An American and an Arab journalist walk into a Saudi consulate, Thomas Friedman in New York and Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. One comes out smiling ear to ear like Lawrence of Arabia packing for a royal palace near Riyadh and the other disappears into the thin air and widely feared to have been rushed to meet his creator in more than one piece.
Why do the Saudis love the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and invite him to Mohammed bin Salman’s palace in Riyadh to tickle his Orientalist fantasies, but, if persistent reports by Turkish authorities turn out to be true, they sent a hit team of 15 assassins to beat, torture, murder, and cut to pieces the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi? No, this cannot be part of the rivalries between our two papers of record. Let us search for a more plausible reason.
One jejune and sassy columnist
One lovely autumn morning in November 2017, we, New Yorkers, woke up and picked up our “Paper of Record,” as our city’s newspaper the New York Times calls itself, and read our dearly beloved globetrotting columnist Thomas Friedman telling us he had just been to Saudi Arabia and back having met the mighty and handsome Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and had brought us back the good tiding that “the most significant reform process under way anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.” We were overjoyed.
In his considered opinion, the semi-literate -“jejune and sassy” as Edward Said once called him – columnist for the New York Times informed us that what his favourite Arab prince was doing “will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe.” My colleagues and I teaching Islam at Columbia University uptown thought we were all totally out to lunch having failed to grasp the depth and profundity of this man’s – again borrowing the late Said’s choice words – “comic philistinism.”
Thomas Friedman proudly reported to us, his captured audience in his New York neighbourhood and beyond, how he and the Saudi Prince had “met at night at his family’s ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh. MBS spoke in English, while his brother, Prince Khalid, the new Saudi ambassador to the US, and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation.” This, mind you, was November 2017, when we had hopes and reasons to believe the time for such gaudy Orientalia had passed but alas, the New York Times had no sense of editorial decency and no one was minding the shop to cut such gibberish from this idiot’s prose. My only conclusion was that someone in a position of power and authority at the New York Times must believe old-fashioned Orientalist prose and politics still sells. An entire library of literature critically dismantling this nauseating Orientalism be damned.
You can read the rest of the piece if you are in the mood of self-flagellation – full of trite and hackneyed panegyrics for “MBS”, as he calls him. One crucial thing though please notice when Thomas Friedman tells you in no uncertain terms: “But one thing I know for sure: Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anti-corruption drive.”
“Not a single Saudi I spoke to …” – let’s keep that phrase in mind as we move forward.
“A premeditated murder“
Cut (no pun) to the second columnist: On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document certifying his divorce, from which location there is no evidence he ever exited alive. Turkish authorities have reported they believe that upon his arrival Khashoggi was brutally beaten, tortured, killed and his body dismembered inside the consulate in a “premeditated murder.” (For the latest updates on Khashoggi’s unfolding story see Al Jazeera coverage here).
Official reports from the scene of Khashoggi’s disappearance in Istanbul are not encouraging. “Turkish officials have said,” according to Washington Post for which Khashoggi was a columnist, “they believe Khashoggi, 59, a critic of the Saudi leadership and a contributor to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, was killed by a team of 15 Saudis flown in specifically to carry out the attack.”
All major news outlets in the US and Europe have echoed the same accounts. “Turkish officials,” according to BBC, “have audio and video evidence that shows missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the BBC has been told.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, “top Turkish security officials have concluded that the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on orders from the highest levels of the royal court.”
The comic philistine
Soon after Thomas Friedman published that bought and paid for propaganda piece promoting the cause of a juvenile tyrant in the US, decent people began to object to his whitewashing of a Saudi Zionist committing war crimes in Yemen, in answer to which he went public praising his seasoned-kebab buddy MBS for “having balls,” and told his critics: “F**k you!” – to the approving laughter of his audience. (The full talk, if you have the stomach for it, is here).
Upon Khashoggi’s disappearance from the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Thomas Friedman rushed to write a piece in which he defended and excused himself against his own previous fanciful vagaries, extensively quoting himself, which he prefaced by saying that one of the sources he had cited was, in fact, Jamal Khashoggi. Never mind the fact he had told us he never saw a single soul who disagreed with what his favourite prince, MBS, was doing. Alas, Jamal Khashoggi has gone AWOL and we have no way of verifying that he, indeed, said anything to Thomas Friedman.
None of these antic paraphernalia in Thomas Friedman’s apothecary is strange or unusual any more. “Thomas Friedman” has now emerged as a bizarre character-type, proverbial to a specific kind of New York Times journalism. Puerile, fatuous, delusional claptrap, inane to the point of numbing incredulity, Thomas Friedman glides giddily from the top to the bottom of his columns seemingly oblivious to what a bizarre cartoonish character he cuts to the world at large.
