Magazine March 8, 2010, Issue

Friedman Aflame

Tom Friedman (Newscom)
The Times columnist’s mind melts fact and reason into nonsense

Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel, The Possessed, is a tale about a small town overcome by revolutionary ideas. After an intense meeting of a literary salon, a fire breaks out and one of the villagers comments, “The fire is in the minds of men, not in the roofs of buildings.” The historian James Billington used that phrase — “the fire in the minds of men” — to describe the incendiary ardor of Russian revolutionaries of all stripes, making it the title of his epic history of the subject.

Now, in the hands of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, this scene could be a profound metaphor for the need to “green-size” housing in the developing world. Or it might be a perfect symbolic encapsulation of how the battle for the commanding heights of the economic future is really a branding competition between two theories of civilization. Or it might be a cautionary allegory imparted to him over a private dinner in Davos, Switzerland, by the Indian CEO of a Chinese company operating in over 70 nations, manufacturing solar-powered waterless toilets for hearing-impaired Muslims, in what amounts to a “soft power” victory in the war for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. Then again it might illustrate the ease of communication in our “flattened” world. Or it might be a glimpse into the dangers of Sarah Palin’s “drill, baby, drill” myopia.

Really, it could represent anything, because for Friedman everything is connected to everything else, so everything is a metaphor for everything. “In the Friedman mind,” writes Ian Parker in a 2008 profile for The New Yorker, “things tend to be like something else. The new is like the old. The foreign is like the American. The scattered has a pattern.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud famously observed — but not for Tom the Magic 8 Ball of cliché generation, the maestro of mixed metaphors. A cigar could be the key to understanding why geothermal energy is the only way to save the panda. Like the China Syndrome that inexorably leads to the perfect storm that breaks the camel’s back, Tom Friedman encounters no obstacles — factual, logical, or literary — between himself and the points he wants to make.

Consider this classic line from his book The World Is Flat: “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.” (Just for the record, the capitalized “Windows” is a reference to the operating system. That makes it crystal clear, right?) Or consider this sentence from his latest epic, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: “The demise of the Soviet Union and its iron curtain was like the elimination of a huge physical and political roadblock on the global economic playing field.”

Playing fields do not have roadblocks; windows in fallen walls, even when opened, do not reveal much. Of course, the reader understands what he is reading, just as the diner might grasp that he is eating possum scat — but that doesn’t really excuse the cook.

Attacking Friedman’s writing style is something of a bipartisan pastime. The gold standard of the genre is Matt Taibbi’s 2005 New York Press disembowelment, “Flathead.” Describing his mounting dread at the prospect of reading and reviewing The World Is Flat, Taibbi writes: “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.” According to The New Yorker, The World Is Flat contains roughly 600 variants of the word “flat”: “Age of Flatism,” “coefficient of flatness,” “compassionate flatism,” “half-flatness,” “flatburger.” There are “ten great flatteners,” each of which is the sort of thing you’d associate with the familiar argument that we live in an interconnected world.

All this reductio ad flatus stemmed from a conversation Friedman had with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys, in Bangalore, India. Nilekani said something that was intellectually, uh, flat about the effects of globalization on international competition: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.”

#page# “As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore,”Friedman explains, “I kept chewing on that phrase:‘The playing field is being leveled.’”Indeed, he masticated it to the point where it was meaningless cud and then had his eureka moment: “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!”

The rational response to this is: “My God! That is so not what he’s saying!” As countless others have noted, saying that a playing field is level is not remotely the same thing as saying that the world is flat, even metaphorically. Playing fields are defined by rules, often highly complex, that the participants agree to in advance; “leveling the playing field” means making competition in a specified arena fair. “The world is flat,” on the other hand, suggests flat-earthism, which implies that the speaker is crazy, ignorant, or idiotic. Presumably, Nilekani is none of those things. And even in the days when rational people thought the world was flat, they never suggested it was easy to traverse, borderless, or characterized by level playing fields. Highwaymen lurked just over every hill, and cartographers labeled any unexplored realm with “Here be dragons.” That’s not exactly a celebration of a borderless world.

