Meet The World's Biggest Asshole: Best extended lede on Tom Friedman I ever wrote

As I mentioned just about 30 minutes ago, I am overworked and underpaid, like all raconteurs, and just don’t have time to do much today. So to save time I’m going to post the top to one of my personal favorite stories ever written by me*, “They Pretend to Think, We Pretend to Listen/Liberalism in the tank,” which was published by the great magazine Baffler in 2013. (*I’m sort of like Donald Trump in this and only this way: I’m exactly the asshole I say I am.)

The story is about the godawful Center for American Progress think tank, but this top focuses on the idiocy that is New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. A few other Washington Babylon favorites are also mentioned, including Anne-Marie Slaughter, the current head of New America Foundation think tank who was recently exposed, though it’s been totally obvious for some time, as Google’s hatchetress.

Anyway, since I’m pressed for time, here we go, without further adieu:

Try to conjure up the dullest, most vapid intellectual experience you can possibly imagine. A Matthew Perry film festival. A boxed set of Kenny G’s entire discography. Al Gore “in conversation” with Wolf Blitzer.

Now imagine something worse. Far, far worse. Once you’ve hit the speculative bottom of the unexamined life, you’d be hard pressed to outdo Thomas Friedman holding forth on “Climate Change and the Arab Spring.” What’s still more disturbing is that Friedman’s maunderings—unlike the foregoing litany of intellectual failures—actually took place, and were recorded for posterity, during a panel event this February at the Center for American Progress, America’s most influential liberal think tank. The great globalizing muse of the New York Times op-ed page was joined on stage by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton University professor and former State Department deputy to Hillary Clinton.

You may be assured that the trite speculations came fast, flat, and furious. Between numerous mentions of his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded (not to be confused with 2005’s The World Is Flat), Freidman offered a mix of insights, delivered with his trademark flair for anecdotage in the vein of a Mad Libs pamphlet. Friedman informed the audience, for example, that algebra is an Arabic word—and so clearly the challenge ahead for the tumultuous Arab world is to integrate algebra as well as Islam into its emerging governments. He then went on to sagely counsel the crowd that understanding the Islamic world requires examining ethnic and religious divisions, as opposed to more recent national rivalries—as though no one else had ever heard about the nearly 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia split that emerged after Muhammad’s death.

The banalities were also interspersed, inevitably, with generous helpings of buzzwords. The world, you see, has gone in rapid-fire increments from being “connected” to “interconnected” to “interdependent.” And in a gratuitous show of his own high-tech interdependency, Friedman delivered his remarks with an open laptop balanced on his lap—a prop that he hardly glanced at during the ninety-minute event.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, likewise, wasted little time getting into the zeitgeisty swing of things. At one point she and Friedman nodded their heads in approval as moderator Michael Werz, a CAP senior fellow, cited an article Slaughter wrote two years ago in which she proposed that tennis, not chess, provided the better framework for viewing contemporary world politics, given that the weather and other random factors may affect the spin and pace of the ball being played.

Sadly, my research assistant Diego Arene-Morley,[*] who just completed his freshman year at Brown, decimated the analogy, noting that the choice of sport “was particularly poor, given that chess is regarded as a more complex and variable game than tennis, which is . . . simply back and forth.” At the event Slaughter herself appeared to concede that tennis was not the most appropriate metaphor and offered a new one. “We simply have to move from states to networks of many, many different actors,” she said. “I want to see the world the way the millennials see the world. They look at the world like the Internet, not a chess game.” Almost as if she knew that somewhere a college freshman would mock this argument as well, she quickly proposed yet another, saying that the “old world” was composed of billiard balls, and while there are still billiard balls out there, they’re now made of Legos.

Still, Friedman remained the principal fount of corporate-friendly twaddle. At one point he told the audience, evoking Socrates, “It can be dangerous to disagree with me, for one reason: I don’t know anything.” He responded to a question about the future of democracy with this bizarre soliloquy:

We need to do big hard things together. Because all things we have to do are hard and big, and you can only do them together. So when you don’t do big hard things together, what you get are suboptimal responses to every big hard thing, done with no due diligence at the eleventh hour, and that’s basically what our politics has become. So you look at everything that has happened in the last four years, I would argue that they are all suboptimal solutions cobbled together with no due diligence of what world are we in, what would be the right solution done at the eleventh hour, and, um, how long do we remain a great country when everything we do at the national level is suboptimal with no due diligence done at the eleventh hour?

How, indeed? But for our purposes, a better question would be: How did an organization like the Center for American Progress, which aggressively markets itself as the intellectual vanguard of a resurgent American liberalism, become so immersed in such nonsignifying management speak?

The Arab Spring panel, after all, was just one in a long string of CAP-sponsored policy gatherings. In late May, the think tank hosted “Unfinished Business: The Feminine Mystique at 50,” which looked at “the unfinished business of the women’s movement.” The event was introduced by Neera Tanden, CAP’s president and a columnist for The New Republic; moderated by Judith Warner, a onetime New York Times columnist and now a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for; and Gail Collins and Anna Quindlen, who are, respectively, current and former columnists for the New York Times. Evidently, the women’s movement’s real unfinished business is to ensure that every woman can be vouchsafed a column of her own—just like Thomas Friedman!

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