Friday, November 21, 2008

Tom Terrific

Culture Change | Tom Friedman has convinced a vast swath of otherwise intelligent and well-educated Americans that he's a visionary. I propose this is so because he channels the thought patterns and emotional currents at the core of American conventional wisdom: economic growth and unrestrained technological progress are the natural state of the world -- with the stipulation that America must, naturally, lead the way. Friedman's greatest skill is catchy -- and often oddly phrased -- simplifications promoting our collective identity as the Exceptional Nation. Recently he, as we say in another context about petroleum, reached peak Friedman.

Before getting to that I note that Friedman's modus operandi is to tirelessly see “opportunity” in crisis. He ridicules those who see threats as lacking insight, entrepreneurial spirit, and innovative thinking. To do this, Friedman operates much like the fifties cartoon character Tom Terrific, who possesses a magical thinking cap that transports him out of any jam in which he finds himself. For example, Friedman is waiting for an entrepreneur in a garage to invent the next energy platform -- who cares about finite fossil fuels when the next Steve Jobs is all we really need? In fact, he recently suggested that Jobs -- because he’s invented the iPod -- could rescue the Big-Three automakers. It's that simple; take it from Tom Terrific.

Much to Friedman's displeasure, however, financial, economic, and ecological realities (the latter of which he appears to be totally unaware) are undermining his belief that nature can be dominated by human ingenuity. These intertwined crises will, I suspect, elicit all manner of Tom Terrific articles from Friedman in the coming months; this will indicate, for an undetermined time, the undulating plateau of peak Friedman.