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Mar. 18 2010 - 7:05 am | 3,295 views | 1 recommendation | 30 comments

The Most Confusing Lede of All Time

Underlying the latest U.S.-Israel spat over settlements is the deeper — real — problem: There are five key actors in the Israeli-Palestinian equation today. Two of them — the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the alliance of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah — have clear strategies. These two are actually opposed, but one of them will shape Israeli-Palestinian relations in the coming years; indeed, their showdown is nearing. I hope Fayyad wins. It would be good for Israel, America and the moderate Arabs. But those three need their own strategy to make it happen.

via Op-Ed Columnist – Let’s Fight Over a Big Plan – NYTimes.com.

I needed to take a Clonazepam by the second sentence of this opening graf of Friedman’s. God bless this guy. Can anyone else out there recall a more opaque opening paragraph?


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  1. collapse expand

    I’m pretty sure you can find one every Sunday and Wednesday.

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    From the 2007 gem, Generation Q, “I just spent the past week visiting several colleges — Auburn, the University of Mississippi, Lake Forest and Williams — and I can report that the more I am around this generation of college students, the more I am both baffled and impressed. I am impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be.”

    The problem here is reconciling the idea of being too idealistic and not radical enough. This is further complicated by straining the imagination to figure out what Tom Friedman considering overidealistic and insufficiently radical.

    First, before even considering that, what the fuck is Lake Forest College? I googled it, apparently its the 97th best liberal arts college in the U.S. Knowing Friedman, he had a niece or something to visit there and decided to do some cultural shit-mining for his article. Because, you know, his brain is always on.

    Okay, so Friedman’s impressed, because they are more optimistic and idealistic than they “should be.” So wait, is he condemning them or elevating them? Essentially, he’s saying “they ought not to be this idealistic, but damn they’ve got pluck.” This is a forgiving reading of that sentence for someone who has Bush-level challenges with English, but even giving it this kind construction betrays its plain meaning–the sentence doesn’t say that Friedman is impressed, its saying that college students are just too damn stupid to stop being so optimistic and idealistic–like lemmings or Communists or Muslims or the Ignorance of the Plebeian Masses or whoever else is the villain in his current fucked iteration of reality.

    Then there is the second half–that they are “less radical than they need to be.” Okay, this part sort of makes sense if you read it independently of the first part and forget that Tom Friedman is the one saying it. It only sort of makes sense because its unclear who needs them to be more radical. Is it the nation? Is Friedman extolling the virtues of the 60s radical SDS-Weatherman crowd? That’s improbable, but then again, nothing appears to be static in the ever-changing current of his mind. Maybe he means that the students themselves need to be radical, so that over their lives they can deradicalized into some kind of enlightened pragmatic super-being like Friedman. This might make sense given the subtext of the previous sentence.

    But there is the monumental mindfuck of Friedman considering something insufficiently radical. Remember, this is the guy who gleans epiphanies about humanity from IBM signs while golfing in Bangalore. The guy who supported and then didn’t the Iraq war, and spends his time jetsetting to corporate retreats to ostensibly give trainings about flat worlds, lexuses, and olive trees. (partial cite: http://www.nypress.com/article-19271-flat-n-all-that.html)

    Basically, the article comes down to Friedman shaking his head in some kind of disappointed-parent way toward college students. That’s the only way to read it for it all to make sense together. The problem is, that reading is contrary to its plain meaning. I think that’s wholly unintentional, but Friedman communicates how he really feels–that he can sit in holy judgment and be disappointed with an entire generation by visiting a handful of out of the way colleges.

    like you said Matt, God Bless this man.

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    Oh, poor Thomas. He’s the Babe Ruth of butt raping enumeration.

    There’s one problem which involves five things. Two of them are a person, a country, and two groups. Actually, that makes it seven things. Anyway those four have strategies. One opposes the other three but one of those two types of strategies will work. I favor the one that’s a person, because that would be good for two countries and a subset of an ethnic group. Actually, that makes it an even 10 things. Unless those three are what’s left of the original five after you take out the four I previously mentioned. Those three need a strategy, too.

    I’d try to find a worse lede, but I’d probably just cheat and skim the last few months of Friedman.

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    pretty dense stuff from friedman, but no more opaque than Clonazepam.

