is a veteran expert in Middle East issues, a three-time Pulitzer prize winner, my former model to emulate and my reason for entering journalism; the other one is the tireless evangelist for globalization, whom I admire greatly for his passion and speaking skills but I read him less and less often now.

... In November, he came to Beijing and Shanghai to speak and to promote the Chinese edition of his book ("The World Is Flat"), and he was enthusiastically received by the multinational corporations and the media.

While Friedman's trip to market his book has raised his name recognition in the Chinese-language world, he was criticized by many commentators.  China Daily writer Raymond Zhou thought that the book was repetitious because a single idea was being repeated a dozen times over two or three pages, and that Friedman's understanding about China was inaccurate.  Economic Observer editor "Flypig" attended Friedman's speech and humorously noted that his greatest reward was to learn the number of ways to pronounce "Oh, my God!"

So is the case that when God shows up, his legend is eviscerated?  I have experienced this feeling.  For work reasons, I came into contact with Friedman earlier.  When he came to speak and gather news last year, I was his assistant for the trip.  He gave two great speeches at Tsinghua and Peking Universities, although they are the same as all the speeches that he gives around the world about his book.  There is no need to ask for too much, because all commercial speeches are like that.  He is truly a talented speaker, and even today I can recite large sections of his speeches because they were too dramatic, too fitting, too relevant and too well-crated.

For example, he said: "Five hundred years ago, Columbus headed west for India and found out that the world is round.  Today, I head east and I discovered that the world is flat."  "Several decades ago, my parents told us to eat because the children in China and India are starving.  Today, I tell my children to learn because the children in China and India are starving for their jobs."

While I am moved by his humor, I also quietly observe this great column writer -- my former legend.  The world is not really flat.  It may be that some places have been flattened out, but an extreme declaration such as "The world is flat" is doomed to be superficial and unrealistic just like Francis Fukuyama's theory of "the end of history."  Could it be that minimum depth must be sacrificed for the sake of marketing?

Friedman is a focused person.  While chatting with him in the car, all the themes were driven by him -- he is not a reporter filled with curiosity.  He seemed only to want the answer to the question, or even the answer that fits his globalization theory version 3.0.  I have no right to speak about India, but if the Chinese were to read carefully the section about China in "The World is Flat," they would think that Friedman's China is really completely unrelated to the China that we are familiar with.

When he interviews people, he opens us his big Dell notebook computer and type in the other party's response, nodding occasionally.  No other big-name reporter in the world will conduct interviews this way, because it clearly does not leave time to listen to others and think about the answers.  But Friedman does not need to record the entire interview accurately.  What he needs is an interesting quotation from the government official or CEO in front of him, so that he can suitably cite it in the column that he has already thought out.

... The problem is that this type of writing is simplified to the point that it bears no relationship to reality anymore.  Friedman is a marketer for his books.  He has no contact with common people and he hangs around with CEO's.  The triple Pulitzer Prize winner Friedman exists only in my fond memories.  When I read his columns, I find that the simplicity is sometimes so offensive and repellent.  The excessive popularization and dramatization has damaged the writing.  Right now, I prefer to read the in-depth articles in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly because their writers do not pursue mass audiences and therefore they have the state of mind to write something more professional, more truthful or more insightful.

... The Chinese people are now accustomed to attacks from western media.  The first reason is that it the nature of the media to "demonize" the nature of all the problems.  The second reason is that all criticisms against China should be adopted if reasonable but ignored otherwise.  But when the western media begin to praise China, then this is where there is a real problem.  The transformation of Friedman tells us that this is either a variation in the "Chinese threat" theme or else a misreading of the Other in China.  Only a small nation with lack of self-confidence would think that praise from the western media can enhance their national pride.

But it took Friedman two years to find out about the small negligible change in China.  An ordinary New York Times reporter can find out the answer in two months' time.  Perhaps the great Friedman ought to return to his specialty in the Middle East. 

Relevant Links (in Chinese):

The above three horizontal lines means that this breaks away from Michael Anti's article to my personal opinion.

I confess that I do not read Tom Friedman anymore.  This isn't even about my disagreement with the business model of the New York Times Select paid subscription.  This is about Tom Friedman himself.

Generally speaking, media accountability is mostly missing in action in the United States.  A media worker can say anything without ever being held accountable (unless there is a lawsuit from specifically aggrieved persons or corporations).  Thus, this environment is favorable to those who can package themselves as domain experts (e.g. the Middle East expert, the China expert, etc) and make grandiose predictions in florid style, knowing full well that they will never be held accountable.  These unelected, unappointed and unaccountable media workers begin to dictate national policies from their ed/op columns at the leading newspapers of the country.