In the newer editions of The World Is Flat, Friedman addresses the “cottage industry” of critics who attack his reliance on “flatness” to describe the new world order and defends himself on the grounds that he is a popularizer. “Whenever you opt for a big metaphor like ‘The World Is Flat,’” he writes in The World Is Flat 3.0 (get it?), “you trade a certain degree of academic precision for a much larger degree of explanatory power. Of course the world is not flat. But it isn’t round anymore, either. I have found that using the simple notion of flatness to describe how more people can plug, play, compete, connect, and collaborate with more equal power than ever before — which is what is happening in the world — really helps people who are trying to understand the essential impact of all the technological changes coming together today.” “I don’t mind using rhetoric,” he told The New Yorker. “I get criticized for that a lot: it’s ‘too cute,’ too this or that. But I’ve never had a reader come up to me and say, ‘That book was too easy to read. That anecdote went down too easily.’ To simplify something accurately, you’ve got to understand it deeply.”

But there’s the rub. He claims to be simplifying complex ideas and making them more understandable. But what he is in fact doing is taking an already simple idea — say, that of a level playing field — and making it meaningless. You can boil something down to the essentials, but if you keep boiling it you’re just left with nonsense. The level playing field is already a boiled-down idea, comprehensible by high-school sophomores and Charlie Rose alike. Friedman’s alchemist’s brain transmutes the dross of the banal into the bullion of bull.

His reporting and opining on the Middle East was great and Pulitzer-worthy because he actually knew what he was talking about. He spent years reporting from the region, is a serious student of its history, and speaks Arabic. But when he applies his distilling powers to his other hobbyhorses, the result is an ungodly mess.

Which brings us to his jihad for a “green revolution” (a revolution he will watch from the comfort of his mammoth compound in Bethesda, Md.). Over and over again (dear reader, I’ll stop using the phrase “over and over again” if you’ll take it to heart that anything Friedman has said once he has said many, many times), he insists that all of our problems can, will, and must be fixed by accepting his vision for dealing with the climate/energy challenge.

His arguments by now are familiar, because the Democratic party and the Obama administration have adopted them, in toto, as talking points. Friedman’s case for a green revolution, like most such cases, involves jumping to a new argument every time the present one collapses. Like Indiana Jones leaping just in time from one cave-in beneath his feet to the next, whenever the case for “green jobs” falls apart, Friedman leaps to “energy security.” When that crumbles under him, it’s a quick hop to the seeming terra firma of global warming. And when that disintegrates, he falls back on “so what?” Here’s how he put it on Meet the Press: “What I say is if climate change is a hoax, it’s the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the United States of America. Because everything we would do to get ready for climate change, to build this new green industry, would make us more respected, more entrepreneurial, more competitive, more healthy as a country.”

#page#Thus Plato’s noble lie is resuscitated in a pas de deux of flimflammery. The diagnosis might be fake, but the cure will still fix your lumbago, whiten your teeth, and give your horse a shiny coat.

Friedman is of late very frustrated with America for its failure to do what he says it must. Last September, in one of many columns lamenting that China does things better than we do, he wrote: “Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.” He continues: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks, but when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

Just to clarify, according to Friedman, America is a one-party democracy not because the Democrats control the White House, the House, and the Senate. No, no. The U.S. suffers under the yoke of one-party democracy because the Republicans refuse to be steamrolled by the Democrats.“Our one-party democracy is worse” than China’s one-party autocracy, he explains:

The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying “no.” Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste. Mr. Obama is not a socialist; he’s a centrist. But if he’s forced to depend entirely on his own party to pass legislation, he will be whipsawed by its different factions.

So what are the advantages of China’s “enlightened” one-party autocracy? To borrow a phrase from Elvis, the autocrats take care of business, in a flash. In a chapter of The World Is Flat titled “China for a Day (But Not for Two)” Friedman rhapsodizes about the glories of China’s statism. And in 2005 he began a column with this avowedly tongue-in-cheek prayer:

Dear God in Heaven: Forgive me my sins, for I have been to China and I have had bad thoughts. Forgive me, Heavenly Father, for I have cast an envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, just order that problems be solved. . . . I cannot help but feel a tinge of jealousy at China’s ability to be serious about its problems and actually do things that are tough and require taking things away from people. Dear Lord, please accept my expression of remorse for harboring such feelings. Amen.

