Monday, December 12, 2005

Tom Friedman: subtracting from the sum of human knowledge

Tom Friedman Reporting: Too Sexy for his Socks

From time to time I'll try to entertain you with profiles of (living) People I Cannot Stand (PICS), not including my ex-wife. I thought I'll innaugurate this section by introducing you to one of those PICS, Tom Friedman from the NYT. I first inter-faced with the Oracle from Davos in a dinner at the Singaporean Embassy. The organizers weren't probably aware of the guy's Big Ego and they seated him next to a group of losers that included your humble servant and "working journalists" from news agenices, etc. the kind that you don't see playing Talking Heads on television. In the next table the Embassy had seated all the VIPs like, you know, Dr. K. and Al ("I'm in Charge Here") Haig, and Tom just couldn't stand it. You could feel the vibes, "Hey, what am I doing here with these human garbage when I could have been sitting there with Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton." He was suffering. And I could really felt his pain. Well... you have to read some of the things contrarian investment analyst Bill Bonner had to say about Friedman on today. It's hillarious:

"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," 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."

Read the rest here

(And I wish I could find on the web a parody that appeared in the New York Observer on How to write you own Tom Friedman column: Here is a quote:

"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." )


Bryon Rogers said...

God, I love your blog!

Global Paradigms said...

Thanks for the kind words! Leon

Gothamimage said...

Leon- Thanks for the kind words about the skit.

Friedmanism - The sound the mixed metaphor boots smashing on on the face of your fast food restaurant menu ... forever. The banality of banality - you can't say saccarine, because he may be giving a high payed lecture to the manufactures of saccarine.

My favorite Friedmanism is when, in some area, previously part of the British Empire, he gets into a cab, driven by a salt-of-the-salt packet pious Mohamedean, who turns out to say, charmingly, "Mr. Tom .....," and it all dovetails with his latest book project.

Jhaus said...

Wow! Scathing piece...I actually happened across your blog after googling Syriana & Friedman; I was interested in Friedman's thoughts on the film. I must say that I am surprised by the terse language in your article (mostly that of Mr. Bonner's though). With your long list of credentials and the apparent breadth of your education, I must say that I would expect more (I should also note that your piece entitled, "Karen Hughes’s mission impossible," was great!).

To begin, you describe a situation in which you came across Mr. Friedman; from your characterization of the events that took place, you exhibit elements of some deep seeded insecurity and therefore tarnish any subsequent observations made as a result of this distorted perspective. Although, you have relieved yourself of the responsibility of directly berating Mr. Friedman through the use of referencing a like-minded & equally fearful pundit.

In defense of Mr. Friedman; while you may be right in noting that his point of view on most topics appears to be somewhat simplistic, there is one fundamental truth that you fail to acknowledge, that is:

Common sense is often not common practice.

How often we acknowledge later that the answer to myriad questions was sitting in front of our faces the whole time. The complexities of many issues which Friedman addresses are taken, by him, for granted. He moves beyond those often fruitless & partisan debates by going directly to the source and asking, "So what is there that we can do about this?"

Because fears, quite similar to the ones displayed earlier by yourself, pervade throughout government, society and industry, we often see resistance to such changes as Friedman proposes at all of these levels. What Friedman does is attempt to point out the future challenges that we face unless those changes in the realities which surround us are addressed.

As seen in all successful businesses, economies, and individuals, an adaptable culture/perspective - ones which are courageous enough to take the leap into the fearful unknown - are the ones which the gods will smile upon.

I do not intend to offend or devalue your opinion with these statements, only to offer a different perspective - consider it a pat on the back which has come from an unexpected source.

Global Paradigms said...

To jhaus: Thanks for your kind words and also for your critical comments about my own observations about Tom Friedman. Well.. I thought I would launch this blog as a way, among other things, of challenging political and intellectual icons which is a very difficult task in the intellectually suffocating enviorment of Washington, DC. I'm trying to do it with a sense of humor and without taking mysef too seriously (hence the referrence to my "insecurity" in that dinner). In any case, I find it difficult to write in this "box." If you read this message and want to continue the discussion feel free to email me at "" All the best, Leon