26 June 2012

Thomas Friedman

Occasionally I encounter someone who has become enamored of the insights of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. So I have to hunt up links to try to shake some sense into those folks. No more: I'm collecting criticisms of Mr Friedman here.

Let's start with Atrois calling him Wanker of the Decade:

The state of the world is what it is in large part because people in positions of great power think this absurd buffoon of man is a Very Serious Person. This hasn't actually been the Eschaton Decade, it's been the Tom Friedman Decade. And the next one probably will be too.

Seriously, read that and follow the links before you finish reading this post, because it provides a good overview of what's wrong with Friedman. I'll lift just one thing from it, this stunning video clip of Friedman talking to Charlie Rose and cooly advocating war crimes with smug bravado. Watch it, seriously.

That alone should make him outside the realm of civilized discourse, rather than one of the most influential pundits in America.

Matt Taibbi's famous takedown of Friedman's mixed metaphors from the Buffalo Beast, The Word Is Hack, talking about the book The World Is Flat:

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.

But it's impossible to divorce The World is Flat from its rhetorical approach. It's not for nothing that Thomas Friedman is called “the most important columnist in America today.” That it's Friedman's own colleague at the New York Times (Walter Russell Mead) calling him this, on the back of Friedman's own book, is immaterial. Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity.

At least mocking Friedman's bizarre mixed-metaphor style can be very funny, even if the content of his ideas is far from funny.

Taibbi has a longer followup article inspired by Friedman's later Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and Belén Fernández at Geurnica picks up the theme in even greater detail in Errata:

Friedman’s writing is characterized by a reduction of complex international phenomena to simplistic rhetoric and theorems that rarely withstand the test of reality. His vacuous but much-publicized “First Law of Petropolitics”—which Friedman devises by plotting a handful of historical incidents on a napkin and which states that the price of oil is inversely related to the pace of freedom—does not even withstand the test of the very Freedom House reports that Friedman invokes as evidence in support of the alleged law. The tendency toward rampant reductionism has become such a Friedman trademark that one finds oneself wondering whether he is not intentionally parodying himself when he introduces “A Theory of Everything” to explain anti-American sentiment in the world and states his hope “that people will write in with comments or catcalls so I can continue to refine [the theory], turn it into a quick book and pay my daughter’s college tuition.”

Alex Pareene imitates Friedman's voice in a howlingly funny article “about” Thomas Friedman.

As I wrote down what he said to use it in my column, it struck me that the world is changing. The world used to be flat. Now, everyone I talk to, everywhere I go, tells me something is bending the world into a new shape. This 4G, 401(k) world is getting rounded. That scares a lot of people. But it doesn’t scare Thomas Friedman. Because while some old media dinosaurs are going extinct thanks to the asteroid of globalization and the giant dust plume of hyperconnectivity, Friedman is a cockroach. A cockroach made of stone. A cockroach made of stone that lives in The Cloud.

In his piece A New Ayn Rand for A Dark Digital Future, Richard RJ Eskow implies that Friedman's peculiar style is part of how his technique works, because once that one can decode what Friedman is saying, to discover that he is really saying something ... something horrifying.

Consider this passage from Friedman's column:

In a world where, as I've argued, average is over — the skills required for any good job keep rising — a lot of people who might not be able to acquire those skills can still earn a good living now by building their own branded reputations, whether it is to rent their kids' rooms, their cars or their power tools.

This paragraph reads like a Zen koan pieced together from cast-away fragments of motivational sales speeches. We're left to infer the meaning of its more obscure phrases from their context, the same way World War II codebreakers cracked particularly difficult passages in enemy telexes. So let's try to tease out its meaning ....

“Average is over” is connected to job skills. Friedman apparently means that you can't get a good job anymore if your skill level is only average. Why didn't he just say so?

What are the implications of a world in which you must be above average to get “any good job”?

This post was inspired by another Belén Fernández piece, at Jacobin, talking about Friedman's philosophical incoherence in Tom Friedman's War on Humanity:

Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, once offered the following insight into his modus operandi: “I often begin writing columns by interviewing myself.”

