Great bad writing

by Henry on October 25, 2014

I used to think that David Brooks deserved some sort of George Orwell ‘best bad modern writing’ award for a phrase in his old attack on Markos Zuniga Moulitsas.

The Keyboard Kingpin, aka Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.

It’s hard to beat squadrons of venom-unleashing rabid command-lambs. But then, when doing some background reading for class in re: Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech, I came across this plea from Joseph Joffe:

who will save the American posterior once the chickens of aloofness come home to roost?

Who? Who indeed?

I envision America so:


I’m sure that there’s a lot of other policy writing with terrible metaphors out there that I’m unaware of. Feel free to provide in comments.



rootlesscosmo 10.25.14 at 5:04 pm

From a letter to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 2011:

“”Until the common man lifts the sword of Damocles from the heads of politicians wanting to raise taxes, the looming disaster will continue percolating upward from the bottom.”


rootlesscosmo 10.25.14 at 5:19 pm

From a headline on the NY Times web site, June 20, 2011:

“A Safety Valve for Inmates, the Arts, Fades in California”


Paul 10.25.14 at 5:33 pm

I remember Roy Jenkins on a BBC election night broadcast (in 1987 or 1992, I’m not certain which) describing the Labour Party as an elderly wildebeest, half-eaten by a lion, tied to the railway tracks in front of an oncoming train. Only thing that made me smile all night.


medrawt 10.25.14 at 7:05 pm

Small thing, but I don’t believe “Markos Zuniga” is correct. I don’t know his parents’ names, but based on what I know about his bio, “Moulitsas” (I’m inferring) isn’t his middle name, but his father’s last name, and he seems to follow Spanish naming conventions in that on his own site, and most everywhere I see him mentioned, he’s either “Markos Moulitsas” or “Markos Moulitsas Zuniga” (or just “Moulitsas”).


genauer 10.25.14 at 7:07 pm

Maybe some folks are interested to know that Joseph Joffe lost recently a lawsuit,
when he tried to sue a Government TV satire show “Die Anstalt”

for basically displaying him and his underling Bittner as a CIA shill
beginning minute 1:30 to 6:10
special view 3:30

calling his newspaper “Die Zeit” as ” a local version of the NATO news”

a later version with good english sub titles


Henry 10.25.14 at 7:41 pm

medrawt – thanks – fixed.


gianni 10.25.14 at 8:42 pm

My goodness these are humorous. Still trying to picture how the sword of Damocles could be percolating up from underneath, it sounds like some odd permutation of that Willy Wonka scene by the chocolate river.

The rest of that Brooks essay is also quite wonderful – nothing like a NYT opinionator chastising someone for an excess of smugness and self-regard.

Wondering aloud, what is the relationship between this sort of bad writing and the histrionics we see in political writing today, noted in another thread?


Layman 10.25.14 at 9:40 pm

The ‘chickens of aloofness’ belong in the old AD&D Monster Manual. You have to make a saving throw to get their attention…


js. 10.25.14 at 9:49 pm

Obligatory reference:

Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays. I’ll give you an example, drawn at random from The World Is Flat. On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.)

Here’s what he says:

I stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be herded on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead bins.

Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It’s not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It’s that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it’s absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that’s guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.

(NB: This has a block quote set inside a block quote. I fully expect the HTML formatting to be a giant fucking mess. Sorry!)


Kevin 10.25.14 at 10:37 pm

js. the link provided above seems to have malware (according to my browser security anyway).

Any chance you have a safe alternative?


David of Yreka 10.25.14 at 10:48 pm

Yesterday on the PBS News Hour I heard Brooks deliver the following lines:

1. The mood is strong. (Referring to the current election cycle)
2. [Somebody, I forget who] is facing an uphill tide.

The first isn’t all that funny unless you say it very solemnly, using the voice of James Earl Jones. The second is merely priceless.


js. 10.25.14 at 10:53 pm


Unfortunately, no. The page at NY Press, which originally published the piece, seems to have disappeared, and the Internet Archives can’t find it. The link’s to Brad DeLong’s blog tho, so I don’t know why that is happening. I saw the same thing but powered through anyway because, umm, I’m not sufficiently terrified of malware, it appears.


js. 10.25.14 at 10:57 pm

Oh, and just in case this wasn’t clear: that’s from Matt Taibbi’s (unbeatable) review of The World Is Flat.


JanieM 10.25.14 at 11:03 pm


JanieM 10.25.14 at 11:04 pm

Weirdly unformatted, but readable.


js. 10.25.14 at 11:17 pm

Try this:

@JanieM: That’s actually a different, tho also awesome, Taibbi review, of Hot, Flat and Crowded, I think. But yeah, why NY Press has decided to make their archives an unreadable mess is a bit of mystery.

Also, if you really want your fill of Tom Friedman takedowns, and then some:



JanieM 10.25.14 at 11:30 pm

Both of them make me laugh out loud. In a rueful sort of way.


John Quiggin 10.26.14 at 12:24 am

It’s an alarming thought that Obama is correctly viewed as the most intellectual president the US has had in living memory and that he admires Tom Friedman.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 10.26.14 at 2:30 am

I recognize that chicken!



TM 10.26.14 at 3:15 pm

Josef Joffe is far worse in the German original. The left critic Hermann Gremliza used to have a lot of filling the last page of his Konkret magazine just quoting Joffe’s (and his pundit colleagues) senseless metaphors. I don’t know whether he’s still going at it.


TM 10.27.14 at 4:19 pm

Sorry: “used to have a lot of *fun* filling …”


rea 10.28.14 at 5:31 pm

A certain fictional character proposes to take up arms against a sea of troubles–but he’s supposed to be crazy.


LFC 10.31.14 at 3:43 pm

rea @22
good one.
strictly speaking, I would say a dramatic not a fictional character, but that I guess would be nitpicking.

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