Sunday, June 13, 2010

Friedman Incognito

The mustachioed marvel begins his latest column, "This Time is Different," with the text of a letter to the editor that recently appeared in the Beaufort Gazette, a small daily newspaper in Bluffton, South Carolina. The letter's author is identified as one "Mark Mykleby," a "friend" of Friedman "who works in the Pentagon."

Mykleby's letter is suspicious for a number of reasons. First, in both content and style, it bears a striking resemblance to Friedman's own writing. In fact, minus the quotation marks, it could pass for any of the eight trillion columns Friedman has churned out in the past decade about the urgent need to reduce oil consumption and promote alternative energy. To wit:

This isn’t BP’s or Transocean’s fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ... Here’s the bottom line: If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something.

Second, the name Mark Mykleby sounds made up. I don't know why, but it does. Certainly the alliteration has something to do with it. Add in the vague occupation description and the fact that he's writing letters to a tiny newspaper in South Carolina despite the fact that, if he works at the Pentagon, he must live in the D.C. area, and it's enough to raise eyebrows.

I see two possibilities here:

1) There is nobody named Mark Mykleby, and both the man and his letter are fictions of Friedman's imagination. It's possible that this letter actually appeared in the Beaufort Gazette, but that doesn't rule out the possibility that it was planted there by Friedman himself, writing under a psuedonym. This theory is strengthened by the fact that over the years, Friedman has penned a number of columns in which he pretends he's somebody else (like the U.S. President) and writes letters or speeches in their name. If so, this would represent a troubling but immensely exciting development. Though on the one hand it represents a serious breach of journalistic ethics, on the other hand I can't wait to see what exciting adventures Friedman has planned for his alternate persona. Come to think of it, alliterative names do seem to be popular choices for secret identities (see Parker, Peter and Banner, Bruce.)

2) Friedman is telling the truth -- there is a person named Mark Mykleby, he does work at the Pentagon, he is friends with Friedman, and he did write this letter. This is also a troubling possibility, for two reasons. First, because it raises the prospect of an army of wannabe Friedmans roaming the land, flooding "Letters to the Editor" pages with derivative Friedman columns. Second, because it once again reinforces a puzzling tendency in Friedman's recent columns to rely on extended quotes from people who think and talk exactly like he does. (Those wishing for an in-depth look at this phenomenon should see the earlier post, "(See above).")

The rest of the column is pretty standard late-Mannerist Friedman fare, detailing how the latest major news story is a crisis but also a moment of opportunity, and demonstrates the urgency of reducing our dependence on foreign oil, boosting American innovation and a bunch of other pet Friedman proposals that may or may not have anything to do with the major news story itself.

Also amusing is the disembodied quote from "corporate strategy consultant" Peter Schwartz in the next-to-last paragraph. What's it doing there? Your guess is as good as mine.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kids Say the Politically Profoundest Things

Having spent three summers as a camp counselor and one year as an elementary school teacher, I feel like I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the workings of the child mind. Which is why the following section of the mustachioed marvel's latest column, on the Gulf oil spill, struck me as so absurd:

Answering those questions is the president’s great opportunity here, but he has to think like a kid. Kids get it. They ask: Why would we want to stay dependent on an energy source that could destroy so many birds, fish, beaches and ecosystems before the next generation has a chance to enjoy them? Why aren’t we doing more to create clean power and energy efficiency when so many others, even China, are doing so? And, Daddy, why can’t you even mention the words “carbon tax,” when the carbon we spill into the atmosphere every day is just as dangerous to our future as the crude oil that has been spilling into the gulf?

That is what a child would want to know if he or she could vote.

Granted, I haven't spent much time discussing the oil spill with twelve-year-olds. But I'd be willing to bet that very, very few of them have spent the last couple weeks pondering the politics of a carbon tax or the dangers of falling behind the Chinese in the race to develop clean energy technologies. And I can guarantee you that those are NOT the questions a child would want to want to ask if he or she could vote. Instead, those questions would probably be things like: "Are you in favor of extending recess?" "Do you think there should be more ice cream in school lunches?" and "Would you consider appointing Justin Bieber to a seat on the Supreme Court?"

