Tom Friedman Strikes Again
April 22, 2009
Swimming Without a Suit
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Speaking of financial crises and how they can expose weak companies and weak countries, Warren Buffett once famously quipped that “only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.” So true. But what’s really unnerving is that America appears to be one of those countries that has been swimming buck naked — in more ways than one.
Credit bubbles are like the tide. They can cover up a lot of rot.
The other day I was thinking about how I’m going to turn forty soon, how scary that is and what it means going forward. And one of the things I thought, when I was thinking about this, was, “I’m going to have to stop picking on Thomas Friedman after I turn forty. Forty is way too old to still be picking on a guy just because he happens to have been born with a big hunk of granite in his metaphor center.”
But now, I don’t know. I may be getting older and weaker, but Tom Friedman just gets stronger and stronger with age. He just rolls on and on, like a goddamned steamroller. Like a steamroller with flippers. Soaring, on the fields of time.
A friend of mine sent me this latest effort of his. It’s awesome — a true Friedman classic. The title alone is a signal of what is to come. Friedman has tried a version of this same premise, the “Doing dumb thing X is like sailing without a boat” theme, several times. In the past it’s never worked because inevitably makes the wrong analogy. For instance, you can say, “Giving out foreign aid without conditions is like milking cows without a pail.” Or you can say, “Threatening war without leaving diplomatic channels open is like fishing without bait.” But you can’t say, “Negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is like playing baseball without a bat.”
Because that doesn’t make any fucking sense at all. You can’t play baseball without a bat; the game can’t even start.* So what Friedman ended up saying in that column is, “When one side negotiates without leverage in the Middle East, it is like a game in which both sides stand around in an equal state of helplessness, waiting for someone to give them a bat so they can start playing.” Friedman doesn’t get that the first part of any analogy actually has to match the second. But he creates second halves of analogies/similes that don’t match anything. If the second half of your sentence reads, “…is like using a moray eel for underwear,” you’re not going to end up making sense, no matter what the preceding part was. Hence his well-documented struggle to make his “invading Iraq is like driving on the highway without a steering wheel” bit work.
This latest thing is different. One actually can swim without a bathing suit. In some circumstances it may even be preferable to swimming with a suit. The problem is that I’m not sure how possible it is to swim “buck naked — in more ways than one.” It may be (and I’d be inclined to believe it, if evidence were to surface) that Friedman is actually a member of an alien civilization that recognizes not two genders but nine and has fifteen different ways to be naked. But I don’t think “buck naked — in more ways than one” is something we understand here on earth.
Then there’s the line, “Credit bubbles are like the tide. They cover up a lot of rot.” Friedman is trying to say that credit bubbles cover up economic problems, much the way Buffet’s high tide covered up some investors’ lack of foresight. And that would have been fine, if he’d just said it like that. The problem is that Friedman fucks up the whole “tide” image by adding the two image-wrecking words bubble and rot. Only Thomas Friedman wouldn’t notice the natural relationship between the words “bubble” and “tide,” and wouldn’t realize that readers would see those two water words lumped close together and frantically search for some kind of figure of speech there. But there isn’t one: Friedman only means “credit bubble” in the sense of a “credit bubble,” so while you’re trying to figure out what the tide has to do with the bubbles, Friedman is on the other side of the room covering up rot, which most people cover with paint, using ocean water. It’s far from his best work, but bubbles are like tide covering rot is a solid base hit in the Friedmanisms game.
TF had another good one a week or so ago, in a piece entitled “Costa Rica Sets a Standard for Sustainable Growth.” The lede read as follows:
LIBERIA, Costa Rica — Sailing down Costa Rica’s Tempisque River on an eco-tour, I watched a crocodile devour a brown bass with one gulp. It took only a few seconds. The croc’s head emerged from the muddy waters near the bank with the foot-long fish writhing in its jaws. He crunched it a couple of times with razor-sharp teeth and then, with just the slightest flip of his snout, swallowed the fish whole. Never saw that before.
