April 18, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Tom Friedman reminds me of Jesus. No, I don’t think of Friedman as the Way, the Truth and the Life, but I don’t think of Jesus that way either. I am not a Christian.
I had my little epiphany yesterday, hours before the publication of Friedman’s column in today’s New York Times. In writing a column about David Brooks, I had occasion to mention a column Friedman wrote a week ago. Last Wednesday, Friedman resubmitted the deficit-reduction column he turns in every couple of months. He began that column with a little riff about how “for the first time in history both [presidential] candidates could legitimately run on the same slogan: ‘I’m not Mitt Romney.’” Ever so droll. He then segued into his usual spiel about the need for a bipartisan budget plan that cuts Medicare and Social Security and raises enough revenue to cut the deficit, a la the recommendations of Alan Simpson (R) and Erskine Bowles (D, theoretically) (bipartisan!) of the eponymous deficit-reduction commission. After getting in all the buzzwords associated with his deficit-reduction column, Friedman ended the column with this kicker: “If Obama went big, and dared to lead, he’d win for sure, and so would the country, because he’d have a mandate to do what needs doing.”
Today I opened up the New York Times editorial pages and clicked on Friedman. Hallelujah! Another Come-to-Jesus moment. Today Friedman rewrites the one about how the country needs a third-party presidential candidate “to give our two-party system the shock it needs.” Friedman has been recycling this column at least since 2006. The exact person doesn’t seem to matter. Friedman just throws names around, sometimes names of quite obscure people. This time, and not for the first time, Friedman has chosen New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg as his independent candidate of choice. (Friedman has also proposed Bloomberg for Vice President, an idea he posed when he appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show and suggested the host Joe Scarborough should run as the presidential candidate with Bloomberg as his sidekick. Quite realistic, I think, to expect Mr. Moneybags to gladly play second fiddle to Aw Shucks Joe.)
Bloomberg may be Friedman’s favorite today because Friedman, who lives in Maryland, had to take the Amtrak Acela to New York last week. The trip was a bummer: the pavement around Washington, D.C.’s Union Station was in poor condition, while on that “sorry excuse for a fast train,” Friedman kept losing calls on his cellphone, and back at Union Station, “the escalator in the parking garage was broken.” Quelles horreurs! Such inconveniences would make anyone think that the nation can only thrive if a multi-billionaire runs for president. What this country needs right now is a prickly little twerp who doesn’t play well with others in the best of circumstances and who would, in any event, have zero constituency in Congress – the very population a president must woo if he is to obtain an appropriation to fill those potholes in front of Union Station.
Mayor Mike, by the way, is not that great at filling potholes. One study rated New York City roads as among the nation’s worst. When the City was slow at filling potholes, Bloomberg blamed the state government for not subsidizing the City. To rectify the problem, Bloomberg introduced a mechanical pothole-filler that was supposed to allow its operator to fill as many potholes as five or six individual workers could. But the machine broke down during the unveiling ceremony and Mayor Mike owned that “a human being can do some things better sometimes than a machine.”
But Friedman doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t even care if Bloomberg is a viable candidate: “Bloomberg doesn’t have to win to succeed – or even stay in the race to the very end. Simply by running, participating in the debates and doing respectably in the polls – 15 to 20 percent – he could change the dynamic of the election and, most importantly, the course of the next administration, no matter who heads it.” Yeah, Bloomberg could change the dynamic of the election. He could throw it to one actual candidate or the other. As screwed-up as our electoral system is, what it really needs is another monkeywrench. Brilliant! In the last paragraph of his column, Friedman switches from praising the notion of a third-party candidate to appealing to Mike Bloomberg: “The most patriotic thing Bloomberg could do is become an unpaid lobbyist for the country — and for the next generation of Americans.”
Yes, yes, I know all of this is nonsensical, but that’s not my point. If you think about it, and if you’re foolish enough to have read many Friedman columns, you’ll notice that he not only repeats the content of his column, he also repeats the structure. In most columns, Friedman begins with a setup, one that often has nothing to do with the body of his column. The main part of the column is the cut-and-paste bit where he just repeats one of his usual themes, using catchphrases and entire sentences you are sure to recognize. Sometimes, for variety, he adds a different expert friend to make his case, though he sometimes asks the same experts to say something a little different from what they said the last time he invoked their wisdom. To wrap up, Friedman often shifts tone, doubles down on the gravity of his topic (“A lot is at stake here.” “nothing would be more important”); summarizes the lesson learned (“Everything we do to raise energy efficiency will make money, improve security and health, and stabilize climate.”); and/or makes a prophecy, occasionally accompanied by advice to the reader: “put every dollar you own in the U.S. stock market. It will go up a gazillion points.”
