Friedman Pundit; Hate Story

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:13

    By now, one is accustomed to such coarseness from Friedman. He's transformed himself from a serious reporter into a rah-rah futurist who looks at the world with all the rigor of Fredo Corleone first seeing Las Vegas. He cranks out cyber-cute catchphrases, referring to Brazil as "" or America's economic system as DOS capital 6.0. He loves self-promotional "I call them?" sentences, as in, "I call them the turtles," his cheerfully dehumanizing shorthand for the hundreds of millions of poor people who can't compete in the new global economy. Most telling, he thinks that breathless examples are the highest form of argument: "To all those who say that this era of globalization is no different from the previous one, I would simply ask: Was your great-grandmother playing bridge with Frenchmen on the Internet in 1900?" Mikey, just look at those broads!

    When Friedman first began his column in late 1994, he decided that explaining foreign affairs meant talking about economics and not just politics. Now this is a reasonable idea (indeed, Marx had it 150 years earlier), but as he was utterly lacking a conscious worldview, Friedman quickly fell under the spell of the magical word "globalization." It became his mantra, his life jacket, his religion. And he uses it?the way an evangelist invokes God?to end all arguments. Accused of loving globalization, he denies the charge by comparing globalization to the dawn, thereby reducing history to an inexorable natural force: "[E]ven if I didn't much care for the dawn," he writes in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, "there isn't much I could do about it." And to think that Marxists used to get thumped for determinism.

    Like many people in the grip of a theory, Friedman identifies so heavily with the myth of globalization that he sees only what he wants to see. His blindspots are evident in his choice of sources: he loves quoting CEOs and hedge-fund managers, but rarely finds time to talk to campesinos or outlaw labor organizers in Asia. You can recognize them in his gee-whiz credulity when he's taken to one of the showcase businesses in a poor country: "I recently visited a Victoria's Secret garment factory in Sri Lanka that, in terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work in." (Love that "in terms of conditions.") And you can see them in the way that he takes attacks on globalization personally.

    How else to explain his freak-out over the Seattle protests? Here was a chance for a skillful columnist to bring perspective to the struggle between those who run the WTO and those who challenge its workings. That's what William Pfaff did in the International Herald Tribune when he used Seattle to illustrate how ideas of trade are infected by politics; and that's what Harold Meyerson did brilliantly in the L.A. Weekly when he explained why the WTO meeting was a turning point: For years international capitalism seemed to have no center ("No one's in control," as Friedman likes to put it), but Seattle finally provided people an address where they could go to make demands and air their grievances.

    There's nothing half this sharp or substantial in Friedman, who was so busy lecturing the demonstrators on the virtues of free trade that he couldn't bother to listen to them. Disparaging their street protests as old-model thinking, he claimed that they'd be better off working with multinationals and consumers to make their points through the market. That is, he was urging them to transform their dissent into a form of consumerism when consumerist society is what, in one way or another, most of them were opposing. Caught up in his vision of dawning globalization, he couldn't grasp that the Seattle demonstrators weren't trying to "smear free trade" but trying to stop the corporate-dominated WTO from making huge decisions with no popular input. They were practicing what people used to call politics.

    For those of us who enjoyed reading Friedman back when he was covering the Mideast, it's depressing to witness his smug righteousness now that he's a bigtime columnist and bestselling author. But in a sense, he's not completely to blame. Like so many others, he's fallen victim to one of media culture's great diseases. Call it Punditization, a journalistic syndrome with two telltale symptoms: a reporter's delusion that he's actually a deep-dish thinker with something to say, and his desire to be as big a hotshot as the people he covers. Even a mild case of this disease can turn you into a clown.

    If anyone seems eager to slap on the greasepaint and become a star, it's Friedman.pundit, who has traded in the essential prerequisite of his job?a rich and skeptical sense of history?for a breezy, tv-friendly style that flatters his audience. He quotes Forrest Gump and Merrill Lynch ads ("The World is 10 years old," reads one of his chapter titles), swoons before the Internet like a virgin before Puff Daddy and with effortless chauvinism describes America as the Michael Jordan of countries. Watching him do his shtick on Charlie Rose?he invariably wows that thick slab of Carolina ham?I'm always amazed at how much enthusiasm he brings to the role of globalization's MC. It's as if he's auditioning to be keynote speaker at every business convention on the planet.

    But that would be to think him cynical, and what's scary about Friedman is that he's almost certainly sincere. In fact, each time I read him, I'm reminded of something a canny ex-dissident once told me in Warsaw: "The very worst thing you can say about a man is that he believes his own propaganda."

    John Powers is the film critic for Vogue.

    Hate Story by Tom Scocca America does not, in general, like homosexuals, which tends to be forgotten in our country's headlong rush toward perfection. We in the opinionating business recall the good, big-picture stuff: how this nation values fair play, how it provides opportunity for all. We don't remember so well how we used to call each other faggots, back in high school. Hence the lingering controversy in the press surrounding the death of Jesse Dirkhising and the subject of hate crimes. Dirkhising was a 13-year-old boy who was raped and murdered in Arkansas in late September. His accused killers are two homosexual men. Because of this circumstance, and because word of his ugly demise failed to make newspapers outside the region, he's become a mascot for right-wingers. "Media Tune Out Torture Death of Arkansas Boy," The Washington Times huffed in a page-one headline. "Homosexuals Charged With Rape, Murder."

