Thomas Friedman, an exemplar of 21st century America

Some reviews are far more interesting and insightful than the books they discuss.  This post gives an excerpt from one of the best reviews, ever — for both your entertainment and enlightenment.  I recommend reading it in full.  That Friedman is a best-selling intellectual in America is prima facie evidence that our observation-orientation-decision-action loop is broken.  In brief, we’ve lost our minds.

Excerpt:  “Flathead – The peculiar genius of Thomas L. Friedman“, Matt Taibbi, New York Press, 26 April 2005 — Review of The World is Flat.

On an ideological level, Friedman’s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country.

It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we’re not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we’re not in Kansas anymore.) That’s the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that’s all there is.

… Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity. Like George Bush, he’s in the reality-making business. In the new flat world, argument is no longer a two-way street for people like the president and the country’s most important columnist. You no longer have to worry about actually convincing anyone; the process ends when you make the case.

Things are true because you say they are. The only thing that matters is how sure you sound when you say it. In politics, this allows America to invade a castrated Iraq in self-defense. In the intellectual world, Friedman is now probing the outer limits of this trick’s potential, and it’s absolutely perfect, a stroke of genius, that he’s choosing to argue that the world is flat. The only thing that would have been better would be if he had chosen to argue that the moon was made of cheese.

And that’s basically what he’s doing here. The internet is speeding up business communications, and global labor markets are more fluid than ever. Therefore, the moon is made of cheese. That is the rhetorical gist of The World Is Flat. It’s brilliant. Only an America-hater could fail to appreciate it.

Then the closing line, of a quality I can only dream about writing (someday).

Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?

Almost as good

An excerpt from “Flat N All That“, New York Press, January 2009 — A review of Friedman’s news book Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

When some time ago a friend of mine told me that Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, was going to be a kind of environmentalist clarion call against American consumerism, I almost died laughing.

Beautiful, I thought. Just when you begin to lose faith in America’s ability to fall for absolutely anything-just when you begin to think we Americans as a race might finally outgrow the lovable credulousness that leads us to fork over our credit card numbers to every half-baked TV pitchman hawking a magic dick-enlarging pill, or a way to make millions on the Internet while sitting at home and pounding doughnuts- along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 114,000 11,400 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”? Well, he’ll explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95, $30.95 if you have the misfortune to be Canadian.

… To review quickly, the “Long Bomb” Iraq war plan Friedman supported as a means of transforming the Middle East blew up in his and everyone else’s face; the “Electronic Herd” of highly volatile international capital markets he once touted as an economic cure-all not only didn’t pan out, but led the world into a terrifying chasm of seemingly irreversible economic catastrophe; his beloved “Golden Straitjacket” of American-style global development (forced on the world by the “hidden fist” of American military power) turned out to be the vehicle for the very energy/ecological crisis Friedman himself warns about in his new book; and, most humorously, the “Flat World” consumer economics Friedman marveled at so voluminously turned out to be grounded in such total unreality that even his wife’s once-mighty shopping mall empire, General Growth Properties, has lost 99 percent of its value in this year alone.

So, yes, Friedman is suddenly an environmentalist of sorts.

What the fuck else is he going to be? All the other ideas he spent the last ten years humping have been blown to hell. Color me unimpressed that he scrounged one more thing to sell out of the smoldering, discredited wreck that should be his career; that he had the good sense to quickly reinvent himself before angry Gods remembered to dash his brains out with a lightning bolt. But better late than never, I suppose. Or as Friedman might say, “Better two cell phones than a fish in your zipper.”

Afterword

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about America: 

  1. A philosphical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  2. Dr. Gulliver explains why America has become so fearful of the future, 23 October 2008
  3. Quote of the day, by P. J. O’Rouke, 19 December 2008
  4. Observations about America by Lewis Lapham, 8 March 2008

33 thoughts on “Thomas Friedman, an exemplar of 21st century America

  1. A well-deserved trashing! Much as I hate him, Friedman is a significant political weathervane, indicating which way the establishment wants us to think at the moment. He is really not much more than a skillful high school debater paid to defend the proposition: globalization is good for all of us. Someone needed to do this because the evidence was so strong against it, as American workers lost their jobs to Korean steelworkers and Indian computer programmers.

    I really haven’t felt such strong personal animus toward a public intellectual since William Buckley. But finally, I had to give it to him — someone had to do it!