This is where Friedman reminds me of Jesus. I know Friedman is probably a real person and the Jesus of the gospels is probably just a literary construction. But he is a literary construction from whom Tom Friedman borrows. All three of the synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke – contain parables. Some of the parables, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, are so famous that even non-Christians know the story, which is usually a straightforward narrative. But listeners are not likely to know the meaning of the story. Parables are supposed to be mysterious; they relate some important truth, but the common hearer cannot interpret it. Sometimes Jesus reveals the meaning only to his closest followers. That is the case in the earliest-told parable in the Gospels – Mark’s Parable of the Sower (Most scholars believe Mark’s was the first canonical gospel written). We learn from the setup to the Parable of the Sower that Jesus told the parable itself in public (“The crowd that gathered around him was so large…,” according to Mark 4) but he explained the meaning of the parable only to his disciples. At other times, after relating a parable, Jesus tells the meaning to the assemblage, even if the hearers are his enemies.
The setups to the parables are often important because they help drive the larger narrative: For instance, “The Pharisees and scribes muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” speaks to Jesus’s conflict with the authorities, which, according to the gospel narratives, culminated in his crucifixion. The setup occasionally also illuminates the meaning of the parable: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” This explication usually comes at the end of the parable, and is separate from the parabolic narrative. For instance, after telling the Parable of the Wicked Landowner,” Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” Here the conclusion also drives the gospel’s plot. We next learn, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.”
Biblical parables, then, are not stand-alone stories. They have meaning within the larger context of the gospels, and they usually cannot be understood without the explanations that generally follow them. The literary construct is introduction, parable, conclusion. Or, in Aristotelian terms, a beginning, middle and end. Biblical scholars call the beginning and end the parabolic “frame,” and the frame is essential to the parable. Theologians traditionally gave allegorical meaning to most of the parables. Early scholarship focused on deciding who each parabolic character represented; these interpreters thought the judges, kings and landlords in the parables represented God, for instance.
As I remarked above, Tom Friedman’s intros are commonly unrelated to his central narratives. Critics make fun of him for this. Most of us wouldn’t go from dropped cellphone calls on Amtrak to “… that is why I still hope Michael Bloomberg will reconsider running for president as an independent candidate.” But remember, the introductions to the biblical parables also seem tangential to the casual gospel reader. And, just as Jesus often explained the meaning of the parables after telling them, so Friedman often explains the larger meaning of his narrative in his concluding grafs.
The central content of Friedman’s columns are also sometimes parabolic. Though he only occasionally tells a story, most of his standard columns are built on conflict between or among rivals: Romney v. Obama, Wall Street v. Washington, Netanyahu v. everybody. Friedman also includes allegorical characters: the “experts” he cites are analogous to God or Jesus; they are the truth-tellers. The central purpose of the biblical gospels and the Friedman gospels is to persuade. The biblical gospels aim to make us right with God; Friedman aims to make us agree with Friedman. The gospel writers and Friedman often admonish us not just to think righteously but to act righteously. Get thee to the Americans Elect Website. Buy a Chevy Volt.
So Friedman writes his columns in the biblical tradition, borrowing the structure from the gospels. That structure, of course, is not uncommon. It is the way we’re accustomed to reading or hearing stories. In fact, we sometimes emotionally reject slice-of-life stories that leave us hanging, that do not give us a satisfying conclusion, that have no “moral.” But there is something else about Friedman’s columns that remind me of Jesus, something for which I routinely criticize Friedman.
Though scholars don’t know all of the sources for the gospels, there is a general assumption that the gospels are based in part on oral tradition. That is, many of the gospel stories, especially the parables, come from actual stories told by itinerant storytellers of the day – like the Jesus character. These storytellers used parables to bring home their points because narratives are easy for the hearer – and the storyteller – to remember. Parables are mnemonic devices. In fact, the storytellers told the same stories again and again, though they probably varied them a bit with each telling, just as you would if you repeated a story to a friend, then told it again to someone else. For instance, like Friedman, the ancient storytellers, and you, might change the setup to fit the audience of the day. You probably wouldn’t relate a sex scandal to your maiden aunt in the same way you would tell it to a friend your age. Because the parabolic stories were fictional, they also almost certainly changed over time. When the gospel writers borrowed them, in fact, they were not always suitable for their purposes. If you read Matthew’s Parable of the Ten Virgins, you – like many a scholar – will likely wonder what it’s all about. The “explanation” doesn’t help much, either. It seems likely to me that the author of the gospel borrowed the basic story from a bawdy tale, cut off the sexy ending and tacked on what he thought would be an appropriate religious message: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
That all sounds a lot like Friedman, doesn’t it? (Well, except for the sex part.) Why, he is just a traditional storyteller, retelling the same story again and again, updating it from time to time, repurposing it occasionally to fit different circumstances, even renaming the heroes. And it works. I am fuzzy about what Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof wrote a few months ago, but I know what Friedman wrote: we must reduce the deficit, cut spending on superfluous stuff like health care and put money into infrastructure and education. We must curb our dependence on foreign oil and get used to living in a global economy. Here’s the coda to a column Friedman wrote in January of this year:
If only – if only – we could come together on a national strategy to enhance and expand all of our natural advantages: more immigration, most post-secondary education, better infrastructure, more government research, smart incentives for spurring millions of start-ups – and a long-term plan to really fix our long-term debt problems – nobody could touch us. We’re that close.
This is the Friedman meme. If you read Friedman, you’ve read it all before, and you will read it all again. It is the Gospel According to Friedman. Amen.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com