The Moment of Truth — July 19, 2008

Thomas Friedman Versus The Methodist Fish Fry

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Obviously I can’t be everywhere at once, preventing you people from getting yourselves into trouble. But recently I was particularly elsewhere. I was detained. I was at a Friday “all you care to eat” fish fry at the United Methodist Church in Charlevoix, MI.

I am not a Methodist. I’m not even a Christian. I’m not even a lapsed Christian. I don’t even have any Christians in my bloodline, aside from possibly one or more rapists way way back in my genealogy.

So why was I at a Methodist church’s Friday fish fry? For the fish. The fish was donated by Cross Fisheries, where I go to get my smoked trout and whitefish when I’m in Northern Michigan. It’s where the fish is. The Lake Michigan fish. Yes, it has mercury in it, and several other toxins in ratios of parts per million far greater than recommended even by the toxic substances industry. But that’s what makes it so delicious.

A banner on the church, and on flyers all over Charlevoix, it said, “Friday, 4:30—Mrs. Cross’s Fish Fry.” 4:30 in the afternoon. That’s pretty early for supper, and it would actually be 3:30 for me, as I was still on Chicago time. It was only a half-hour before the event when I saw the sign, so I spontaneously said to myself, “Self, you’re going to eat at that fish fry, even though it’s at a Methodist church and unusually early.”

Now I didn’t want to get there at 4:30 on the dot. That would be gauche, I thought. How would it look if I were to walk in there, not knowing exactly how non-Methodist I appeared to everyone, the proprietors or the deacons, or whoever might be there manning the fish. At best I would look like a lone stranger, over-eager for fish.

It wasn’t free, the fish fry. It cost nine bucks. So, yes, I gave nine bucks to the Methodists. I don’t regret it. I’m not sure how crazy the Methodists are, but I haven’t heard about any witch burnings or monkey trials in this part of Michigan, so at least they have sense enough to stay out of the newspapers. They’ll probably just spend that nine bucks on a white and light blue embroidered wall hanging that says something on it about being nice. Probably with an abstract dove on it somewhere—the upper left corner, most likely—and a sunbeamish white stripe. Maybe I’m wrong. At least I’m sure they won’t use the money to rent an arena for a Benny Hinn festival.

I showed up fashionably late by about fifteen minutes, and the place was packed with Methodists. And it turns out they could tell I wasn’t a Methodist, because everyone else was at least thirty years older than me. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a minimum age to be a Methodist, or if there’s a minimum age to eat supper at 4:30 in the afternoon. If so, I was hungry beyond my years.

“All you care to eat” has more than one meaning. It can mean, “All you feel like eating,” or, as in this case, “all you care to wait for a little old lady to bring you to eat.” Because this was no buffet-style thing, this was a sit-down affair. I was told to sit down and I would be served. We were all being served. By dotty little old ladies. I didn’t want to make a fuss, but the old people around me sure did. They were polite about making a fuss though. They’d say, “I don’t want to make a fuss.” And then they’d make a fuss. A fuss about how long they’d been waiting or about someone who’d just come in having got served before them. Some of us got our pie before we got our fish. And some of us never got our iced tea.

It was very exciting. I found out something I would never have expected in a million years: in and around Charlevoix, there are a lot of people with the last name Elzinga who are somehow not related to each other.

I’d left my dog in the car, so the Methodists were good enough to pack me a second helping to go, because I really couldn’t wait for another round. They packed me all I cared to wait for them to pack me to eat. That’s the kind of benevolent people these Methodists are. Well-meaning, and only causing a moderate amount of bother with their well-meant errors in logistical judgment. If only everyone could be described that way. Most people can. It’s only the exceptional people who screw things up for the rest of us. It’s the people with big ideas you have to worry about.

The dog was fine, incidentally, the car windows were open about four inches and the car was parked in the shade, so get off my back about that, okay? The dog had had plenty of running around time that day prior to my sojourn in the fish fry. I know what my dog can take, trust me, will ya?

It’s not my dog you should worry about, anyway, and it’s not the Methodists with their well-meant if inconvenient fish fry. But as I say, I can’t be everywhere at once to keep my eye on the people with important ideas. I couldn’t be there last week when Thomas Friedman had his brilliant idea that we base our foreign policy on Warren Buffet’s investment preferences. I wasn’t there to say, “Tom, please rethink your idea about comparing the anti-Semitism of Iran’s president to the attractiveness of Israeli industry to Warren Buffet. People might get the idea you think all Israelis do is produce technology, and all Iranians do is think about wiping Israel off the map. That’s a dumb idea to suggest, Tom, and it’s pretty much the only idea you seem to be communicating with your misbegotten article.”

I wasn’t there to say, “The comparison you make is like comparing food to graffiti. It’s like comparing art to rape. Yeah, we all hate rape and love art. What’s your point, Tom? That Iranians spend all their time raping and Israelis spend all their time making art? That’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? And if you’re not saying that, then what’s the point of making the comparison? Because you’re comparing apples and orifices.”

(And what the hell does this mean: ‘The Czechs came all the way to the Israel-Lebanon border region to learn about the latest innovations in precision tool-making. Wertheimer is famous for staying close to his customers and the latest technologies. “If you sleep on the floor,” he likes to say, “you never have to worry about falling out of bed.”’?

What does the metaphor about falling out of bed have to do with staying close to one’s customers? Tom? Are you sure it’s even a metaphor? It sounds to me like he might really be suggesting you get a futon on and crash par terre.)

I couldn’t be there, and Tom Friedman went ahead and wrote his exceptionally incoherent op-ed. And the New York Times went ahead and published it. And the President of Iran kept making his stupid comments and thinking his anti-Semitic thoughts. Because even he, a crazy man, couldn’t figure out what Tom Friedman was trying to say, and so couldn’t be persuaded to change his ways.

Now, I know I run the same risk here as Thomas Friedman did. I’m comparing a Methodist fish fry to an embarrassingly bad article by Thomas Friedman. Well, let me explain why there’s a comparison to be made: The Methodists and Friedman were both well-meaning and annoying in their own way. Which I don’t think you can say about anti-Semitic hate speech and Israeli microchips or whatever. Iran has very intelligent, good hearted people living in it, and if we’re going to decide the worth of their country’s enterprises by watching which nation’s industry Warren Buffet is going to invest in, we’ll be making a big mistake. So, whereas I got two great servings of fish out of the Methodists, I got nothing but a headache from Thomas Friedman.

So, yes, I think Thomas Friedman and his article compare poorly to the Methodists and their fish fry. But I don’t feel I’m making a Thomas Friedman-type error here in comparing them. Because our trigger-happy president and vice-president aren’t trying to convince the country we should invade Thomas Friedman. Making the comparison doesn’t, therefore, threaten innocent, progressive, non-anti-Semitic persons living in Thomas Friedman (along with innocent non-progressive, non-non-anti-Semitic persons). The illogical conclusions to be drawn from my comparison don’t stand to contribute to an effort to destroy the fabric of Thomas Friedman’s civil society, however lamentably dominated by an irrational dogma that society may be. My comparison doesn’t threaten to destroy his infrastructure, his ability to feed, educate, or deliver health care to his people, or to prevent gallons of blood from flooding his streets.

I’m sure Thomas Friedman meant to communicate some sort of salient notion relevant to world politics. Instead, all he did was fail to deliver a good fish dinner. I guess dining with the Methodists has really taught me something: sometimes our mediocre thinkers would serve us better by setting their sights a little lower. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I apologize for the scarcity of tartar sauce.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!