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Apr. 23 2009 - 2:02 pm | 2,066 views | 7 recommendations | 68 comments

Tom Friedman Strikes Again

Thomas Friedman, American journalist, columnis...

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April 22, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist

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.

via Op-Ed Columnist – Swimming Without a Suit – NYTimes.com.

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    When my 401(k) is collapsing, it’s hard to worry about my sea level rising.

    this is a classic friedmanism. he sets up an opposition in a phrase, in fact i often think he’s backed his way into his entirely column from an opposition he’s created that he thinks is clever. but invariably he doesn’t even manage to get the concept of opposites right.

    what is the opposite of collapsing in the context friedman uses it here? raising or erecting are both fine. rising, as in water moving to a higher level? tides RISE AND FUCKING FALL, THEY DON’T RISE AND COLLAPSE. no. NO. NO GODDAMNIT.

    i know it’s minor, i know it’s nitpicky, but it’s still just stunningly bad writing. it’s bad thinking. it’s bad logic.

  2. collapse expand

    i would forfeit my soul to be able to see the face of the munificent mustache of minnesota when he reads this piece. why hasn’t some intern or copy editor confronted him about his freidmanisms™?

    i especially abhor the random, ridiculous anecdotes he uses to illustrate sweeping absolutisms that have nothing to do with whatever the fuck but somehow exactly prove his point. which is generally neoliberalism! sexy! look at all these swarthy savages and their iphone clones!

    (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOF6ZeUvgXs)

    SUCK. ON. THIS. tommyboy!

  3. collapse expand

    Matt, it was your vicious yet lovely takedowns of Friedman that first got me hooked on your writing. I hope you keep taking on “Suck on This” Tommy until his last bloated, ridiculous, incomprehensible column.

  4. collapse expand
    deleted account

    I haven’t had a chance to read this yet, but a smile came to my face when I found you were writing about Friedman again.

    I called out an author of a column in our college paper this week and it’s been a firestorm the whole week, apparently I was wrong to point out that it was a racist trying to lecture us about race…

  5. collapse expand

    What pictures are in Tom “so un-Kinky” Friedman’s possession that make him such a media darling? He’s just that guy in a turtleneck and mohair coat that was afraid of the baseball as a kid. Ugh.

  6. collapse expand

    Thanks for the laugh. Love your blog. And fourty is not that bad.

  7. collapse expand

    Thanks for the few moments of laugh out loud time, a great break to my afternoon! Bravo Matt! Environmental Dow, unfucking real!

  8. collapse expand

    Come on, now. TF is like a mustachioed,
    Jewish Mr. Rogers.

    It’s too easy to pick on him. Corny analogies, pat solutions, and writing so predictable that you only get through to the end to make sure that it was what you’d predicted it would be from the first paragraph, sure.

    But he speaks a vernacular that that majority (i.e. non-Baccalaureated) of the public understands.

    So sneer at your peril.

  9. collapse expand

    Jamesohearn,

    “But he speaks a vernacular that that majority (i.e. non-Baccalaureated) of the public understands.”

    This mighty metaphorical mustachioed Samson (what would happen if he shaved!?) man is a NY Times columnist, not a sitcom writer. It’s like seeing a Big Mac in a four star New York restaurant. On the mouth of a crocodile.

  10. collapse expand

    oh no Matt, please never stop bashing Friedman. I have enjoyed your hilarious eviscerations so much, I have actually developed a sneaking fondness for him.

  11. collapse expand

    I think Mr. Friedman is saying that there (at least) two ways a country can be ‘buck naked’ whilst swimming: it can be without a bathing suit, i.e. completely naked, and it can be naked of bucks, which is to say not wearing any dollars.

    It helps to do a few bongs before reading the Granite Metaphor.

  12. collapse expand

    Wow. What is this unquenchable desire you have to call out this guy anyway?
    If you don’t like the way he writes just ignore his columns – like I do with Maureen Dowd’s.
    I could become absolutely apoplectic on a permanent basis if I read everything she wrote.

    Let him go…before you turn 40. You’ll feel a great weight lift off your shoulders! ~ DD

  13. collapse expand

    You’re not looking at his latest rhetorically unsound metaphor in the most humorous way. If the tide covers up rot and a lack of swimsuits, then he’s really making a metaphor out of crotch-rot.

  14. collapse expand

    BTW Matt tell your dad he looks great for having a kid as friggin old as you!

  15. collapse expand

    I’ve read you writing about Friedman before, and I’ll agree that these ones aren’t up to the Jewish hotel, but that’s a very high bar to reach, and these are well worth our time.