  2. Great post FM.
    I judge editorialists like Friedman by their consistency of message. This is discernable only by committing to read their blurbs whenever they appear in front of your face like it or not.
    After years of having people say to me “you must read…” I have to say I have yet to read his books. Why? Because I can’t read his editorials and get any notion of a consistent philosophy.
    I can discern his marketing strategy: search the world for concepts not recognized by the masses, compile them no matter how incohesive, publish them, and by virtue of being the first to light many small sparks create a fire. He’s smart enough though to plant the sparks where they gain attention but never result in him being accountable for anything. Hence the only result of his fire is to heat up his paycheck.
    I,d rather read Cal Thomas. I disagree with him 99% of the time, but at least I can debate his line of reasoning across the 2 sides of my brain. Friedman just gives me a headache. It is editorializing mixed with a heavy dose of ADD and self indulgence. He does make for good soundbites. “the world is flat” That makes for simple thinking. And its false as a concept. The world isnt flat anymore than it was in the 13th century, its just pierced full of holes. And the means of piercing holes gets cheaper and easier and more available by the day.

  3. I was ‘encouraged’ to read ‘The Earth is Flat’ by my group president. After 250 mind numbing pages I gave up. Went to my executive and told him that book was a pile of crap. He smiled, agreed and asked me how many pages it took before I quit. Seems it is being pushed hard amongst upper management types. We don’t buy it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Did you borrow the book? Otherwise you did in fact buy it, in the only sense that matters! You discovered it was crap only afterwards. To quote that great masterwork, “Bored of the Rings”:

    We strongly remind you that this is the not “Lord of the Rings”. So if you’re about to purchase this thinking that, put it right back on the shelf. But you’ve already read this far, so that means that you’ve already bought — oh, my. (Tote up another one on the register, Jocko. “Ching!”)

  4. You mean Meryl Streep isn’t my go to authority on whether to put Alar on apples? Al Gore isn’t qualified to pontificate on climate change? That arrogant blow hard ass in line behind me waiting for tickets to the Fellini flick might have his head up his ass about what Fellini is trying to say? What do I have to do? Hey, you aren’t suggesting I have to start learning, and thinking for myself are you?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Do no such thing. That will make you much more difficult for our ruling elites to manage.

  5. Does anyone seriously consider Friedman influential any longer? After his cries of “Just another six months” during the Iraqi War became so common they were re-named “Freidman Units”…I mean, you must have fallen off the turnip truck a few hours ago to take this guy at face value.

    And Barnett is a few yards behind him in terms of credibility, or the lack there of.

  6. I haven’t read the book or any other of Friedman’s book, but have read enough of his articles to understand his points of view. They are mostly nonsense. Yet he is hardly alone. It pains me to tell that, because the last ten or twenty years have been years of prosperity and relative peace. At the same time morons and dreamers like Friedman could create their illusions about how globalization (under American rule) could create world peace. It almost sounded like marxism in reverse. My favorite was, however, Bill Gates, who ten or twelve years ago predicted that the Internet could stop starvation in Africa. I never quite understood what the heck he meant and I think neither did Gates himself.

    Put Friedman in front of Jon Stewart in The Daily Show and give him the Jim Cramer-treatment.

  7. I actually think his ‘hidden fist’ quote is a pretty accurate. He’s the consummate mouthpiece for the ruling class, and shares their delight in violence (suck..on…this).

  8. The problem with the Stiglitzian ‘Big Lie’ is that after a while, nobody believes the truth any more, even when you need them to. The legions of fluff consultants will be joining Mr. Friedman shortly on the failed philosophies junkpile. Besides, every depression ends the preceding wave of globalization. Great post FM!

  9. This was my favorite quote: “Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought.”

    Taibbi ROCKS.

  10. O come on. Tom Friedman could not even figure out that Lebanon was having a civil war rooted in religion, a country which has seen its Christian minority steadily driven out since murderous riots in the 1850s and finally the withdrawal of their Ottoman protectors. That was his first assignment as a foreign correspondent. FM, why are you bothering? Does anyone actually take the NYT seriously?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Millions read his column in the NYTimes. Tens of thousands buy his books. His writings are discussed widely along the web. Do you have any basis for your assertions about his lack of influence?