Some might see this as an unsurprising revelation in light of Edward Said’s appraisal: “It’s as if … what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks.”

According to Friedman, the purpose of the auto-interviews is merely to analyze his feelings on certain issues. Given that his feelings tend to undergo drastic inter- and sometimes intra-columnar modifications, one potentially convenient byproduct of such an approach to journalism is the impression that Friedman interviews many more people than he actually does.

A Friedman Unit is a measure of time equal to six months used in the lefty blogosphere, after Friedman's repeated assertions about the war in Iraq that “the next six months will be crucial”.

We have a big problem. The dominant view among the in crowd in Washington is that the next 6 months is a critical time in Iraq. As it has always been. They're all Tom Friedman now.
All candidates need to lay the foundation for what they're going to say a year from now (“two Friedmans” in the newly established Friedman time scale) when Iraq is as bad or worse of a clusterfuck as it is now (Yes, yes, I hope to be wrong but it sadly hasn't happened yet).

It is vital to understand that the muddled thinking, hack “journalism”, and endless shilling for the interests of “the 1%” — that is to say, the stratospherically wealthy aristocrats in the top 0.01% of American wealth and income who own the US and run the world — is because he is one of them, as David Sirota points out:

Let's be clear — I'm a capitalist, so I have no problem with people doing well or living well, even Tom Friedman. That said, this does potentially explain an ENORMOUS amount about Friedman's perspective. Far from the objective, regular-guy interpreter of globalization that the D.C. media portrays him to be, Friedman is a member of the elite of the economic elite on the planet Earth. In fact, he's married into such a giant fortune, it's probably more relevant to refer to him as Billionaire Scion Tom Friedman than columnist Tom Friedman, both because that's more descriptive of what he represents, and more important for readers of his work to know so that they know a bit about where he's coming from.

Marc Levy also considers the implications of that:

I’ve rolled my eyes uncountable times after reading Friedman’s columns, but never caught on to why they’re so overwhelmingly misguided. Despite my acknowledgment that I was a willing participant in my own deception, that doesn’t mean I feel any less deceived. Or angry.
Friedman does not write as one of us. He is, in fact, one of them — a member of one of the 100 richest families in the country, according to Washingtonian Magazine, one of those who are not hurt by war or globalism and thus cannot honestly discuss it from the level of one who is.

Spread the word: Friedman doesn’t write nonsense; he writes propaganda.

Hopefully all this makes clear why the lefty blogosphere occasionally reminds of his enormous house and refers to him derisively as the Moustache of Undertanding.

Update: Want more takedowns of Friedman's writing? Jillian C. York has assembled a definitive collection.

Here are some of my favorites:

The lefty Driftglass blog regularly features vigorous fiskings of Friedman's commentary. Frankly, I find that Driftglass sometimes lets the snark get away with him, but given Friedman's writing this is a nigh-unavoidable hazard. Tommy Can You Hear Me is a choice example.

Another friend offers a helpful meme from Pejman Yousefzadeh.

James Livingston at Politics and Letters offers a comment on Friedman's use of cliché, Cliche Run Aground, which offers a sharp take on how it forecloses on debate, analysis, and thought.

Glenn Greenwald indicts all of us with his scathing description of Friedman's intellectual incoherency:

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.”

Greenwald also gives us a couple of good links on Friedman. He has some sharp words from Alexander Cockburn:

Friedman is so marinated in self-regard that he doesn’t even know when he’s being stupid. “While the defining measurement of the Cold War was weight–particularly the throw-weight of missiles–the defining measurement of the globalization system is speed.” Sounds good in a corporate roundtable, means nothing. The man just isn’t that smart, beyond the dubious ability to make money out of press releases praising the New Globalism and American power.

And Greenwald also points us to Current Events Inquiry which has a horrifying sampler of quotes from Friedman aptly called The Sociopathy of Thomas L. Friedman showing that that moment in the Charlie Rose interview is far from an aberration.

Salon uses his presence on the New York Times' editorial page as cause to call out the Times for hackery.

