[FoRK] Flat N All That

kelley kelley at inkworkswell.com
Fri Jan 16 03:56:44 PST 2009

Truly, an awesome review of the vacuous Thomas Friendman from Matt Taibbi. 
It had to be Forked.


Flat N All That
MATT TAIBBI takes on porn-stached New York Times columnist Thomas
Friedman's greenish ways.
By Matt Taibbi

When some time ago a friend of mine told me that Thomas Friedman's new
book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, was going to be a kind of
environmentalist clarion call against American consumerism, I almost
died laughing.

Beautiful, I thought. Just when you begin to lose faith in America's
ability to fall for absolutely anything—just when you begin to think
we Americans as a race might finally outgrow the lovable credulousness
that leads us to fork over our credit card numbers to every half-baked
TV pitchman hawking a magic dick-enlarging pill, or a way to make
millions on the Internet while sitting at home and pounding doughnuts—
along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively
obscene 114,000 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and
husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the
world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist

Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to
keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book
chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does
a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine
Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie
and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to
the rest of us about the need for a "Green Revolution"? Well, he'll
explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95,
$30.95 if you have the misfortune to be Canadian.

I've been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a
decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And
admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of
stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular
his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his
Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn't make
them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture
the "illustrative" figures of speech he offered to explain himself,
what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster
Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping
and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.
Remember Friedman's take on Bush's Iraq policy? "It's OK to throw out
your steering wheel," he wrote, "as long as you remember you're
driving without one." Picture that for a minute. Or how about
Friedman's analysis of America's foreign policy outlook last May:
The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging.When
you're in three, bring a lot of shovels."
First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once?
Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you're supposed to
stop digging when you're in one hole, why should you dig more in
three? How does that even begin to make sense? It's stuff like this
that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times
editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking
rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism
equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of
mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never,
ever happen.

Even better was this gem from one of Friedman's latest columns: "The
fighting, death and destruction in Gaza is painful to watch. But it's
all too familiar. 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?" There are
many serious questions one could ask about this passage, but the one
that leaped out at me was this: In the "title" of that long-running
play, is it supposed to be the same person asking all three of those
questions? If so, does that person suffer from multiple personality
disorder? Because in the first question, he is a neutral/ignorant
observer of the Mideast drama; in the second he sympathizes with the
Jews; in the third he's a radical Muslim. Moreover, after you blow up
the bar and replace it with a mosque, is the surrounding hotel still
there? Why would anyone build a mosque in a half-blown-up hotel?
Perhaps Friedman should have written the passage like this: "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? And why did a person suffering from multiple personality
disorder build a mosque inside it after blowing up the bar and asking
if there was a room for the Jews? Why? Because his editor's been
drinking rubbing alcohol!" OK, so maybe all of this is unfair.There
are a lot of people out there who think Friedman has not been treated
fairly by critics like me, that focusing on his literary struggles is
a snobbish, below-the-belt tactic—a cheap shot that belies the
strength of his overall "arguments." Who cares, these people say, if
Friedman's book The World is Flat should probably have been titled
Theif he had wanted the book's title to match its "point" about
living in an age of increased global interconnectedness? And who cares
if it doesn't quite make sense when Friedman says that Iraq is like a
"vase we broke in order to get rid of the rancid water inside?"Who
cares that you can just pour water out of a vase, that only a fucking
lunatic breaks a perfectly good vase just to empty it of water? You're
missing the point, folks say, and the point is all in Friedman's
highly nuanced ideas about world politics and the economy—if you could
just get past his well-meaning attempts to explain himself, you'd see
that, and maybe you'd even learn something.

My initial answer to that is that 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 shit in a
newspaper. So in my mind it's highly relevant if his manner of
speaking is fucked.

But whatever, let's concede the point, forget about the crazy
metaphors for a moment, and look at the actual content of Hot, Flat
and Crowded. Many people have rightly seen this new greenish pseudo- 
progressive tract as an ideological departure from Friedman's previous
works, which were all virtually identical exercises in bald greed- worship 
and capitalist tent-pitching. Approach-and-rhetoric wise,
however, it's the same old Friedman, a tireless social scientist whose
research methods mainly include lunching, reading road signs, and
watching people board airplanes.

Like The World is Flat, a book borne of Friedman's stirring experience
of seeing IBM sign in the distance while golfing in Bangalore,
Hot,Flat and Crowded is a book whose great insights come when Friedman
golfs (on global warming allowing him more winter golf days:"I will
still take advantage of it—but I no longer think of it as something I
got for free"), looks at Burger King signs (upon seeing a "nightmarish
neon blur" of KFC, BK and McDonald's signs in Texas, he realizes:
"We're on a fool's errand"), and reads bumper stickers (the "Osama
Loves your SUV" sticker he read turns into the thesis of his "Fill 'er
up with Dictators" chapter). This is Friedman's life: He flies around
the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws
conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel
window and counting the Applebee's signs.

Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something
like this: "I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year,
watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I
said to myself, 'We need better headlights for our tri-plane.'" And
off he goes.You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what
Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of
the story that you don't notice that tri-planes don't have
headlights.And by the time you get all that sorted out, your well-lit
tri-plane is flying from chapter to chapter delivering a million geo- green 
pizzas to a million Noahs on a million Arks. And you give up.
There's so much shit flying around the book's atmosphere that you
don't notice the only action is Friedman talking to himself.

