The other night, a smart, informed, generally liberal friend of mine used a recent Thomas Friedman column to bolster a point he was making. Thomas Friedman? Why would intelligent people cite him, much less read him?
At the time, I claimed Thomas Friedman is the dumbest person to be given a prominent role in mainstream punditry, but I was wrong. His problem is not stupidity – he writes coherent sentences, and he discusses high-level topics. So I don’t think he’s tremendously dumb, particularly when judged against his peers in punditry. He could be in the upper quartile of national pundits.
I think his bigger problem is a complete absence of intellectual accountability, integrity, and shame. In the article my friend cited, he wrote: To me, the most important reason for the Iraq war was never W.M.D. It was to see if we could partner with Iraqis to help them build something that does not exist in the modern Arab world: a state, a context, where the constituent communities — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — write their own social contract for how to live together without an iron fist from above. Iraq has proved staggeringly expensive and hugely painful. The mistakes we made should humble anyone about nation-building in Afghanistan. It does me.
Really? Here’s how I recall Thomas Friedman justifying the Iraq War (and, yes, this is a real quotation): What (Iraqis) needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.
Similarly, Friedman has achieved fame for “Friedman Units” – his series of “6-month windows of opportunity” in Iraq. I don’t care about him enough to keep an exhaustive mental list on his costly intellectual blunders, but here’s a source with citations that ends mercifully in mid-2006. It would be a major burden to update the list with his many further false but confident prognostications.
In the column my friend cited, I am unable to figure out what point Friedman is making when he writes: “The reason India, with the world’s second-largest population of Muslims, has a thriving Muslim minority (albeit with grievances but with no prisoners in Guantánamo Bay) is because of the context of pluralism and democracy it has built at home”. If he’s seriously claiming that India does not suffer from Islamic extremist violence, he’s seriously misinformed. But it sounds thrillingly intelligent, doesn’t it? All he’s really doing, though, is taking an unspeakably mundane, obvious point – people view the world from their societal context – and trying to make it into something a little shinier and insightful-seeming by dropping in a half-truth about a foreign land. That’s his schtick – he does it all the time.
Yesterday, he was on TV, comparing Afghanistan to a “special needs child”. No, really, he did:
Fareed, we’re talking about Afghanistan. And we’re talking about America in the middle of the great recession. I feel like we’re like an unemployed couple who just went out and decided to adopt a special needs baby. You know, I mean, that’s really kind of what we’re doing. And that’s like, whoa, y’know, that terrifies me.
What does it take to be shunned by smart people? How far can he push his luck in twisting obvious facts (our involvement in Afghanistan is expensive) into outrageous metaphors? If Afghanistan is a “special needs child”, then it’s a “special needs child” that knocked down the World Trade Center, and produces heroin for the world. It doesn’t remind me of any “special needs child” I have ever known, and it’s hard for me to understand how, exactly, Friedman is able to get away with such crazy talk and still be invited back on TV and offered space in major newspapers.
I don’t hate Tom Friedman – I kind of admire his chutzpah. He’s obviously selling something that people like to buy – and continue to buy.
If I stood before you and told you that in 6 months, all Arab-Israeli conflicts will be peacefully resolved, you would be surprised, and 6 months later, if I was right, you would think I’m somebody worth listening to. But if I were wrong, and I said, again, without apologizing or explaining my prior mistake, that all Arab-Israeli conflicts will be peacefully resolved in the next 6 months, you would again be surprised, and probably more than a little doubtful that I know what in the hell I’m talking about. Then, if I tried the same thing again in 6 months, still without results, you would stuff a sweat sock in my mouth to shut me up.
But if I were Tom Friedman, you would publish my prediction in the New York Times, and people would invite me onto talk shows to expound upon my incredible insight and wisdom.
I don’t know how he does it.
Yes, I’m jealous.
I was wrong when I claimed he is “dumb”. That’s not true. Instead, he is gilded mediocrity, with a gigantic gap in his moral compass that allows him to endorse a war to tell people to “Suck. On. This.”