Tom Friedman – the master of harmful comedy

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.

Matt Taibbi’s takedowns of Friedman are always the most entertaining. His most brutal article is here and he has followed up here and here.

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.


  1. slc1 says

    I find it amazing that both the Israel bashers like Greenwald and Cockburn get into bed with the most avid supporters of Israel in their negativity toward Friedman. One need only read the talkback sections of Ynetnews, Jpost, or Haaretz relative to any article citing Friedman to see the disdain in which Israel’s most fervent supporters hold Friedman. I suppose that the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows is applicable here.

  2. says

    ‹pedantic note›
    “incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius”
    that means pretty-well the opposite of having “an anti-ear” being a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse”, suggesting that he renders those details with genius!
    I know it’s not your writing, but when criticising the writing of others it’s best to avoid negation-fail.
    ‹/pedantic note›

  3. says

    I can’t believe you wrote a whole entry on Friedman without mentioning the Friedman Unit: “six months, specifically the ‘next six months’, a period repeatedly declared by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to be the most critical of the then-ongoing Iraq War even though such pronouncements extended back over two and a half years.”

  4. Mano Singham says

    Hey, pedantic discussions can be fun! Some of my best friends are pedants.

    I thought that Taibbi wanted to say that Friedman renders those details with genius, because his genius is the ability to always mangle his metaphors.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I wrote about the infamous Friedman Unit several times in the past (see here) and did not want to repeat myself, but perhaps should have included it for completeness.

  6. F says

    Oh. I knew I was ignoring him for a reason. Thanks for the reminder. (And the link to that installment of TMW.)

  7. extian says

    Hmm, criticizing inhumane treatment of Palestinians makes one an “Israel basher”? And I suppose you’ll also argue that protesting the Iraq war makes one an “America basher,” right?

    In any case, it’s irrelevant that Greenwald and supporters of the Israeli occupation disagree on most things but agree that Friedman is a douche. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both eat meat, despite their opposing political philosophies – is your mind blown by this union of “strange bedfellows”?

  8. slc1 says

    This is like the Samuelson unit named after Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson which, I recall, is 35 years which is the time frame in which Social Security will go broke.

  9. slc1 says

    Ah, poor babies. The Government of Israel should apply Hama Rules to the Palestinians every time they fire Qassems against Sderot so Mr. extian will have something to really whine about.

  10. sunny says

    It is remarkable that the NYT continues to employ Friedman. But they have others that I cannot abide as well such as Dowd, Douthat, Brooks, Kristof, etc.

  11. Mano Singham says

    I agree. It is quite remarkable that the NYT stable of columnists is of such poor quality. At least Kristof has some original thoughts once in a while but the rest are remarkably predictable.

  12. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    You’re replying to slc1; supporting any response to the existence of Palestinians that doesn’t involve genocide and/or nuclear weapons counts as “Israel-bashing”. By slc1 standards, the entire Israeli Left is anti-Israel.

  13. slc1 says

    The Washington Post isn’t any better with such clowns as Charles Krauthammer, Mark Thiessen, Jennifer Rubin, George Will, and Michael Gerson. Richard Cohen, like Kristof, is usually a clown although, unlike the infamous 5, he occasionally says something sensible.

  14. extian says

    Wow, excusing me for “whining” about illegal punishments against an entire population of people (according to everyone not in the US). Clearly, the real tragedy is a few rockets fired at a small town in retaliation by a tiny group of radicals. I hope you had as much satisfaction watching Baghdad burn.

    In any case, my original point still stands. There’s nothing unusual about people on opposite ends of the political spectrum agreeing that Friedman is a horrible writer.

  15. frank says

    I like reading Will and Rubin.

    Will, because even though I usually disagree with him, he knows how to write. Years ago, one of my high school English teachers (probably the best teacher I ever had) gave me a book of Will’s essays as a graduation gift with exactly that proviso. I was hard-core conservative at the time; my former teacher would be happy to know that I’ve come around to her way of thinking.

    Rubin, because she is very good at clarifying the reasons why she is wrong.

  16. Jim B says

    Tiabbi complains about Friedman’s mangling of metaphors, but Tiabbi himself says:

    To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take ten flatteners, and you have them converge — let’s say this means squaring them, because that seems to be the idea — three times. By now, the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids in there, and we’re dealing with a flattening factor somewhere in the several thousands at any given page of the book. We’re talking about a metaphor that mathematically adds up to a four digit number.

    Squaring numbers a few times adds up to a four digit number. Huh?

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