The best Tom Friedman parody ever — and for once, it’s not by Tom Friedman

( 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.)

Warning: Big Thinking underway. This is not a drill.

In his recent column in the New York Times, Tom Friedman said the applause in the U.S. Congress for Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

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…”

Or this:

“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.

http://althouse.blogspot.com/2011/10/solidary-with-palestine-banner-at-anti.html

A "confused" protest at the University of Wisconsin

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 tom@tomnichols.net 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.

Leveraging knowledge in the global thinkspace.

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.

Yeeeeouch.

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.

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11 comments

  1. Tom Friedman deserves a good parody – even he veers so close himself so often – more than any op-ed writer in America. He is the epitome of establishment “thinking” that’s so “deep” it’s actually facile. Between Freidman and Brooks, NYT has market dominance for this kind of stuff (although, to be fair to Brooks, he seems intermittently in on the joke, while Friedman is utterly unaware … or he’s a superb straight man).

    You’ve missed the real import here, which is that Friedman has now, openly, mentioned “the Lobby” — and, given his status as a very prominent American Jew of wealth, influence, and standing whose commitment to Zionism has never been in doubt, this is a certifiably Big Deal.

    Which is why the commentariat is in hysterics over his saying an unsayable truth. Especially important in light of the GOP’s race turning into search for the the “Matzorian Candidate” to cite Jon Stewart (another person I seldom quite but who nailed it recently). Timing is everything.

    Kudos to Friedman — first, and probably last, time I’ll say that.

  2. Except, as other folks out in the blogosphere have pointed out, this is not the first time Friedman has gone after Israel. What’s new, I’d agree, is the in-your-face mention of the lobby, and the paint roller uses to smear the entire Congress with it. (Jon Stewart’s joke took a moment for me before the penny dropped, but it was hilarious.)

    • Anyone who thinks Tom Friedman is an “anti-Semite” (and yes, I’m looking at you, Jennifer Rubin and Elliot Abrams) clearly espouses the neophyte view that anyone who fails to support current Likud policies isn’t just anti-Israel but has it in for the Jews in toto.

      Friedman has on occasion criticized Israeli policies (especially in Lebanon in the 1980s, when criticism was in order, and was commonplace) but he has been a consistent supporter of Eretz Yisrael, like most American Jews.

      If we’re going to accept the view that criticism of Netanyahu and his ilk is anti-Semitism – and this seems to be the normative view in the GOP today, based on recent utterances from all the putative candidiates save Ron Paul – then Friedman is an anti-Semite, as are many American Jews, and a great many Americans too.

  3. MM nailed it. More appalling is that Friedman’s books are on military professional reading lists.

    As long as we’re talking about Tom Friedman smackdowns, they’re nicely compiled here -

    http://jilliancyork.com/2011/12/14/the-definitive-collection-of-thomas-friedman-takedowns/

    My vote are the parodies of the Two Toms (plus Ricks) by Joshua Foust -

    http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/04/18/the-only-way-to-discuss-this/

    and

    http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/10/15/the-toms-talk-isaf-raids/

    :)

  4. Penny – Lots of stuff on those military lists, including The Pentagon’s New Map, a fad few people now can explain. I think the corroding effect of Powerpoint has reinforced the natural military distrust of ambiguity; Friedman (and for a time, Barnett) speak in easily grasped metaphors that sound like they’re explaining something, which in turn fends off having to really wrestle with hard policy choices. The world is flat! (Who knows what that means, but it makes for great copy.)

  5. John – A fair point, but to say that the applause of the U.S. Congress was “bought and paid for” is exactly the kind of broad-brush accusation that makes people — and when I say “people,” I mean “me” — wonder why critics of Likud feel the need to napalm everyone who is at all supportive of Israel with the “lobby” smear, which raises all those paranoid dual-loyalty implications that anti-Semites rely on when all else fails. For that matter, I don’t think Walt and Mearsheimer are anti-Semites –well, okay, after Mearsheimer’s last fiasco, I’m not sure — but if you write a certain way, and walk and quack like an anti-Semite by using sloppy writing and lousy scholarship, you’re going to have to live with people wondering about your motives. It’s like the people who begin a sentence by saying “I’m not a racist, but…” and then proceed to say something racist.

    I think Friedman, like Niall Ferguson, has a tendency to build up a head of steam and fall in love with the sound of his own keyboard. I’m sure “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” sounded better in his head while he was typing it in first-class on the way to a gig in Abu Dhabi, but he can’t complain now — and neither can you, professor — if people think he’s bought into the Jews-as-Illuminati stuff.

