I find the prominent New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman to be fatuous, as I’m sure many of our readers do. It’s not any one thing in particular that makes him insufferable, but rather a combination of flaws — vacuity, lack of insight, and a chump’s will to be duped. I quit reading Friedman when he proudly reported the “peace plan” coincidentally pulled from the drawer of a Saudi prince whom Friedman was interviewing and presented it as a breakthrough of some kind: “An intriguing signal from the Saudi crown prince.” Friedman wrote:
After I laid out this idea, the crown prince [Abdullah] looked at me with mock astonishment and said, “Have you broken into my desk?” “No,” I said, wondering what he was talking about.
“The reason I ask is that this is exactly the idea I had in mind — full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accord with U.N. resolutions, including in Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations,” he said. ‘I have drafted a speech along those lines. My thinking was to deliver it before the Arab summit and try to mobilize the entire Arab world behind it. The speech is written, and it is in my desk. But I changed my mind about delivering it when Sharon took the violence, and the oppression, to an unprecedented level.'”
Pathetic. Back in March 2003, while he was working as a St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist (he’s now a Star Tribune news editor), D.J. Tice brilliantly captured an essential component of Friedman’s fatuity in an email message that he sent us regarding Friedman’s immediate pre-Iraq war column. Tice wrote:
Friedman is the oracle of the half-hearted left because he is the Hans Blix of commentators. He keeps himself safe by delivering something for everyone in his assessments. In the end this aids only those who are served by public uncertainty — the cowards and the ruthless. But it also flatters the vanity of those who mistake their ambivalence for sophistication.
Friedman’s final pre-war piece today is a classic of smug gutlessness. He wants to see Saddam ousted. But he’s disgusted with Bush. He’s also ashamed of the French. So where does he stand? Everywhere and nowhere. He’s adamant only that everybody’s a beast or a fool except Tom. Whatever happens, he’ll have been proven right.
Well, that might give you some idea why we miss Tice’s weekly Pioneer Press column. Last year, Michael Kubin took a stab at capturing Friedman’s multifarious flaws in his May 21, 2004 New York Observer piece, “Write your own Thomas Friedman column!” Kubin wrote:
1. Choose your title to intrigue the reader through its internal conflict:
a. “War and Peas”
b. “Osama, Boulevardier”
c. “Big Problems, Little Women”
2. Include a dateline from a remote location, preferably dangerous, unmistakably Muslim:
a. Mecca, Saudi Arabia
b. Islamabad, Pakistan
c. Mohammedville, Trinidad
3. Begin your first paragraph with a grandiose sentence and end with a terse, startlingly unexpected contradiction:
a. “The future of civilization depends upon open communication between Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon. If the two don’t speak to each other, the world edges closer to the precipice of total war. If, on the other hand, they manage to engage in open conversation and resolve their differences, Israelis could soon be celebrating Seders in Saudi Arabia. But for now, the two men can’t speak. Why? You can’t make a collect call from Bethlehem.”
4. Use the next few paragraphs to further define the contradiction stated above, peppered with little questions making it look like you’re having a conversation with the reader. Feel free to use the first person:
a. “My first thought was to ask: Why no collect calls from Bethlehem? It’s easy to call collect from Bosnia, Kosovo, even Uzbekistan. Am I sure? Of course I’m sure. I was in each of those places just a few weeks ago, making collect calls all over the world. No problem. So why can’t Arafat call collect from Bethlehem?”
5. Remember: Thomas Friedman is the Carrie Bradshaw of current events. Think Sex and the City, write “Sects and Tikriti”:
a. “How can Islam get to its future, if its past is its present?”
b. “Later that day I got to thinking about global civilizational warfare. There are wars that open you up to something new and exotic, those that are old and familiar, those that bring up lots of questions, those that bring you somewhere unexpected, those that take you far from where you started, and those that bring you back. But the most exciting, challenging and significant clash of all is the one you have with your own civilization. And if you can find a civilization to love the you that you love, well, that’s just fabulous.”
c. “Maybe Arabs and Israelis aren’t from different planets, as pop culture would have us believe. Maybe we live a lot closer to each other. Perhaps, dare I even say it, in the same ZIP code.”
6. Name-drop heavily, particularly describing intimate situations involving hard-to-reach people:
a. “The Jacuzzi was nearly full when Ayman al-Zawahiri, former surgeon and now Al Qaeda’s head of operations, slid in.”
b. “It was Thomas Pynchon on the phone. ‘Tommy,’ he said, probably aware we share that name . . . . ”
c. “Despite the bumpy flight, I felt comfortable in the hands of a pilot as experienced as Amelia Earhart.”
7. Include unknowns from hostile places who have come to espouse rational Western thought and culture:
a. “I visited Mohammed bin Faisal Al-Hijazi, former top aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, now a reformer and graduate of the Wharton Business School.”
b. “Last year Nura bin Saleh Al-Fulani worked in Gaza sewing C4 plastic explosives into suicide bombers’ vests. I caught up with Nura last week in Paw Paw, Mich., where she sews activity patches on the uniforms of Cub Scout Pack 34.”
8. Make use of homey anecdotes about your daughters, Natalie and Orly, enrolled in Eastern Middle School, Silver Spring, Md.:
a. “My daughter Natalie, a student at Eastern Middle School, a public school in Silver Spring, Md., asked me at breakfast: ‘Daddy, if my school has students who are Muslims and Jews and Christians and Buddhists all working together, why can’t the rest of the world be that way?’ There was something in the innocence of her question that made me stop and think: Maybe she has a point.”
9. Quote a little-known Middle East authority at least once in every column:
a. Stephen P. Cohen
b. Stephen P. Cohen
c. Stephen P. Cohen
10. Conclude your column with a suggestion referring back to the opening contradiction, but with an ironic twist. Make sure the suggestion you proffer sounds plausible, but in fact has no chance of happening:
a. “Driving into Bethlehem in the back of a pickup, I wonder: What if Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon sit down and play a game of poker? And what if the stakes are these: If Sharon wins, the Intifada is over. If Arafat wins, Palestine gains statehood. One game of no-limit Texas hold ’em, and the Middle East crisis is resolved. Just like that. Yasir and Ariel, deal ’em out.”
Kubin’s column seems to be a pretty faithful guide to Friedman’s new book as well. Today’s New York Press features Matt Taibbi’s hilarious (and vulgar) demolition of the book: “Flathead: The peculiar genius of Thomas L. Friedman.” I’m awarding Taibbi’s review our cautionary badge of recognition above.
DEACON adds: Friedman’s formula when it comes to books is simpler than the one for columns: (1) take phenomena that are so well known as to be cliches — the rise of high tech, trade on a global scale, etc. (2) dress them up with a clever label or catchy phrase, (3) get on television and include that phrase in every sentence of every interview — “Charlie [or Chris or Tim] in a flat world it’s better to be an A student in China than a B student in Maryland,” and (4) claim that you have now explained the world in an original way.