The New York Times’ Op-Ed Page Is An Intellectual Dark Web

The New York Times Op-Ed page has been an intellectual dark web for a long time. Few corners of the Internet can lay claim to both Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, two of the most widely ridiculed, mocked, and parodied ‘thought leaders’ ever to have deigned to grace us swine with their pearls of wisdom; so extensive and ubiquitous is the scorn sent their way and so, correspondingly, entirely self-unaware is this pair that they continue to write on as before, unaware that they are now parodying themselves. The Times’ Op-Ed page also includes Maureen Dowd, who slipped into irrelevance during the Bush years, and only makes periodic, pitiful attempts to show up on readers’ radars–sometimes by penning unhinged rants about clueless consumption of marijuana edibles in legal jurisdictions. Then there is Sophist-in-Chief-And-Apologist-For-Religion Ross Douthat, whose rambling, self-pitying pieces about the marginalization of conservative thought by remorseless liberals have also settled into their own familiar and head-scratching template: see, liberalism, you so mean, you just shot yourself in your own foot while you thought you was picking out distant conservative targets.

And then, we have Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

I must confess to knowing little about these two writers before they were promoted to their own space on one of the nation’s most prominent media platforms; the former apparently distinguished herself by attacking the academic freedom of Arab scholars to criticize Israel, the latter by cheerleading for the Iraq War. But their settling down into the boring, predictable output emanating from the New York Times Op-Ed page was rapid enough, and Weiss’ latest offering cements her own particular corner in that outpost: a paean to those intellectuals who have thrown their toys out of the pram because they are not being recognized–it remains entirely unclear by whom–for the intellectual revolutionaries they imagine themselves to be. Here they are: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan etc. They have giant book deals, extensive media presence and connections, YouTube channels and podcasts whose audience runs into the millions; indeed, you might even imagine them ‘thought leaders’ of a kind. Their ideas are, sadly enough, disappointingly familiar: sexism and racism and the wonders of the free market find scientific grounding here, as do dark imprecations about the conceptual connections between particular religions and social dysfunction, and so on. No matter: what really unites the intellectuals is that they imagine themselves iconoclasts and pioneers and brave outsiders. And those writing on them imagine themselves to be similar intellectual heroes: they are, after all, speaking up on behalf of the rebels and outsiders and outliers.

A more depressing display of intellectual cluelessness cannot be imagined; the essay’s astonishing photo-spread, which showcases the various profiled ‘intellectuals’ in the act of getting caught peeing in the bushes confirms this assessment. The ‘intellectuals’ profiled by Weiss are not on the margins; they are right at the center, and they aren’t keen to share the spotlight with anyone; an elementary examination of their cultural placement would reveal this fact rather quickly. It is hard to know how this pitch was first made by Weiss; it is equally hard to fathom the editorial reasoning that led to its approval and to the final finished form.

Before Weiss is alarmed by the scornful response to her piece, she should remember that she is not being ‘silenced,’ that her ‘essay’ was published at the New York Times, and that, despite the writerly incompetence on display, she is not being sacked. She’s right where she belongs: on the intellectual dark web.

Tom Friedman Has Joined Google’s HR Department

Tom Friedman is moonlighting by writing advertising copy for Google’s Human Resources Department; this talent is on display in his latest Op-Ed titled–appropriately enough “How To Get a Job at Google”. Perhaps staff at the Career Services offices of the nation’s major universities can print out this press release from Google HR and distribute it to their students, just in time for the next job fair.

Friedman is quick to get to the point (and to let someone else do the talking):

At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

True to his word, the rest of the Op-Ed is a series of quotes from “Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies.” Let us, therefore, all fall into supplicant mode.

The How To Get a Job With Us press release is, of course, as much advertisement for the corporation’s self-imagined assessment of its work culture as anything else; how obliging, therefore, for Friedman to allow Bock to tell us Google so highly values “general cognitive ability”, “leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership”, and “humility and ownership”. (In keeping with the usual neoliberal denigration of the university, Friedman helpfully echoes Bock’s claim that “Too many colleges…don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.” Interestingly enough, I had thought Google’s workspaces with their vending machines, toys and other play spaces contributed to the “extended adolescence” of its coders. The bit about the “ton of debt” is spot-on though.) 

The use of opinion pages at major national newspapers for corporate communiques, to advance business talking points, to function as megaphones for the suppressed, yearning voices of the board-room, eager to inform us of their strategic perspectives, is fast developing into a modern tradition. This process has thus far been accomplished with some subterfuge, some stealth, some attempt at disguise and cover-up; but there isn’t much subtlety in this use of the New York Times Op-Ed page for a press release.

Friedman’s piece clocks in at 955 words; direct and indirect quotes from Bock amount to over 700 of those. There are ten paragraphs in the piece; paragraphs one through nine are pretty much Bock quotes. Sometimes, I outsource my writing here on this blog to quotes from books and essays I’ve read; Friedman, the Patron Saint of Outsourcing, has outsourced his to Google’s VP of “people operations.”

