Thomas Friedman sizes up New Zealand

by Toby Manhire / 28 March, 2012
The New York Times op-ed writer's take on Australasia is full of generalisations. But it's better than lots of his stuff.
Thomas Friedman has been in New Zealand.

The New York Times’ long-serving op-ed page chin-stroker-in-chief (he prefers the “Pulitzer Prize Winning” epithet), globalisation buzzword burbler and desperate cheerleader for American exceptionalism was one of the stars at the Festival of the Arts’ writers’ and readers’ week.

I hear the audience at his session were roughly an even split between the fawning and the appalled.

He went on to give a lecture in Auckland, and at some point got to Christchurch. I know he got to Christchurch because it says so in the dateline to a new column he’s done for the NY Times, a column which oddly makes no mention whatsoever of the state of Christchurch post-earthquake - though some might argue that is a mercy.

Instead, the op-ed is in part a series of observations about his travels in New Zealand and Australia, but really an opportunity to make the unastonishing observation that Them American Republicans are Freaking Weird.

His piece, headlined “Elephants Down Under” (Elephants = Republicans, as you know; there's no need for any jokes about embattled NZ MPs), begins like this:

I’ve learned three things visiting New Zealand and Australia: There is a place in the world where rugby is front-page news. There is a place in the world — the Auckland airport — where the restrooms have digital clocks in the entryway telling you hourly when they were last cleaned and when they will be cleaned again. And there is a place in the world where moderate Republicans still exist — unfortunately, you have to take a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to get there.

He goes on to draw on the thinking of former Wellington rugby player, one-term National list MP and Trevor Mallard punching bag Paul Quinn, who remarked, fairly, that the vast majority of New Zealander voters would probably support the Democrats over the Republicans, Labour or National. Which contradicts his opening gambit, but never mind that.

And he says, sweeping New Zealand and Australia tidily together, that “in New Zealand and Australia, you could almost fit their entire political spectrum — from conservatives to liberals — inside the US Democratic Party”.

In other generalisations, Friedman implies that New Zealand, like Australia, has compulsory voting. But he only has 800 or so words, so generalisations are to be expected, perhaps.

And his central thesis – that New Zealand and Australian “conservatives” are concentrated closer to the centre ground than the GOP – rings undeniably true. As far as NZ is concerned, he’s echoing something that John Key himself is quoted as saying in one of the few interesting NZ-related WikiLeaks cables: that “all New Zealanders have a socialist streak”.

What’s more, Friedman’s NZ dispatch is a work of deep thought compared to some of his past efforts. In recent times, for example, I enjoyed the NY Times op-ed page foreign affairs expert’s take on the conflict in Libya: “I don’t know Libya, but my gut tells me that any kind of decent outcome there will require boots on the ground.”

The column’s concluding line: “Dear Lord, please make President Obama lucky.”

Another good one came just weeks later. In case you weren’t aware of TF’s reputation, he wrote the following:

When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: “Do you have a corporate rate?” I said, “I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.” There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: “Can I ask you something?” Sure. “Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.”

(Sadly, TF doesn’t tell us what he said back to her, if anything. A bit like he never comes back to that cool digital toilet-clean-timing clock he mentions in the NZ piece. He just leaves us hanging. Tease!)

If you think I’m being unduly harsh, or that these items are rare or new, try this, from Glenn Greenwald, writing in December 2006:

I spent the day yesterday and today reading every Tom Friedman column beginning in mid-2002 through the present regarding Iraq. That body of work is extraordinary. Friedman is truly one of the most frivolous, dishonest, and morally bankrupt public intellectuals burdening this country. Yet he is, of course, still today, one of the most universally revered figures around, despite - amazingly enough, I think it's more accurate to say "because of" - his advocacy of the invasion of Iraq, likely the greatest strategic foreign policy disaster in America's history.

This matters so much not simply in order to expose Friedman's intellectual and moral emptiness, though that is a goal worthy and important in its own right. Way beyond that, the specific strain of intellectual bankruptcy that drove Friedman's strident support for the invasion of Iraq continues to be what drives not only Tom Friedman today, but virtually all of our elite opinion-makers and "centrist" and "responsible" political figures currently attempting to "solve" the Iraq disaster.

You can write your own Friedman column, by the way, with this easy guide. Or this one.

And here’s a decent parody.

Two clever New Zealanders on Friedman (who did write one very good book, From Beirut to Jerusalem), before I go. Here’s Richard Adams’ review of one of his globalisation tomes in the Guardian. And Kim Hill talked to him last year. I kind of suspect he didn’t pop round to her place for a cup of centrist tea when he was in Wellington.

Update, 4 April: A strange coda. Friedman appeared on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, and in discussing the Republican nomination race, mentioned his recent sojourn - prompting one observer to pen the unforgettable headline Meet the Press: Even Aborigines in New Zealand Say Romney's 'Not Authentic'.

Here's the clip:

Gawker - up whose nose Friedman gets a lot - caught up with Friedo's trip down under, too, in a post headlined Tom Friedman Travels the World to Find Incredibly Uninteresting Platitudes.

I've also been directed to a readable version of the ineffably brilliant Matt Taibbi reviews of Friedman's The World is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded - pieces of writing (the reviews, not the book) that will have you cheering uncontrollably at the screen.
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