( NOTE: As I was drafting this, word came of the death of Christopher Hitchens. It seems like tragic synchronicity to lose Hitchens while writing about the “writing” of Thomas Friedman.)
Naturally, this kind of
cheap smear Deep Thinking raised objections, with Elliot Abrams blogging at the Council on Foreign Relations and expressing the hope that “in the cold light of morning Mr. Friedman would re-read what he wrote and withdraw the remark.” (Good luck with that.)
But that’s not the funny part, although the column was actually filled with some serious spit-take moments. You can’t help but admire the, uh, chutzpah of anyone who begins a sentence like this: “I’d never claim to speak for American Jews, but I’m certain there are many out there like me…”
“The real test is what would happen if Bibi tried to speak at, let’s say, the University of Wisconsin. My guess is that many students would boycott him and many Jewish students would stay away, not because they are hostile but because they are confused.”
Heavens, yes. I remember all that “confusion” from my own days in college, and I’ve seen it happen many times since in the years I’ve spent teaching undergraduates.
I’m sure something like this would happen at Wisconsin, a bastion of crazy Young Republicans: “Hey, the Prime Minister of Israel is speaking. All our professors seem to hate his guts, and the Students for A Middle East Without Annoying Democracies are passing out keffiyehs down in the quad. I thought about going and protesting, but I’m just so confused I’m going to stay in the dorm and write my Medieval Lit assignment.”
Ahem. Anyway, as one might expect, the rest of the blogosphere took up the matter, with Omri Ceren at Commentary and Ron Radosh at Pajamas Media as understandably offended as were so many of the other people in the world who aren’t John Mearsheimer or Steve Walt.
But that’s still not the funny part. In the comments section at Radosh’s piece someone with the Twitter name “@MainesMichael” posted a parody of a standard Friedman column, and it’s a masterpiece — herewith offered as an example of how a facile writing style is ripe for satire:
I was on the way back from a UN sponsored conclave in Thailand, on the holocaust native shrimp populations are suffering as a result of deep sea drilling in the South China Sea, and met a dual citizen Bangladeshi-American software engineer at the Dubai airport lounge, telecommuting to his job in Shanghai, where he designed medical imaging software for a Korean company selling equipment into the South American market our own medical equipment makers were not aggressive enough to take advantage of as they refused to learn and speak Spanish. He had his Swedish-born social worker wife along with him, who worked with autistic African children in Zimbabwe, arranging occupational therapy for these different but very special kids way across the continent at the Namibia General Hospital. These two international citizens of the modern world felt that the current Israeli government was far too independent vis a vis what humane liberal policies should be. Right then and there, I felt that if we could have a Chinese style dictatorship for one day in the US, free of interference from a congress beholden to, if not outright coerced and threatened by AIPAC and the Likud, we could demand Israel establish a Palestinian State with technocrat Fayyad at its head, and its capitol on the Temple Mount. THAT is how this problem could be solved, in our interconnected, wireless world
Priceless. “Maine’s Michael” has turned down compliments on the parody, noting that a software program could probably generate Friedman’s columns. Touche. But if you’d like authorship, Mr. MM, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to credit you.
For a serious intellectual torching of Friedman’s writing, however, nothing beats Andrew Ferguson’s review of That Used to Be Us, which Friedman wrote with the inexplicable co-authorship of Michael Mandelbaum. Mandelbaum is a brilliant writer; I don’t always agree with him, but I’ve been reading him since I was a graduate student and I’ve always learned something.
And indeed, Ferguson attributes those parts of the book that are readable to Mandelbaum’s likely influence, but there’s no stopping Friedman:
One chapter is called “Homework x 2 = The American Dream.” He advocates “empowering powerful breakthroughs” and notes that “the cloud . . . is driving the flattening further and faster.” (Pointless alliteration + runaway metaphor = Friedmanism.) Certain phrases crop up so often that they must have been rejected book titles: “Average is over” is one of the new ones, if you want to give it a try. (You’ll be hearing it on “Charlie Rose.”)
Mr. Friedman can turn a phrase into cliché faster than any Madison Avenue jingle writer. He announces that “America declared war on math and physics.” Three paragraphs later, we learn that we’re “waging war on math and physics.” Three sentences later: “We went to war against math and physics.” And onto the next page: “We need a systemic response to both our math and physics challenges, not a war on both.” Three sentences later: We must “reverse the damage we have done by making war on both math and physics,” because, we learn two sentences later, soon the war on terror “won’t seem nearly as important as the wars we waged against physics and math.” He must think we’re idiots.
The slovenliness of our language, George Orwell wrote, makes it easier to have foolish thoughts, and while Mr. Friedman’s language has been tidied up a bit, the thinking remains what it has always been.
There’s a cautionary note for all writers here, especially those anointed, however briefly, as Big Thinkers. Friedman was lavishly praised for his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem, and the folks I know who study globalization think highly of The Lexus and the Olive Tree as part of the canon on the subject. But it must have been exhausting trying to crank out the hits and recapture the magic.
There’s been an epidemic of this kind of bloviation, a “Friedman Syndrome,” since the end of the Cold War, a collapse of seriousness peppered with Information Age nods to iSpeak — see, I just did it myself, it’s that seductive — that sound simply gruesome from anyone over 40. (I just watched the 3,512th Republican debate tonight, and I still wince just hearing Newt Gingrich say “my web site.” Or saying anything, for that matter.)
There are lot of examples besides Friedman, as he has spawned many imitators. There’s a writer named Thomas Barnett, for example, who used to work at my home institution, the U.S. Naval War College. (I met him only once when he was here, many years ago, and don’t actually know him.)
He is now at something called Wikistrat, a consultancy that slings phrases like: “The rate of geopolitical turbulence today brings political risk and commercial opportunity at unprecedented rates.” I have no idea what they do, but it sounds like they’ll send someone like Tom Friedman to your office who will tell you that the world is flat, hot, and crowded until you get it.
Nearly a decade ago, Barnett wrote a bestseller based on a Powerpoint brief — no, seriously — and it was for a time treated with great reverence. It didn’t age well, but he wrote two more follow-ups anyway, and all bear the clear stamp of Friedman Syndrome. Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times a few years back in fact sounded like the opening bout on the same card as Ferguson and Friedman:
In his new book…Mr. Barnett writes as if he were delivering a long, caffeinated PowerPoint lecture, pacing the stage with a microphone snaking around from the back of his head, Tony Robbins-style. Which is to say that his book is talky, glib, overly long and piled high with filibustering verbiage (“Circling back to my original point,” “I hope you’re beginning to see why I bothered telling you all this”) and clichés…fences always need mending, chickens come home to roost, rubber meets the road, and tides are swum against.
If it can sometimes be hard to take Mr. Barnett entirely seriously, he does not seem to have self-esteem issues.
On the other hand, Tom Friedman and Tom Barnett have both had bestsellers (and hey, I’ve never been reviewed in the Times, so I can’t be too hard on Barnett), so people are buying what they’re selling. But all of this is a good reminder that verbal gymnastics — especially when those landings are a little shaky — are not a substitute for actual ideas.