The only thing missing in this Friedman piece is the conversation with the immigrant cabbie on the way to Google’s Mountain View in the course of which we would have learned how his American-born children were eager to excel in precisely those skills most desired by Google. Perhaps we’ll read that next week.

Why Not A Syrian Mandelian Midwife, Mr. Friedman?

An acute application of gynaecology to international relations, conjuring up visions of revolutionaries being led gently through birthing procedures is on display–again and again, and quite possibly, again–in Tom Friedman’s latest column in the New York Times. Apparently, the Middle East–especially Syria– is pregnant with possibility, fertile with newly planted seeds of political change. It needs midwives by the truckload. ‘ Well-armed’ ones preferably. Pistol-packin’ mamas’ aides, taking revolution from conception to birth–and presumably on to postpartum depression as well if the comparison with the US in Iraq is to hold water. (All the while, unassisted by doulas, but ready to hand off to obstetricians at a moment’s notice?)

First, the necessity of a midwife in extracting nations embedded in English philosophers (the mind boggles at the imagery conjured up here):

[F]or me, the lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America. The kind of low-cost, remote-control, U.S./NATO midwifery that ousted Qaddafi and gave birth to a new Libya is not likely to be repeated in Syria. Syria is harder. Syria is Iraq.

Second, the explanatory power of the fearsome midwife (like those of yore, that struck fear into the hearts of busybody mother-in-laws and hospital staff everywhere):

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics.

Third, the absence of a suitably ‘armed and external’ midwife induces reticence and modesty into punditry:

I know columnists are supposed to pound the table and declaim what is necessary. But when you believe that what is necessary, an outside midwife for Syria, is impossible, you need to say so.

Fourth, the low probability of the presence of the aforesaid midwife should result in the maturation of nascent revolutionaries:

Since it is highly unlikely that an armed, feared and trusted midwife will dare enter the fray in Syria, the rebels on the ground there will have to do it themselves.

Lastly, the absence of midwives and Middle-Eastern Madibas  has inflammatory potential:

Without an external midwife or a Syrian Mandela, the fires of conflict could burn for a long time. I hope I am surprised.

I think the primary occasion for surprise is already upon us: Why does Mr. Friedman not seize the opportunity presented to him by his last sentence and run with it? There is a midwife, a country, Syria, and a name, ‘Mandela.’ Endless recombinatory possibilities present themselves. In the spirit of charity,  and because Mr. Friedman will surely revisit the smoldering Middle East again, I hereby gift one of these to Mr. Friedman for artful deployment in one of his future columns, :

What Syria Needs is a Mandelian Midwife

David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed

David Brooks, the man who claims to have his finger on the pulse of down-home, All-American, Middle-American, (heck, Any-Which-Way American), plain-n-simple, family-values-oriented folks is a man who jets off to Europe for a Bruce Springsteen concert tour. No big deal. Lots of those good folk take vacations in Europe too. (If they can get to take their annual two weeks vacation all at once, and if they’ve managed somehow to save up the requisite monies.) What they don’t do however, I’m pretty sure, is subject us to inane sociological-ethnographic-anthropological analyses of their concertgoing experiences  in Europe.

Brooks finds that audiences ‘in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula’–reaching which, I presume, requires three weeks of hard  hiking from the nearest trailhead–‘singing word for word about Highway 9 or Greasy Lake or some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore.’ Amazing. In Europe? When did they get television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet? This is pretty mind-boggling stuff. Here is an American rock star, surely the most obscure type of cultural figure there could be, and folks in Europe, a land separated from the US by a BIG ocean, know the lyrics to his songs. Next thing you know, someone will tell me that kids in the US know the lyrics to songs sung by working-class kids from Liverpool!  The world is flat, dudes. (Sorry, wrong New York Times columnist.)

But concert-going crowds knowing lyrics is nothing compared to what Brooks then experienced. Take a seat for this one, folks:

The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!”

Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?

Once I went to a Pink Floyd concert, and all these people were singing, ‘All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.’ Did it occur to them at that moment, that, in fact, bricks don’t have ears and so, they couldn’t hear what these kids were saying? Another time, I went to a Kraftwerk concert, and these humans were singing ‘We are the robots!’ Did it occur to them that, in fact, that they weren’t robots (Or were they confessing?) And then of course, there was that time that I saw AC/DC and the kids were yelling, ‘I’m a heatseeker, burning up the town!’ No, dude, you are not a heat-seeking missile – you’re a human being!

From here on, unfortunately, it goes downhill into ‘paracosms’ and ‘passionate, and highly localized moral landscapes’, all the while appreciating the ‘power of ‘particularity,’ while disdaining that dreaded mix of ‘the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism’, steadily downward, till it bottoms out with the offering of ‘pious advice:’ ‘Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community.’

Yeah, next time, go see Springsteen in New Jersey. Like you said, ‘Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past.’ And don’t write Op-Eds about it; I don’t intend to have my ‘identity formed by soft boundaries.’