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Thomas Friedman and Conventional Wisdom

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

With Joel home this weekend, we have found ourselves talking about Thomas Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning NYT op-ed columnist, on several occasions. I like Friedman. I always read him, and have done so for decades. But something about him bugs me, what I’m tempted sometimes to call a tendency towards being a know-it-all. On Wednesday I tried to be more precise in explaining this to Joel, as well as in trying to explain what bugged me about that other great mainstream sage, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. (Of course, if I could write half as well as either of them, I would have much to be thankful for.)

Yesterday, Joel pointed me to the opening of Bill McKibben’s review in a recent New York Review of Books of Friedman’s latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America. McKibben, of course, is the brilliant writer and environmentalist whose 1989 New Yorker article and book The End of Nature gave convincing evidence and warning of climate change, its causes, and likely impact. And in the first paragraph of his review McKibben captures what I was trying to say about Friedman:

Thomas Friedman is the prime leading indicator of the conventional wisdom, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they’re in-the-know, but never far enough to cause deep mental unease. He performs a useful service as a kind of political GPS unit, telling us where the country is, and could reasonably be expected to go.

McKibben praises much about Friedman’s book, but then has a transition in which he moves toward some critical comments. I’ll quote the transitional passage at the end. But before that I want to turn to Friedman’s latest column, in today’s NYT. In it, he discusses a decision of Iraq’s highest court over-ruling the Parliament. I was taken by surprise when Friedman wrote:

[T]he fact that [Iraq] may be developing an independent judiciary is good news. It’s a reminder of the most important reason for the Iraq war: to try to collaborate with Iraqis to build progressive politics and rule of law in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, a region that stands out for its lack of consensual politics and independent judiciaries. And it’s a reminder that a decent outcome may still be possible in Iraq, especially now that the Parliament has endorsed the U.S.-Iraqi plan for a 2011 withdrawal of American troops.

I thought he was done apologizing for the war, but here he is again, recycling his arguments of 2003 supporting Bush as we prepared for war. Once again, though, I must turn to someone who gets at the issues far better than I can, Glenn Greenwald of Salon. In a post this morning, he writes:

Yet today, Friedman seamlessly hauls out the self-glorifying claim that the “most important reason” for the invasion of Iraq is that we wanted to teach them the joys of Freedom.

In 2006 and 2007, our political class was openly flirting with involuntary regret — and even admissions of wrongdoing — for its almost unanimous support for the attack on Iraq. That the war was a disaster was so undeniably clear that support for it was coming to be seen as a source of shame, and some of the most prominent supporters of the war were even resorting to outright falsehoods in order to pretend that they had opposed it from the start.

All of that is changing again. Even as Americans still overwhelmingly view the war itself as a mistake, we’re back to the conventional wisdom among our political class that the invasion was not only justified and wise, but also noble in spirit and motive. The only problem was Bush’s mismanagement of our benevolent quest to free the oppressed.

There’s much more of value in Greenwald’s lengthy post, but let me just turn to its final passage:

As Vietnam did for some short period of time, Iraq could have re-taught both the evil and stupidity of commencing optional wars against countries that haven’t attacked us and couldn’t do so, and more generally, could have underscored the grave error in viewing the battle against Muslim extremism through the glorious prism of “War.”

But with this intense Friedmanesque revisionism well underway — whereby war cheerleaders like Friedman were Right and Good all along and it was only the incompetent Bush and Rumsfeld who ruined everything with their “bumbling” — it seems increasingly likely that the opposite lesson will be learned. Attacking, invading and occupying other countries in order to change their governments to ones we prefer is the smart, wise and just thing to do. Friedman’s term for it today is “collaborating with them to build progressive politics.” Especially if there is another terrorist attack on U.S. soil — but even if there isn’t — the only lesson being drawn from the Iraq debacle in these precincts is that from now on, we just need to plan and execute it better, so that the Good and Just people who cheer these wars on have their noble schemes vindicated a lot sooner and a lot more proficiently.

And for good measure, here is another passage from McKibben’s review of Friedman’s book.

This is as good as the conventional wisdom gets.

But it also makes you remember why we don’t usually turn to politicians for deep thinking, or for writing that penetrates beyond the moment (Barack Obama being a possible exception). The conventional wisdom, even the ahead-of-the-curve, smart, progressive version of it, almost always has deep flaws, and those are in evidence here as well. Indeed, those flaws undermine parts of his argument in serious ways.

For one thing, he’s a little late in recognizing what needs to be done. Friedman’s earlier best sellers, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The Earth Is Flat (2005), somehow managed to be all about globalization without seriously considering the single biggest change the earth is undergoing: widespread climate change. (There’s one passing reference in The Earth Is Flat : he recommends that America embark on a program of energy independence, one side benefit of which would be to “improve its own standing in Europe by doing something huge to reduce global warming.”) Those omissions struck me as odd when each book emerged. It’s not that we didn’t know about this problem at the time: by 1995 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had declared that we faced a serious problem, and the Kyoto treaty negotiations—given strong support by the Clinton administration—landed in between his two volumes. Most of the countries he often admires—the Western Europeans, the Japanese—were by 1999 hard at work on reducing carbon emissions.

But it seems to have been Hurricane Katrina, late in 2005, that woke Friedman from his nap, and even then it was a delayed reaction. In early 2007, he reports, he was “having lunch with my friend Nate Lewis…at the faculty club on the palm-tree-lined Caltech campus…and I could not resist asking Nate: ‘Why was Katrina so unnerving?'” Nate sips his strawberry lemonade (“a specialty of the house”) and answers with a question of his own: “Did we do that? Or did God do that?” At first, says Friedman, “I didn’t understand—and then it clicked…. Have we introduced so much CO2 into nature’s operating system that we no longer know where nature stops and we start in shaping today’s weather?”

Well, indeed we have—and indeed many of us realized that a good long while ago. (I admit a personal stake here, having published this precise argument as The End of Nature in 1989, a book that appeared in twenty or so languages and that obscure journal The New Yorker.) Eight years ago, for instance, the environment minister in the last Tory government in Britain, John Gummer, said, “We talk of natural disasters, or acts of God, but they’re the acts of human beings. We’ve changed nature.” One can only wonder how much more useful Friedman’s revelations would have been had they come earlier, in the period when few American politicians save Al Gore were willing to make this case. More relevant to this review, his late arrival to the question means that his interpretation of the science is a little off. Mostly he gets the scale of the problem right; thanks in part to interviews with indefatigable blogger Joseph Romm[*] (climateprogress.org), he understands that the IPCC projections of future warming are almost certainly severe underestimates, and that the potential scale of the looming disaster is large indeed—”biblical,” to use his term.

But something seems to be missing from his mental graph—the axis of time. He bemoans the lack of “celebrity scientists” drawing attention to the problem, which is why his omission of James Hansen, the NASA climatologist, from this volume is puzzling. Hansen was the first to make the public case for global warming as a threat, way back in 1988 in congressional testimony that appeared, among a million other places, above the fold on the front page of The New York Times.

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