THOMAS FRIEDMAN’S THREE MEANINGLESSNESSES
2003 FEBRUARY 8
In July of 1981, I was sitting in a roadside speakeasy in a remote corner of eastern Borneo with my good friend, Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, the great Philippine democracy activist and eventual slain husband of eventual Philippine president Corazon (Cory) Aquino. We ordered dinner and talked for a long time about a mutual interest, neo-classical foyer design in colonial Virginia. One of those great universals about exiled political leaders is that they always find time to appreciate the finer things in life, like seventeenth-century European architecture. Halfway through the hors d’oeuvres, he pulled out a six-inch blunt and laid it on the table. That isn’t really relevant to the story, but we did both get freaky stoned twenty minutes later, and were thrown into the street by a bouncer wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt, the kind with the exaggerated lips and tongue, except not in red, but in some shade of mustard that you only see in East Africa, with the entire East African tour schedule on the back, including two shows in Dar es Salaam that were cancelled because Michael (Mick) Jagger came down with a mild case of dengue fever. Aquino looked up from his pâté de foie gras, haggard from so many tribulations -- the Filipino, not the goose -- and said: “In my country we have a saying: Cherry Pie is Round. What we mean by that is that the perimeter of the pie is circular, and that if you were to place a pointing object -- say, a finger, or a knife, or a Mont Blanc fountain pen -- in the exact center, that finger, or knife, or Mont Blanc fountain pen, would be equidistant from every point on the very outer edge of the crust. What we mean by that is that there would be exactly the same distance, measured in tenths of a centimeter, between any point on the very outer edge of the crust and the finger, or knife, or Mont Blanc fountain pen, and any other point on the very outer edge of the crust and the finger, or knife, or Mont Blanc fountain pen, so long as the finger, or knife, or Mont Blanc fountain pen, has not been moved, and so long as the pie is round.”
It occurred to me that that was a pretty good way of looking at pie, as well as an insight that I could reasonably repackage as a chapter in a book that my publishers expected me to write on the expense account that I had been depleting for six years in such places as Paris, Berlin, Antananarivo, and the 33rd Street Burrito Palace. It’s what I call the “Three Meaninglessnesses”. The first is the Meaninglessness of Metaphor, the second is the Meaninglessness of Generalization, and the third is the Meaninglessness of Arbitrary Formulas.
The Meaninglessness of Metaphor is like a horse. That horse can either be galloping uncontrollably over the fields, or it can be worked to death and turned into glue. But it remains a horse. It can be a pony, in which case there is a sub-metaphor of a small plastic marketing gimmick that I like to call the “My Little Pony Meaninglessness”. The Meaninglessness of Metaphor can be a hippopotamus (Greek for “river horse”), thick-skinned and lumbering on land, but lithe and swift in the water, cute, but vicious to any perceived threat. It can be a zebra, hiding in the tall grass of literature, blending in to the untrained eye of the lion, but standing out to the sharp-eyed safari tourist. Or it can be all of these things at once -- a small plastic black-and-white striped hippopotamus hiding in the tall river reeds waiting for the unsuspecting safari tourist who is supposed to represent something in the real world but at this point may not.
Tied to this is the Meaninglessness of Generalization, which is like the shirt that the horse wears. When the horse is a pony, the shirt is taken in at the collar and the sleeves, though of course we have to start with a shirt that is the right fit for a horse, so it is really less of a shirt than a chemise. When the horse is a My Little Pony, the shirt has to be made from a reduced shirt pattern that is sold at Toys ‘Я’ Us in the section where they sell that kind of thing. It might be magenta or aqua or yellow or pink, it might be tapioca or ecru or mauve, but it is still a shirt, except when it is cut up by the child who is angry at some slight by the parent, possibly for buying a My Little Pony when the boy really wanted an X-Box, in which case it is more like a magenta or aqua or yellow scrap of synthetic satin. When the horse is a hippopotamus, the shirt isn’t really a shirt, but more of a blanket that is just kind of loosely thrown over the hippopotamus, and maybe it is tied on underneath the hippopotamus’s belly, and maybe it isn’t. When the horse is a zebra, the shirt isn’t a shirt in the sense that there isn’t a shirt at all, because wearing even a well-fitted article of clothing that was magenta or mauve, or even a more traditional zebra sort of color like black or white, would defeat the whole idea of natural camouflage. So the great thing about the Meaninglessness of Generalization is that the shirt can be different shapes, different colors, made of different fabrics, be entirely superfluous, or even not exist, but it is still definitely a shirt.
The Meaninglessness of Arbitrary Formulas means that I don’t really have a third item to add to this list, but in order to create an overwrought series of parallels, I am going to shoehorn some unrelated concept into the list, which gives additional opportunities for broadening the Meaninglessness of Generalization, and mixing the Meaninglessness of Metaphor. And, as I am about to demonstrate in the next chapter, the Three Meaninglessnesses work together to create the Subject of the Next Chapter, which takes Meaninglessness to a whole new level.
Of The Ford
Of The Ford