By Matt Taibbi / Substack
Esteemed Yale professor Samuel Moyn tweeted this yesterday, cruelly tagging me and forcing a look at New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s latest:
I met Friedman once, and he was really nice. Moreover he’s clearly tried to rein in (that’s horse imagery) his use of metaphors over the years. However, he slips sometimes. As Professor Moyn notes, “Putin to Ukraine, ‘Marry Me or I’ll Kill You’” is a bad slip, like Ray Milland’s Lost Weekend bad:
Why is Vladimir Putin threatening to take another bite out of Ukraine, after devouring Crimea in 2014? That is not an easy question to answer because Putin is a one-man psychodrama, with a giant inferiority complex toward America that leaves him always stalking the world with a chip on his shoulder so big it’s amazing he can fit through any door.
Let’s see: Putin is a modern-day Peter the Great out to restore the glory of Mother Russia. He’s a retired K.G.B. agent who simply refuses to come in from the cold and still sees the C.I.A. under every rock and behind every opponent. He’s America’s ex-boyfriend-from-hell, who refuses to let us ignore him and date other countries, like China — because he always measures his status in the world in relation to us.
In paragraph one Putin is a biting giant, or giant biter, who stalks the world with a chip on his shoulder so big he only just fits through the huge doors that apparently separate nations (I thought of Richard E. Grant’s talking shoulder-boil in How to Get Ahead in Advertising). In paragraph two Putin starts off as Peter the Great, but a sentence later is Richard Burton (that’s two British actors now), only one who didn’t come in from the cold and “sees the C.I.A. under every rock” (I think the word he’s looking for is “imagines” — see asterisk below).
Friedman is just getting started: biting-giant, chip-on-his-shouldered, Emperor-Burton-in-a-doorway-Putin is also America’s “ex-boyfriend from hell,” who refuses to let us “date other countries, like China” (we want to date China?) because “he always measures his status in the world in relation to us.”
This passage made me stop, mentally dropping the images. Friedman seems to be saying Putin is in a perpetual dick-measuring contest with us, but is also our ex-boyfriend, which of course is more than possible (it’s 2022, folks), but did Friedman intend it that way? The guess is he wasn’t going for the wang imagery, in which case he probably wanted to stay away from the word “measure” in the context of a dude with an inferiority complex. On the other hand, the image of a scorned gay giant with micro-wiener dressed as Peter the Great and trapped in a doorway talking to his shoulder-boil is pretty dynamic stuff. I was going with it, heading into this passage:
If I were a cynic, I’d just tell him to go ahead and take Kyiv because it would become his Kabul, his Afghanistan — but the human costs would be intolerable. Short of that, I’d be very clear: If he wants to come down from the tree in which he’s lodged himself, he’s going to have to jump or build his own ladder. He has completely contrived this crisis, so there should be no give on our part. China is watching — and Taiwan is sweating — everything we do in reaction to Vlad right now.
Which brings us back to the central question: Vlad, why are you in that tree?
Not many writers would have the guts to spend multiple opening paragraphs constructing an elaborate image of a giant insecure biting ex-boyfriend who wants to date China, then suddenly introduce the idea that this creature is also stuck in a tree. Worse, Friedman tells him that if he wants to get down, he’s either going to have to jump or “build his own ladder.”
As to the first point: Putin just a few paragraphs before physically ate Crimea and was “stalking the world with a chip on his shoulder so big it’s amazing he can fit through any door,” so is this a really big tree he’d be jumping out of, or did he shrink? That’s some Alice in Wonderland stuff.
As to the second point, the “build his own ladder” line almost feels like taunting. Does Putin have tools in the tree? Does he have a saw? If he has a saw, I’m not sure he’d need a ladder to get down, although the logistics of that aren’t obvious, at least not to me. In fact, I’ll send a Bob Ross “Happy Trees University” T-Shirt to the reader who sends in the best diagram or plan for how to get out of a tree with a full set of tools. Just tweet to #FriedmanTreePlan or post in the comments:
Why stop there? I’ll add a Bob Ross Master Paint Set and a Bob Ross Happy Little Trees Ring Toss party game to the person who best sketches or paints the entire Friedman image depicted in this column (tweet to #FriedmanImage). If you’re cocky and thinking that’s no problem, remember we’re only halfway through the piece. There are complications ahead!
