Thomas Friedman: Fast Food Intellectualism

Thomas Friedman, American journalist, columnis...

Thomas Friedman: King of conventional wisdom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Ben Cohen: New York Times columnist and Pulitzer prize winning author Thomas Friedman is one of the highest paid scribes in the world. In 2005, the New York Magazine reported that Friedman was being paid $300,000 per year from the Times and $40,000 per speaking engagement – a handsome salary when compared to the majority of journalists in America who earn an average of $27,000 per year. That was Friedman’s salary 7 years ago, and it has no doubt risen since then. Friedman is entitled to the money he makes – he attracts hundreds of thousands of readers and clearly knows how to engage with his audience.

But Friedman’s writing also deserves some serious scrutiny as he presents himself as an expert on global and economic issues. He is an influencer, and what he says makes a difference.

For anyone who appreciates good writing, reading Thomas Friedman’s work is excruciatingly painful. I don’t want to get in to a Matt Taibbi-esque rant on his appalling use of metaphor, baffling sentence structure and meaningless analogies, but it’s suffice to say he won’t go down in history as a literary great.

But more than that, Friedman’s writing on the topics he purports to know about are shockingly shallow, misleading and in some cases, downright dangerous.

Let’s take his latest article in the NYTimes, ‘The Rise of Populism‘. Friedman conveniently breaks down the world’s problems into two categories: ‘Generational’ and ‘technological’, and argues that global leaders are so enthralled with social media and polls that they aren’t leading properly. He writes:

The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down….I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism.” It’s the über-ideology of our day. Read the polls, track the blogs, tally the Twitter feeds and Facebook postings and go precisely where the people are, not where you think they need to go. If everyone is “following,” who is leading?….

As for the generational shift, we’ve gone from a Greatest Generation that believed in save and invest for the future to a Baby Boomer generation that believed in borrow and spend for today.

So, based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever, Friedman has distilled an incredibly complex series of interrelated and unrelated global phenomenons in an 800 word OpEd. And better than that, Friedman even has the solution!:

Virtually all leaders today have to ask their people to share burdens, not just benefits, and to both study harder and work smarter just to keep up. That requires extraordinary leadership that has to start with telling people the truth.

Politicians need to tell the truth! Why didn’t anyone think of that before?!? If the article hadn’t been published in the New York Times it would have been funny – but it was, and it will be regurgitated in serious circles as an important intellectual explanation for the world wide recession, conflict in the Middle East, global warming and  disconnect between people and the political classes.

In Friedman’s defense, he only has 800 words to air his grand theories, but when talking about issues as broad as ‘global challenges and leadership’, boiling it down to the overuse of twitter and politicians is just lazy. I don’t actually think Friedman is capable of thinking sensibly about complicated social and political problems, but he could at least pretend like he was trying.

Friedman likes to portray himself as an expert on all issues and clearly prides himself on his ability to enlighten his audience through neat analogies and metaphors that rarely make sense. Here’s Friedman back in 2003 on what he believed America’s role in post war Iraq should be:

In short, Iraq is not a vase that we broke to remove the rancid water inside, and now we just need to glue it back together. We have to build a whole new vase. We have to dig the clay, mix it, shape it, harden it and paint it.

And that’s Friedman in a nutshell – comparing an illegal preemptive war that saw the wholesale disintegration of civil society in Iraq in a matter of months to a broken vase that needs to be replaced.

Friedman’s columns smack of $100 dollar corporate seminar wisdom where speakers get paid to pass off banal generalizations as important ‘insights’ and portray themselves as experts on topics they know next to nothing about. It’s a sad business but one that’s immensely profitable due to the mass of people willing to buy into anyone who claims to know what they are talking about. It’s a shame that the New York Times hosts that type of drivel on its pages, but I guess it brings in a huge amount of revenue due to Friedman’s inexplicable popularity.

My worry is that Friedman’s columns play in to the cultural trends that (I think) he claims to be concerned about. Friedman thinks global leaders are too concerned with popularity and social media, and that the current generation is obsessed with ‘the now’ and not the future.

Friedman’s columns are, if you break it down, just a series of random tweets strung together to give the appearance of a planned article. It’s fast food intellectualism that feeds a craving for easy wisdom, and it is rotting America’s brains just as fast as McDonalds is its health.

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  • BillMarantz

    Years ago I coined the phrase “junk food for thought” to describe the radio ramblings of a friend. In all modesty I think it’s better than your metaphor. (And I wouldn’t have sued you for using it.)

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