What kind of phenomenon is Tom Friedman? What does he think about as he sips his morning coffee? Does he honestly believe that the United States would be a better place if his particular brand of “enlightened” oligarchy were to be implemented? Could he possibly endorse the tripe he peddles in the nation’s most important newspaper twice a week? Would he maintain that it’s worth the salary he makes, the position of influence he holds? What does he really think of himself? Does he go to bed satisfied with the life he’s led? Does he have regrets? Can the sheer lack of self-awareness that he demonstrates in column after column really and truly be genuine? What makes the Mustache of Understanding tick?
I bring these questions up because The Friedman wrote a particularly egregious column today. Or, if not particularly egregious, then at least rather telling. In the process of whining about how we need Leadership For A Grand Bargain Otherwise Herbert Hoover, Friedman lays all of his cards out on the table:
All I know is this: If either of you [Boehner and Obama] had been a real leader truly committed to a Grand Bargain — which you both know is what we need — you wouldn’t have just walked away from your negotiations. You would have taken the issue to the country and not let up until the other guy came back to the table.
Instead you both mumbled publicly about a Grand Bargain and how you were prepared for it but the other guy folded — and then retreated to your bases. Boehner went back to his base, arguing that more tax cuts can get us out of this, and Obama moved back to his base, with his focus on taxing millionaires. (In my next life, I want to be a member of the “base” — any base. They seem to have so much more fun and influence.)
That’s it. That’s Tom Friedman. Sorry there’s so much bold, but it really needs to sink in for a second. So let’s unpack this really quickly.
First, “all [he] know[s] is” completely wrong. Let’s take it one step at a time. 1) Obama offered the Republicans everything but the kitchen sink (though he did offer some of the dishes!) for the Grand Bargain, 2) Boehner couldn’t get his nutbag caucus in line because he’s facing a power struggle with Eric Cantor, who epitomizes House Republican craziness, 3) Republicans threatened to ruin the economy if they didn’t get everything they wanted, 4) …? 5) “Both sides do it!!!”
The “neither of you is a TRUE leader, nyah!” stuff is equally repellent. Again, Friedman is a man who gets paid — paid very well! — to follow politics very carefully, but his analysis reads like that of someone with absolutely no knowledge of how the wheels of American government work. He’s too thick to realize that there was nothing that either of these leaders could do at the time. Obama could not allow his presidency to adopt a full-metal wingnut economic policy if he expected to be taken seriously as a Democrat in the next election; Boehner could not control his caucus, and very nearly lost his speakership over the debt ceiling, “Grand Bargain” fiasco. The country was quite literally held hostage by an intransigent group of extreme Republicans — highlighting, in fact, the crises our democracy might more regularly undergo if these people are given more power — but Friedman treats it as though it’s a lack of leadership that brought us to this place. “If you were real leaders, you wouldn’t have walked away from negotiations,” Friedman says, but did it ever occur to him that you can’t negotiate with nihilists — even if, as in Boehner’s case, you happen to share a good part of your endgame with them?
Of course it didn’t, because that was two months ago, and Friedman’s ideological filters have since transformed what actually happened into what he would prefer to have happened. Which, of course, goes like this: Left = bad, right = bad, center = good. Both sides do it, and there is no monopoly on truth, regardless of what the facts are.
The real tell, though, the part that I thought was revealing, was this (which I’ll quote again in full, for the lazy):
Instead you both mumbled publicly about a Grand Bargain… and then retreated to your bases. Boehner went back to his base, arguing that more tax cuts can get us out of this, and Obama moved back to his base, with his focus on taxing millionaires. (In my next life, I want to be a member of the “base” — any base. They seem to have so much more fun and influence.)
Nowhere in this “analysis” does Friedman assess the merit of the two bases’ arguments. For him, and other Village centrists, bases are irrational by definition, so there’s no need to investigate any further. Case closed, as it were. But what’s most galling is Friedman’s assertion that he’s not part of any base — that, moreover, the “bases” he so clearly disdains seem to have much more “influence” than people like him. Let me make this as plain as I can.
Earlier in the column, Friedman advises Obama, et al:
…[U]nlike [Herbert] Hoover, who was just practicing the conventional economic wisdom of his day when we fell into the Depression, you have no excuses. We know what to do — a Grand Bargain: short-term stimulus to ease us through this deleveraging process, debt restructuring in the housing market and long-term budget-cutting to put our fiscal house in order.
What kind of history is this? Amity fucking Shlaes? “We know what to do,” Friedman says, “and yet I’m going to pretend that the Roosevelt administration didn’t exist, that John Maynard Keynes didn’t exist, and that my fellow columnist Paul Krugman does not exist. Because history is just a set of facts, and grand narratives are so much more fun, even when they’re wrong.”
Which brings me back to Friedman’s assertion that he is of no base, but that he sincerely wishes he were because of all the “fun” and “influence” he would have. It brings me back to my rhetorical questions in the beginning, which can be summed up basically as, “Does Tom Friedman have a soul, and if so, how hard is he going to hell anyway?” The answers to which are simply, “No,” and “Very.” Friedman is a man who will do everything in his power to make sure that people like him, the political taste-makers and shot-callers, are comfortably sated till the day they die. He will peddle transparent crap like “entitlement reform” while decrying Obama for his “focus on taxing millionaires,” of which he is, of course, one. He will claim to be of no party or clique, and then shamelessly plug for the very wealthy under the guise of speaking for the hardworking man everywhere.
Of course, your everyday New York Times reader doesn’t have digs quite like this:
Nor does your everyday Times reader support “entitlement reform.” (Though, curiously, she does endorse higher taxes on millionaires.)
But then, Tom Friedman isn’t exactly your average Joe. He just plays one on TV.
Tom Friedman can call for slashing Social Security benefits because he’ll never have to rely on them. He can talk about raising the Medicare eligibility age, because his financial adviser informed him that he was a fucking multimillionaire and he will never ever be without leisure, never mind without a refill of a prescription. He can call for short term stimulus and long term austerity, because he’ll be fine either way. It’s all of a piece with Tom Friedman. He represents the interests of the very well-off to an audience of the well-off and the fairly well-off; he disguises it as sober analysis amid a flurry of cliches; and then he cashes his check and goes home to his mansion. He goes back to his base. His base isn’t left or right. It’s that sweet spot right in the middle, the one that caters to the interests of the wealthy under the patina of being above the fray. It’s the visage of cool, calm, and collected centrism — the “both sides do it” nonsense. The epitome of intellectual laziness: “In the final analysis, splitting the difference is the only sensible policy.” That mentality has never made less sense than it does now, as one of the country’s two political parties has been taken over by complete loons.
Nevertheless, you can count on people like Tom Friedman to keep counseling us about the error of our ways. “We don’t compromise enough,” he’ll warn. “We need to bargain more grandly! Everyone’s opinion is valid, there’s plenty of blame to go around (except when it comes to people like me, of course — it’s you left- and right-wingers who are the real problem).”
“Are they stupid or crazy?” is a question that gets asked a lot about the Republican party these days. The answer is always, “Both.” But when we’re talking about people like Tom Friedman, or David Brooks, or Fred Hiatt, or Mark Halperin, or any of the other pundits I don’t feel like rattling off right now, I think you should add a third possibility. The question should be, “Are they stupid or crazy or craven?”
To which the answer is, “Yes.”