Imperial Conceits

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“If you go dark, the whole world goes dark.”

The statement was quoted by our favorite columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, in yesterday’s International Herald Tribune.

We always try to get our day off on the right foot by reading Friedman’s column before breakfast. There is something so gloriously naïve and clumsy in the man’s pensée, it never fails to brighten our mornings. We have never met the man, but we imagine him as a high school teacher, warping young minds with drippy thoughts. But to say his ideas are as sophomoric or juvenile merely libels young people, most of whom have far more cleverly nuanced opinions than the columnist. Or, you might criticize the man by saying his work is without merit, but that would be flattery. His work has negative merit. Every column subtracts from the sum of human knowledge in the way a broken pipe drains the town’s water tower.

Not that Mr. Friedman’s ideas are in anyway uniquely bad. Many people have similarly puerile, insipid notions in their heads. But Friedman expresses his hollow thoughts with such heavyhanded earnestness it often takes makes us laugh. He seems completely unaware that he is a simpleton. That of course is a charm; he is so dense you can laugh at him without hurting his feelings.

Friedman writes regularly and voluminously. But thinking must be painful to him; he shows no evidence of it. Instead, he just writes down whatever humbug appeals to him at the moment, as unquestioningly as a mule goes for water.

The quotation above, for example, comes from an Indian he met in New Delhi. The two must have taken to each other as dumb animals and democrats often do — for neither showed any inclination to ask questions. Instead, the Indian cravenly flattered the American, and the America took it up as, say, the Trojans took up a wooden horse, without bothering to ask what was in it.

What Friedman worries about is that America will “go dark.” As near as we can tell, he means that the many changes wrought after 9/11 are changing the character of the nation, so that “our DNA as a nation…has become badly deformed or mutated.” In classic Friedman style, he proposes something that every 12-year-old would recognize as preposterous: another national commission! “America urgently needs a national commission to look at all the little changes that were made in response to 9/11,” he writes. If a nation had DNA and if it could be mutated…we still are left with the enormous wonder: what difference would a “national commission” make? Wouldn’t the members have the national DNA? Or should we pack the commission with people from other countries to get an objective opinion — maybe an assortment of frogs, krauts and illiterate golliwogs for cultural diversity?

But this is what is so jaw-drop stupefying about Friedman: even mules and teenagers have more complex worldviews.

His oeuvre is a long series of “we should do this” and “they should do that.” Never for a moment does he stop and wonder why people actually do what they do. Nor has the thought ever crossed his mind that other people might have their own ideas and about they should do and no particular reason to think Mr. Friedman’s ideas are any better. There is just no trace of modesty in his writing…no skepticism…no cynicism…no irony…no suspicion lurking in the corner of his brain that he may be a jackass. Of course, there is nothing false about him either; he’s not capable of it, neither false modesty nor falsetto principles. With Friedman, it is all alarmingly real. Nor is there any hesitation or bewilderment in his opinions; that would require circumspection, a quality he completely lacks.

Friedman fears he may not approve of all the post-9/11 changes. But so what? Why would the entire world “go dark” just because America stoops to empire? The idea is nothing more than a silly imperial conceit. America is not the light of the world. Friedman can stop worrying. The sun shone before the United States existed. It will shine long after she exists no more. But, without realizing it, imperial conceits are what Mr. Friedman offers, one after another. He knows what is best for everyone, all the time. And even at his specialty, he is second rate. Not that his proposals are much dumber than anyone else’s, but they are offered in a dumber way. He sets them up like a TV newscaster, unaware that they mean anything…not knowing whether to smile or weep…out of any context other than the desire to make himself look good. He does not seem to notice that his own DNA has mutated along with the nation’s institutions…and that he does nothing more than amplify the vanities and prejudices that pass for the evening’s news. Is there trouble in Palestine? Well, the Palestinians should have done what we told them. Has peace and democracy come to Iraq? Of course, thanks to the brave efforts of our own troops. Is the price of oil going up? Well, of course it is, the United States has not yet taken up the comprehensive energy policy we proposed for it. Friedman’s world is so neat. So simple. There must be nothing but right angles. And no problem that doesn’t have a commission waiting to solve it.

It must be unfathomable to such a man that the world could work in ways that surpasseth his understanding. In our experience, any man who understands his own thoughts must not have very many of them. And those he has must be simpleminded. Most men want things they shouldn’t want. They do things they wish they hadn’t and knew they shouldn’t. They can barely pass a hamburger without wanting to eat it…and rarely pass a loaded gun without nearly shooting themselves in the foot. Friedman must be an exception. Or he just hasn’t noticed.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.

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