Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kick him while he's up

Oh, is there any point in talking about Tom Friedman again? He's wealthy, influential, a best-selling author whose every word, whether in a column for the New York Times, a book, or one of his many television appearances, is taken as immensely significant. Surely there's nothing I can say about him which will derail the train of the jowly, gesticulating pontificator.

I reviewed his tribute to globalization, The World Is Flat, almost a year ago, and I tried to be even-handed, to take what I saw and look at it freshly. But I've seen him quite a bit in television appearances over the last year (Charlie Rose has a love thang going on), I've read more of his columns, and I've tried to get through his current best seller, Hot, Flat, and Crowded (mini-review of the first half: remarkably boring, extremely obvious, and subject to the usual Friedman flaw of speaking only to princes and sheiks, CEOs and international consultants, all of whom are the shameless name-dropper's "good friends"). I have seen what his most ardent critics have, that he is self-aggrandizing, specious in logic, and late to every party (TWIF wasn't published until 2005, after globalization was well under way).

One needs only consider his 1/20 appearance on Charlie Rose, in which he blathers on without much to say (for a summary, go to the 13:45 mark, where Tom states that the message of Obama's inauguration speech and presidency is "what I call nation-building at home." There, in a nutshell, is all the pomposity and self-love of Tom Friedman in the way he whips off this not-so-clever bit of wit.)

But I freely admit my betters, that there are those who can express themselves better than I. I don't know, a) where I first saw a reference to these pieces, or b) why I haven't seen them before, but the most entertaining excoriations of Friedman's think piece books come from Matt Taibbi in the New York Press. These two pieces, Flathead about The World Is Flat, and Flat N All That about Hot, Flat, and Crowded, are incisive, accurate, and fall-down funny.

If I start quoting, all of both reviews will be here, and that's not right. But I don't want to leave you, Gentle Reader, without a taste, so here, from the first:
Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a very dangerous thing indeed. It would be like letting a chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into your 50s.
It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore.) That's the whole plot right there.
From the second:
Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute.

Just one more:
Approach-and-rhetoric wise, however, it’s the same old Friedman, a tireless social scientist whose research methods mainly include lunching, reading road signs, and watching people board airplanes.

Like The World is Flat, a book borne of Friedman’s stirring experience of seeing IBM sign in the distance while golfing in Bangalore, Hot,Flat and Crowded is a book whose great insights come when Friedman golfs (on global warming allowing him more winter golf days:“I will still take advantage of it—but I no longer think of it as something I got for free”), looks at Burger King signs (upon seeing a “nightmarish neon blur” of KFC, BK and McDonald’s signs in Texas, he realizes: “We’re on a fool’s errand”), and reads bumper stickers (the “Osama Loves your SUV” sticker he read turns into the thesis of his “Fill ‘er up with Dictators” chapter). This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.
I have to stop now, except to tell you that Taibbi deftly takes down both Friedman's logic and his style. If you didn't already look cross-eyed at pretty much everything Friedman writes or says, you will after reading these reviews.

So, please, stop reading my blog right now, and click on those two links, and have yourself several minutes of pure enjoyment. (Then come back here if you'd like some more of my less-inspired but heartfelt and thought-out prose.)

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