So earlier today, a friend of mine posted a link to a column by NY Times impresario Thomas L. Friedman on Facebook. Foolishly misinterpreting her accompanying comment as agreeing with my general view of Friedman, I commented on the link, saying how I marveled his ability to churn out incredibly silly columns at a brisk clip. Now my friend was actually agreeing with that one column, and she must have thought me a prize ass to hate on her link the way I did. Complaining about my unfounded accusation of silliness, took the link down. I do feel like quite an ass myself, but I would like to stress that I am not in the habit of randomly telling people their links are silly. I have some long standing issues with Friedman's columns, and I honestly thought my friend was a kindred spirit on this issue. (Aside: An astonishingly high proportion of my FB notes seem to be long-winded explanations to people I have pissed off why I am not as much of an asshole as they think I am. This is probably not a good thing.)
But back to the issues. To begin with, let me say that Thomas Friedman is a pretty awesome
writer and journalist. They don't randomly hand out Pulitzers to the unaccomplished, and Friedman has three of those babies sitting in his trophy cabinet. His reporting on Middle East conflict and the First Palestinian Intifada in particular are well regarded. His book From Beirut to Jerusalem
has won awards for what I presume is its general awesomeness. Another thing is, being who he is he has access to the world's elites, and in between wining, dining and golfing with them, he manages to glean some of their insights and knowledge in a way few other people do. Most of all, Friedman is a good writer, and he manages to hold his reader's attention even when they do not agree with him. I don't generally share Friedman's views, but I have been reading his columns off and on for the past six years.
But here's the thing, Friedman tends to take all these great things he possess and harness them to create arguments of unsurpassed silliness. Let me give you three examples, three especially egregious columns from the New York Times:Our One-Party Democracy
In this howler, Friedman, lamenting that the Republican legislators vote like Republicans,
decides that this means that the Chinese political system is now better than the US's. After making some unsupported statements about Chinese commitment to "green technology", he notes that the Republican failure to vote with the party in control of the Presidency and supermajorities in both Houses of Congress implies some sort of failure of Democracy itself. He notes that even though authoritarian systems have some
problems, they generally manage to do stuff they think is important in spite of such nuisances as popular opposition. The key, he insists, is getting the right people in charge.The New Sputnik
Here, Friedman claims that the US has just had a Sputnik moment (ie a sudden and dramatic demonstration of its technological inferiority, as with the Soviet launch of the first ever artificial satellite) with China and green technology. Let us leave aside the fact that the realm of "green technology" is in no way a race as early space exploration was, or that
any Chinese advance in such technology does not threaten the US in any way. What sudden and dramatic Chinese advance in alternate energy reminded our Tom of the Space Race? Two things: first that a solar panel manufacturer opened a research center in China, and second that an ethnic Chinese businessman reported that local party bosses were supportive of his multi-billion dollar solar panel factory in China. How he manages to go from this evidence to his conclusion, I cannot discern. Presumably to Friedman, two solar equipment manufacturers setting up in China prove that the world's biggest polluter is not only going green, but surpassing the US in sheer greenness. I, however, do not see the logic.Where Did ‘We’ Go?
Here, a Facebook poll about killing President Obama so horrifies Friedman that he remembers Israel in the lead up to Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by a right-wing extremist. Never mind that there are polls, groups and pages on Facebook that talk about killing almost every political leader from a country with internet access. (I checked this by searching for "kill+names of prominent politicians" on FB - which means I am probably now on every FBI watchlist ever. The things I do for my readers...) Friedman is convinced that unless Obama's opponents come out strongly
against the poll (which has since been deleted), they are as good as sanctioning his assassination. From this rather astounding leap of logic, Friedman goes on to note that this is a particularly horrible time for American political discourse. Technology, gerrymandering, campaign finance and (worst of all) cable news have made American politics so partisan, he says, that the whole political system itself will collapse. The nation that saw a Vice President and a Secretary of the Treasury duel to the death
, where a man was beaten to an inch of his life
for making fun of a stroke victim on the Senate floor, where a President was assassinated
over his ideas for the civil service and whose legislators have resorted to bloody brawls to break filibuster
s is apparently no longer strong enough to deal with a Congressman being rude to the President during a speech. Go figure.
Now, you might argue that three such weird columns are no more than can be expected from a guy who churns one out every week for years on end. But the really sad thing is, this in not a list of all time Friedman howlers. These were only the three worst op-eds Friedman put out in September. This September. As in, the last thirty days. And its not like the other columns from this month were exemplars of fine rhetoric either. They were the same mish-mash of half-baked ideas, unsupported assertions and wild extrapolation from one or two data points - the difference was not in kind but in degree, to use Mr. Friedman's phrase.
Unlike others, I do not fault Tom Friedman for his wanton mixing of metaphors,
or for his preaching environmentalism while living in a power-guzzling mega-mansion (with gargoyles and everything!), or even for cheerleading, supporting and then slyly seeking to distance himself from the Iraq War. Me, I'd just like very much if he would make sure his premises are connected to his conclusion by some form of logical structure. Until then, unfortunately, I shall persist in calling his columns silly.