For reasons that I cannot comprehend, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is seen as a sage observer of the world whose insights are worth paying attention to, by people whom you would think should know better.
I was once having a discussion with a faculty member who was bemoaning the fact that present-day students are unaware of the world around them, a perennial but unjustified complaint of some older faculty. In order to support his point, he said that many of them do not bother to even read the columns of Friedman. He was startled when I responded that I was delighted to hear this because it showed that the next generation possessed sterling good sense and that there was hope for the future.
During the years when I was on the committee to select the common book reading for incoming first year students, Friedman’s books would frequently be nominated and I can report with pride that I was successful in making sure that they were eliminated in the very first round, often having to conduct a mini-tutorial to overcome the regard that some had for him. I have found that not only do his views range from the banal to the downright reprehensible, his writing style is also atrocious, the whole mess marinated in his self-importance. I felt that I owed it to students not to burden them with dangerous nonsense before they even started college.
I am not alone in my views on Friedman. Back in 2006, Glenn Greenwald wrote how a reader of his blog had mentioned that he was not paying enough attention to the work of Friedman. Greenwald recognized the justice of the comment and set about rectifying it. His verdict?
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.
He returned to the topic some six years later, pointing out that Friedman was a good representative of the problems with America’s intellectual classes, saying:
I say this with all sincerity. If I had to pick just a single fact that most powerfully reflects the nature of America’s political and media class in order to explain the cause of the nation’s imperial decline, it would be that, in those classes, Tom Friedman is the country’s most influential and most decorated “foreign policy expert.”
Via Greenwald, I came across an old article by the late Alexander Cockburn written in 2000 that pokes fun at his monumental conceit and his dishonesty. Note the anecdote at the end where Friedman takes a dramatic story told to him by Cockburn’s brother (also a reporter) and then writes about it later as if he had been present at the scene during the entire event.
I stopped reading Friedman a long time ago but I never tire of the eviscerations of his columns by media commentators. Friedman offers so much material for savage humor that he provides an irresistible target and is a source of endless humor for writers willing to deconstruct his works. In fact, there is a global industry devoted to making fun of Friedman. A New Zealand writer is not impressed by how Friedman sized up his country after a brief visit. The UK’s Richard Adams also takes his shots.
Back at home, Jason Linkins has a go. Hamilton Nolan illustrates one peculiar Friedman trademark and that is quoting taxi drivers all over the world who uncannily say things that make exactly the larger point he wants to make. If you are in the mood, you can write your own Friedman column using handy templates such as this and this.
Why Friedman is easy to mock is not merely because his opinions range from the banal to the odious, it is that his writing is also risible. He is the undoubted master of the mangled metaphor, so bad that even I notice it. Take this gem from a recent column: “Without an external midwife or a Syrian Mandela, the fires of conflict could burn for a long time.” It never seems to strike him (or his editors) that if one had to put out a fire, the people one would turn to would not be a midwife or Nelson Mandela. As Matt Taibbi says,
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 literally never misses.
Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end — and I’m not joking here — we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman’s book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader literally needs a calculator to figure the value of the author’s metaphors.
Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow brings it all home in one strip.
The reason that it is important that people like Friedman be repeatedly and severely ridiculed is because they are not harmless buffoons. As Duncan Black points out, people like Friedman poison the whole political discourse, giving a veneer of seriousness to ideas that should be despised, with serious and adverse consequences for all of us.