Al-Jazeera / January 24, 2022
New York Times columnist Friedman says he has a solution to America’s democracy problem.
Back in 2009, heavily remunerated multi-Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman – who has been employed by the US newspaper of record since 1981 – wrote with characteristic eloquence: “Many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things.”
This was presumably news to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the myriad other locations on the planet that have been on the receiving end of “big good things” from America.
Sadly, according to Friedman, the United States has lost its way in recent years, afflicted by a crippling partisan “polarization” that is preventing it from being the best big good superpower it can be. Imperial decline has allegedly been accelerated by the “Trump-cult version” of the Republican party, which is threatening to dismantle US “democracy”.
Never mind that the US system of corporate plutocracy – which, by coincidence, happens to directly benefit Friedman and his socioeconomic ilk – does not objectively qualify as “democratic”, or that “polarization” has somehow not overly affected bipartisan US support for military atrocities abroad or neoliberal economic warfare. Never mind, too, that Friedman himself suggested naming a street in Tehran after cult leader Trump when he ordered the illegal extrajudicial assassination in 2020 of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
Anyway, Friedman now has a solution to America’s democracy problem – which is sure to go as smashingly well as his solution to Africa’s electricity problem in 2001, when he proposed that then-President George W Bush ask all US schools to raise money to buy solar-powered lightbulbs with American flag decals on them for African villages, “so when those kids grew up they would remember who lit up their nights”. (Clearly, the whole lightbulb-decal project would have been a prohibitive expense for a country that would go on to spend trillions of dollars on wars fervently championed by Friedman.)
In his January 2021 New York Times column titled “Biden-Cheney 2024”?, Friedman urges the US to recuperate its democracy by following in the footsteps of Israel, where a new national unity government that “stretches from Jewish settlers on the right all the way to an Israeli-Arab Islamist party and super-liberals” has been “getting stuff done and muting the hyperpolarization that was making Israel ungovernable”. Indeed, nothing says democracy like a racist apartheid state that bombs, tortures, and ethnically cleanses Palestinians.
Marveling at how Israel de-hyperpolarized itself when “the lambs there actually lay down with the lions”, Friedman reasons that the ticket to America’s own de-polarization could be a combined Democratic-Republican “ticket of Joe Biden and Liz Cheney” in 2024 – “or Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski, or Kamala Harris and Mitt Romney, or Stacey Abrams and Liz Cheney, or Amy Klobuchar and Liz Cheney… [or] any other such combination”.
In the case of Israel, it bears mentioning that Friedman has long portrayed himself as a principled critic of Israeli excesses, even while boasting that the Zionist state “had me at hello” and endorsing the mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military as “not pretty… but logical”. Almost without exception, Friedman’s critiques of Israel over the past several decades – including the reference in his recent column to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “just a smarter Donald Trump”- have been issued in the interest of preserving the façade of Israeli “democracy”. By auto-marketing as a reasonable observer, Friedman assists in shifting the spectrum of permissible discourse to the right and discrediting as left-wing radicals those who denounce Israel for, like, massacring children. Call Friedman a lion in lamb’s clothing, if you will.
As for prospective lamb-lion bonding sessions in the US, Friedman has repeatedly exploited his projected lamb persona to shill for bigoted right-wing neo-con Liz Cheney – US Representative for Wyoming, daughter of Bush’s notorious Vice President Dick Cheney, and “vitriol-spewing extremist”, as phrased in a May article for The Nation by John Nichols.
Cheney the younger’s online biography states that she was “first elected in 2016, on a platform of restoring America’s strength and power in the world” – a mission right up the alley, it seems, of a certain New York Times foreign affairs columnist who co-authored a book titled That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.
For his Biden-Cheney campaign column, Friedman consults Steven Levitsky, political scientist and co-author of the book How Democracies Die, who tells him that “we should be ready to talk about Liz Cheney as part of a blow-your-mind Israeli-style fusion coalition with Democrats. It is a coalition that says: ‘There is only one overriding goal right now – that is saving our democratic system.’”
If that does not sufficiently blow your mind, Levitsky goes on to warn that there are grave repercussions for failing to commit the requisite political sacrifice: “[If] you don’t do it, just look back and see why democracy collapsed in countries like Germany, Spain and Chile. The democratic forces there should have done it, but they didn’t.”
If only that Pinochet-Allende ticket had panned out. And maybe Hitler and Franco would not have been so bad if they had just had some lambs to lounge around with.
Of course, Biden & Co are anything but lambs themselves and the “democratic system” that Friedman is so intent on saving in the US and Israel alike is nothing but a fig-leaf-cum-carte-blanche for continuing military and economic savagery.
In the end, democracies cannot die if they were never democracies in the first place, but Thomas Friedman’s career could certainly stand to kick the bucket.
Belen Fernandez – contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine and the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso, 2011)