  11. Friedman, Krugman, and Dowd. The NYT’s collection of clueless pundits is one large reason that they need Carlos Slim’s pesos just to keep their pablum manufactury running.

  12. I’d hate to be considered a media Jacobin, but I wouldn’t complain if Friedman, Dowd, Paglia, Broder, Douthat, Ignatius, Beck, Miller, Cohen, and all the various bullshit artists and conservative welfare recipients of the US media brought before John Stewart serially, to have their lies and pathetically bad attempts at self-justification shown to Stewart’s audience.

  13. Said Seneca, “American workers lost their jobs to Korean steelworkers and Indian computer programmers.”

    If only we had a surplus of American computer programmers or steelworkers this might be a problem!
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Is this a joke? The US steel industry has been in decline for decades. Wages in US engineering (including software) are held down by imports of foreign labor, which of course reduces the domestic supply (the long education produces a relatively small income yield).

  14. A tangential look at the same issue, a recent, particular, but revealing example of the rotten state of public affairs and public discourse. “Charles Freeman’s Statement in Wake of Withdrawal From Intelligence Post“, Wall Street Journal, 10 March 2009 — Excerpt:

    “I am not so immodest as to believe that this controversy was about me rather than issues of public policy. These issues had little to do with the NIC and were not at the heart of what I hoped to contribute to the quality of analysis available to President Obama and his administration. Still, I am saddened by what the controversy and the manner in which the public vitriol of those who devoted themselves to sustaining it have revealed about the state of our civil society. It is apparent that we Americans cannot any longer conduct a serious public discussion or exercise independent judgment about matters of great importance to our country as well as to our allies and friends.”

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    Fabius Maximus replies: God forbid that he admit that he said some odd things, which made many Americans worry about his ability to represent this nation. Nor can this be a legitmate difference of policy views. In the view of this whacko, we’re not worth of him. So be it.

  15. Fabius, may I ask, what were those odd things in your opinion? Most of what I read from the guy, (which I admit wasn’t much) sounded pretty reasonable to me.

  16. “Wages in US engineering (including software) are held down by imports of foreign labor, which of course reduces the domestic supply (the long education produces a relatively small income yield).”

    Is this a joke? Importing foreign specialists only helps the American economy. We should be much more worried about an American brain drain.

    Moreover, why are you worried about the US losing manufacturing jobs? This is merely capitalism at work, it is in the best interest of the corporate bottom line to have manufacturing jobs shipped overseas. If you see this as a problem, FM, then I have some news for you: the solution is government intervention.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Is this sarcasim? Of course the solution is government intervention. After all, open borders — and all those H1-B and H-2B visas — are not interventions by the Girl Scouts.

  17. Yes, you are of course correct millions still get the Times. Whether they read it is something else again. If they do, let us hope they give full coverage to Mr. Freeman. Speak more Freeman, speak louder, longer. Whacko is dismissive. The real issue is, who is Admiral Blair? Why choose someone who has been a consumer of intel but has no experience with its collection or production to be in charge of the President’s morning report?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That is another issue. There are always other issues. Only so much can be discussed in one or two thousand words.

  18. FM loves ridicule. His letter didn’t read like that of a whacko to me, but then I am proud to be one myself!

    Just think, though, not so long ago the infamous network news anchor, Howard Beale, could get up in front of millions and say the following:

    ” I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.
    I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

    All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

    Of course, some people would say he was a whacko too. Still, we could use more people like that – even fictional ones!
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The excerpt of Freeman’s words you cited were the words of a whacko, IMO.

    As for anger, many times on this site I have said that now is the time for anger. There is no need to look to the words of an angry nut from a silly movie; we have better sources from which to draw inspiration.

    “Anger is easy. Anger at the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, is difficult.”
    — Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, book IV, chapter 5 (lightly paraphrased)

    “Telemachus, now is the time to be angry.”
    — Odysseus, when the time came to deal with the Suitors. From the movie The Odessey (1997)

  19. No wonder the NY Times is losing money! Who can take it seriously with idiots like Friedman writing for it? That his awful stuff could be taken seriously really shows the US (as a whole) is basically intellectually bankrupt…

  20. Re comment #18:

    Blair was the first Associate Director of Central Intelligence for Military Support at the CIA, where he was involved in getting the CIA to better serve the military. Intelligence was his collateral specialty in the Navy (his primary was surface warfare). Also, having a customer of the intel services in charge of the producers is not a bad thing.

