I've written enough for a public audience in my day to know the importance of the "hook" -- the clever metaphor, historical analogy, provocative statement, or autobiographical anecdote that will hook the reader into paying attention long enough for me to make my more substantive point about world politics. Hell, I've written a few things in my day that had a ratio of ninety percent hook and ten percent substance. A great hook combined with a great argument can make you proud that someone actually pays you to write things.
A bad hook, though... well, a bad hook causes the reader to feel manipulated by a writer with a hardened agenda and no knowledge of how to persuade. It's the difference between flirtation and harassment in social intercourse.
Which brings me to the opening paragraphs in Tom Friedman's column today:
I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair — very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window — not a care in the world.
Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president — and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.
So, a few things:
1) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the United States also has pink-haired clerks flirting with girls (and boys) on the street. Maybe not where Friedman buys his nectarines, but still...
2) The logical proposition "pink hair = does not care about the rest of the world" feels a bit... wrong.
3) While U.S. military primacy does contribute to protecting and preserving the global commons, the extent to which it does so is a bit more complicated than Friedman suggests.
4) Maybe don't stereotype a country that headquarters the International Committee of the Red Cross and that, according to one well-respected index, appears to care just as much about the rest of the world as the United States.
5) Friedman's biggest sin is writing such a hackneyed opening that readers will drift away before reading the last two-thirds of his column, which is both contemplative and thought-provoking. This paragraph in particular suggests that the Syria debate will require America's foreign policy community to engage in some critical reflection:
The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right, but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue. I think many Americans could not understand why it was O.K. for us to let 100,000 Syrians die in a civil war/uprising, but we had to stop everything and bomb the country because 1,400 people were killed with poison gas. I and others made a case why, indeed, we needed to redraw that red line, but many Americans seemed to think that all we were doing is drawing a red line in a pool of blood. Who would even notice?
I'm very curious about where mainstream foreign policy punditry will go after they recover from losing the argument on Syria and bewailing things like lost credibility and so forth. I'll be even more curious if Friedman's editors exercise a wee bit more discipline and tell him when his metaphors don't work. At all.