Essentially, what we have here is Friedman recognizing that, however reasonable his proposals are, very few other pundits and political figures have spoken up in support of them. To compensate, he engages in the time-honored political tradition of projecting your views onto others and casting them as cheerleaders for your approach. (See Nixon, Richard M.: "Silent Majority.") This despite that fact that the rationale for doing so might be pretty thin -- keep in mind that here, what prompted this summary of kid public opinion was a single question from Malia Obama about whether her dad had plugged the oil leak. Let's hope Bo doesn't bark disapprovingly when he sees video of the leak on television, lest we find Friedman boasting that the dogs are behind him, too.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"(See above)"

Regular readers of Tom's columns may have noticed a curious trend in the mustachioed marvel's recent oeuvre — the inclusion of quotes from his conversation partners restating points he's already made, often in the exact same terms. A prime example of this can be found towards the bottom of today's column, which discusses Mexican politics.

Why bother presenting quotes that don't add a thing to what you've already said? I see a number of possible explanations: 1) It's an easy way for him to fill space. This theory is strengthened by the fact that he's quite clearly been phoning it in for the last several years. 2) He recognizes that the chattering class has begun to lose faith in him, and he's afraid that unless he provides evidence that somebody else actually agrees, we won't believe him. This theory is strengthened by the fact that the increase in redundant quotes has occurred at the same time as the emergence of widespread Friedman mockery. However, this theory presumes a level of self-awareness on Tom's part that I doubt exists. 3) It's a way of giving shout-outs (shouts-out?) to his buddies, in hopes that by keeping them happy, he can keep getting them to give him ideas for his columns. The problem here is that by making it so transparent that he's getting all his ideas from other people, he risks further deterioration of his own reputation.

Rest assured that we here at Mustache of Understanding will be scouring future columns for evidence that could shed more light on this issue. In the meantime, I'd like to give it a try myself:

Tom Friedman writes things and then feels a need to include a quote from some guy he probably met at a cocktail party repeating whatever point it was he just made. It's really irritating.

"After Tom Friedman makes points in his column, a lot of times he feels that he needs to have a quote from somebody he met at a party or something that restates what he just wrote," said somebody I just met at a cocktail party. "Really, it's irritating."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Tom Friedman Pet Cause Party

Friedman begins today's column by saying that he's been trying to learn more about the Tea Party Movement. He then goes on to demonstrate that he knows nothing about the Tea Party Movement, urging it to basically drop its entire agenda and turn itself into the Tom Friedman Pet Cause Party.

Granted, the name he comes up with — Green Tea Party — is cute, but that doesn't make his effort to take a column about the Tea Party and turn it into a manifesto for his own pet cause any less lazy or self-aggrandizing. And why not an Herbal Tea Party to support marijuana legalization? Or a Black Tea Party to defend civil rights? You're not the only one who can come up with cutesy names, Tom!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Putt putt

As any regular reader of the mustachioed marvel's columns is sure to suspect, the man has clearly been phoning it in for quite some time now. However, even by the sorry standards of Tom's recent work, today's column stands out as an exceptionally lazy effort.

Friedman starts out with an anecdote from a golf clinic he attended this past winter, describing how working on his putting and chipping had the unintended effect of improving his long game, as well. Thankfully, he quickly answers the obvious question this story raises: How the hell does this relate to anything other than this man's bourgeois pastimes and stunning lack of inspiration when it comes to thinking up metaphors?

Well, you see, by passing comprehensive health care reform, Barack Obama also strengthened his hand in foreign policy. Two issues with this metaphor come to mind. First, Tom, how did working on your putting and chipping also improve your long game? I'm not a golfer, so forgive me if I'm missing something, but I don't see an obvious connection. I used to be a kick-ass mini-golfer, but that skill definitely didn't translate into being able to hit a 300-yard tee shot straight down the fairway. Second, how exactly is comprehensive health care reform the political equivalent of putting and chipping? Correct me if I'm wrong, but putts and chip shots are the shortest shots in the game -- the small stuff, the finishing touches. By contrast, this bill was the centerpiece of the president's entire domestic agenda.

But OK, I'll bite. Next question: How does passage of a health care bill bring Obama foreign policy benefits? Fortunately, the mustachioed marvel has another metaphor at the ready, in the form of a quote from Osama bin Laden: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Yes, you read that correctly -- apparently when Tom can't get a hold of Nandan Nilekani or Dov Seidman for a snappy quote supporting his views, number three on the speed dial turns out to be none other than the infamous terrorist mastermind. Friedman presents this quote with absolutely nothing in the way of context, leaving us to assume that bin Laden was one of his partners at the aforementioned golf clinic.

