Well, we all know by now that Donald Trump must be a Russian intelligence asset, and now the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is wondering in a recent column, Is Putin a C.I.A. Agent?
“Why?” he asks. “Because Putin has undertaken so many actions in recent years that contributed to the weakening of Russia’s economy and human capital base that you have to wonder whether he’s secretly on the C.I.A.’s payroll.”
Even by Friedman’s standards, this was a particularly dumb column. “Putin consistently acts like a farmer who sells his most valuable beef in return for cubes of sugar,” he writes. “That is, he looks for short-term sugar highs to boost his popularity with his Russian nationalist base because he is insecure, and pays for it by giving up real beef, leaving Russia weaker in the long term. Beef for sugar — not a good trade.”
Maybe (maybe?) he’s got a point, but surely this is not the best way to deliver it. Friedman also dispenses the usual bromides about globalization, saying that salvation for Russia lies in “building a truly diverse, innovation-based economy.”
It’s the same message that that he’s been peddling since his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree came out in 1999. Indeed, on April 4, the day after his column ran, he was speaking in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (about his new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations) and telling the crowd that “communities need to build ‘complex adaptive coalitions’ that bring together business, civic organizations and government to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
Yep, globalization and innovation, the one size fits all cure for economic problems anywhere, be it Moscow, Russia or Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Where, incidentally, poverty rates have been steadily climbing ever since globalization kicked in. The reason, predictably, is that unemployment has fallen but manufacturing jobs have been replaced by low-paying health care jobs.)
No one ever captured Friedman better than my old colleague and friend Alexander Cockburn, especially in this vintage 2000 New York Press column. (Thanks to various people who sent this my way.) The whole thing is worth a read, but the closer is priceless:
At the start of The Lexus and the Olive Tree Friedman boasts: “How to understand and explain this incredibly complex system of globalization? The short answer is that I learned you need to do two things at once–look at the world through a multilens perspective and, at the same time, convey that complexity to readers through simple stories, not grand theories. I use two techniques: I do ‘information arbitrage’ in order to understand the world, and I ‘tell stories’ in order to explain it.”
That’s one way of putting it. 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.