A Shake of the Wheel

Written by Matt Taibbi on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


I have been trying to avoid writing about Thomas Friedman. Two years ago, when I had a serious drug problem, one of the worst symptoms was a monomaniacal obsession with Friedman. I called his office regularly from overseas, sent him rambling two-page letters, harassed him in 100 different ways. Once, I even called the office of Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and, pretending to be Friedman himself, screamed at Sulzberger’s secretary. I told her that I was pissed, that "Arthur better get his car out of my fucking parking space" and that "golf this weekend [was] out of the fucking question."

I’d be curious to know how that one panned out. The poor lady seemed to genuinely believe I was Friedman and carefully took the message. But I never bothered to investigate, as shortly thereafter I got my act together and left those memories behind.

Reading Friedman is fascinating–the same way that it’s fascinating to watch a zoo gorilla make mounds out of its own feces. The gorilla is a noble, intelligent animal that will demean itself in captivity. Friedman is a less noble animal of roughly the same intelligence, whose cage is the English language. It’s an amazing thing to behold.

The mustachioed New York Times columnist’s May 7 piece, "Needed: Iraqi Software," was the culmination of an incredible two-month stretch of steadily worsening derangement and incoherence. Friedman’s columns during this period contain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, some of the very worst and most confused metaphorical/rhetorical constructions in the history of our language. That’s in addition to being decisively wrong in all of his opinions. It is a veritable mountain range of idiocy. Some of the highlights:

"Needed: Iraqi Software," May 7. The hallmark of the Friedman method is a single metaphor, stretched to column length, that makes no objective sense at all and is layered with other metaphors that make still less sense. The result is a giant, gnarled mass of incoherent imagery. When you read Friedman, you are likely to encounter such creatures as the Wildebeest of Progress and the Nurse Shark of Reaction, which in paragraph one are galloping or swimming as expected, but by the conclusion of his argument are testing the waters of public opinion with human feet and toes, or flying (with fins and hooves at the controls) a policy glider without brakes that is powered by the steady wind of George Bush’s vision.

In this piece, Friedman revives the ancient "Too Much Democracy" argument, a clunky descendant of the theory that giving blacks the vote would rob them of their natural cheerfulness and musicality. Used in Vietnam in 1955 and countless times since, the idea here is that in Iraq, as in all other places where the population is savage and lacking the wisdom and intellectual enlightenment we enjoy in America, too much democracy can be a bad thing. Elections might just be counterproductive.

There are obvious, effective ways to illustrate this idea. Friedman might have said that you can’t put the cart before the horse, or that you need to plant seeds before the harvest, or some variation thereof–there are any number of at least superficially plausible ways of saying that you need civilization and education before you can have the vote. But Friedman, desperate to seem like the hip computer-age priest of globalization he has worked so hard to market himself as, decides instead to say that you need software (free institutions) before you can have hardware (elections).

But in the real world, does software naturally come before hardware? Does that make sense? You’re still scratching your head over that one when Friedman zooms into his next mangled metaphor. "With Saddam’s iron fist now removed," he writes, "the U.S. must help an authentically Iraqi moderate center emerge and sink roots." The correct word here is "lifted," not "removed." Friedman has left a giant Iron Saddam, minus one fist, hovering over Iraq, while the half-vegetable, half-human Iraqi center first "emerges" and then "sinks roots."

"Our New Baby," May 4. Friedman here depicts Iraq as "our new baby" whose needs we must continue to attend to or it will perish. "We just adopted a baby called Baghdad," he declares, "and this is no time for the parents to get a divorce. Because raising that baby, in the neighborhood it lives in, is going to be a mammoth task."

But Friedman himself, not realizing the literary necessity of returning to the baby idea, abandons the infant after that very line, not returning to it even once for the rest of the column. He births the baby in the third paragraph, tosses it in the dumpster and then races on to a muddy analysis of postwar policy. At the end of the piece, we’re thinking: "Yeah, okay, we need a new Marshall Plan, but what happened to that baby in the third paragraph?" Answer: It’s still in the dumpster, covered in coffee grounds and garbage, breathing its last breath. It’s a perfect metaphor, but not the one he intended to write.

"Grapes of Wrath," March 12. Perhaps my favorite Friedman piece of all time. He begins with the delicious image of listening to the Battle Hymn of the Republic on his car stereo, and then moves on to his central idea: This war is a "gut call," and his gut "has told [him] four things." First: This is a war of choice. Second: Reconstructing Iraq will be more difficult than we think. Third: We ought to take our time there once we’re in. And fourth: The majority of the world still hopes to avert war.

Unwittingly, Friedman has led his reader on a tour through the four chambers of his stomach. He has literally revealed to the world that he is a cow. It would take a genius on the order of Shakespeare to invent a character capable of writing such a thing.

"The Long Bomb," March 2. On the eve of war, Friedman puts us in a special kind of movie theater, one that has movable chairs instead of seats: "If this were not about my own country, my own kids and my own planet," he writes, "I’d pop some popcorn, pull up a chair and pay good money just to see how this drama unfolds." (Is there a place in the world where one can pop one’s own popcorn and then "pay money" to watch something?) But as it turns out, we’re watching not a movie, but a crap game; Bush is about to undertake a "shake of the dice." By the third paragraph, Bush has abandoned dice for football: he is about to throw "The Long Bomb." We then find out that Friedman’s wife is opposed to the war, but soon go back to the crap game and the "audacious shake of the dice." In the end, we find out that this has not been craps or football all along, but shop class:

"So here’s how I feel," he concludes. "I feel as if the president is presenting us with a beautiful carved mahogany table–a big, bold, gutsy vision. But if you look underneath, you discover that this table has only one leg. His bold vision on Iraq is not supported by boldness in other areas."

This must be derived from the popular expression: "He sure has guts. Like a mahogany table." Only in this case, the guts only have one leg.

Where did they find this guy? And who edits him?

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