    • The column was very Friedmanesque, in all its glibness (Ferguson is a younger, smarter, better looking, and vastly goyisher version of the same, agreed), but why did this column, after countless silly self-reverential outbursts, some even about Israel in the past, cause such fuss?

      I think it’s a hinge point. For years the Lobby – and, yes, there is one, as everyone not in the pay of said Lobby admits, usually quietly (that this Lobby is made up as much of evangelical Christian Zionists as much as Jews now is what makes it especially powerful and politically interesting, IMHO) – has cowed opponents and rivals with very flexible application of the “anti-Semitic” label to the point that it has lost nearly all meaning.

      And now they’re using it against American Jews too. Friedman is a very typical establishment assimilated American Jew with most of the views of his caste – and when you’ve got him openly asking “Whiskey Tango …?” Tel Aviv has a problem. Not that they will admit that, but we’re talking about Netanyahu here, so expect a doubling down.

      As long as Tel Aviv keeps telling American Jews, more or less, “support us unquestioningly, keep the cash flowing, and shut up (and PS you’re not really Jews anyway, by Israeli standards)” more Jews like Friedman will start mentioning previously unmentionable things.

      The PEP (Progressive Except Palestine) tendency, long dominant among American Jews, is fading fast, especially among the young. They will always support Israel in extremis, but they will no longer do so unquestioningly.

      If Netanyahu & Co don’t realize this and adjust course, they will have more Michelle Bachmanns than co-religionists in their Lobby.

  6. I don’t disagree with you about Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel is the last stand against the Planet of the Apes. But I think that every time someone like Friedman pulls out the “lobby” argument — you capitalize it, I don’t — it sounds like paranoia. I didn’t accuse Friedman of anti-Semitism, nor did Abrams; Radosh called the column itself anti-Semitic.

    The easiest thing to do is to apply the “insert alternate group here” test. Had Friedman written “I sure hope that Leader X enjoyed the applause of Congress because it was bought and paid for by the Black Lobby” or the “the Asian Lobby” or “the Hispanic Lobby,” heads would be exploding all over Washington, including Friedman’s.

    If anything, I think the “lobby” talk insulates Israel and leaders like Bibi because it instantly trivializes the argument. It cannot possibly be true that all those congressmen got to their feet purely because they are in the financial pocket of a powerful Jewish conspiracy; having worked there, I know that a lot of those people applauded because they genuinely support Israel, and even do so at risk to their own popularity. Saying they’re all “bought and paid for” for is the kind of stupid throw-away that lets everyone off the hook of a real discussion.

    And I used to admire Ferguson’s writing more. But his latest column — about which more to come in another post — calling Russia “irrelevant” and just “Nigeria with snow” — was exactly the kind of written equivalent of styrofoam peanuts that your guys in the history profession start slinging around once they come to believe their own book jackets. You historians need to do a better job policing either other; I’m trying to keep the political scientists a little more honest, but I can’t take on two malfunctioning academic disciplines at once :)

  7. Ferguson is a decent historian but he got too famous (and way too rich) too young – and he now churns out stuff without real thought.

    As for “the Lobby” we have to make a clear distinction between different sorts of ethnic lobbies. Of course there’s a Black Lobby on the Hill – it’s called the CBC. But it represents a group that are nearly-all native-born US citizens. Now bien-pensants never would use such an accurate term for it, but it exists and influences policy, and has every right to.

    It’s a different matter when we’re talking about a lobby on behalf of a foreign country (and memo to Newt, Rick, and Michelle: it’s a foreign country … really). Lobbying by foreign powers is legal but, as you are well aware, there are federal laws surrounding it, and Israel’s lobbyists have violated them many times, and worse.

    We have several powerful ethnic lobbies tied to foreign powers in the USA but the Israeli one is uniquely powerful. The Irish and Greeks have their lobbies, and they have influenced US foreign policy, but they have none of the cash or power of the Israeli Lobby.

    When the Taoiseach gets dozens of standing ovations from Congress when calling for Belfast to be the inalienable Irish capital – or the Greek PM does when calling for occupying Constantinople under the same logic – I will say the lobbies are all the same.

  8. The world needs people like Friedman and Barnett to, to rationalize it, if, they are also parodies. It’s not I bet as fun as it seems like though, as when your the puppet, in effect, if you don’t always know that, then when you get off the reservation, the jerking of the chain can be pretty harsh. Many have thought Powerpoint has done some harm that way, by “bulletizing” thought: “Stay the Course” is now stripped down to “Change” which next will maybe be a campaign of Yes No.
    Very funny parody of Friedman, if again, someone has to do that, to be the conventional wisdom, as the conventional wisdom is the structuring of the debate, and of course, it’s not easy, since the world changes sometimes at a pace that makes one a contortionist.