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10 of Thomas Friedman's Dumbest "Big Ideas"

You know the world is flat -- and hot and crowded -- but that's just the tip of Friedman's iceberg of hackery.

In conferring the honor of “Wanker of the Decade” on New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, blogger Duncan Black observed that “truly great wankers possess a kind of glib narcissism, the belief that everything is about them while simultaneously disavowing any responsibility for anything.” The sorry “state of the world is what it is,” Black continued, “in large part because people in positions of great power think this absurd buffoon of man is a Very Serious Person.”

Most readers are presumably familiar with the most prominent theories to have emerged from the brain of Thomas Friedman over the course of his career. To name a few here: 

  1. The world is flat.
  2. Countries that have McDonald’s  do not go to war with each other—except when they do, in which case it is preferable if the outcome of the conflict indicates that Serbs “wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo.”
  3. By pure coincidence, the 2011 Arab uprisings were  caused by some of Friedman’s own favorite topics: Barack Obama, Google Earth, Israel, the Beijing Olympics, and Salam Fayyad. (See blogger Sarah Carr’s  response, in which she notes the additional revolutionary impetus provided by the 2008 Cheese-Rolling Competition near Gloucester, England.)

While conducting research for my book about Thomas Friedman, I had the pleasure of reading 17 years’ worth of biweekly dispatches from the three-time Pulitzer recipient. For the benefit of those who may lead more fulfilling lives, I’ve composed a brief list of lesser-known Friedmanian insights and policy prescriptions.

1. The Clinton administration should have dedicated itself to illegally manufacturing Iraqi currency.

In 1996 Friedman  advised the following approach to Iraq: “Print dinars. The U.S. should flood Iraq with counterfeit Iraqi dinars. It would wreak havoc. Because the U.S. has blocked the sale of money-printing presses, ink and paper to Iraq, Washington can already print better Iraqi money than Baghdad can.”

Seven years later, the economic war plan was abandoned in favor of the more physical doctrine “ Suck. On. This.”

2. The Cali cartel would have been a valuable partner in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

According to Friedman’s 2001  analysis, the merits of Colombian drug cartels included that “they understand that when we say we want someone ‘dead or alive’ we mean ‘dead or dead.’”

Geographical complications were resolved as follows: “The Cali cartel doesn’t operate in Afghanistan. But the Russian mafia sure does, as do various Afghan factions, drug rings and Pakistani secret agents.”

3.Thanks to NAFTA, Mexico has improved its selection of baby names.

During a 2010 visit to Mexico City, Friedman  reported that, despite attempts by anti-NAFTA Mexicans to thwart progress by remaining poor, a promising trend had been detected by economist Luis de la Calle.

Without mentioning de la Calle’s former position as Trade and NAFTA Minister at Mexico’s embassy in D.C., Friedman cited the results of his study of the top 50 Mexican baby names of 2008: “The most popular for girls, he said, included ‘Elizabeth, Evelyn, Abigail, Karen, Marilyn and Jaqueline, and for boys Alexander, Jonathan, Kevin, Christian and Bryan.’” In case anyone had failed to grasp the magnitude of societal advancement, Friedman summarized: “Not only Juans.”

4. If the U.S. lowers its profile in the Arab world, the Arabs will realize that their children are being outperformed academically by the children of their maids.

In the midst of his Iraq war cheerleading campaign in 2004, it  occurred to Friedman that “[t]he other way for us to promote reform is to get out of the way so people in the Middle East can see clearly that many of their maids' children—from India, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines—are excelling at math, science and engineering.”

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