I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.
Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:
The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”
First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.
And who cares if it doesn’t quite make sense when Friedman says that Iraq is like a “vase we broke in order to get rid of the rancid water inside?”Who cares that you can just pour water out of a vase, that only a fucking lunatic breaks a perfectly good vase just to empty it of water? You’re missing the point, folks say, and the point is all in Friedman’s highly nuanced ideas about world politics and the economy—if you could just get past his well-meaning attempts to explain himself, you’d see that, and maybe you’d even learn something.
My initial answer to that is that Friedman’s language choices over the years have been highly revealing: When a man who thinks you need to break a vase to get the water out of it starts arguing that you need to invade a country in order to change the minds of its people, you might want to start paying attention to how his approach to the vase problem worked out.Thomas Friedman is not a president, a pope, a general on the field of battle or any other kind of man of action. He doesn’t actually do anything apart from talk about shit in a newspaper. So in my mind it’s highly relevant if his manner of speaking is fucked.
Like The World is Flat, a book borne of Friedman’s stirring experience of seeing IBM sign in the distance while golfing in Bangalore, Hot,Flat and Crowded is a book whose great insights come when Friedman golfs (on global warming allowing him more winter golf days:“I will still take advantage of it—but I no longer think of it as something I got for free”), looks at Burger King signs (upon seeing a “nightmarish neon blur” of KFC, BK and McDonald’s signs in Texas, he realizes: “We’re on a fool’s errand”), and reads bumper stickers (the “Osama Loves your SUV” sticker he read turns into the thesis of his “Fill ‘er up with Dictators” chapter). This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.
Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.’” And off he goes.You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights.And by the time you get all that sorted out, your well-lit tri-plane is flying from chapter to chapter delivering a million geo-green pizzas to a million Noahs on a million Arks. And you give up. There’s so much shit flying around the book’s atmosphere that you don’t notice the only action is Friedman talking to himself.
1. The need for massive investment in green energy is an idea so obvious and inoffensive that even presidential candidates from both parties could be seen fighting over who’s for it more in nationally televised debates last fall;
2. I wish I had the balls to first spend six long years madly cheering on an Iraq war that not only reintroduced Sharia law to the streets of Baghdad, but radicalized the entire Islamic world against American influence—and then write a book blaming the spread of fundamentalist Islam on the ignorant consumers of the middle American heartland, who bought too many Hummers and spent too much time shopping for iPods in my wife’s giganto-malls.
3. To review quickly, the “Long Bomb” Iraq war plan Friedman supported as a means of transforming the Middle East blew up in his and everyone else’s face; the “Electronic Herd” of highly volatile international capital markets he once touted as an economic cure-all not only didn’t pan out, but led the world into a terrifying chasm of seemingly irreversible economic catastrophe; his beloved “Golden Straitjacket” of American-style global development (forced on the world by the “hidden fist” of American military power) turned out to be the vehicle for the very energy/ecological crisis Friedman himself warns about in his new book; and, most humorously, the “Flat World” consumer economics Friedman marveled at so voluminously turned out to be grounded in such total unreality that even his wife’s once-mighty shopping mall empire, General Growth Properties, has lost 99 percent of its value in this year alone.
So, yes, Friedman is suddenly an environmentalist of sorts.
What the fuck else is he going to be? All the other ideas he spent the last ten years humping have been blown to hell. Color me unimpressed that he scrounged one more thing to sell out of the smoldering, discredited wreck that should be his career
I hope Friedman has tons of band-aids because that was brutal. True, but brutal.