Over at The New York Times op-ed page, Thomas Friedman has written a very good column on the disconnect between normal human Americans and policy elites on the matter of the proposed Syrian intervention. It's worth a read.
Unfortunately, Friedman's very good column has been encased in a very bad column about a pink-haired shop clerk in Bern, Switzerland, who blew a kiss to a woman outside, and sold Friedman some nectarines, because Friedman needed some nectarines. The blown kiss causes Friedman to remark that the clerk had "not a care in the world," leading him to conclude that it must be "nice to be a Swiss" and not have to spend time "agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad," or feel any duty to "the global commons."
From there, the column ruminates briefly on President Barack Obama's hair, which is not pink. The unpinkness of Obama's hair is considered for a few sentences, which culminate in a very bad Grecian Formula joke, and then you hear the sound of thousands of people clicking "close tab" and getting on with their lives.
Which is too bad, because closing the tab meant missing this:
The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right, but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue. I think many Americans could not understand why it was O.K. for us to let 100,000 Syrians die in a civil war/uprising, but we had to stop everything and bomb the country because 1,400 people were killed with poison gas. I and others made a case why, indeed, we needed to redraw that red line, but many Americans seemed to think that all we were doing is drawing a red line in a pool of blood. Who would even notice?
This marks the beginning of Friedman's good column, and if you excuse the last sentence, which calls back the whole deal with the hair, it is all worth reading right to the end.
So what went wrong here? How can this be avoided? To my mind, the issue is one of medium. Friedman writes as if he is a print columnist. And to be fair, he is a print columnist. But he's not a very good print columnist. He's become known as The Print Columnist Who Talks To Taxi Cab Drivers and The Print Columnist Who Derives Special Meaning From The Way The Hotel Concierge Behaves. And people hate this stuff. This is the stuff that drags Friedman into the world of metaphors, where he has famously failed to succeed.
The good news, though, is that we live in a hyper-connected world. Something very big happened in the past decade. Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from requiring writing of importance to be burned onto dead tree pulp to using a platform called the Internet to broadcast news and opinion. And the great thing about this particular platform is that it actually tends to reward people who get right to the point.
Paul Krugman, for example, writes for the internet. He has a blog called "The Conscience of a Liberal," and he writes there without all the fussy constraints of having to serve up eight paragraphs when he only needs three.
Had Krugman written this piece, he would have simply began it by saying, "The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right, but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue." He would have sat back, looked over those sentences, and thought, "There's the hook, let's proceed from there." He would not have buried his lede underneath so much magenta coiffure.
The New York Times should consider cutting Friedman in on this whole Internet thing they've got going! Could be that the medium is just the paradigm shift Friedman needs to leave this fussy way of writing behind. He wouldn't feel obligated to pad out his columns with weird anecdotal details of Swiss grocers. He'd just have his take, write it down, and be done with it, without losing any thoughtfulness or provocation.
It would be a great benefit for the readers who are stealing five minutes from their workdays to read one good thing on the Internet, and it would save them from wasting their time reading about Friedman's trip to get some nectarines. (I mean, you know who really doesn't have a care in the world? The guy skylarking around Switzerland in search of fruit.)
The Internet! It truly is a marvel. And by the way Tom, you can also use the Internet to find out that Switzerland is actually ranked ahead of the United States in terms of its "dedication to policies that benefit poor nations" (hat tip to Dan Drezner), proving that maybe you can't learn everything there is to know about a nation's commitment to "the global commons" from the blown kiss of a pink-haired grocer.
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