Really? That was only the first time you saw that? I mean, shit, who hasn’t seen a crocodile, with just the slightest flip of its snout, devour a brown bass with one gulp after emerging from the banks of the muddy Tempisque river in Costa Rica with the foot-long fish writhing in its jaws? I’d make another joke about this, but it’s awfully like a line in my own memoirs: “I looked up and saw four black transvestities, their eye-liner glittering in the Alsatian moonlight, passing a skull-bong back and forth in the fraying wicker basket of a silver-and-purple covered hot air balloon. Never saw that before.”
Then there was another Friedman classic from a few weeks ago, a doozie called “Mother Nature’s Dow.” Again, here is the lede:
While I’m convinced that our current financial crisis is the product of both The Market and Mother Nature hitting the wall at once — telling us we need to grow in more sustainable ways — some might ask this: We know when the market hits a wall. It shows up in red numbers on the Dow. But Mother Nature doesn’t have a Dow. What makes you think she’s hitting a wall, too? And even if she is: Who cares? When my 401(k) is collapsing, it’s hard to worry about my sea level rising.
The critically funny element in this paragraph is buried in the word “some.” As if there could be more than one person on earth thinking the following: “I know when the market hits the wall because of the red numbers on the Dow, but Mother Nature doesn’t have a Dow and besides, my 401K is collapsing and I don’t care about the rising sea level.”** Friedman does this a lot and it’s the weirdest goddamned thing. He has these Socratic dialogues in his head between imaginary dream-people who sound like they’ve been forced at gunpoint to conduct a Crossfire-style political debate in a room pumped full of rubber cement fumes.
Either that or he takes a sentence that would have been close to sensible if he’d just cut it off at the first comma, and instead keeps going. So instead of an Israel-Palestine riff reading, “It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called, Two Groups of Racist Assholes Endlessly Killing Each Other” — you get instead, “It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called: “Who owns this hotel? Can the Jews have a room? And shouldn’t we blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque?”
Or even better, instead of highlighting the the Gulf Arab States’ angst over Iran’s enrichment program by saying, “The Gulf Arabs feel like they have a neighborwho has been a drug dealer for 18 years, and the cops won’t do anything about it,” you get something a little longer. The Friedman version: “The Gulf Arabs feel like they have this neighbor who has been a drug dealer for 18 years…” and:
Recently, this neighbor has been very visibly growing poppies for heroin in his backyard in violation of the law. He’s also been buying bigger and better trucks to deliver drugs. You can see them parked in his driveway.
In the past year, though, because of increased police patrols and all the neighbors threatening to do something, this suspicious character has shut down the laboratory in his basement to convert poppies into heroin. In the wake of that, the police declared that he is no longer a drug dealer.
“But wait,” say the [high-on-rubber-cement] Gulf Arabs, “he’s still growing poppies. He was using them for heroin right up to 2003. Now he says he’s in the flower business. He’s not in the flower business. He’s dealing drugs. And he’s still expanding the truck fleet to deliver them. How can you say he’s no longer a drug dealer?”
Sorry, say the police. We have a very technical, legal definition of drug-dealing, and your neighbor no longer fits it.
That sure clarifies the Iran situation! Thanks for putting it in shorthand, Tommy!
Anyway, I’ve got to put a fresh pair of moray eel on and get back to work. God bless Friedman, though. The guy is a force of nature.
* p.s. to be fair I think what Friedman might have been thinking here is “Negotiating without leverage in the Middle East is like trying to hit a baseball without a bat.” He wasn’t off by much, but that’s the thing about metaphors, they’re like DNA — make one little change to one little section and suddenly you’re giving birth to a dolphin instead of a baby boy.
** p.p.s. what kind of lunatic comes up with an idea like “Mother Nature’s Dow”? I almost died laughing imagining Friedman addressing a bunch of crunchies at a Sierra Club meeting and sternly warning that “Mother Nature’s Dow is about to hit the wall!” How many environmentalists do you know who care what the fuck happens to to the Dow? They’d probably all stare back at him in confused silence.