    These are lines, that honestly, I would probably just ignore if I was to read his column, but when you put them in this new context, with your commentary, they make me want to have a conversation with this guy, and try to find out what the fuck is going on upstairs

  16. collapse expand

    I’m with Diane. If you don’t like him–and it’s clear by your language you don’t–then stop reading and ranting. It makes you sounds like an angry young man. Full of sound and fury darlin’.

    • collapse expand

      “Full of sound and fury darlin’.”

      Isn’t that an Addison DeWitt line from All About Eve?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      How about Matt writes about whatever he wants to, and if that includes sharp criticisms of one of the prominent columnists in the country, that’s perfectly fine. Maybe you and Diane would have a point if all he did was write about Tom Friedman, but he doesn’t, so you don’t. Why can’t he be angry? When someone as dumb as Friedman is putting crap like this out on the biggest newspaper in the country, why isn’t he fair game?

      And there’s the same acerbic tone to every column Matt writes. It’s like people who haven’t read any of his stuff are criticizing him for the reason he became so popular.

      Stop nagging Matt, you sound like a bitter old woman, let it go. (< this sentence is only included because it’s practically the exact thing you told him)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Uh, Nora, and Diane,

      I’m confused. If that’s your philosophy …don’t read it if you don’t like it…why are you reading and posting here? Huh?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Gee Nora,

      I guess this might read like a rant if you thought that T.F. was a great writer. To me it looked like a deconstruction of some really lame-assed writing. Also, rants are seldom as funny and well reasoned in their undeniable truth as this is.

      I do like your use of condescension though, “darlin’”. Very effective way to patronize some very effective criticism. Looks like you just hit a nerve Matt.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand
      deleted account

      “I’m with Diane. If you don’t like him–and it’s clear by your language you don’t–then stop reading and ranting. It makes you sounds like an angry young man. Full of sound and fury darlin’.”

      But it’s funny and it makes Friedman look bad I don’t see the downside

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  17. collapse expand

    Thank you for this. He needs to pattern his career after Leslie Nielson and accept his true comedic potential, damn the cost.

    A couple years ago, when I used to work at a restaurant, a customer (young, white, yuppie’ish) brought in a copy of ‘The World is Flat’. When he came up to pay at the register I asked him how the book was.

    “It’s really good,” he said. “Very insightful.”

    “But isn’t the world round?” I asked.

    “Ha ha, yeah, but…”

    Another fives minutes wasted knee-deep in Friedmanese.

  18. collapse expand

    Matt:

    The greatest of this genre was Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/projects/rissetto/offense.html)

    This includes such gems as: “Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”

    But at this point, I think you have risen far enough in the pantheon that it’s beneath you to keep after poor Tom, though I think it was you who came up with the unforgettable “porn-star mustache” descriptor.

  19. collapse expand

    I love you Matt Taibbi. I think some of everyone would agree that reading Friedman is like unraveling the Da Vinci Code: you never know where your next meal is coming to. I had a dream last week we became BFFs and then starred in a reality show about it called Cocksucker Deficit. Our Dow is bullish(t). Forty is the age where you begin sprouting lip pubes. Q.E.D.

    PS. Posting comments in blogs is like drinking semen that doesn’t taste like pineapple juice (in more ways than one).
    At the risk of taking you too literally slash for those who failed Macro 101: that whole “buck naked” fiasco is an attempted double entendre alluding to all those folks being stripped naked of their “bucks” by the “crisis”. Literally. (No homo.)

    Oh and Diane et al…. TF is fair game because (as mentioned) he IS an institutional force – taken seriously by a lot of seriously people. And really, if your logic can’t hold water long enough to not fuck up a compound sentence, then this doesn’t bode well for your essay-length arbitrary rationalizations of supremely complex, dynamic, irrational and calamitous ecosystems. If I were smarter than I currently am smart then I’d probably drop some sort of superfluous mixed-analogy spitt’n how TF’s writing styles is in some way related to the economics industry as a whole. Literally.

    And nobody here is (tea) bagging on ol’ Tommy Friedman. Nothing disrespectful was said of the man, his ideas, his children. I mean the guy MIGHT be a genius. MAYBE he should win a Nobel prize or something. But really, and I think this is Matt’s primary driver here… who the fuck could tell?

  20. collapse expand
    deleted account

    I remember reading an article by Friedman about oil and how when the price of oil went up, there was more instability, war, authoritarianism, all that. He charted out a timeline against the price of oil, with events listed for different key points.

    Here’s the interesting thing about that when we discussed it in class. His little timeline included events like Ahmedinijad saying mean things about Israel.

