Media  
comments_image Comments

Flathead

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's latest book on Globalization is a battle between twisted logic and atrocious writing.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
I think it was about five months ago that Press editor Alex Zaitchik whispered to me in the office hallway that Thomas Friedman had a new book coming out. All he knew about it was the title, but that was enough; he approached me with the chilled demeanor of a British spy who has just discovered that Hitler was secretly buying up the world's manganese supply. Who knew what it meant--but one had to assume the worst

"It's going to be called 'The Flattening,'" he whispered. Then he stood there, eyebrows raised, staring at me, waiting to see the effect of the news when it landed. I said nothing.

It turned out Alex had bad information; the book that ultimately came out would be called 'The World Is Flat.' It didn't matter. Either version suggested the same horrifying possibility. Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a very dangerous thing indeed. It would be like letting a chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into your 50s.

So I tried not to think about it. But when I heard the book was actually coming out, I started to worry. Among other things, I knew I would be asked to write the review. The usual ratio of Friedman criticism is 2:1, i.e., two human words to make sense of each single word of Friedmanese. 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.

On an ideological level, Friedman's new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, "The World Is Flat" would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore.) That's the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that's all there is.

It's impossible to divorce "The World Is Flat" from its rhetorical approach. It's not for nothing that Thomas Friedman is called "the most important columnist in America today." That it's Friedman's own colleague at the New York Times (Walter Russell Mead) calling him this, on the back of Friedman's own book, is immaterial. Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity. Like George Bush, he's in the reality-making business. In the new flat world, argument is no longer a two-way street for people like the president and the country's most important columnist. You no longer have to worry about actually convincing anyone; the process ends when you make the case.

Things are true because you say they are. The only thing that matters is how sure you sound when you say it. In politics, this allows America to invade a castrated Iraq in self-defense. In the intellectual world, Friedman is now probing the outer limits of this trick's potential, and it's absolutely perfect, a stroke of genius, that he's choosing to argue that the world is flat. The only thing that would have been better would be if he had chosen to argue that the moon was made of cheese.

And that's basically what he's doing here. The internet is speeding up business communications, and global labor markets are more fluid than ever. Therefore, the moon is made of cheese. That is the rhetorical gist of "The World Is Flat." It's brilliant. Only an America-hater could fail to appreciate it.

Start with the title

The book's genesis is conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani causally mutters to Friedman: "Tom, the playing field is being leveled." To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase--the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: "The playing field is being leveled."
What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened... Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!
This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting--ironically, as it were--with Columbus's discovery that the world is round.

Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus's discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the "flat world" into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

"Let me... share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round," he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

To recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward India. Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman "had Lufthansa business class." When he reaches India--Bangalore to be specific--he immediately plays golf. His caddy, he notes with interest, wears a cap with the 3M logo. Surrounding the golf course are billboards for Texas Instruments and Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut billboard reads: "Gigabites of Taste." Because he sees a Pizza Hut ad on the way to a golf course, something that could never happen in America, Friedman concludes: "No, this definitely wasn't Kansas."

After golf, he meets Nilekani, who casually mentions that the playing field is level. A nothing phrase, but Friedman has traveled all the way around the world to hear it. Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought. That he misattributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.

And boy, does it take off. Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end--and I'm not joking here--we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman's book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author's metaphors.

God strike me dead if I'm joking about this. Judge for yourself. After the initial passages of the book, after Nilekani has forgotten Friedman and gone back to interacting with the sane, Friedman begins constructing a monstrous mathematical model of flatness. The baseline argument begins with a lengthy description of the "ten great flatteners," which is basically a highlight reel of globalization tomahawk dunks from the past two decades: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Netscape IPO, the pre-Y2K outsourcing craze, and so on. Everything that would give an IBM human resources director a boner, that's a flattener. The catch here is that Flattener #10 is new communications technology: "Digital, Mobile, Personal, and Virtual." These technologies Friedman calls "steroids," because they are "amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners."

According to the mathematics of the book, if you add an IPac to your offshoring, you go from running to sprinting with gazelles and from eating with lions to devouring with them. Although these 10 flatteners existed already by the time Friedman wrote "The Lexus and the Olive Tree"--a period of time referred to in the book as Globalization 2.0, with Globalization 1.0 beginning with Columbus--they did not come together to bring about Globalization 3.0, the flat world, until the 10 flatteners had, with the help of the steroids, gone through their "Triple Convergence." The first convergence is the merging of software and hardware to the degree that makes, say, the Konica Minolta Bizhub (the product featured in Friedman's favorite television commercial) possible. The second convergence came when new technologies combined with new ways of doing business. The third convergence came when the people of certain low-wage industrial countries--India, Russia, China, among others--walked onto the playing field. Thanks to steroids, incidentally, they occasionally are "not just walking" but "jogging and even sprinting" onto the playing field.

Now let's say that the steroids speed things up by a factor of two. It could be any number, but let's be conservative and say two. The whole point of the book is to describe the journey from Globalization 2.0 (Friedman's first bestselling book) to Globalization 3.0 (his current bestselling book). To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take 10 flatteners, and you have them converge--let's say this means squaring them, because that seems to be the idea--three times. By now, the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids in there, and we're dealing with a flattening factor somewhere in the several thousands at any given page of the book. We're talking about a metaphor that mathematically adds up to a four-digit number. If you're like me, you're already lost by the time Friedman starts adding to this numerical jumble his very special qualitative descriptive imagery. For instance:

And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere.
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!

Let's speak Friedmanese for a moment and examine just a few of the notches on these antlers (Friedman, incidentally, measures the flattening of the world in notches, i.e. "The flattening process had to go another notch"; I'm not sure where the notches go in the flat plane, but there they are.) Flattener #1 is actually two flatteners, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spread of the Windows operating system. In a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread the instant a suggestive word like "Windows" is introduced; you wince, knowing what's coming, the same way you do when Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian. And Friedman doesn't disappoint. His description of the early 90s:

The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been--but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.
How the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened?

Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?
Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.