Back to the article: Friedman moves on from the ladder to tell us Taiwan is sweating, before saying, “Which brings us back to the central question: Vlad, why are you in that tree?”
This is the first time we’re learning the “central” question of the piece is, “Vlad, why are you in that tree?” It’d be a weird transition either way, but a lot less so if he’d just removed the phrase “brings us back,” since we can’t come back to a place we’ve never been. Still, this is classic Friedman, who loves the abrupt switcheroo. I’m reminded of the “Long Bomb” column from ages ago, whose operating metaphor throughout was Bush’s Iraq policy as Hail Mary pass, only to end with it as a “beautifully carved mahogany table” with one leg.
Speaking of which:
For Putin, losing Ukraine “is like an amputation,” remarked political scientist Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. “Putin looks at Ukraine and Belarus as part of Russia’s civilizational and cultural space. He thinks the Ukrainian state is totally artificial and that Ukrainian nationalism is not authentic.”
The reason Putin has accelerated his Ukraine threat — which I would call “marry me or I will kill you” — is that he knows that under Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the process of Ukrainization has accelerated and the Russian language is being pushed out of schools and Russian television out of the media space.
We’ve now got a giant amputee who’s yelling down at Ukraine from a tree, “Marry me or I’ll kill you!” If he’s using Richard Burton’s voice to shout from up there, I recommend borrowing the commanding tone from the “Hear me for the sake of your soul, which is in the gravest danger!” scene in Becket, which actually is a little like the British version of “We’ll whack them even in the outhouse.” Is it nitpicking to point out the “Marry or die!” command comes just a few paragraphs after he was supposed to be hung up romantically on the United States? Probably. Continuing:
I don’t weep for Putin. He is the human embodiment of one of the oldest Russian fables: A Russian peasant pleads to God for aid after he sees that his better-off neighbor has just obtained a cow. When God asks the peasant how he can help, the peasant says, “Kill my neighbor’s cow.”
The last thing that Putin wants is a thriving Ukraine that joins the European Union and develops its people and economy beyond Putin’s underperforming, autocratic Russia. He wants Ukraine to fail, the E.U. to fracture and America to have Donald Trump as president for life so we’ll be in permanent chaos.
Putin would rather see our cow die than do what it takes to raise a healthy cow of his own. He’s always looking for dignity in all the wrong places. He’s rather pathetic — but alsoarmed and dangerous.
I always heard a different, funnier version of that fable, in which a typical Soviet person rubs a lamp, producing a genie who offers him a deal: “I’ll grant you any wish, only your neighbor will receive it twice over.” To which the sovok answers, “Pluck out one of my eyes.” But whatever, stipulating this version, Friedman still just called Ukraine “our cow,” a perhaps unintentionally succinct description of the problem from the Slavic point of view. However that, as Friedman would say, is a whole different ball of beans. More importantly: now that Ukraine’s a cow, does he still want to marry it? If so, would he be standing on one leg or two to consummate the union?
The Johnny Lee reference at the end is totally superfluous and I’m all for it, although it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. (Wait, does Putin have a tongue in this column? If he does, how big is it? I can’t remember). Vladimir Putin, amputee cow-killer in a tree, always lookink for deeg-nity in all the wrong places. Get out of that tree, Vlad! Grow your own cow!
Friedman still has it, man. Genius doesn’t age. In any case, please send your contest submissions today. Results TK.
*It’s not a big deal — I’ve written things like, “He sees the face of Jesus in every tree stump” — but you can’t see “under” every rock, unless you have X-ray vision, or you’re picking up all those rocks. However, in that case, you’d see the C.I.A. wasn’t actually there, when Friedman’s point seems to be they aren’t. That’s why you’d probably want a word like “pictures” or “imagines” here. Even “sees” works if you’re using it in the sense of “envisions,” but I doubt that’s what Friedman was thinking. Again, this is small thing, but the man’s instinct for the wrong word is almost superhuman. Noted with awe.