    But can’t you always find some world leader saying something mean about Israel? You could chart events all over the place if you want to, saying there was increased instability and hostility at that time, without any sort of evidence to back it up.

    The most funny part was, the part of the chart where Iraq invaded Kuwait, which set off the most violent immediate conflict in the Middle East, was not listed on Friedman’s graph. There’s a good reason for that too — it happened to be at a point where the price of oil was falling.

    How does this guy have 3 pulitzers again?

  21. collapse expand

    This was by far the best thing I’ve read all day. You have a civic obligation to continue this beyond 40.

  22. collapse expand

    I gleefully agree with you on his analytical and his writing skills. But he seems to be vaguely trying to call attention to the valid issue of why the public is so much more focused on economic information as opposed to environmental information (aside from short-term self-interest). Economic data is artificially created and easily, unambiguously collected in real time; environmental data is too much more complex.

  23. collapse expand

    It’s interesting reading people telling Taibbi to stop writing about Friedman in the way he did. Isn’t that why people read Taibbi’s stuff, for his biting sense of humor? I know it’s why I do.

    It’s akin to asking Friedman to stop writing the way he does. The change would fundamentally change the way they write and in turn the enjoyment of reading their stuff.

    Keep on doing what you do Taibbi, you’d be infinitely less interesting if you changed.

    I just started reading “The Great Derangement” and I don’t mind saying that chapter on Congressman Barton and his ilk was more than a little depressing.

  24. collapse expand

    Nora, Diane, isn’t Matt T. well within bounds to ridicule and otherwise criticize Tom Friedman’s writings because Tom Friedman is a widely-read, curiously well-respected Public Intellectual?

    I mean, sure, ignoring Friedman is one way to respond to what one considers his shortcomings. Another is to try to bring others — perhaps even Friedman himself — to an appreciation of those shortcomings by explaining them in writing, as Matt has done here.

    Am I missing something?

  25. collapse expand

    I’d read Matt if all he wrote about was pond algae. In fact, I wish he’d write a little something about pond algae. I’m having problems with it at the moment & I could use the laugh and a blast of profanity thrown at it.

  26. collapse expand

    I saw that Friedman piece and immediately thought of you, especially when I read about the rot-covering bubbles.

    I don’t think you should give up Friedman metaphor watch, someone’s got to do it.

    The idea of “Mother Nature’s Dow” by the way just reminds me of a slew of other utterances by the metaphor and simile-tone-deaf financial set on cable financial news, who whenever a downturn occurs start talking about “looking for a bottom”, alternating that with “groping for a bottom”, and even once I swear “Well, Bob, everyone down here on the floor is just groping for that elusive bottom”, hand to God, verbatim, and all said without the slightest self-awareness of the images being evoked whatsoever.

  27. collapse expand

    Friedman is always walking out in the streets of places as far from here as his fortune will take him, and as wide as his metaphorical ass, streets where he inevitably seems to spy a young cowboy all dressed in white linen, all dressed in white linen as cold as the clay.

    You could set you watch by him, or your compass — or your grampus, for that matter. It saddens me, though, that we have to endure a Friedman before we can appreciate a Taibbi. Surely the world could be flatterer than that.

  28. collapse expand

    You made me wonder about the people who read and profess to admire Friedman. Heretofore, I thought the weirdos were those like me who find him unreadable. Please don’t stop translating him for those of us who need the laughs.

  29. collapse expand

    Nice work, Mike. But if you really want to know what a literary smackdown looks like, try this… Louis Menand is the man. He sets the bar high, and now that you are entering your sunset years you should move on and focus on what you do best, which is very good.

  30. collapse expand

    Tide does NOT cover up rot.

    If you go down to a waterfront and actually look at it during low tide, you often see old pilings that have almost rotted away up on top where they are above the tide line, but still standing (although covered with barnacles and other sea life) BELOW the tide line.

    So the tide does NOT cover rot but instead reveals the preservative powers of the high tide where it PREVENTS rot.

    If you’ve been around a few waterfronts, this is pretty obvious.

  31. collapse expand

    The column– Taibbi’s– is genius, and needed to be written. The “sound and fury” reference, with its implied corollary — that Taibbi here “signif[ies] nothing” — is completely inappropriate for the context. Friedman has such a reputation for brilliance (despite his alarming rate of error, and tendency toward repetition), yet is such an atrocious writer, that someone needed to deconstruct exactly why: too often readers are left scratching their heads, thinking there’s something they don’t get, when in fact it’s TF’s boneheadedness, laziness, and lack of an editor that are the problem. Thanks to Matt for pointing out that when it comes to Friedman, it’s not us, it’s him.

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