When I worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the 1970s, I was once dispatched to an Amway convention at the Atlanta Omni to speak to the packed arena about carious Chamber citizen activism projects. Right before I was scheduled, the Amway “Diamond” hosting the thing (it was so strange and cult-like that “thing” is the best I can come up with this early in the morning) rallied the glassy-eyed crowd with a speech the likes of which I had never heard before. Among the crazy assertions he made to cheers and cries of “Amen!” was that Jimmy Carter, then President, was card-carrying Communist and an agent of the Soviet Union, preparing as he spoke to turn over America to the Russians He also said, Joe McCarthy-like, that he had authentic documents to prove this.
As I sat in the wings, my mind raced to determine what I should do. I did not want to endorse or support what I had just heard in any way, but I also was on an assignment from my boss, who, I was and am quite sure, would have been just as horrified by what I had just heard as I was. Amway’s founders, Jay Van Andel and Rich De Vos were Chamber board members and big contributors to the Chamber’s PAC. Nothing I was promoting there was sinister. Still, I seriously considered leaving immediately, or even using my huge radio mic to denounce what I had just heard as outrageous lies, at least until I was brought down in a hail of bullets, or torn limb from limb by the infuriated mob.
In the end, I gave a shortened version on my planned speech—the crowd was very receptive—and got the hell out of there. When I returned to D.C., I announced that I would not appear at any more Amway conventions, or, for that matter, any John Birch Society meetings or KKK rallies, and my wishes were respected. I remained disturbed by the incident, and especially by the extremist bile that was apparently circulating quietly among the public that was barely hinted at in what was then naively called the “respectable media.”
Sunday, I read a column by Thomas Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author who writes for the New York Times. In a column called “Iran Is Crushing Freedom One Country at a Time,” this supposedly mainstream and eminently respectable pundit wrote,
The G.O.P. has elevated the exact same kind of autocrat that Middle Easterners are trying to get rid of. Our sultan is just like one of theirs: He shirks the rule of law, nurtures a cult of personality through his own state-directed media, surrounds himself with sycophants, con men and conspiracy buffs, and denounces our professional deep state — its bureaucrats, diplomats and military officers — for trying to shackle him with our 230-year-old constitutional checks and balances. Go figure. We’re becoming them right when they want to become us — or what used to be us.
This is just slightly more genteel version of what I heard that day in Atlanta, except that it is not coming from a multiple diamond-ring wearing kook in a leisure suit in front of a rock band-style, laser-lit set at a cult gathering. It is coming from what is presented as a foreign affairs expert in the pages of the nation’s so-called “paper of record.” Yet Friedman’s poison is no less extreme, distorted, inflammatory and false than what the Omni crowd was told about President Carter. The difference is that then such rhetoric was not considered fit for publication, as it was fear-mongering, hateful, and designed to turn the public against their leaders and institutions while shaking their faith in their fellow citizens and their nation. Today, similar poison is being published, broadcast, and circulated on social media.
I’m not going to waste time here knocking down Friedman’s ridiculous contentions; if most of them aren’t obvious to you, then you have probably already been replaced by a pod. (State-sponsored media? Trump has a cult of personality? Is there such a thing as a cult of obnoxious personality? How did I miss the videos of schoolchildren being led in hymns of praise for Donald Trump? OK, OK, I’ll stop…) I will mention that no editor insisted that Friedman mention the fact that the reason Iran is able to “crush freedom” in its region is because the previous President secretly negotiated a naive deal that gave Iran around 100 billion dollars in frozen assets in exchange for bolstering that President’s “legacy” by promising not to develop nuclear weapons to, among other things, flatten Israel, until said President was safely thriving in affluent retirement. “Amid a tense political climate, Iran hawks in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere argued that the United States was giving far too much to Tehran and that the windfall would be used to fund extremism and other troubling Iranian activity,” said the AP. Imagine them arguing such a thing! That President’s name isn’t mentioned in Friedman’s piece, in part, I suspect, because The New York Times spend eight years virtually singing hymns of praise to him in its news room, nor is the fact that our “sultan’ pulled out of that disastrous deal and has re-instituted sanctions, though the 100 billion is long gone, and being used to destabilize the region.