    What mattered to The Washington Times, and to the commentators that followed its lead, was that Dirkhising's death came roughly a year after the much-reported murder of Matthew Shepard. The connection? See, in the one case, a gay man got killed. In the other, gay men did the killing. The Left-Wing Media, being hopelessly pro-homosexual, touted the one story and buried the other.

    This is only a reasonable parallel if you accept the larger lesson implied by The Washington Times: that the Dirkhising case proves that homosexuals are naturally savage and predatory. So, but for a bit of defensive ombudsmanship here and there, the Left-Wing Media has continued to ignore Jesse Dirkhising?proving, to those so inclined, that it really is biased. And thus the conspiracy theory keeps rattling along. The latest pundit to hump Dirkhising's battered corpse is Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe's token righty columnist. "Here lies Matthew Shepard, beaten to death by a pair of savages," Jacoby wrote Dec. 9. "Here lies Jesse Dirkhising, tortured to death by a different pair of savages. Each was an innocent. Each died in agony? But because Shepard's savages detested homosexuals, his death matters."

    Jacoby fails to mention that in 1997, in the similar rape-and-murder case of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley, the lib-tilted Globe made it perfectly clear that the perpetrators were homosexuals. That doesn't fit with his point, which is that Shepard got more attention because of the media's fixation on hate crimes?and that this proves "hate-crime laws are immoral and unjust."

    The very half-assedness of Jacoby's column, though, illustrates what's wrong with the current discussion of hate-crime laws. Nobody, on either side of the issue, has thought very clearly about what hate crimes are.

    The basic argument against hate-crime laws rests on the notion that all crimes are acts of hate?a moronic way of framing things, but its appeal is unshakable. Andrew Sullivan, the philosopher-king of naivete, spun that basic idea into 5000 words in The New York Times Magazine in September, shortly after Dirkhising was dead and long before he became an issue. In the piece, Sullivan, who's made much hay being a conservative homosexual, frets about the slipperiness of defining hate, about the unknowable minds of the haters. Hate has, he says, "as many varieties as there are varieties of love."

    But the problem of pinning down "hate crime" is mostly semantic. Call them "crimes of bigotry" instead, and seven-eighths of what Jacoby and Sullivan have to say evaporates. Hate may be an elusive human emotion; bigotry is a solid American fact.

    What defines groups subject to hate crime is not, as critics would have it, that they deserve "protection." It's that they're despised. Historically, culturally, the American majority has despised homosexuals, just as it has despised Jews and African-Americans. Till quite recently, it was acceptable to use terror or brutality to keep such folks in their place.

    When someone decides to go fag-bashing, or to torch a synagogue or to kill a black person, the offender is turning to those old social conventions. It may no longer be that the perp gets off with a wink and a pat on the back from the jury. But the days when that was so are not so long gone as the cheerfully ahistorical Sullivan would think. And old habits die hard.

    The murder of Matthew Shepard was newsworthy because it told homosexuals and their friends and families that such freelancers are still at work, even as gay people become more visible and accepted in society at large. I'm not convinced that legislation would solve the problem; proponents of the laws seem to define hate as broadly and fuzzily as Sullivan does, to cover any sort of ill-feeling. But the underlying problem is real, and deserves attention.

    The Germans understand this. The notion that crimes of bigotry are thought crimes, and therefore unpoliceable, would strike the average German as ridiculous. Mein Kampf and neo-Nazi organizing are suppressed because the Germans have concluded, from firsthand experience, that Nazism is bad for German society.

    True, the Germans do not construe liberty quite the way we do, which may well have contributed to the Nazi problem in the first place. But there is something to be said for scrupulousness; one cannot imagine a major German politician being linked to neo-Nazis the way Trent Lott is linked to white supremacists?even though Jim Crow outlived Adolf Hitler.

    The American approach to our own ugliness is to deny it. It is on this tendency of ours that Sullivan, a British opportunist, has built his reputation as an intellectual. It is impossible to take him seriously if one knows even rudimentary American history, or has even, say, sat in the stands at a pro football game. Two months after his hate-crimes opus, Sullivan weighed in in the Dec. 12 Times Magazine on the subject of public figures who refuse to confirm or deny that they are gay. The essay focuses, in particular, on Al Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile. Why, he asks, would Brazile, a gay-rights activist, refuse to acknowledge she was a lesbian?

    The premise is mind-boggling. Why would the campaign manager of a Democratic presidential candidate not want to be known as a lesbian? Can Sullivan be serious? Reading the piece?"Gore campaign?lesbian? Gore's campaign manager?homosexuals?"?one begins to suspect that Log Cabin Andy is perpetrating a classic election-season ratfuck, making sure that the news of Brazile's probable homosexuality makes it out to the masses and turns voters to the GOP. Either it's deliberate, evil sabotage, or Sullivan is so dim-witted as to be a danger to himself. Being a liberal, sworn to the proposition that humanity is morally perfectible, I suppose I should choose the latter. Tom Scocca is a staff writer for Baltimore's City Paper.