“It is not just the comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas that I find so remarkably jejune,” wrote the late Edward Said in his now legendary piece, “The Orientalist Express: Thomas Friedman Wraps Up the Middle East (Village Voice 36:42, October 17, 1989), “or his sassy and unbeguiling manner, or his grating indifference to values and principles by which, perhaps misguidedly, Arabs and Jews have believed themselves to be informed. It is rather the special combination of disarming incoherence and unearned egoism that gives him his cockily alarming plausibility.”
There is much that remains the same about Thomas Friedman since those prophetic words, and much that has worsened. In her witty and brilliant book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (2011), Belen Fernandez has stripped naked the bare banality of Thomas Friedman’s journalism and the bankruptcy of the media culture that has opted to recognise and even celebrate him. Badly in need of a half-decent undergraduate education, Thomas Friedman writes confidently from behind the arrogant hubris of two nuclear powers he defends, the US and Israel, and so what he says is uttered with the vertiginous mixture of undiluted stupidity and gaudy confidence.
In another brilliant piece, “in honour of Thomas Friedman’s latest love letter to the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia,” Abdullah Al-Arian has mapped out “seventy years’ worth of the New York Times describing the [Saudi] royal family as reformers”. It is an exceptionally revealing and yet damning piece, where you read how the New York Times has consistently offered Americans a decidedly abusive misreading of the US reactionary ally.
I, too, have had occasions to expose the sophomoric silliness of Thomas Friedman and his unfailing illiteracy about a world he has made a career misreading.
But all such and many more similar attentions raises a crucial question.
A young journalist friend recently observed how we keep criticizing Thomas Friedman and yet, we keep reading him. Indeed: why do we read him? The answer to that for me is very simple.
Years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania writing my doctoral dissertation under the late Philip Rieff, one day I was sitting in my small cubical next to his office reading the New York Times. He walked to my desk, saw me reading the New York Times, quietly went back to his office and returned with a pair of scissors. “Never read the Times without a pair of scissors, Hamid,” he said with his posh Anglophilic tone, “we are sociologists, we collect garbage.”
This was in the late 1970s-early 1980s, when we still read newspapers in print. Today, I don’t think reading the Times is to collect garbage, with a pair of scissors or just cutting and pasting for future citations. I have a different metaphor for it. The New York Times is the barometer of the health and sickness of the American society. So long as it keeps hasbara propaganda officers like Thomas Friedman on its columns the New York Times offers us a perfectly accurate measure of where this society is and where it is headed. It both reflects and manufactures the United States for us.
At issue, therefore, and why we read puerile dilatants like Thomas Friedman, is the circumstances under which the New York Times deems it necessary to feature among its columnists such figures to keep a demographically significant portion of its readership happy. At issue is not even the unfortunate fate of one Saudi national who thought caring for the democratic future of his homeland would be safe from a long distance. At issue, also, is not to single out Saudi Arabia for this particularly vicious assassination of a political dissident for which it is suspected to be responsible. Saudi Arabia’s archrival, the ruling regime in Iran, has done similarly atrocious acts repeatedly, and so has its newly found ally, Israel. The Saudi murderous bombing of Yemen is of an order of magnitude far worse than the one it is now suspected to have done to just one dissident.
At issue is the systematic distortion of the truth of the historical struggles of Arabs and Muslims striving for the democratic emancipation of their homeland that is so grotesquely abused and maligned, misread, denigrated, and denied by propaganda officers like Thomas Friedman and the newspaper that regularly features him. As the late Edward Said recognised decades ago, for them, only one thing matters: how to preserve the racist apartheid settler colony they call “Israel.” Israel is the prism through which they see the world. Anything that happens anywhere in the world, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, they twist and turn to a narrative that best benefits their favourite garrison state.
Thomas Friedman will continue to spin his gibberish on a regular basis; Jamal Khashoggi, the world now fears, will never be able to share his hopes for the democratic future of his homeland. The task at hand is never to allow the paparazzi prose and politics of Thomas Friedman to have the last word on “his friend Jamal Khashoggi” or on anything else for that matter. He and his ilk are the noxious symptoms of a disease, the disease of disinformation and untruth, of malignant illiteracy and purposeful ignorance. We are here to write back with a pair of shears cutting their entangled lies to their untruthful sizes, so the world knows which way to look for emancipatory truth.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.