Yes, Friedman used the exact same vague generalization to start two consecutive paragraphs. And yes the second paragraph’s quote is obviously the source for everything Friedman wrote in the first paragraph, making the first paragraph unnecessary. And yes, Friedman thinks that would be a constructive thing to ask Hamas. “Have you considered instituting a strict standardized testing regimen in Gaza????”

Matt Taibbi returns to the well to tell us about Thomas Friedman's new state of grace and his most incoherent column ever.

Brian Mayer gives us an uncanny randomized Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Generator.

Because this is what his writing actually looks like.

Mike the Mad Biologist points to Friedman misremembering his stance on the Iraq war:

As someone who wanted us to partner with Iraqis to try to build a democracy there — in the heart of the Arab world after 9/11

Get Your War On gives us The Moustache of Greenderstanding.

On Twitter, sarah jeong gives us Thomas Friedman's Bad Trip.

On Facebook, Haroon Moghul gives us an instructive fisking of Friedman's column Freud and the Middle East. My favorite part:

Just as there is a little bit of West Bank “Jewish settler” in almost every Israeli, there is a little bit of the caliphate dream in almost every Sunni.

Friedman's in top-form in this essay — he's almost too good at being himself. Either he's mismatching categories (Friedman grew up never understanding why apples and oranges couldn't be compared), or saying nothing at all, which is often how these things go when he's at his best, which is his worst.

“Israeli” is a national identity, tied to a state that was established, in 1947-8, on someone else's land; Sunni is a sectarian denomination. There are several million Israelis. Sunni Islam is the largest religious denomination in the world, with over 1.1 billion adherents. Are we seriously comparing the two? To what ends?

If I'm reading Friedman correctly (which is really not the question we ask; usually, it's more solipsistic and exasperated: Am I the only person who is reading Friedman? Why does he exist instead of nothing? Why, God, why?), then he should be saying, “there's a little bit of West Bank Jewish settler in every *Jew*.”

Since Sunni isn't a nationality....

But he says Israeli. Not Jew. Which is either a cop-out, like it's okay to make grand, sweeping generalizations about Muslims but no one else, but surely that can't be the case, or he's making a completely different “point,” which is only a point in the way a period is a point — phentoypically.

In that case, is there a little bit of Nazi in every German? A little bit of monkey in every human? A little bit of Columbus in every American? A little bit of FOX News in every Republican? A little bit of sinner in every saint?

Which is the kind of revelation that reveals so much, we see the world no differently than we did five minutes before, except five minutes have passed and we'd not get them back, if not for Christopher Nolan's tesseract. (Humbling thought of the day: Thomas Friedman was produced by Western civilization, which Interstellar is all about trying to save.)

Justin Peters' review of a Friedman book makes some sharp comments about the notorious prose and then looks at the heart of Friedman's project:

But too often in Thank You for Being Late, as is Friedman’s wont, distillation becomes oversimplication. “Monterrey has tens of thousands of poor living in shantytowns. They’ve been there for decades,” he writes at one point. Wow, sounds tragic. But don’t worry, friends: “What is new, though, is that it now also has a critical mass of young, confident innovators trying to solve Mexico’s problems, by leveraging technology and globalization.” This is a man who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his foreign correspondence; a man who dearly wants you to know how many countries he has visited. He cannot actually believe that Mexican poverty will be fixed by an app.

Or maybe he does? Friedman takes a lot of things at face value. He spends 100 pages furiously stanning for polarizing companies such as Uber and Airbnb. He earnestly recounts his conversation with a “business visualization” expert: “When we first talked on the phone, he illustrated our conversation real-time on a shared digital whiteboard. I was awed.” He raves about “smart” appliances with the wide-eyed optimism of a man who perhaps has never used one.


Ray Ghanbari said...

I think he's a pleasant sincere person who expresses the joy of the "a ha" at his own insights. For the non-critical and unsophisticated, he's the soda pop of intellectuals: pleasant dinner party conversation that makes you feel like you understand the world around you, because you feel a connection to him (and he's clearly a smart guy!)

Jonathan Korman said...

That's a good observation, Ray, and makes me think that Malcolm Gladwell is a similar type in a higher octave.