Now Tom Friedman can wax poetic about who will rule the planet in 75 years' time.  Will it be China or India?  The fact is that neither I nor Tom Friedman will be around at that time to find out.  So this exercise is moot and any argument over those predictions will be a waste of all our time.  However, Tom Friedman has left a veritable track record of short-term predictions about his alleged domain of expertise: the Middle East.  So how does he fare?  The list below has been compiled by FAIR from the public statements of Tom Friedman.  Let me put it this way -- if this man has always been wrong about what was going to Iraq over the short term (usually the next six months), why would anyone pay any attention to what he has to say about China in 75 years' time?  At this point, I cannot even take his Iraq analyses seriously.  You can make your own decision, but I have made mine already.

(Fairness and Accuracy In ReportingTom Friedman's Flexible Deadlines.  May 16, 2006.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman is considered by many of his media colleagues to be one of the wisest observers of international affairs. "You have a global brain, my friend," MSNBC host Chris Matthews once told Friedman (4/21/05). "You're amazing. You amaze me every time you write a book."

Such praise is not uncommon. Friedman's appeal seems to rest on his ability to discuss complex issues in the simplest possible terms. On a recent episode of MSNBC's Hardball (5/11/06), for example, Friedman boiled down the intricacies of the Iraq situation into a make-or-break deadline: "Well, I think that we're going to find out, Chris, in the next year to six months—probably sooner—whether a decent outcome is possible there, and I think we're going to have to just let this play out."

That confident prediction would seem a lot more insightful, however, if Friedman hadn't been making essentially the same forecast almost since the beginning of the Iraq War. A review of Friedman's punditry reveals a long series of similar do-or-die dates that never seem to get any closer.

"The next six months in Iraq—which will determine the prospects for democracy-building there—are the most important six months in U.S. foreign policy in a long, long time." (New York Times, 11/30/03)

"What I absolutely don't understand is just at the moment when we finally have a UN-approved Iraqi-caretaker government made up of—I know a lot of these guys—reasonably decent people and more than reasonably decent people, everyone wants to declare it's over. I don't get it. It might be over in a week, it might be over in a month, it might be over in six months, but what's the rush? Can we let this play out, please?" (NPR's Fresh Air, 6/3/04)

"What we're gonna find out, Bob, in the next six to nine months is whether we have liberated a country or uncorked a civil war." (CBS's Face the Nation, 10/3/04)

"Improv time is over. This is crunch time. Iraq will be won or lost in the next few months. But it won't be won with high rhetoric. It will be won on the ground in a war over the last mile." (New York Times, 11/28/04)

"I think we're in the end game now…. I think we're in a six-month window here where it's going to become very clear and this is all going to pre-empt I think the next congressional election—that's my own feeling— let alone the presidential one." (NBC's Meet the Press, 9/25/05)

"Maybe the cynical Europeans were right. Maybe this neighborhood is just beyond transformation. That will become clear in the next few months as we see just what kind of minority the Sunnis in Iraq intend to be. If they come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and we should stay to help build it. If they won't, then we are wasting our time." (New York Times, 9/28/05)

"We've teed up this situation for Iraqis, and I think the next six months really are going to determine whether this country is going to collapse into three parts or more or whether it's going to come together." (CBS's Face the Nation, 12/18/05)

"We're at the beginning of I think the decisive I would say six months in Iraq, OK, because I feel like this election—you know, I felt from the beginning Iraq was going to be ultimately, Charlie, what Iraqis make of it." (PBS's Charlie Rose Show, 12/20/05)

"The only thing I am certain of is that in the wake of this election, Iraq will be what Iraqis make of it—and the next six months will tell us a lot. I remain guardedly hopeful." (New York Times, 12/21/05)

"I think that we're going to know after six to nine months whether this project has any chance of succeeding. In which case, I think the American people as a whole will want to play it out or whether it really is a fool's errand." (Oprah Winfrey Show, 1/23/06)

"I think we're in the end game there, in the next three to six months, Bob. We've got for the first time an Iraqi government elected on the basis of an Iraqi constitution. Either they're going to produce the kind of inclusive consensual government that we aspire to in the near term, in which case America will stick with it, or they're not, in which case I think the bottom's going to fall out." (CBS, 1/31/06)

"I think we are in the end game. The next six to nine months are going to tell whether we can produce a decent outcome in Iraq." (NBC's Today, 3/2/06)

"Can Iraqis get this government together? If they do, I think the American public will continue to want to support the effort there to try to produce a decent, stable Iraq. But if they don't, then I think the bottom is going to fall out of public support here for the whole Iraq endeavor. So one way or another, I think we're in the end game in the sense it's going to be decided in the next weeks or months whether there's an Iraq there worth investing in. And that is something only Iraqis can tell us." (CNN, 4/23/06)

"Well, I think that we're going to find out, Chris, in the next year to six months—probably sooner—whether a decent outcome is possible there, and I think we're going to have to just let this play out." (MSNBC's Hardball, 5/11/06)

Relevant linkThe Tom Friedman disease consumes Establishment Washington  Glenn Greenwald, Unclaimed Territory; News and Columns  Matt Taibbi, New York Press