Among the myriad problems with this cutesy-wutesy-ootseyness is the simple fact that Friedman should actually be offering a sincere prayer for forgiveness of his Durantyesque sycophancy in behalf of a totalitarian regime with the blood of 65 million people on its hands. If he’d written a chapter called “Nazis for a Day,” this point would be more obvious to more people. But instead of contrition we get scores more columns gushing about how great China is for being able to get all of the policies right.

For instance, Friedman particularly loves the fact that China’s State Council banned plastic bags. “Bam! Just like that — 1.3 billion people, theoretically, will stop using thin plastic bags,” he writes in Hot, Flat, and Crowded. “Millions of barrels of petroleum will be saved, and mountains of garbage avoided.” It’s as if Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson had been morons for not decreeing an annual Tyranny Day when all the work can get done. Regardless, as usual, “theoretically” means “not in reality.” China never did any such thing. It simply required that stores charge customers for bags. They do the same thing at my local Safeway, yet plastic bags continue to lurk, threatening all we hold dear. More to the point, it is either deranged or dishonest to suggest that China — with its ever-growing tally of coal factories, poisoned rivers, corrupt regulators, etc. — is some great steward of the environment. It may or may not be leading in the manufacture of green technologies — though don’t take Friedman’s word for it; he rarely sources his too-good-to-check claims — but it is also burning fossil fuels faster than any other country.

#page#It’s telling that the beat Friedman covers most adroitly in his column is his own brain. The datelines are often from Shanghai or Cairo, but they should really be from his frontal lobe. As with the Nilekani story, Friedman thinks the real news is how he came up with his latest idea, his next burning insight on the world. These “eureka moments”­  — as he likes to call them — usually come in conversations with rich CEOs and high-ranking international cookie-pushers in places like Davos. For instance, in his January 31 column, Friedman writes: “‘Political instability’ was a phrase normally reserved for countries like Russia or Iran or Honduras. But now, an American businessman here remarked to me, ‘people ask me about “political instability” in the U.S. We’ve become unpredictable to the world.’” And from there Friedman is back on autopilot, visiting the same argument he makes in just about every other column: China is beating America because China isn’t hobbled by a broken-down, outdated, inefficient political system known to its fans as “democracy.”

Friedman told The New Yorker that his analogizing instinct, which allows him to compare everything to anything and vice versa, is like a “pinball game going on in my head. Balls bouncing around.” The more apt metaphor would be a furnace. Every distinction, every objection to his vision for the world, every bit of countervailing evidence inconveniently popping up in reality simply melts away. He honestly believes that the year 2000 will be known as the first year of the Energy Climate Era: Jan. 1, 2000, really began 1 e.c.e. His panic that America can’t get important things done while the mandarins of Red China fiat utopia intensifies as Obama’s New Progressive Era retreats into a sad and strange historical parenthesis.

One doesn’t have to read Dostoevsky to know this sort of thing is hardly new — the envy for authoritarian regimes that can force the wheel of history in the right direction; the contempt for the messiness of democracy; the conviction that all good things go together and that certain enlightened and visionary revolutionaries can apply their intellects to any problem, can pick the lock of History and start over at Year Zero. This all-consuming passion for a unified theory of everything and the indomitable conviction that you are right has consumed many a brilliant mind.

Friedman doesn’t want America to become a totalitarian country — at least not for more than 24 hours. Whenever he goes too far in that rhetorical direction he pulls back a few paragraphs later, but his to-be-sures about how America is still better become less convincing every time, more pro-forma and cutesy. He is possessed by his own prophecy, consumed by his clairvoyance about the One Right Way. Half-measures succumb to the mental furnace; the case for democratic deliberation cannot withstand the heat. Everything fuels the fire in Tom’s mind.

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