Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shaving "The Moustache of Wisdom"

As someone interested in language – and its use, misuse, and abuse – I’ve long been a fan of Matt Taibbi’s epic takedowns of NYTimes columnist / pompous ass, Thomas Friedman. 

If you’ve never read Taibbi’s columns on the man he derides as “The Moustache of Wisdom,” please do yourself a favor and read them now.  (Links below.)  They are scathing, hilarious, profane, on-the-money - and they effectively point out that this Emperor of the Op-Ed page is wearing no clothes at all.  Or said another way, Taibbi's writing acts as a lens that makes it nearly impossible to see Friedman’s columns any other way.

If I'm being careful with metaphor here, it's because of Taibbi’s main takeaway: in every single column, Friedman’s language breaks down until it lacks sense completely… and that this breakdown of language leads Friedman to decidedly wrong conclusions about the world, how it works, and how the US should behave in affairs both foreign and domestic.

For example, see Taibbi's first whack at TF.  Money quote: “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. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.”  (Matt Taibbi, NYPress)

I won’t even try to compete with Taibbi, but I will say that with every new Friedman column I make a parlor game of trying to spot the moment where the columnist’s language breaks down into gibberish.  (What can I say?  Some people do crosswords or Sudoku, I pick apart Tom Friedman columns.) 

I’m sorry to say this is not a very difficult parlor game.  Take, for example, Friedman's entry in today’s NYTimes.  It features a cornucopia of banal analysis (er… “banalysis?”), such as the not-at-all-surprising revelation that the bubbling revolution in Syria is made up of freedom-seeking youth vs. tradition-bound oldsters, or the not-at-all-shocking conclusion that the past holds great sway on the present.   

But besides that, we get this little gem: "This is the grand drama now being played out in the Arab world — the deeply sincere youth-led quest for liberty and the deeply rooted quests for sectarian, factional, class and tribal advantage.  [Snip.]  The same drama played out in Iraq, but there the process was managed, at a huge cost, by an American midwife — managed enough so that the communities were able to write a new, rudimentary social contract on how to live together and, thereby, give the future a chance to bury the past. But we still do not know how it will end in Iraq." (Friedman, NYTimes)

I ask you: what kind of drama is managed by a midwife who helps write a social contract that buries the past?   Is that person who intervenes in the drama a director?  A writer?  A doula?  An undertaker?  All of the above?  None?  Some? 

Does this matter?  Well, Friedman is an influential columnist and author, who is paid richly to opine on the pages of the most famous newspaper in the world twice a week.  So, yes: I believe his breakdown of language and thought is worth examining, as are the wrongheaded conclusions that he draws.  

I’ll let Taibbi sum it up, as he does in this NY Press articleThe takeaway, said better than I can:

"Friedman’s language choices over the years have been highly revealing: When a man who thinks you need to break a vase to get the water out of it starts arguing that you need to invade a country in order to change the minds of its people, you might want to start paying attention to how his approach to the vase problem worked out.  Thomas Friedman is not a president, a pope, a general on the field of battle or any other kind of man of action. He doesn’t actually do anything apart from talk about sh*t in a newspaper. So in my mind it’s highly relevant if his manner of speaking is f*cked.
”  (Taibbi, NYPress Bowdlerization mine: Ed.)

Here’s one more link to one more glorious Matt Taibbi smackdown of Tom Friedman.  

Good grief, how much do they pay Friedman to write this column?  As a writer or a thinker, the man is not worth his weight in mustache wax.

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