    Not to mention an Oxford history grad. Would that we had more who study history in high positions in our government.

  21. A model of consistent ‘thought’ – Friedman and the shifting motives for the Iraq war

    1) On January 5, 2003, in “A War for Oil?” it’s about oil and WMD:

    “Any war we launch in Iraq will certainly be – in part – about oil. To deny that is laughable. … Why are they going after Saddam Hussein … when North Korea already has nuclear weapons, the missiles to deliver them …? One reason, of course, is that it is easier to go after Saddam. But the other reason is oil – even if the president doesn’t want to admit it.

    “Let’s cut the nonsense. The primary reason the Bush team is more focused on Saddam is because if he were to acquire weapons of mass destruction, it might give him the leverage he has long sought – not to attack us, but to extend his influence over the world’s largest source of oil, the Persian Gulf.”

    2) WMD are not turning up after all, so it’s now about the ‘terrorism bubble’. From “Because We Could”, June 4, 2003:

    “The ‘real reason’ for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Because a terrorism bubble had built up over there … “

    3) Finally, he decides that it’s mainly about democracy. From a speech given at Stanford, Feb. 8, 2005:

    “This is not about oil,” The New York Times’ foreign affairs columnist told a sellout crowd in Kresge Auditorium. “This is about something really noble, crazy noble. It is the first attempt in the modern history of the Arab world for Arabs in their own country to forge their own social contract, their own constitution.”

  22. The tragedy of America: Thomas Friedman is hailed as a genius, Matt Taibbi is taking potshots from the fringes.

    If there were any justice in the universe their positions would be reversed.

  23. Granted Friedman is a fool, mostly because he doesn’t even remember the rationale that he defended last week. He never understood the Lebanese civil war, or Iran’s part in the latter stages, so how does one expect he would get anything else right.

    But what to say about Taibbi, a knave a scoundrel, one who wished for the return of communism when he was at the exile, who slandered a good man and a decent woman at Rolling Stone, who cheered on the last pope’s death. Who exalted someone we all know now, but many knew before was a mountebank and a charlatan.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This suggests narcisco knows much more about Taibbi than most of us! However, as a general rule (there are exceptions) I let text speak for itself and ignore the history of the author. Whether knave or hero, that does not affect the logic and factual basis of the text.

  24. Most of his stuff at the New York Press, was subpar snark. His contempt was clear for the mission of the men and women in Iraq. He was vicious toward Yeltsin’ foibles, but not as much ‘speaking truth to power’ when it came to Putin, who ultimately shut the Exile down.

    It’s all a matter of perspective, is Thomas Friedman more of a fool than Dowd, or Krugman (who’s late 1990s cheer for capitalism, almost made me cheer for the Seattle anarchists) or Dowd or Krugman. I’d say no, he certainly doesn’t subscribe to the Austrian economics view, but few do now adays. Keynes would blanch at the corruption of what is now termed “Keynesianism”.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It is amazing how Keynes advocacy of a balanced budget over the full business cycle (deficits during the downturn, surplus during the boom) mutated into big deficits all the time. I doubt this would have surprised him, and he was warned that it was a probable consequence. Still, he cannot be held responsible for events after his time — or the failure of subsequent economists to expland his general theory to include the effects of rising aggregate debt levels.

  25. “Oxford history grad” is I believed supposed to convey an idea of “osmotic power” which confers wisdom on the graced. It is the “tea bag” idea of education. A common feature of many Rhodes scholars is this: the Americans always talk about Oxford but they rarely name anyone they worked with because the truth is they did not work with anyone. Which means they may have had a very good time, spoke with interesting people like themselves, but in fact did not do much, if any, university based intellectual work. Its the American version of the Grand Tour, the year abroad or in Clinton’s case (I say with acknowledged envy) the year on the broad.

  26. They can’t explain it, because a) they don’t know it themselves, b) it interferes with what they are trying to do. But the knowledge was available to those heeded Alexander Tyler and before him Cicero.

  27. “The excerpt of Freeman’s words you cited were the words of a whacko, IMO.”

    I suppose that makes his potential boss and also Obama twice whackos for having asked him to serve. Thank goodness upright Americans like Rosen – let us not be distracted that he is most likely involved in treasonous spying ops against the US – patriotically stepped into to mount a campaign of slander and suchlike to alert us all to the dangerous qualities this man would have brought to the intelligence arena. Good that such people are protecting us from ‘whackos’ like Freeman. I mean, how whacked out do you have to be to admit in public that you have never worked for a political or national lobby group in Washington?

