Tom Friedman’s tribal tantrum

Worried about the ‘tribalisation’ of the US? An NYT columnist has a solution for it – a military one.

Thomas Friedman has been a New York Times columnist for 26 years [File: Reuters/Mandel Ngan]

Oftentimes, Thomas Friedman articles are like the aftermath of car accidents: You know it is going to be bad, but you just cannot look away.

In one such recent dispatch – the journalistic equivalent, perhaps, of a head-on collision between two trailer trucks laden with combustible materials – the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist and bestselling author surmises:

“One day, 1,000 years from now, when they dig up this era, archaeologists will surely ask how was it that a great power called America set out to make the Middle East more like itself – embracing pluralism and the rule of law – and ended up instead becoming more like the Middle East – mimicking its worst tribal mores and introducing a whole new level of lawlessness into its national politics?”

While they are at it, archaeologists may also ask how it was that a man who argued that McDonald’s was the key to world peace and that the Beijing Olympics fuelled the Arab Spring ended up institutionalised at the US newspaper of record, where he was heavily remunerated for self-contradictory and cringe-inducing babble.

According to Friedman, Democrats and Republicans have been increasingly consumed by tribalism and an “us-versus-them mindset” – with the Donald Trump faction of the latter party “embracing the core philosophy that dominates tribal politics in Afghanistan and the Arab world: The ‘other’ is the enemy, not a fellow citizen, and the only two choices are ‘rule or die’”.

Speaking of “others”, this is the same Friedman who has spent the duration of his columnist career cheerleading for brutal and devastating war against an array of foreign enemies.

Sounds rather, um, tribal.

As for Friedman’s relentless insistence on the backwardness of the Afghan-Arab “core philosophy”, it is worth recalling that regional “tribal” divisions have been encouraged by many an imperial and colonial force – not to mention New York Times columnists who have opined that the United States “should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind”.

Halfway into Friedman’s handwringing over the creeping tribalisation of the US, we learn that – what do you know? – the US military might just be the solution.

“Ironically”, Friedman preaches, “there is no institution in American life that has worked harder to inoculate America from this virus of tribalism, while enriching and exemplifying an ethic of pluralism, than the military – the very people who were most intimately exposed to the Middle East variant for over 20 years”.

Ironic, indeed, that an institution that specialises in pulverising countries and people should be celebrated as a symbol of curative coexistence – just as it was ironic when Friedman diagnosed the US military as the vanguard of the green revolution despite the Pentagon’s established position as the top polluter on the planet.

Archaeologists of the next millennium will surely have some additional questions about all of that.

Meanwhile, as if there were not already enough to hate about the coronavirus pandemic, it has also provided Friedman with a new cache of metaphors to run into the ground: the tribalism “virus”, the Middle Eastern “variant”. One fears yet another metaphorically tortured bestseller along the lines of Hot, Flat, Crowded and Tribal – or maybe Hot, Flat, Crowded, Tribal, and Sick.

Who knows: this tribalism article may set the stage for that very book.

To illustrate the allegedly post-tribal nature of the army that literally tore apart Afghanistan and Iraq, Friedman reminisces about a column he wrote in 2005 re: his experience on board the USS Chosin off the Iraqi coast, where a Moroccan-American sailor commented to him about the racial diversity of the US Navy.

The title of the column, which he neglects to note, was “Sinbad vs the Mermaids” – a reference to the female US military personnel Friedman had also encountered, and who had prompted a spontaneous conclusion about America’s civilising mission vis-a-vis not only Iraq’s “dictatorial-tribal political order” but also its “male-dominated culture”.

Erupting with Orientalist glee over the mind-blowing effects this female naval presence must be having on local fishermen, Friedman decreed, “In effect, we are promoting two revolutions at once: Jefferson versus Saddam and Sinbad versus the Little Mermaids – who turn out to be captains of ships”.

As I point out in my book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work – published a decade ago – the fact that female soldiers are still cast as “Little Mermaids” suggests fundamental obstacles to gender equality in the very country that is supposedly promoting the double-revolution.

Never mind, too, that racism and sexism are as embedded in the military as they are in US society. Friedman, fully inoculated as he is against the virus of reality, cannot be bothered to talk about things like the epidemic of rape in the US armed forces.

For his 26 years and counting as Times foreign affairs columnist, Friedman has tripped over himself in adulation for the multiracial, co-ed imperial killing machine – and once even proposed giving the military the Nobel Peace Prize.

And despite the evident backfiring of the old Jefferson-Mermaid revolution, it appears the same US military can still save the day with its exemplary “ethic of pluralism and teamwork … at a time when more and more civilian politicians are opting for cheap tribalism”.

Not that Friedman does not throw his full weight behind some of these same politicians when they engage in cheap tribal military escapades – like that time in 2020 when Trump oversaw the illegal assassination-by-drone-strike of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani.

Setting aside his ostensible hatred of Trump, Friedman gushed with vicarious machismo, “One day they may name a street after President Trump in Tehran. Why? Because Trump just ordered the assassination of possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.”

What was all of that about an “us-versus-them mindset”?

In the end, the point of Friedman’s sustained warmongering is to ensure the propagation of an international US-dominated system of corporate tyranny that happens to directly benefit Friedman and his socioeconomic ilk, to the detriment of pretty much everyone else.

Call it the tribe of the rich.

Now, as Friedman despairs over the “virus of tribalism” and the need to find an “antidote … fast – otherwise the future is grim for democracies everywhere”, the issue is not really democracy at all.

It seems, rather, that Friedman would simply like the US to appear more unified in its outlook so as to merit the image of national greatness that, in his view, endows the ever-ethical army with carte blanche to wreak bloody havoc across the world.

After all, with Tribe America, the only two choices are “rule or die”.

In the meantime, Friedman’s overzealous service as a mouthpiece for empire and capital will continue to guarantee him a prestigious and influential post at the New York Times – with no antidote yet in sight.

Here is hoping that, when archaeologists dig up this era 1,000 years from now, Thomas Friedman is not still the Times’ foreign affairs columnist.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

More from Author
Most Read