Lord knows that I'm no stranger to criticism of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, having written some myself.
But yesterday, after blogger Duncan Black labeled Friedman "the one true wanker of the decade," I admit I was wondering how Friedman would respond. Because that's a pretty harsh criticism. I mean, there have been mass murderers galore over the past decade. Also, Damien Hirst.
Well, Friedman has responded to the criticism in an utterly winning, wholly charming way that I have to admit I didn't see coming but forces me to confess that it has given me some measure of respect for the man. Rather than offering some pissy point-by-point defense of his honor, Friedman has written "One for the Country" for The New York Times, in which he completely embraces all the criticism that has been aimed at him and uses it to skewer himself.
And he's pulled it off with aplomb. This first paragraph alone contains multitudes.
I had to catch a train in Washington last week. The paved street in the traffic circle around Union Station was in such poor condition that I felt as though I was on a roller coaster. I traveled on the Amtrak Acela, our sorry excuse for a fast train, on which I had so many dropped calls on my cellphone that you'd have thought I was on a remote desert island, not traveling from Washington to New York City. When I got back to Union Station, the escalator in the parking garage was broken. Maybe you've gotten used to all this and have stopped noticing. I haven't. Our country needs a renewal.
Like the jokes in a Christopher Durang comedy, Friedman's self-skewering comes at such a rapid pace that you must go back and reread to pull out all of the lampoons he includes. Right off the bat you get the old "Thomas Friedman: busier than you" trope. Then comes a strained metaphor. Then a flaunting of his wealth. Then, a reminder that he has important people to talk to on the phone, at all times. Then several sentences in which commonplace mishaps set the stage for grand revelations. Revelations that only Thomas Friedman sees. (It could have gone further by utilizing his trademarked "wisdom from the service sector" -- some unwittingly sage cabdriver or hotel concierge -- but then, as they say, one must occasionally murder one's darlings.)
It's just masterful! And it had me in stitches immediately, which was too bad, because in the very next paragraph, Friedman tripled down on the self-parody so quickly and so hard that it caused me to experience shooting pains.
And that is why I still hope Michael Bloomberg will reconsider running for president as an independent candidate, if only to participate in the presidential debates and give our two-party system the shock it needs.
NO YOU DIDN'T JUST DO THAT, THOMAS FRIEDMAN! Typically, Friedman will spend whole columns, leading up to this confession. But here, he uncloaks two of his tropes so quickly -- in the second paragraph no less -- that the reader is suddenly thrown for a loop. Friedman is often criticized for fetishizing third parties and blindly worshipping at Bloomberg's altar of managerial acumen, but here he just smacks you in the face with it. This is Friedman saying, "Yeah, you expect this, but I've a little playfulness in me -- something madcap, like a Three Stooges bit."
But this level of self-mockery is very hard to maintain, so Friedman has to come at us hard, with a brief treatise of how Obama's been pretty reasonable as president, but the world is clamoring for more to be done to impoverish the middle class! Can he do it?
President Obama has significant achievements to his record. He has done a solid job stemming the economic crisis he inherited and a good job managing national security and initiating important reforms -- from health care to auto mileage standards.
But with Europe in peril, China and America wobbling, the Arab world in turmoil, energy prices spiraling and the climate changing, we are facing some real storms ahead. We need to weatherproof our American house -- and fast -- in order to ensure that America remains a rock of stability for the world. To do that, we'll have to make some big, hard decisions soon -- and to do that successfully will require presidential leadership in the next four years of the highest caliber.
And this high-wire act of self-ridicule continues! Yes, naturally, this next election has to be about finding a "long-term pathway to serious fiscal, tax and entitlement reform," and to get there, we need "presidential leadership in the next four years of the highest caliber." Friedman's joke here, of course, is that he is suggesting that this sort of mettle can be found in the man who appointed some woman from Hearst magazines to be the chancellor of the New York City public school system. Only by "going there" can Friedman continue to annihilate the barriers that separate his identity in his public role as a "wanker" columnist and his own self-awareness.
"But, today, neither party is generating that mandate -- talking seriously enough about the taxes that will have to be raised or the entitlement spending that will have to be cut to put us on sustainable footing," says Friedman, flat out ignoring that this is true solely because of one side of the aisle that has made pointless obstruction their default setting, occasionally providing brief escapes from this mundane tactic by promoting lunacy -- like threatening to cause a worldwide financial meltdown by holding the debt ceiling hostage.
That's so Friedman! In fact, it's envelope-pushing Friedmanism, from the only man who could possibly do it this well, Friedman himself. But Friedman hasn't hit the heights quite yet:
Sebastian Mallaby, a global economy expert, was right when he wrote in The Financial Times last week that the rich should pay higher taxes, but "a clever campaign gambit is a poor substitute for a serious proposal. By focusing his rhetoric on the Buffett tax, Mr. Obama is fumbling his best chance to win a mandate for intelligent reform -- reform, moreover, that ought to be the centerpiece of a second term."
Here, Friedman takes square aim at the premises that guide most of his thinking, and constructs some robust farce. See, Friedman reads the Financial Times, and like the guy he read in the Financial Times, he agrees that the rich should pay higher taxes. But you just can't go around passing a law that would make that happen! That would be too obviously construed as a "campaign gambit."
Instead, this should be achieved in some different way -- some magic way -- that would convince members of the Republican Party who have dedicated themselves fully to never, ever raising taxes on "job creators" that to oppose the clever, magic way would bring them nothing short of shame and self-destruction. What this magic idea is, Friedman doesn't know, of course! But it's out there! Obama just has to find it! That's what "leadership" is: You create a sentimental argument so powerful that the hard hearts of dedicated opponents soften under the force of its obviousness. Then, everyone joins hands and remakes the world.
Again, this whole construction -- "I agree with this idea in principle but you're going about it all wrong by going about it at all, and what really needs to happen is some vague stuff I can't define but I'll know it when I see it because it will feel noble, and once you find that special way of doing it, all parties will agree, probably after weeping in one anothers' arms" -- is a common Friedman trope. But again, this is such a pure demonstration of Friedmanic excess, that it's obviously intended as burlesque.
Clearly, Friedman is "in on the joke" and can "laugh at himself."
What we need now is a classic Friedman conclusion that doesn't make a lick of sense whatsoever:
After his mayoral term is over in 2013, Bloomberg will apparently spend more time running his foundation. That's commendable. But the single greatest act of philanthropy he could do for the country is right now: run for president as an independent, at least long enough to participate in all the debates. If he doesn't, and this turns into a presidential race to the bottom, he could donate every dollar he has to fix things in America and they'd be wasted, or, more accurately, overwhelmed by our mounting problems. The most patriotic thing Bloomberg could do is become an unpaid lobbyist for the country -- and for the next generation of Americans.
Masterful! Let's get this straight: the "single greatest act of philanthropy [Bloomberg] could do for the country" is to run for President and eventually not win. The worst thing he can do is give all his money to America -- even though Friedman agrees with that guy from the Financial Times that the rich should pay more in taxes, at the very least. And the "most patriotic thing Bloomberg could do is become an unpaid lobbyist for the country." What does that even mean? I doubt that even Bloomberg could tell you.
At any rate, you really have to give Friedman credit. You would have to harken back to Edgar Allan Poe's "How to Write a Blackwood Article" -- or perhaps even to Geoffrey Chaucer's "Tale of Sir Topas" -- to find a better example of authorial self-satire. Which means Thomas Friedman is truly keeping company with the titans of letters, unless it actually means that The New York Times has allowed a lengthy and lazy regurgitaion of several Friedman columns to be published and sold.
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