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Jul 15 2009

A Friedman Prize?

As a childhood fan of the Peanuts comic strip, I enjoyed the running gag of Snoopy always beginning his novels with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” It was only much later that I learned that this was a actual opening sentence of an 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This overwrought style of writing with run-on sentences is considered so bad that it has become famous and is now the source of the annual Bulwer-Lytton prize, awarded each year by San Jose State University to the writer who can come up with the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. The 2009 prize was won by David McKenzie whose entry was:

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’ east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May,” a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

It struck me that what we need is a Friedman Prize in honor of Tom Friedman, the world’s worst pundit. What makes him so bad? Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally exposes not only the vapidity of his thinking but also the shallowness of his research.

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.

Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.’” And off he goes. You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights.

Kevin Carey highlights one feature of the Friedman style, as seen above and identified by him in the beginning of a recent Friedman column:

I was at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, a few weeks ago and interviewed Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel, about how America should get out of its current economic crisis. His first proposal was this: Any American kid who wants to get a driver’s license has to finish high school. No diploma — no license. Hey, why would we want to put a kid who can barely add, read or write behind the wheel of a car?

As Carey says, “Friedman may not have invented the place-drop/name-drop/facile idea three-step, but he’s certainly perfected it.” So that is one Friedman quality to be emulated by any prize-winning entrant.

Another is the laughably mangled image, as illustrated by Taibbi:

Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

“The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f— is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense?

As Taibbi says in another article, these Friedmanisms are a feature of his writing, not aberrations:

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It’s not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It’s that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it’s absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that’s guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.

So there we have the guidelines for submissions for the Friedman prize. The entrant has to imagine that he or she is like this self-important pundit and write an opening paragraph for an op-ed on any topic.

Now if only we can get some organization to sponsor the contest and award the prize.

POST SCRIPT: Alternative medicine

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on homeopathy and all the other forms of alternative medicine.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Trevor Allen

    I feel compelled to defend Tom Friedman to some extent. I’m not a writer and certainly can’t argue with any critique of his writing style as any sort of authority. But bad writing should not outweigh substance, especially in journalism. If offered the alternative, I would prefer a journalist that presents outstanding investigative results and careful analysis in a horrible swath of poorly chosen words, failed analogies, and generally bad structure. The opposite is just fiction writing. We have enough fiction writers in the world, not nearly enough true journalists.

    Certainly having poor writing abilities is unfortunate, particularly when one wishes to be a journalist. But however annoying name-dropping and strange metaphors might be, the point that lies behind it is still valid. In reading The World Is Flat, I was frustrated at Friedman’s bad habit of repeating and paraphrasing himself, perhaps in attempt to re-iterate what he sees as a difficult concept. That, however, did not detract from the books thesis and factual/informational content. Most of his articles, regardless of quality, express an important message. I think this is far more important than worrying too much about his phrasing and place-dropping–he’s reporting, not running for public office office.

    On the “holes” metaphor, granted it’s not something you’ll see carved in stone above a city hall one day. But it makes damn good sense to me and if Taibbi can’t understand it, I’d be happy to explain it to him. Maybe it’s an unusual thinking process that I have in common with Friedman, or maybe Taibbi would rather not bother to try to understand it so that he can make fun of it instead; the latter is much more convenient.

    As for the “Flat N All That” article by Taibbi that you linked to, I admit that the first half was such rubbish I didn’t bother finishing it. Taibbi shows either a complete lack of ability get a main concept in an argument and see a picture larger than himself, or he simply doesn’t give damn–making fun of Friedman is just too fun to address the substance of his message. Taibbi himself demonstrates a horrid flaw in many people today that I’m noticing more and more as I grow up: people hear what they want to hear and think that’s acceptable in debate. Legitimizing an incorrect interpretation or a faulty assumption as solid evidence of your view is not only fallacious it’s downright arrogant.

    My comment turned out more negative than I intended it to be… But I think Taibbi has little to run on, while Friedman has three Pulitzers (an award for journalism, not skillful metaphors). Perhaps that’s why Friedman writes for the Times on international issues, while Taibbi writes and defends self-described tasteless jokes about the death of the pope. 9http://www.nypress.com/article-11215-the-52-funniest-things-about-the-upcoming-death-of-the-pope.html)

    -Trevor

    p.s. I thoroughly enjoy your blog, though this is the first time I’ve commented on it. I like your series on Why People Believe in God.

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    May 29th, 2003

    “I think it [the invasion of Iraq] was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie…. We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big state right in the heart of that world and burst that [terrorism] bubble, and there was only one way to do it…. What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This. Okay. That Charlie was what this war was about. We could’ve hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could…”

  3. 3
    Mano

    Trevor,

    My problems with Friedman go well beyond style and to his actual journalism. Friedman is a wonderful example of an establishment journalist, a distinguished member of what has been called The Villagers, an insider clique of top politicians, business leaders and journalists dedicated to promoting establishment policies. Friedman has a genius, but it is for identifying the trends that the Villagers wants and pushing for them. Attach Iraq? Check. Globalization? Check. Bomb Serbia? Check. Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza? Check.

