Thomas Friedman, the Popularizer

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I was interested to see that Thomas Friedman is coming to MIT on February 3—interested, first, to learn that he still speaks at colleges after being pied at Brown in 2008. Many people don’t like Friedman, and I think a lot of their annoyance is annoyance at a popularizer: someone who takes a sophisticated, confusing discipline and simplifies and sweetens it enough for a general audience. Serious students of a discipline never like popularizers.

Friedman is a popularizer of ideas. The ideas he puts forward are big and sugary—”The world is flat!”—and he’s a genius at sticking them firmly in the reader’s mind, in large part through repetition of catchprases (one 2007 article contains ten variations on the phrase “green goes Main Street”). For people who analyze these issues seriously, he may seem a boisterous, uninformed buffoon.

And maybe he is. But there is also an upside to popularizers like Friedman: they involve the general population in otherwise esoteric disciplines. Kenny G made people believe they liked jazz, and Robert Kinkade brought what are technically paintings into a lot of houses. Friedman has got a lot of people thinking, in a common language (“The world is flat!”), about globalization and a number of other issues. For that, at least, he deserves a piece of actual pie.


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