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    I love his last two sentences:

    “[Obama] also needs his own clear strategy to exploit the opportunities inherent in this moment…If we are going to fight with Israel…let’s do so over a big U.S. strategy that we think can shape a more stable Middle East.”

    Can there a more pointless observation about this complex issue masquerading as wise advice? Yes, let’s “exploit the opportunities inherent in this moment,” which is advice one could give in just about any situation about anything. And yes, let’s create “a big (how about “ambitious” or “proactive”?) U.S. strategy that we think can shape a more stable Middle East.” Pff. Nice cliche that could’ve been said by any armchair Middle East diplomat over the last 50 years.

    All Friedman’s opaqueness and misplaced metaphors do, is hide the simplicity of his ideas, which are at bottom trite, unsubstantive, useless, and boring.

    • collapse expand

      That reminds me of the guy who started (and left soon after) at my firm. He immediately pissed off my entire department and so he was encouraged to give us a presentation of how the department he had just started to run was now going to be more useful to us in the past. He was absolutely convinced that we were complete idiots in the room, notwithstanding our experience in the firm, etc. He was also clearly an unaware sexist.

      ANYWAY. He handed us these PowerPoint slides (which is always a sign that someone spent more time futzing with margins than with thinking, and usually completely unecessary) which said things like, “We will now *Get materials out faster, *Provide a higher quality work product.” Next slide: “We are going to do this by *Increasing our efficiency, *Doing higher quality work.”

      If I’d had the power I would have fired him on the spot. He didn’t last very long.

      You’re right: People often confuse wordiness with content. Using a synonym does not dissect the point of the previously used word.

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

    I’d like a Clonezepam to work out how Gidi Grinstein slips in accusations of asymmetric warfare


  7. collapse expand

    These comments are better than Matt’s post! I love a good intellectual beat-down. But if you guys can’t stand Friedman, why do you read him?

  8. collapse expand

    For years I’d intended to read “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” and “The World is Flat,” but after having recently read your review of one of his books, I scratched both off my To Read list. You know, for the longest time when I encounterd confusing writing, I assumed the problem was mine: that I was a bad reader, or just plain stupid. Because I always found people who would say, probably lying, “I didn’t have any problem at all reading it.” Anyway, your dissection of Friedman was great and I wish I’d read something like it when I was younger.

    On a lighter note, I want to nominate an unknown guy, my absolute favorite baseball writer: Joey Matschulat at BBTIA (Baseball Time In Arlington). (I have no connection with Matschulat or BBTIA: he’s just a guy I started reading last summer.) He has the best information and analysis, but it takes forever to wade through his sentences. Here’s a sample from two days ago:

    “It took a little bit longer to fully materialize than I expected it would, but one of this franchise’s most deeply ingrained rituals — that being the annually heated debate over (and the annual process of selecting) the Rangers’ No. 5 starter going into Opening Day — is now beginning to kick into full gear, with Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and C.J. Wilson apparently being the last four hurlers legitimately standing in the competition.”

    I figure his journalism professor must have had a “one paragraph-one period” rule. I don’t mind poking fun at him because I’m plugging him at the same time.

    For a famous person, I’m going with Thoreau: I’m currently reading “Walden” and I’m struggling.

  9. collapse expand

    A long time ago when I was in school, a professor told me, ” If you don’t write it clearly, it usually means that you don’t understand what you want to say.”

  10. collapse expand

    Please continue the “Fire Joe Morgan” treatment of Friedman’s writings. The URL http://www.firetomfriedman.com is still available.

  11. collapse expand

    I must confess since I find myself so many times on the opposite side of Friedman my appraisal of him is bias. Much like his appearances on the talk show circle jerk circuit (say that 5 times fast) his meandering opaque sentence construction is always put to the service of obfuscation…they must teach this stuff at Columbia Journalism school or maybe it is a New York Times graduate course for opinion writers…how to say nothing but give the illusion of profundity…like all of New York Times an Washington Post Op Ed folks he is a courtier of power and the Establishment.

  12. collapse expand


    “Oh, hey, there’s this whole other perpetual war in the Middle East that you never paid attention to because my ‘occupation’ of NYT print territory crowded out all the rational foreign policy experts. AND, I can cheerlead for neither side! Hey, Ann… I got the cash for the cable bill!”

