‘That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back” is a landmark in American popular literature: It is the first book by Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist and mega-best-selling author of “The World Is Flat,” “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” and so on, in which an alert reader can go whole paragraphs—whole pages, in a few instances—without fighting the impulse to chuck it across the room.
As a writer, Mr. Friedman is best known for his galloping assaults on Strunk and White’s Rule No. 9: “Do Not Affect a Breezy Manner.” “The World Is Flat” & Co. were cyclones of breeziness, mixing metaphors by the dozens and whipping up slang and clichés and jokey catchphrases of the author’s own invention. (The flattened world was just the beginning.)
Mr. Friedman can turn a phrase into cliché faster than any Madison Avenue jingle writer. He announces that “America declared war on math and physics.” Three paragraphs later, we learn that we’re “waging war on math and physics.” Three sentences later: “We went to war against math and physics.” And onto the next page: “We need a systemic response to both our math and physics challenges, not a war on both.” Three sentences later: We must “reverse the damage we have done by making war on both math and physics,” because, we learn two sentences later, soon the war on terror “won’t seem nearly as important as the wars we waged against physics and math.” He must think we’re idiots.
As someone who’s on record as describing Friedman as a master of the catchy half-truth, I’m not his greatest fan. But I wonder if some of the asperity in Ferguson’s review has anything to do with the fact that it appears in the Wall Street Journal and Friedman is a star columnist on that paper’s deadly NYC rival, the New York Times?