THOMAS FRIEDMAN….Pandagon quotes this passage from a Matt Taibbi column in the New York Press about Thomas Friedman:
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.
This reminds me that I was planning to write a piece about Friedman a while back but never got around to it. My question at the time was, basically, why does practically everyone in the blogosphere, left and right, mock Friedman? He gets an awful lot of grief, but since I don’t read him much I didn’t really understand why. After all, the guy has a handful of Pulitzers and years and years of on-the-ground experience in the Middle East.
So I asked two bloggers. The first told me it was mainly disappointment: Friedman used to be a good liberal guy, but since 9/11 he’s gone nuts. The other thought that Friedman offered “nothing but simple platitudes which don’t have much to do with reality.”
So I went off and read The Lexus and the Olive Tree to see what Friedman was about, and it turned out they were both correct. And Matt Taibbi too. Lexus is just swimming with metaphors in the place of substance, and what’s worse, they’re lousy metaphors. Friedman has a tin ear for phrases like “DOScapital” and “Amazon.com vs. Amazon.country,” and the book itself is just a simplistic mess that told me nothing I didn’t already know.
Hell, I even mostly agree with Friedman ? globalization is good, free trade is good, etc. ? but trudging through his endlessly strained metaphors and constant name dropping was a real chore. His take on technology was piss poor too, just the ususal pre-crash glorification of all things internet. His columns mostly seem like cotton candy, of the “I saw a fruit stand on my way to work this morning and it reminded me of….” variety, followed by his theory of the day. That might be OK for a blogger, but not for a New York Times columnist on international affairs.
What’s really a shame about this is that Friedman does have lots of experience in the Middle East, he speaks Arabic, and he has some good ideas. The final third of Lexus, for example, about the backlash against globalization, was pretty good.
But culling the nuggets from the dross is just too much work.
UPDATE: In comments, Zizka points to this parody of Friedman from The American Prospect. It’s hilarious, although I’m not sure how funny it will be if you haven’t already read Lexus.