  13. collapse expand

    Also, Friedman makes ZERO mention of the Dubai / Mossad assassination.

    “Ann, where’s my passport? Don’t tell me it’s still at the Israeli Embassy… I got a hot lead on a cadmium factory in Malaysia to follow up on.”

  14. collapse expand

    I don’t find it confusing at all. Friedman is just listing Israel’s, and by implication the U.S.A.’s, blood enemies. The eviction of Palestinians from ancestral lands and Isreal’s defacto annexation is just a “spat”, deflecting America’s attention from it’s, and coyingly incidentally Isreal’s, blood enemies. As Isreal is crying to stand on its own, I think we should let it.

  15. collapse expand

    hilarious. before i could even read the article, all i saw were the words “confusing Lede” and “Op-Ed NYTimes” and instantly i knew you were ripping on the friedmeister again.

  16. collapse expand

    I’ve never had the opportunity to use the adjective “Anselmic” before. Friedman was absolutely Anselmic. The incoherence so incoherent it cannot be conceived not to exist.

  17. collapse expand

    The problem with reading Friedman, or Brooks for that matter, is that neither uses logic as a starting point, so their arguments sound like the ravings of lobotomy victims. Yet their readers think they should be able to understand them because the editorial Cerebrus at the Times has assured us that they must be serious because they were able to get past the gate.

  18. collapse expand

    I love this guy. Whenever somebody questions the declining quality of the NYTimes, I can always cite Friedman.

    The strategy is simple? Then why did it confuse the hell out of me? Then he calls upon a quote from another op-ed column that reduces complicated politics to an allegory of dumb old people who shouldn’t be driving. Wondrous!

    He must of wrote this while sitting in an airplane toilet on his laptop.

  19. collapse expand

    Matt, This calls for an EPIC take down. DO IT for chilrun!

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    He never explains what that underlying problem is or why it’s greater. The second half of the paragraph doesn’t explain the first clause.

    “There is a reason why things fall when dropped: Newton proposed several laws of physics, and they’re usually taught in a particular order, but we’d understand it better if the third was first.”

  21. collapse expand

    Ugh, Friedman is so fucking somnambulant. The ghost of H.L. Mencken just laid his balls across Tom’s forehead.

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    I just despise him. It borders on an obsession. I cannot stand anything about him and it pains me that that with the money they’re paying him they could hire at least a few investigative journalists.

  23. collapse expand

    Matt, you’re too nice to this guy. “Opaque” just lets him off the hook; it suggests that there is something beneath the occluded surface. But there isn’t.

    Now, American journalism (and the New York Times) does have a history of opaque op-ed writing. Walter Lippmann could be opaque. Scotty Reston could be opaque. This is because they were writing to the ruling class in a semi-code of shared assumptions and agreed-upon euphemisms. It’s a type of professional writing and professional journalism I can’t stand, but it is professional writing, and I might even concede that it’s a form of professional journalism.

    They were pros. They had to know what the fuck they were doing.

    Friedman doesn’t. He’s not a writer–he’s a typer. Friedman is a professional only in the sense that he is paid handsomely.

    So, instead of “opaque,” how about–”incoherent”? Or better yet–”incompetent”?

  24. collapse expand

    This guy is the John Madden of foreign policy. ‘What they want to do here, is score a touchdown. If they don’t, the other team wins.’

  25. collapse expand

    Matt, it’s paradox from the Left Coaster, sorry to be so off-topic here but I know of no other way of reaching you.

    Are you going to Netroots Nation this year? I am wavering on whether to go or not, I’m not very happy with Obama, I could get completely crazy, I shouldn’t spend the money…

    A dinner with y’all, some drinks, some good plain red-blooded testosterone political musing, well, I’d be much more inclined to go with that on the agenda. joseph.arrieta@gmail.com

    Again, please excuse the personal and off-topic message, sorry.

  26. collapse expand

    My favorite thing about Thomas Friedman is that he is basically just Hank Kingsley, Jeffrey Tambor’s character from “The Larry Sanders Show.” The similarities between the two men are uncanny–not just the creepy stache that both men share, but something deeper as well.

    I can’t put my finger on it, but here’s a clip of Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling) criticizing Hank’s bizarre grasp of the English language.


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