Tom Friedman Can’t Write

I haven’t chimed in on the Friedman debate which has enraptured a number of the members of the blogoisie because while I sometimes agree with him and sometimes don’t, what really drives me nuts about the guy isn’t what he says but how he says it. Tom Friedman can’t write.

Here’s an example from today’s NYT:

Most Democrats either opposed the war (a perfectly legitimate position) or supported it and are now trying to disown it. That means the only serious opposition can come from Republicans….

I’m sorry? Would Mr Friedman care to explain why opposition to the war means you can’t be a serious opponent of the war? Apparently not. In Mr. Friedman’s world, this is a given so obvious it doesn’t need to be explained, but the rest of us who are underprivileged enough that we have to live in the real world would like to know.

I don’t think that’s exactly what he meant. I’m not sure what he meant though I think he’s suggesting, for unexplained reasons, that opposition to the war before it was launched negates criticism of problems arising in the post-war period. But that’s not what he said. The construction (a very poor one) forces the reader to assume that Mr. Friedman believes that “serious” opposition to the war in Iraq can only come from people who support the war in Iraq, which is going to cut the opposition down to himself and, maybe, David Brooks (I don’t count Rummy’s recent snowflake because it has nothing to do with Iraq and everything to do with consolidating his own power). I suppose we should be thankful that he allowed as how Democratic opposition was “perfectly legitimate” even if it couldn’t be “serious”.

My problem with Friedman is that in every single column there’s at least one hopelessly confusing construction (often in the 2nd paragraph for some reason) that leaves one scratching one’s head wondering either: “Did he really mean to say that?” or “What the hell does that mean?” I get the impression sometimes that, perhaps forced by the constriction of column-length, he left something out that would fill in the blank. Other times, it’s something that seems to come from so far out in left field in the context of the column that one assumes it must belong in some other piece and got stuck into this one by mistake.

This contextual confusion tends to create internal inconsistencies that are difficult to reconcile with his main point. For example, if Mr Friedman did mean what I suggested he meant, the only way his apparent separation of “the war” and “the post-war” phases could be consistent is if he believed (not to belabor the obvious) that the war is over. Does he? Well, actually, No. He says later in the column:

Attacks on our forces are getting more deadly, not less. Besides those killed, we’ve had 900 wounded or maimed. We need to take this much more seriously. We’re not facing some ragtag insurrection. We’re facing an enemy with a command and control center who is cleverly picking off our troops and those Iraqi leaders and foreigners cooperating with us. Either we put in the troops needed to finish the war, and project our authority, or we get the Iraqi Army to do the job — but pretending that we’re just “mopping up” is a dangerous illusion.

He is actually chiding the Bush Admin for their refusal to acknowledge that the war is still going on, so how could he logically justify claiming that we are in a post-war phase? This kind of stuff is the reason I rarely read him and don’t waste my time criticizing him: who the hell knows what he was actually trying to say?

As Friedman has consistently been one of the most influential voices in the punditocracy, the confusion his writing often generates is a real problem, which is a shame because a lot of what I think he might be saying deserves “serious” consideration and debate, as in today’s piece. Doesn’t he have an editor? Somebody who could ask the 2 questions listed above before the column gets printed and suggest some clarification? Or does the NYT assume that everybody it hires can write and so it can afford to dispense with frivolities and useless extras like “editing”?

I don’t know what the answers to those questions are but it would be a lot easier on us readers (infelicitous constructions in the NYT are not exclusive to Friedman) if there was somebody around whose job it was to say, “Um, guys? This paragraph doesn’t make any sense….”

But I ain’t holding my breath.


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