Cliche Run Aground

Fish in a barrel, OK.  Still.  Thomas Friedman made his reputation by reporting on the Middle East, and he constantly invokes his face-to-face experience with sources there to authorize his “opinions,” if I may momentarily dignify what he writes with that designation.  And yet every time the momentum of his own prose demands that he say something interesting or important, he produces banalities like this, a sentence that emphatically ends a whole paragraph of advice to America about what it [sic] must do in Egypt:

“Egypt is a terrible deep hole, and the only way it can get out is with a national unity government that can make hard decisions and do the required heavy lifting.”

That “deep hole,” that “national unity government,” that “heavy lifting” . . .  These are the phrases that keep banal conversation away from the treacherous shores of difference and argument and anger.  These are clichés, but here they are, offered up as fresh insights.

Now I don’t mind the mental nullity of cliché as much as my colleagues, who seem eager, indeed desperate, to demonstrate the idiocy—no, the fallacy—of received wisdom as it takes shape in the vernacular forms of journalism, conversation, pop music, whatever.  In fact, I find comfort in this category of cliché, because its very existence suggests the subversive possibilities of transformation by repetition.  It’s the analogue of rhyme, the space where words sound different because their odd alignment makes new sense.  It’s the occasion of country music, and the origin of rap.

But unlike a country music singer, or a hip-hop musician, Friedman lets the cliché stand as the final word, not the incentive to make something new.  So he can write this:

“A few weeks ago, I sat in a teahouse in Cairo interviewing Mahmoud Medany, a researcher at Egypt’s Agricultural Research Center and one of the country’s top environmental experts. Medany, 55, recalled that some 40 years ago, when he was in middle school, “we used to sing this song about how the whole world is talking to the 20 million Egyptians.” When Mubarak took over in 1982, “we were 33 or 34 million. Today, we are over 80 million.” Also the steady compacting of soil in the Nile Delta, he added, combined with gradual sea level rise due to global warming, is leading to more and more saltwater intrusion into the Delta.”

“Also”?  Not even a comma?

Look, I’m not suggesting that Thomas Friedman should be Juan Cole, or Conn Hallinan, or Steve Coll.  I’m just asking for some evidence of intellectual activity.  If Thomas Friedman’s prose is a bundle of physical reflexes, like your knee when the doctor bangs it with a rubber tomahawk, or like your dog when he’s slobbering, what is the point of thinking about it?

Oh.  Never mind.



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3 responses to “Cliche Run Aground

  1. Pingback: Thomas Friedman: You Give Clichés a Bad Name | Corey Robin

  2. One great advantage of the vacuous cliché, as I’m sure all self-appointed sages such as Friedman sense intuitively, is that whatever happens, he has plenty of room to say “I told you so.” The operative concept here being his narcissism.

  3. Pingback: Brad DeLong : Noted for July 8, 2013 | Fifth Estate

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