The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Idiotic Eloquence of Tom Friedman

Posted on | November 29, 2010 | 16 Comments

Matt Welch engages in a world-historic dismantling of Thomas Friedman’s latest column, with its “trademark sloganeering” and “what-Americans-want ventriloquism.”

In the former category, Welch catches Friedman shilling for his too-clever formulation, “nation-building in America” (alternatively, “nation-building at home”) which has been deployed in 14 Friedman columns over the past two-and-a-half years. In the latter category, the way Friedman abuses the first-person plural — “we,” “us” and “our” — reminds me of the old joke about the Lone Ranger, the punchline of which is Tonto’s reply, “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”

The combination of these two Friedmanesque tics results in entire paragraphs of laughable idiocy, to wit:

[P]eople intuitively understand that what we need most now is nation-building in America. They understand it by just looking around at our crumbling infrastructure, our sputtering job-creation engines and the latest international education test results that show our peers out-educating us, which means they will eventually out-compete us. Many people understand that we are slipping as a country and what they saw in Barack Obama, or what they projected onto him, was that he had both the vision and capability to pull America together behind a plan for nation-building at home.

Friedman conjures up a money-is-no-object consensus in favor of his own pet idea, which he attempts to sell with a fictional endorsement by Barack Obama, and which he asserts (or implies or merely assumes) was irrevocably ratified by the 2008 election.

But what about those 58 million Americans who voted against Obama? Why must Friedman conscript them into this amorphous consensus of “we”? What about Americans whose kids are performing well in school and thus are not part of the “us” being “out-educated”? What about states where the infrastructure is not crumbling?

(“Crumbling infrastructure” is mainly a problem in high-tax states without right-to-work laws, where repairs to roads and bridges are extraordinarily expensive because of inefficiencies inherent to unionized workforces. That guy leaning on the shovel in the highway work-zone? Yeah, he’s the union steward’s brother-in-law, featherbedded onto the payroll, but at least he showed up; the taxpayers are also footing the bill for phantom “workers” who played hookie.)

Ranking the very worst New York Times columnists is always tough. They’ve got so many genuinely awful ones (Friedman, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and my pet whipping boy, David Brooks) that it’s hard to say which is worse. For some reason, Krugman escaped mention on Alex Pareene’s “hack list,” which ranked Brooks at #30 and Friedman at #3. I hate Brooks far more — “National Greatness,” my ass! — but what Pareene says about Friedman is worth quoting:

Thomas Friedman is an environmentalist, now. When he’s not jetting around the world on the literally unlimited expense account his money-bleeding newspaper provides him, pondering KFC billboards he spots outside the windows of gleaming office towers in Delhi — or when he’s not lounging beside the pool at his absurd home — the second-most-influential business thinker in the country is worrying about carbon emissions. . . .
He’s a silly, simple-minded man whose success leads a cynic to the conclusion that the world is run by similarly silly, simple-minded men.

It’s his unlimited expense account (Pareene isn’t exaggerating with that “literally“) which gives Friedman carte blanche to go flitting hither and yon in search of anecdotal evidence to support his own favorite public-policy themes.

And they are just that, themes. Friedman doesn’t get his hands dirty with the difficult business of pushing actual legislation through Congress. Far less does he concern himself with the arguably more difficult (and almost certainly more dirty) business of getting an electoral mandate for  his policy themes. If Friedmanism is so gosh-darn popular — if it’s what “we” really want — why isn’t it advocated in the platforms of both major parties? Why didn’t congressional candidates fill the airwaves with campaign ads calling for the enactment of Friedman’s ideas, or excoriating those small-minded obstructionists who stand in the way of our glorious Friedmanite future?

Jonah Goldberg (who got an undeserved #7 spot on Pareene’s list) absolutely loathes Tom Friedman, and once delivered himself of this memorable denunciation:

 [F]or Friedman everything is connected to everything else, so everything is a metaphor for everything. “In the Friedman mind,” writes Ian Parker in a 2008 profile for The New Yorker, “things tend to be like something else. The new is like the old. The foreign is like the American. The scattered has a pattern.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud famously observed — but not for Tom the Magic 8 Ball of cliché generation, the maestro of mixed metaphors. A cigar could be the key to understanding why geo­thermal energy is the only way to save the panda. Like the China Syndrome that inexorably leads to the perfect storm that breaks the camel’s back, Tom Friedman encounters no obstacles — factual, logical, or literary — between himself and the points he wants to make.

Exactly so. Friedman is a sophister, whose cleverness as a writer is employed to disguise the shortcomings of his ideas. This is a classic error of intellectualism: Conflating mere eloquence of expression with soundness of thought.

People who admire fine writing (and I do) must always be on guard against this error, keeping in mind that a man may be both (a) an excellent writer, and (b) an advocate for very bad ideas.

The unfortunate fact that an argument may be both superficially persuasive and fundamentally wrong constitutes an eternal temptation to the minds of those people who permit their admiration of literary excellence to overcome their common sense.

Go read David Brooks’ infamous 1997 ode to “national greatness” and you will find no shortage of literary skill. Clear away the superficial eloquence, however, and you recognize that Brooks is arguing on behalf of the same sort of big-government, guns-and-butter, welfare/warfare state agenda that led LBJ into the political/policy debacle of the Great Society, the Dien Bien Phu of 20th-century American liberalism.

Karl Marx was a witty writer with a demonstrated aptitude for clever aphorisms (e.g., “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) and sloganeering: “Workers of the world, unite!” Yet Marx’s eloquence as a writer was exercised on behalf of what proved to be the most deadly idea in all human history.

Marxism was always more beloved by college students than by the working class, simply because the university is a place where words matter (or at least seem to matter) more than deeds. And the same can be said of the profession of journalism, whose top practicioners too often confuse their stock in trade — an excellence of written expression — with an actual superiority of intelligence, knowledge or wisdom.

This is an enduring problem Friedrich Hayek examined in his landmark essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” Hayek’s insight seems to have been ignored by our intelligentsia, whose hubristic self-satisfaction with their own eloquence is the taproot of their folly.

(Hat-tip: Insty.)


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