Being There With ISIS and Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 17:  (AFP OUT) New York Times columnists Tom Friedman (R) and David Brooks (L) participate in a discuss
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 17: (AFP OUT) New York Times columnists Tom Friedman (R) and David Brooks (L) participate in a discussion during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios December 17, 2006 in Washington, DC. Friedman and Brooks spoke on various topics including the war in Iraq and the 2008 Presidential election. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

In film director Hal Ashsby's classic Being There (1979), Peter Sellers plays Chance Gardner, an idiot man-child whose nonsensical comments are mistaken for profundity.

"As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden," Chance says. "In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."

The President of the United States, among others, embraces these non sequiturs as supporting his Administration's policies. Chance soon becomes an important advisor.

The movie was an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinkski's novel. It is dark, satirical, thought provoking and very funny. Chance, as realized by Sellers, is a classic comic character.

Thomas L. Friedman is not trying to be funny.

Until his recent opinion piece on ISIS, Friedman was the McDonald's of the New York Times Opinion Page. He serves up simple fare for millions, reliable and bland enough to be tolerated by babies.

You wouldn't cater your wedding with fast food. You wouldn't rely on Friedman to provide in-depth analysis either.

But when you're in a rush both can fill you up with a lot of empty calories.

Friedman's most recent New York Times piece, however, isn't even that nutritious.

In "I.S. = Invasive Species," Friedman quotes an unnamed Iraqi official who told him that when members of the Islamic State occupied Mosul this summer, they marked the homes of Christians and those they deemed Muslim apostates with archaic words which are not indigenous to the region.

"I was intrigued by this story," Friedman writes, "because it highlighted the degree to which ISIS operates just like an 'invasive species" in the world of plants and animals. It is not native to either the Iraq or Syria eco-system."

Aware this might strike some as a strange leap of logic, Friedman explains: "I find it useful at times to use the natural world to illuminate trends in geopolitics and globalization."

Clicking to the United States National Arboretum website, Friedman notes that invasive species can choke out native flora and fauna and alter the natural landscape.

"I can't think of a better way to understand ISIS," Friedman writes, which is sad and probably true.

Chance Gardner would have been proud.

Comparing a band of murderers and psychopaths with anything in nature is not even wrong. It's nonsensical. Plants, as my new puppy has figured out, are not human beings. And he's not that smart a puppy. Plants, unlike people, behave without volition or intent, growing not for purposes of achieving political ends, but because DNA and the conditions of their environment determine they do so.

The human beings who make up ISIS -- monstrous though they are, they do remain human -- are the products and producers of war, driven by innumerable complex and evil intentions, forged in a particularly gruesome geopolitical context. They seek a variety of ends through a series of unspeakably horrible means.

To think of them as invasive plants -- and to credit the Obama Administration for treating them as such, as Friedman does -- is loopy.

Friedman knows that but it doesn't stop him. On the contrary, it is what he always does.

Take a complicated world issue, compare it to something simple, then draw what sounds like a meaningful truth from it.

Thus, because everyone wants a Lexus but needs an olive tree emerging markets will succeed but only if sustainable. The world is flat, to some people, so those who know its round should behave accordingly.

Earlier this year, the New York Observer -- admittedly no fan of the New York Times -- quoted an unnamed Times staffers who referred to Friedman as "an embarrassment" peddling "blowhardy bullshit."

The Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, another competitor accused Friedman of traveling the world to find "incredibly uninteresting platitudes" called him a "soothsaying simpleton."

Journalists, like all writers, are not immune to envy. Like McDonald's, Friedman makes a lot of money from his syndicated column, his many best-selling books, as well as from speaking engagements and television appearances.

To which I say good for him. Why shouldn't he make a nice living?

Friedman's success only bothers me because of what it says about those who employ and read him.

As with Chance Gardner, the joke isn't on Friedman.

It's on those who think what he's saying means anything.

Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct law professor at USC, is the author of the recent book Lawyers, Liars and The Art of Storytelling (ABA Publishing, October 2014).