    You’re right FM. A real ‘whacko’. I am sure his replacement will say and do all the right things and that Friedman will endorse the pick.

  28. Did not intentionally evade your comment ArmsMerchant. As you know the Office of Naval Intelligence is why it was decided to create the CIA in the first place. It is a long debate. I do believe the CIA was finished with Aldrich Ames. Instead of reform we proliferated. I was referring to Freeman as a person with no intelligence experience, not Admiral Blair. Still believe the CIA needs to be reduced to its historical memory — archives –, its research function given to the Library of Congress. This way the surviving moles will be pastured. We need a new, quite small humintel operation reporting directly to the President. But I also believe the Pentagon needs to be closed and DHS abolished. As for Admiral Blair, we will see won’t we. Freeman was a dreadful choice for several reasons, but I do not know who proposed him or why.

  29. zing!

    “Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.”

    The best analysis is here though:

    It’s “the same old Friedman, a tireless social scientist whose research methods mainly include lunching, reading road signs, and watching people board airplanes.

    “Like The World is Flat, a book borne of Friedman’s stirring experience of seeing IBM sign in the distance while golfing in Bangalore, Hot,Flat and Crowded is a book whose great insights come when Friedman golfs… This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.”

    Thomas Friedman–tireless promoting that merely being amazed at how the world works is a fine substitution for critical thinking and scholarly analysis.

  30. FM likes Tomgram site. Rightly so. A very full article on the ‘whacko’ Freeman: “The Freeman Affair“, Robert Dreyfuss, TomDispatch, 15 March 2009. In terms of this thread about media ‘sludginess’ an excerpt:

    “Numerous reporters, including Max Blumenthal at the Daily Beast website and Spencer Ackerman of Firedoglake, have effectively documented the role of the Israel lobby, including AIPAC, in sabotaging Freeman’s appointment. From their accounts and others, it seems clear that the lobby left its fingerprints all over Freeman’s National Intelligence Council corpse. (Indeed, Time’s Joe Klein described the attack on Freeman as an “assassination,” adding that the term “lobby” doesn’t do justice to the methods of the various lobbying groups, individuals, and publications: “He was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives.”)

    On the other hand, the Washington Post, in a near-hysterical editorial, decided to pretend that the Israel lobby really doesn’t exist, accusing Freeman instead of sending out a “crackpot tirade.” Huffed the Post, “Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed on Tuesday in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister ‘Lobby’… His statement was a grotesque libel.”

    The Post’s case might have been stronger, had it not, just one day earlier, printed an editorial in which it called on Attorney General Eric Holder to exonerate Steve Rosen and drop the espionage case against him. Entitled “Time to Call It Quits,” the editorial said:

    “The matter involves Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former officials for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC… A trial has been scheduled for June in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Mr. Holder should pull the plug on this prosecution long before then.”

    In his interview with me, Freeman noted the propensity members of the Israel lobby have for denying the lobby’s existence, even while taking credit for having forced him out and simultaneously claiming that they had nothing to do with it. “We’re now at the ludicrous stage where those who boasted of having done it and who described how they did it are now denying that they did it,” he said.”

    The main subject here is not the Lobby/AIPAC per se, rather the way it oscillates between existing and not existing depending on the needs of the moment and the slant being pursued. It is one of the more glaring examples of a widespread problem.

    One which also makes keeping track of current political, economic or foreign affairs situations increasingly challenging. In short: one of the main forces in opposition to bona fide societal cohesion that these times call for.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is a sad affair, as two sides both “influenced” by foreign powers (if not actually if indirectly supported) duked it out, both pretending to have America’s interests at heart. This is one aspect of the corruption of Empire. Our excessive involvement in other nations results in their forced (self-defense) involvement in our politics. IMO, anyone obviously serving the interests of other nations would be tainted, which would have trashed many of the participants on both sides of the Freeman affair. IMO the hypocrasy of both sides, each defending the interests of a foreign nation, was terrible.

    As for Tom Englehardt’s site, I strongly recommend that each of your go to TomDispatch and sign up to get it delivered to you via email. See the box in the upper right corner.

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