12.12.2005

Daily Reckoning slams Thomas Friedman

I haven't read much Thomas Friedman. I understand that his earlier writing on the Middle East is worthwhile. But his last book, The Earth is Flat, wastes hundreds of pages stating the blindingly obvious: that outsourcing is disruptive to an underskilled and overpaid American labor force.

I've never bothered to write an unkind word about Friedman, though. The Daily Reckoning, however, rips him a new one:

We always try to get our day off on the right foot by reading Friedman’s column before breakfast. There is something so gloriously naïve and clumsy in the man’s pensée, it never fails to brighten our mornings. It refreshes our faith in our fellow men; they are not evil, just mindless. We have never met the man, but we imagine Friedman as a high school teacher, warping young minds with drippy thoughts. But to say his ideas are sophomoric or juvenile merely libels young people, most of whom have far more cleverly nuanced opinions than the columnist. You might criticize the man by saying his work is without merit, but too that would be flattery. His work has negative merit. Every column subtracts from the sum of human knowledge in the way a broken pipe drains the town’s water tower.

Not that Mr. Friedman’s ideas are uniquely bad. Many people have similarly puerile, insipid notions in their heads. But Friedman expresses his hollow thoughts with such heavy-handed earnestness, it often makes us laugh. He seems completely unaware that he is a simpleton. That, of course, is a charm; he is so dense you can laugh at him without hurting his feelings.

Friedman writes regularly and voluminously. But thinking must be painful to him; he shows no evidence of it. Instead, he just writes down whatever humbug appeals to him at the moment, as unquestioningly as a mule goes for water.

One of the things Friedman worries about is that America will “go dark.” As near as we can tell, he means that the many changes wrought after 9/11 are changing the character of the nation, so that “our DNA as a nation...has become badly deformed or mutated.” In classic Friedman style, he proposes something that any 12-year-old would recognize as preposterous: another national commission! “America urgently needs a national commission to look at all the little changes that were made in response to 9/11,”three he writes. If a nation had DNA and if it could be mutated, we still are left with the enormous wonder: What difference would a national commission make? Wouldn’t the members have the national DNA? Or should we pack the commission with people from other countries to get an objective opinion - a U.N. panel and a few illiterate tribesman—and achieve cultural diversity?

But this is what is so jaw-dropping about Friedman’s ideas: Even mules and teenagers have more complex views. His work is a long series of “we should do this” and “they should do that.” Never for a moment does he stop to wonder why people actually do what they do. Nor has the thought crossed his mind that other people might have their own ideas about they should do and no particular reason to think Mr. Friedman’s ideas are any better. There is no trace of modesty in his writing—no skepticism, no cynicism, no irony, no suspicion lurking in the corner of his brain that he might be a jackass. Of course, there is nothing false about him either; he is not capable of either false modesty or falsetto principles. With Friedman, it is all alarmingly real. Nor is there any hesitation or bewilderment in his opinions; that would require circumspection, a quality he completely lacks.

Friedman fears he may not approve of all the post-9/11 changes. But so what? Why would the entire world “go dark” just because America stoops to empire? The idea is nothing more than a silly imperial conceit. America is not the light of the world. Friedman can stop worrying. The sun shone before the United States existed. It will shine long after she exists no more. But, without realizing it, imperial conceits are what Mr. Friedman offers, one after another. He knows what is best for everyone, all the time.

But even at his specialty, Friedman is second-rate. It is not that his proposals are much dumber than anyone else’s, but he offers them in a dumber way. He sets them up like a TV newscaster, unaware that they mean anything, not knowing whether to smile or weep, out of any context other than the desire to make himself look good. He does not seem to notice that his own DNA has mutated along with the nation’s institutions . . . and that he does nothing more than amplify the vanities and prejudices that pass for the evening’s news. Is there trouble in Palestine? Well, the Palestinians should have done what we told them. Have peace and democracy come to Iraq? If so, it is thanks to the brave efforts of our own troops. Is the price of oil going up? Well, of course it is; the United States has not yet taken up the comprehensive energy policy he proposed for it. Friedman’s world is so neat. So simple. There must be nothing but right angles. And no problem that doesn’t have a commission waiting to solve it.

It must be unfathomable to such a man that the world could work in ways that surpass his understanding. In our experience, any man who understands even his own thoughts must have few of them. And those he has must be simpleminded.

But we enjoy Friedman’s insipid commentaries. The man is too clumsy to hide or disguise the awkward imbecility of his own line of thinking. The silliness of it is right out in the open, where we can laugh at it. His whole oeuvre can be reduced to the proposition that Arabs ought to shape up and start acting more like New Yorkers. If they don’t want to do it on their own, we can give them some help. He says we can send “caring” and “nurturing” troops to “build democracies” in these places and “protect the rights of women.” But he doesn’t understand how armies, empires, politics, or markets really work. American troops can give help, but it is the kind of help that Scipio gave Carthageor Sherman gave Atlanta. Armies are a blunt instrument, not a precision tool.

Friedman urged the Bush administration to attack Iraq. But the man has a solution for every problem he causes. “So how do we get the Sunni Arab village to de-legitimize [we love these big words - every one of them hides a whole dictionary of lies, fibs, prevarications, malentendus, misapprehensions, miscalculations, guesswork, hallucination, conceit, and mendacity] suicide bombers?”

Simple. Propaganda! “The Bush team needs to be forcefully demanding that Saudi Arabia and other key Arab allies use their news media, government, and religious systems to denounce and de-legitimize the despicable murder of Muslims by Muslims in Iraq.”

That ought to do it. What is wrong with the Bush team? Why didn’t they think of that? “Forcefully demand” that the Arab states do more propaganda. Yes, problem solved.

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