Thomas Friedman: You Give Clichés a Bad Name

I’m stealing the title of this post from Jim Neureckas. It’s a good summary of the thesis of this excellent piece from Jim Livingston. Jim (Livingston) takes apart the prose of a Thomas Friedman column—I know, easy sport—but as he gets ready to do it, he says something interesting about clichés.

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.

As a cliché-hater of the sort that Jim skewers here—though I never go after pop culture; it’s the journalists and writers who get to me—I have to say that this an interesting way of thinking about them. So it seemed worth sharing.


  1. William Neil July 7, 2013 at 12:43 pm | #

    Yes, thanks very much. This is becoming a national sport on the left; let’s not forget Matt Taibbi. Here’s my contribution from two years ago at

    It’s difficult when considering Thomas Friedman for me not to see him in a long line of advice dispensers, for individuals, nations and whole regions. There is a very accelerated version of the American Dream at work, with none of Lincoln’s common touch. If the American Dream, even in Lincoln’s time, had continual self improvement and advancement at the core, for Friedman, it’s working on your modern skill set until the day you die, hoping you are acceptable and employable to those factors who make the hiring decisions. Now the whole history of the American Dream is built on the notion of “just passing through,” on the way to a higher station, which works against community, solidarity, sense of place…loyalty to anything in fact, not connected to ambition and self-promotion. That is why labor and the “common man” under Friedman are reduced to contemptuous terms, standing in the way of progress – to become “roadkill” in Lincoln’s more humanely scaled “race of life.”

    Since we’ve just passed the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, please consider this clip from the movie of that name, a speech by Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine to Union mutineers, about why the North is fighting…”everyone has value…”

    Is that true under Friedman’s worldview? Well, maybe a little value, but you have to look very hard to find much adulation for staying in place and being a “craftsman,” in the broadest meaning of the term. Tom will be lunching with those remaking the world, busy obsoleting skills as fast as the meal goes down, and its very clear that it is the entrepreneur, the producer, who has real value in his philosophy. You can see the seed of that in what Lincoln had to say, before the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons, and the late 20th and early 21st century versions, built upon an even grander scale. Common Man, working man? Hell, there’s no place in econometric equations for you, and no such thing as a minimum wage. Whatever value you still have, are going to have, is going to have to come from another realm of value generation.

  2. jonnybutter July 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm | #

    JL makes a nice point there. Sometimes you can polarize or even just minimally alter the most apparently benign thing and make it potent – and you make the mindless repetition work for you in the case of cliche. But I think cliche itself is a problem in the first place only to the extent to which it shuts down or forestalls thinking. True cliches (cliches which are not lies) don’t necessarily do that.

    I would throw in with those who see the mindless repetition as a key political tactic, and the dutiful debunking of factual errors by the ink stained wretches is an important part of that cycle: it wastes a tremendous amount of time, and is the perfect distraction. There’s more where that came from! LOTS more!

    The key to the strategy at work here it is to make all political experience as stultifyingly boring as possible.

  3. jonnybutter July 7, 2013 at 1:05 pm | #

    and part of that comment got cut off: I absolutely do NOT want to suggest that facts and the checking thereof is not important. I just think liberals and left types get gulled into spending a lot of energy proving a case wrong when the plaintiff doesn’t care one way or another. They *want* you to sweat. After you do they come up with something else ridiculous for you to debunk.

    A favorite allusion to a favorite cliche, from an interview with Saul Bellow (sorry, don’t remember where it’s from – the 1960s sometime I think) is appropriate here I think:

    Mr. Bellow was not interested in responding to criticisms of his work that he found trivial or stupid. He quoted the Jewish proverb that a fool can throw a stone into the water that ten wise men cannot recover.

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