April 20, 2005


FLATHEAD: The peculiar genius of Thomas L. Friedman. (Matt Taibbi, 4/20/05, NY Press)

I think it was about five months ago that Press editor Alex Zaitchik whispered to me in the office hallway that Thomas Friedman had a new book coming out. All he knew about it was the title, but that was enough; he approached me with the chilled demeanor of a British spy who has just discovered that Hitler was secretly buying up the world’s manganese supply. Who knew what it meant—but one had to assume the worst

"It's going to be called The Flattening," he whispered. Then he stood there, eyebrows raised, staring at me, waiting to see the effect of the news when it landed. I said nothing.

It turned out Alex had bad information; the book that ultimately came out would be called The World Is Flat. It didn't matter. Either version suggested the same horrifying possibility. 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.

So I tried not to think about it. But when I heard the book was actually coming out, I started to worry. Among other things, I knew I would be asked to write the review. The usual ratio of Friedman criticism is 2:1, i.e., two human words to make sense of each single word of Friedmanese. Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays. I'll give you an example, drawn at random from The World Is Flat. On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.) Here's what he says:

I stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be herded on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead bins.

Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius.

Deliciously savage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2005 5:14 PM

Despite the painful prose detailed in the article, the thing I'm truly shocked to find out is Thomas Friedman actually flies Southwest Airlines -- fellow columnists Frank Rich or MoDo would never lower themselves to mingle with the sheep when there's an airline with first class or business class to be had (and Taibbi should be happy, I guess, that he wasn't asked to diagram the logic tracks of Ms. Dowd's writings).

Posted by: John at April 20, 2005 6:14 PM

Porpoises..(walruses also)

Posted by: h-man at April 20, 2005 6:33 PM

Worth a read. Taibbi's column is hilarious.

Posted by: JackSheet at April 20, 2005 7:49 PM

Just remember that compared to Krugman, Rich and MoDo, he is Edward Gibbon.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 20, 2005 11:48 PM

"He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity."

Love it.

Posted by: Peter B at April 21, 2005 5:20 AM

Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.

How about two, a wolf pack and a pride of lions.

Posted by: daniel duffy at April 21, 2005 8:48 AM

pack, pride

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2005 9:15 AM

A nasty, catty claw-fest. I like it.

Posted by: Mikey at April 21, 2005 9:31 AM