Friday, September 23, 2011

The Most Overrated Writer in America

I hope that it’s more than an in joke among people who are serious about writing.

Have you noticed how badly Tom Friedman writes? As a prose stylist, Friedman is a gift to the gods of embarrassment.

Best of the Web columnist James Taranto has dubbed Friedman the Worst Writer in the English Language. Link here.

Surely, Friedman is the most overrated writer (and thinker) in English.

I am not ready to call him the “worst” anything. I fear that in order to be the worst you have to know what you are doing.

I recall an incident that occurred when I was a freshman in college. For reasons that no one understood the school decided that all the incoming freshmen should take an aptitude test. No one knew why. It counted for nothing.

I’m not sure why no one else thought of this, but one of my dorm mates was inspired to get all the answers wrong. That’s right. He decided to fill in the wrong boxes. 

And he succeeded. It is statistically impossible to get all the answers wrong. And yet, this young man got a zero on the test. He did the impossible.

Of course, the only way you can get all the answers wrong is to know all the right answers and then to choose, willfully, to answer otherwise.

Such was the case of this man. He was called into the testing office where the woman who was running the test burst into tears… because he had ruined her curve.

I am not sure what a Freudian would say about ruined curves, but ever since then I have hesitated to call anyone the worst at anything.

As I see it, calling Tom Friedman the worst gives him too much credit. I am inclined to think that he has just run out of ideas and is phoning it in.

All of this to explain why I have given up on reading Tom Friedman.

Over at the Gawker site, Hamilton Nolan continues to read Freidman. I assume that he does it so that the rest of us don’t have to.

Last Sunday, Nolan reports, Friedman regaled us with another of his Deep Thought pieces. (And yes, I am suggesting that Friedman gets his ideas in an underground parking garage.)

Clearly, the piece was designed to save the world and to gin up sales of Friedman’s latest book, That Used To Be Us.

Nolan’s attention, however, was arrested at the sight of an utterly appalling metaphor. Friedman declared that we are: “… at this crucial hinge in our history.”

You can see Friedman contemplating the sentence and deciding that “turning point” has been overused. So he decided to exercise all his brilliance and invent a new metaphor: “crucial hinge.”

As metaphors go, it is very bad indeed.

Nolan explains: “There's a reason that people tend to refer to ‘a turning point in our history:’ because that phrase is intelligible. A reader is able to deduce, from that phrase, what the writer means. Whereas from the phrase ‘this crucial hinge in our history,’ a reader is only able to deduce that the writer has gotten trapped in the woods with nothing but a thesaurus and a bottle of ether.”

A hinge in our history is simple gibberish. The editors at the New York Times should know better.

As if that were not bad enough, Friedman also came up with this: “And real conservatives would understand that the Tea Party has become the Tea Kettle Party. It is people in real distress about our predicament letting off steam by trying to indiscriminately cut everywhere. But steam without an engine - without a strategic plan for American greatness based on spending cuts, tax reform and investments in tomorrow - will take us nowhere.”

Nolan nails this one: “Did you see that? The rarely-spotted-in-the-wild Triple Nonsensical Metaphor Transition? Tea Party to Tea Kettle to Letting Off Steam to Steam Without an Engine, all in the space of three sentences. But will this Steamless Engine become an Engine of our Economy leading to Economy of Motion which will send America In Motion like a Wide Receiver to Receive the Message that It Ain't All About Messaging, It's About the Brass Tacks?”

And that’s without even mentioning the split infinitive in the very poorly written second sentence. The italics are mine. The sentence also includes a mixed metaphor: cutting indiscriminately while letting off steam.

I doubt that too many political consultants could get away with such hack work. How does it happened that someone who is held in high esteem can write so badly and think so poorly?

Given the crises that the world is facing today, it seems slightly petty to belabor the appalling writing of Tom Friedman. And yet, in time of trouble, we do not just seek out political leadership. We all seek out intellectual leadership. We seek out people who can help us to understand the issues and to formulate our opinion.

If a significant number of serious Americans is looking to Tom Friedman for intellectual leadership—he is clearly trying to provide it—we are in a lot more trouble than we think.


JP said...

If people are looking to him for intellectual leadership, they aren't serious people.

Serious people would realize that they can actually fell their brain cells dying when they read some of his more esoteric writings.

Nick said...

I see TF editorials posted on Facebook by college-aged people regularly. The two most recent I can recall were his pieces arguing (and I'm paraphrasing):
"Rick Perry is stupid because he doesn't believe in global warming, even when Texas is on fire!"
and also, from several months ago,
"that the green energy economy is wholly sustainable in America blah, blah, blah." (The FB user qualified his posting by stating TF's argument is "irrefutable proof" of green energy economic sustainability.)

If issues like the energy future of this country weren't so important, I'd be more inclined to laugh it off as normal behavior for east coast liberals with generationally inherited political believes. However, I strongly doubt many of these people (TF probably included) have ever driven through the Texas windmill valleys where less than 5% of the windmills spin, they occasionally explode, they reduce grazing land, and contribute mightily to sound pollution (which many Liberals would decry in other situations. * a certain Cape Cod windmill rings a bell.

Nor, I suspect, will they ever drive across Wyoming, and witness oil drilling progressing in harmony with grazing cattle. I literally saw two cows chewing grass next to an already-established oil-rig, and they looked perfectly fat and happy. The rigs, once the installation equipment is removed, are far more aesthetically pleasing on a landscape than a thousand identical white poles that look like giant straws with fins attached (sort of like a pinwheel art piece you'd expect a kindergartner to make in art class) protruding from the earth.

I respect these people, they were my classmates and such and I respect their intellect enough to where I believe they can slowly be awakened. The best I can do is link to one of your articles (or one you linked) and hope that they read it with an open mind. Who knows though?...Maybe that's too much to ask though - as anyone has yet to respond.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Nick. Maybe I'm out of touch but that's the first time that I've read that kind of comparison between wind farms and oil drilling. Great job!

It sounds like something that you should write up and publish. Those of us who live in large cities have no direct experience of either and so rely too much on our fantasies.

Nick said...

You're exactly right. I held fantasies about these issues myself from being a big city dweller. One can learn a lot by driving around a country as big as ours, and, if fortunate enough like I was, listen to people who work directly in the field in the energy sector.