    If Friedman was simply a bad writer, I would not care. Why I am so hard on him is because Friedman repeatedly advocates what are undoubtedly war crimes. But if you are a Villager advocating policies desired by the government, these things are ignored.

    If you think I am exaggerating and want to see actual examples of Friedman’s wretched journalism and not his style (in addition to the quote above by the anonymous commenter which was made by him on the Charlie Rose show), I have written about it before which you can see here and here and Glenn Greenwald’s analysis.

  4. 4
    Uri

    I don’t confess great familiarity with Friedman’s writings. I’ve read a few of his columns and was struck by their conventionality, unimaginativeness and commitment to the values of the ruling class, which is (1) the real reason, I suspect, that he writes about foreign affairs for the Times, and (2) why I stopped bothering with anything he writes.

    I agree with Trevor about the relative value of good writing and substance. I just think Friedman has neither. Here’s one of my favorite political analysts, Eqbal Ahmad, being interviewed on Friedman:

    BARSAMIAN: Thomas Friedman of the New York Times said that the terrorists “are driven by a generalized hatred of the U.S.” Is that enough to drive these kinds of operations?

    AHMAD: Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist. One does not associate either intelligence or depth with a New York Times columnist. Thomas Friedman writes without information or knowledge. It’s an ignorant remark. It’s a waste of time to try to respond to it. He actually in that article said that they hate America because America is so wealthy. He said that they hate America because it has technology and science and their children are all imitating America. This is nonsense. This is not analysis. This is witchcraft.

    Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire.

    Here’s the article that Ahmad was talking about:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/22/opinion/foreign-affairs-angry-wired-and-deadly.html

    I also have to admit that I thought for a moment about the holes/shovels analogy and I can’t make any sense of it. I wouldn’t mind an explanation.

  5. 5
    Ravi Venkataraman

    There are two possible interpretation of Friedman’s admonition to bring lots of shovels when you’re in three holes:

    1) Since the concerned party is addicted to getting itself into a hole no matter what, let’s help along its demise by giving it lots of shovels to dig lots of holes.

    2) With more shovels, you can dig tunnels to connect the three holes and make it one big hole. So, technically, that’s an improvement; you now have only one hole and so you can obey the first rule of holes – when in a deep hole, stop digging.

  6. 6
    Brock

    @Ravi: That still doesn’t avoid the absurdity of being in three places at once, as Friedman seems to flatly (and stupidly) assert.

    Besides, if he meant #1, he could have said “if a fool has already dug holes, give him more shovels” or something to that effect, and if he meant #2 he could have said “make one big hole”, but he indicated nothing about joining the three.

    Instead what came out was incomprehensible garbage. Also known as a “mondo”. You’re struggling to make sense of it because nonsense is generally unpalatable.

    Two examples: 1. Picking up the phone and saying “Wrong number, please.” (from the Principia Discordia) 2. “If it wasn’t for that horse, I never would have made it through college” (from Lewis Black).

    Sure, you could imagine back stories that *might* lead to either phrase, but at anything remotely close to face value, they’re total nonsense.

  7. 7
    Mano

    I think we can guess what Friedman is trying to say with his three holes image: that in certain cases, if a bad situation calls for a particular action as a remedy, an even worse situation might require you to take the opposite action. For example, if you are attacked by a single bee, you might try to swat it, but if you are attacked by a swarm of bees, then you should take evasive action.

    But Friedman is either too lazy to create the appropriate metaphor or too stupid to realize that his chosen metaphor does not make any sense.

  8. 8
    Ravi Venkataraman

    @Mano: I’m not sure how that bee analogy applies, but the point that different types of problems require different actions seems to be the intent of Friedman’s statement. In the bee example, both actions are intended to avoid bee stings, if possible. In Friedman’s writing, having more shovels when in three holes is akin to seeing a swarm of bees coming at you and rushing headlong to meet them.

    Anyway, this just reinforces the point that Friedman fails to communicate his meaning.

  9. 9
    Trevor Allen

    I’m glad to hear your issue with Friedman has a more substantial cause. You’re description of “his views” or rather his choice of topics is really interesting, I hadn’t heard it explained that way. I’ll definitely look into that more and take a new, hopefully more objective and well-informed look at what he writes.

    I’m sure it’s a rather long list, but would you recommend any columnists or journalists in particular who have a more independent perspective that you respect? I’d always love to expand my sources.

  10. 10
    Mano

    Ravi,

    We agree. What I was trying to do was to construct a bee analogy for what I thought Friedman was trying to say. Your bee analogy is the equivalent of what he actually said!

  11. 11
    Mano

    Trevor,

    To find good analysts and commentators, you can ignore all those general commentators who appear on the major news outlets, either on TV or in print. The people in those venues conform to a very narrow range of perspectives that never challenge the establishment view. The only ones worth reading are those who have specific subject expertise. (I have written how the major media filters out those who do not conform in a 15-part series called The Propaganda Machine which you can read here (scroll down to April 23, 2008).

    To find more original thinking, you can click on the links to the ‘Blogs worth reading’ on the right. Also, if you go to the sites Antiwar.com, CounterPunch, and Common Dreams sites, you will find many excellent analyses.

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