The logic goes something like this: Heads of state across the world keep close tabs on American domestic politics, and when the president scores a major legislative victory, they realize that the president is strong, which makes them more likely to do what he wants; by contrast, when the president suffers a major legislative defeat, foreign leaders are more willing to defy him. This is a plausible argument and could make for an interesting debate. Personally, I think Friedman is vastly overstating his case (even though, if true, it would have the welcome side-effect of allowing us to say that by opposing health care reform, Republicans were working to embolden America's enemies). Call me crazy, but I just don't see the following conversation taking place in Tehran:

Ahmadinejad: "The U.S. Senate used an obscure parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation to pass a bill reforming the American health insurance system."

Ayatollah Khamenei: "Shut down the reactors."

In fairness to Tom, he does have a couple quotes from Defense Secretary Robert Gates restating his point. However, uncritically accepting quotes from people more powerful than him has gotten Friedman into trouble before. (See Nilekani, Nandan -- "world is flat" quote.)

Finally, before you even know what hit you, Friedman takes the column and turns it into a rallying cry for every policy initiative he's been pushing for the last five years, cutting and pasting his standard boilerplate about entrepreneurship, information technology, infrastructure, immigration and deficit reduction, with a reference to "soft power" thrown in for good measure. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if the last four paragraphs of this column are the auto-signature on the bottom of Tom's e-mails.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Gang of Four Techs"

Forbes Magazine's Beijing correspondent Gady Epstein has posted an entertaining piece in which he pens a mock Friedman column offering advice to Chinese President Hu Jintao on his upcoming visit to Washington. It's highly amusing, and the man clearly has a solid understanding of the finer points of Friedman style. However, efforts like this always run into the same problem — how do you parody somebody who already is a parody?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

He's No Expert

When I pulled up our hero's column this morning and saw that it began "I'm no expert on ... ", I was filled with excitement. What would the end of that sentence be? "The judicious use of metaphors"? "Understanding the limits of American power"? "Leading a lifestyle that conforms to the low-carbon gospel I preach?" My mind raced as I considered the possibilities.

The full sentence turned out to be: "I'm no expert on American politics, but I do know something about holes." Later on in the paragraph, he shows us just how much of an expert on holes he is, sharing his "first rule of holes": "When you're in one, stop digging."

OK, two things, Tom. First, if you're no expert on American politics, then WHY HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING COLUMN AFTER COLUMN ABOUT IT IN THE PAGES OF THE NATION'S MOST PRESTIGIOUS NEWSPAPER FOR THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS?????? And not just writing columns, but publishing books, appearing on television and giving lectures all over country? It'd be one thing for Friedman, who doesn't have an MD, to say, "I'm no expert on open-heart surgery" before offering a thought or two on the subject. Similarly, it'd be OK for a heart surgeon to say, "I'm no expert on American politics" before making an off-hand remark. However, this is the equivalent of the heart surgeon saying, "I'm no expert on open-heart surgery" before picking up a scalpel and cutting somebody open. If you're no expert on open-heart surgery, then how did you get a job as a surgeon? And why are you about to operate on that guy???

(Did you see what I did there? I used the power of metaphors to make my point more vivid. That's right, Tom -- two can play at this game ...)

Second, an expert on "holes"? Seriously? What the hell does that even mean? (There are any number of raunchy, off-color jokes that I could make here, but I'll leave you to your imaginations.) Also, if somebody is in a hole with a shovel, isn't it quite likely that he wanted to dig a hole in the first place? If not, why did he get a shovel and start digging? I get the point, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't strive for internal consistency in a metaphor's logic.

I know what you're thinking -- that this is just a throw-away opening, a way for Tom to come off as folksy and self-deprecating. Yes, that's quite possibly the case. But it doesn't make it any less dumb. Moreover, the rest of the column really does drive home the point that Friedman probably isn't qualified to be writing about American politics for the New York Times. In it, he argues that we're seeing the emergence of a new electoral bloc -- the "Newocracy" (clever, huh?) -- composed of managers of multinational corporations, technology entrepreneurs and "aspirational members of the meritocracy," which I guess means high school seniors applying to Ivy League colleges, or something. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he makes this argument without citing a shred of opinion polling or empirical data, instead relying on a series of quotes repeating his main points from some Baruch College professor named Edward Goldberg.

Like all readers, I eagerly await the unveiling of Tom's remaining "rules of holes."