[Paleopsych] NY Press: Matt Taibbi column about Thomas Friedman's Flattening

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Matt Taibbi column about Thomas Friedman's Flattening

    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 worlds
    manganese supply. Who knew what it meantbut one had to assume the

    "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
    phrasethe 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

    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

    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 contrastingironically, as
    it werewith 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

    "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

    To recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward India.
    Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman "had Lufthansa
    business class." When he reaches IndiaBangalore to be specifiche
    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 endand I'm not joking herewe 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
    Treea period of time referred to in the book as Globalization 2.0,
    with Globalization 1.0 beginning with Columbusthey 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 countriesIndia, Russia, China,
    among otherswalked 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 convergelet's say this means squaring them, because that
    seems to be the ideathree 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

    Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of
    upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your

    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 beenbut 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

    Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?

    Volume 18, Issue 16

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