Monday, July 23, 2012

Alexander Cockburn on Thomas Friedman

Alexander Cockburn was neither as famous nor as renowned as his fellow British journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Yet, when he passed away over the weekend an articulate and intelligent voice was silenced.

It would be unfair to call Cockburn a man of the left. He was a man of the radical left. For that among other reasons I rarely read what he wrote.

I may have been wrong. John Fund writes in the National Review that Cockburn’s views had been mellowing in recent years.

Recently, Cockburn had set his sights on radical environmentalists, with intellectual vigor.

Cockburn told Fund:

The environmental Left wants to deindustrialize America so they can exercise political power and control people’s lifestyles.

Like Hitchens, Cockburn was a master of withering political invective, of the masterful rhetorical put-downs that few natural-born American writers can manage.

Where American writers tend to believe that the strength of their feelings will carry the day, Cockburn, like Hitchens, tried to wrap it in words.

Your language is always more memorable than your feelings.

In his honor I offer a few passages from a classical Cockburn take-down of Thomas Friedman. (Via James Taranto on Twitter) You know Tom Friedman, the famed and highly respected New York Times columnist about whom I have not had too much to say lately, largely because I cannot bear to read him anymore.

Surely, if the corporate and political elites of this nation idolize the likes of Tom Friedman we are in worse shape than anyone thinks.

Anyway, Cockburn described the Friedman style:

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.

And then there is Friedman’s legendary egomania. Cockburn described it here:

Friedman is so marinated in self-regard that he doesn’t even know when he’s being stupid. "While the defining measurement of the Cold War was weight–particularly the throw-weight of missiles–the defining measurement of the globalization system is speed." Sounds good in a corporate roundtable, means nothing. The man just isn’t that smart, beyond the dubious ability to make money out of press releases praising the New Globalism and American power.

Cockburn closes with a true story, one that he has on the good authority of his brother. In three paragraphs he shows why we are right to think that there is something radically wrong with Friedman’s writing, especially with its constant assertion of self-importance. Apparently, the Friedman ego is so powerful that it drowns out reality.

In Cockburn’s words:

There’s another. Back in 1984 I remember my brother Patrick, then working for the Financial Times in Beirut, describing an exacting day covering bloodshed and mayhem in the company of Friedman, at that time the Times’ Beirut correspondent. They returned to the Commodore hotel, thankful to be alive. Friedman went up to his room to file. Patrick went to the bar, which was deserted. He poured himself a stiff whiskey and sat at a table sipping quietly. Enter a Shiite gunman, who reviewed the bottles of booze with displeasure and proceeded to smash them methodically with his rifle butt. He didn’t notice Patrick, who was glad to be thus unperceived, concluding that (a) journalists drinking Scotch were unlikely to be viewed with fondness by the fundamentalist gunman, and (b) he was drinking the last Scotch likely to be consumed in the Commodore for quite a while.

Eventually Friedman descended, and Patrick described the episode. A couple of days later a Friedman dispatch noting it appeared in The New York Times. But it wasn’t long before the "I" took command. In Friedman’s 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem we find, "My first glimpse of Beirut’s real bottom came at the Commodore Hotel bar on February 7, 1984... I was enjoying a ‘quiet’ lunch in the Commodore restaurant that day when..." And lo, suddenly it’s Friedman who sees the bottle-smasher at work, Friedman who vividly recounts how the Shiite "stalked behind the bar" and Friedman who arbitrages the story toward a Deeper Note: "The scene was terrifying on many levels..."

He wasn’t there, according to my brother. I’ll bet that by now Friedman probably believes that he was. In the capsule of his immense ego, the world is what he wants it to be.


David Foster said...

The attitudes of the Old Left and Today's Left toward industry, and particularly energy production, differ remarkably. I don't think today's "progressives" are likely to be singing Woody Guthrie's paean to the Columbia River dams.

See the 1928 quote from the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in my post here, about the ways in which the machine age has benefited "working people." A very different orientation from today's lefties.

Sam L. said...

Ah, the power of talking oneself into believing things.