In The World is Flat, the key action scene of the book comes when
Friedman experiences his pseudo-epiphany about the Flat world while
talking with himself in front of InfoSys CEO Nandan Nilekani. In Hot,
Flat and Crowded, the money shot comes when Friedman starts doodling
on a napkin over lunch with Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy
magazine. The pre-lunching Friedman starts drawing, and the wisdom
just comes pouring out:

I laid out my napkin and drew a graph showing how there seemed to be a
rough correlation between the price of oil, between 1975 and 2005, and
the pace of freedom in oil-producing states during those same years.

Friedman then draws his napkin-graph, and much to the pundit's
surprise, it turns out that there is almost an exact correlation
between high oil prices and "unfreedom"! The graph contains two lines,
one showing a rising and then descending slope of "freedom," and one
showing a descending and then rising course of oil prices.

Friedman plots exactly four points on the graph over the course of
those 30 years. In 1989, as oil prices are falling, Friedman writes,
"Berlin Wall Torn Down." In 1993, again as oil prices are low, he
writes, "Nigeria Privatizes First Oil Field." 1997, oil prices still
low, "Iran Calls for Dialogue of Civilizations." Then, finally, 2005,
a year of high oil prices: "Iran calls for Israel's destruction."Take
a look for yourself: I looked at this and thought: "Gosh, what a neat
trick!" Then I sat down and drew up my own graph, called SIZE OF
VALERIE BERTINELLI'S ASS, 1985-2008, vs. HAP- PINESS. It turns out
that there is an almost exact correlation! Note the four points on the

1990: Release of Miller's Crossing
1996-97: Crabs
2001: Ate bad tuna fish sandwich at Times Square Blimpie; felt sick
2008: Barack Obama elected

That was so much fun, I drew another one! This one is called AMERICAN

Or how about this one, called NUMBER OF ONE- EYED RETARDED FLIES IN

Obviously this sounds like a flippant analysis, but that's more or
less exactly what Friedman is up to here. If you're going to draw a
line that measures the level of "freedom" across the entire world and
on that line plot just four randomly-selected points in time over the
course of 30 years—and one of your top four "freedom points" in a 30- year 
period of human history is the privatization of a Nigerian oil
field—well, what the fuck? What can't you argue, if that's how you're
going to make your point? He could have graphed a line in the opposite
direction by replacing Berlin with Tiananmen Square, substituting
Iraqi elections for Iran's call for Israel's destruction
(incidentally, when in the last half-century or so have Islamic
extremists not called for Israel's destruction?), junking Iran's 1997
call for dialogue for the U.S. sanctions against Iran in '95, and so
on. It's crazy, a game of Scrabble where the words don't have to
connect on the board, or a mathematician coming up with the equation A
B -3X = Swedish girls like chocolate.

Getting to the "ideas" in the book: Its basic premise is that
America's decades-long habit of gluttonous energy consumption has
adversely affected humanity because a) while the earth could support
America's indulgence, it can't sustain two billion endlessly- copulating 
Chinese should they all choose to live in American-style
excess, and b) the exploding global demand for oil artificially
subsidizes repressive Middle Eastern dictatorships that would
otherwise have to rely on tax revenue (read: listen to their people)
in order to survive, and this subsidy leads to terrorism and a spread
of "unfreedom."

Regarding the first point, Friedman writes:

Because if the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied
by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment

then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints
and limits on our way of life—constraints that will be worse than

Three observations about this touching and seemingly remarkable
development, i.e. onetime unrepentant free-market icon Thomas Friedman
suddenly coming out huge for the environment and against the evils of
gross consumerism:

1. The need for massive investment in green energy is an idea so
obvious and inoffensive that even presidential candidates from both
parties could be seen fighting over who's for it more in nationally
televised debates last fall;

2. I wish I had the balls to first spend six long years madly cheering
on an Iraq war that not only reintroduced Sharia law to the streets of
Baghdad, but radicalized the entire Islamic world against American
influence—and then write a book blaming the spread of fundamentalist
Islam on the ignorant consumers of the middle American heartland, who
bought too many Hummers and spent too much time shopping for iPods in
my wife's giganto-malls.

3. To review quickly, the "Long Bomb" Iraq war plan Friedman supported
as a means of transforming the Middle East blew up in his and everyone
else's face; the "Electronic Herd" of highly volatile international
capital markets he once touted as an economic cure-all not only didn't
pan out, but led the world into a terrifying chasm of seemingly
irreversible economic catastrophe; his beloved "Golden Straitjacket"
of American-style global development (forced on the world by the
"hidden fist" of American military power) turned out to be the vehicle
for the very energy/ecological crisis Friedman himself warns about in
his new book; and, most humorously, the "Flat World" consumer
economics Friedman marveled at so voluminously turned out to be
grounded in such total unreality that even his wife's once-mighty
shopping mall empire, General Growth Properties, has lost 99 percent
of its value in this year alone.

So, yes, Friedman is suddenly an environmentalist of sorts.

What the fuck else is he going to be? All the other ideas he spent the
last ten years humping have been blown to hell. Color me unimpressed
that he scrounged one more thing to sell out of the smoldering,
discredited wreck that should be his career; that he had the good
sense to quickly reinvent himself before angry Gods remembered to dash
his brains out with a lightning bolt. But better late than never, I
suppose. Or as Friedman might say, "Better two cell phones than a fish
in your zipper."

Matt Taibbi's last critique of Thomas Friedman,"Flathead," appeared in
the April 26, 2005 edition of New York Press.

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