12 Sep


You know when you put on those superficial affectations to make yourself appear extremely intelligent just so people will never know just how mediocre you are? We’re all guilty of it, using buzz words like “infrastructure” and “proactive” or wearing non-medicated glasses or in my case being a loyal subscriber to The New York Times even though I usually flip to the crossword puzzles faster than you can say “poser.”

But when I am compelled to abandon my tireless pursuit of finding a 15-letter word that means the death of the gods in Norse mythology (Gotterdammerung!), my eyes wander to the Op-ed section where I am bound to find the byline of Thomas Friedman. If you ever find me spewing jargoned rhetoric about the Middle East or the economy, most likely it was taken almost verbatim from a recent column.

Has anyone noticed he does the same pose in every picture?!

Has anyone noticed he does the same pose in every picture?!

Thomas Friedman is a public intellectual that has always held my interest because he is, quintessentially, where I would like to be in the next thirty or forty years, assuming I attain my lifelong goal of becoming a middle-aged Jewish man with a chevron mustache. In addition to his foreign affairs reporting in the Middle East that garnered him two Pulitzer Prizes, he offers his opinions on all the plaguing issues of the 21st century from the environment to terrorism to the economic downturn.

In the end, a public intellectual’s role is to criticize, as quoted in Stephen Mack’s blog essay, “The Decline of the Public Intellectual”, and T. Fried’s March column on the economic crisis titled “Are We Home Alone?” did just that. With an open and blatant honesty, T. Fried writes how instead of going above and beyond in the onset of the recession, “politics had descended into worse than normal.”

“There don’t seem to be any adults at the top — nobody acting larger than the moment, nobody being impelled by anything deeper than the last news cycle. Instead, Congress is slapping together punitive tax laws overnight like some Banana Republic, our president is getting in trouble cracking jokes on Jay Leno comparing his bowling skills to a Special Olympian, and the opposition party is behaving as if its only priority is to deflate President Obama’s popularity.”

He captured the spectacle that had become our economy and our political system, and in a tone that was paternal/condescending, he called America out on its foibles and challenged it rise above party politics in service of a “national mission.”

The United States is supposed to be a “city upon a hill” as discussed in Mack’s essay:  “The Wicked Paradox Redux,” and T. Fried inspires this responsibility in individual Americans by telling them to adhere to principled values for the sake of a great cause. He criticizes the partisan-centric tactics of a GOP that’s determined to see Obama lose at any cost (even if it means the country loses too), asking them to go beyond the angry gaggle in Congress and be fueled by the needs of the country.

He writes:

“I saw Eric Cantor, a Republican House leader, on CNBC the other day, and the entire interview consisted of him trying to exploit the A.I.G. situation for partisan gain without one constructive thought. I just kept staring at him and thinking: “Do you not have kids? Do you not have a pension that you’re worried about? Do you live in some gated community where all the banks will be O.K., even if our biggest banks go under? Do you think your party automatically wins if the country loses? What are you thinking?” If you want to guarantee that America becomes a mediocre nation, then just keep vilifying every public figure struggling to find a way out of this crisis who stumbles once.”

T. Fried is unique in the respect that he is a public intellectual who criticizes but at the same time, is removed from the melee. He is in the midst of the fray and above it at the same time. This embodies the true public intellectual: someone who can transcend politics when politics gets too political.

But is he being heard? Or is the Gotterdammerung of public intellectuals upon us?

If I, a member of what is stereotyped as the most apathetic demographic, am drawn by his sheer magnetism to flip to the foreign territory of an op-ed section and take a gander, hopefully that says something about the future of public intellectuals.



  1. Taylor Friedman September 14, 2009 at 7:54 am #

    Don’t be jealous that I’m one step closer to being a middle-aged Jewish man than you are.

    -T. Fried 2.0

  2. Jocelyn Torres September 14, 2009 at 5:57 pm #

    I completely agree that a public intellectual should be constructive critics and not just criticize for the sake of saying something. You have turned me into a Friedman fan. I will look out for his work in the New York Times

  3. theurbanbriefcase September 15, 2009 at 11:13 pm #

    Funny and insightful post! I’m definitely picking up Gotterdammerung in my vocabulary.
    You bring up interesting points. You say “he’s in the midst of the fray, yet above it at the same time”. I’m curious, though, for an academic and journalist like him, do you think he really is in the midst of the fray of politics?

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