[Paleopsych] TLS: (Tom Friedman) Confusing Columbus

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Tue May 3 22:15:06 UTC 2005

Confusing Columbus

The World Is Flat
By Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 488 pages; $27.50.
Penguin/Allen Lane; GBP20

THE term "populariser" is often used to sneer at writers who manage to
reach a wide audience by those who don't. But not all popularisers are
guilty of sensationalising or over-simplifying serious topics. There is
a sense in which everyone in modern societies, even the most earnest or
intellectually gifted, relies on the popularisation of ideas or
information, if that term is understood to mean the making of complex
issues comprehensible to the non-specialist. Achieving this is

In the field of international affairs one of America's most prominent
popularisers is Thomas Friedman, the leading columnist on the subject
for the NEW YORK TIMES. Mr Friedman constantly travels the world,
interviewing just about everyone who matters. He has won three Pulitzer
prizes. If anyone should be able to explain the many complicated
political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of
globalisation, it should be him. What a surprise, then, that his latest
book is such a dreary failure.

Mr Friedman's book is subtitled "A Brief History of the Twenty-First
Century", but it is not brief, it is not any recognisable form of
history--except perhaps of Mr Friedman's own wanderings around the
world--and the reference to our new, baby century is just gratuitous.
Even according to Mr Friedman's own account, the world has been
globalising since 1492.

This kind of imprecision--less kind readers might even use the word
"sloppiness"--permeates Mr Friedman's book. It begins with an account
of Christopher Columbus, who sets out to find India only to run into
the Americas. Mr Friedman claims that this proved Columbus's thesis
that the world is round. It did nothing of the kind. Proof that the
world is round came only in 1522, when the sole surviving ship from
Ferdinand Magellan's little fleet returned to Spain.

Undaunted by this fact, Mr Friedman portrays himself as a modern-day
Columbus. Like the Italian sailor, he also makes a startling
discovery--this time on a trip to India--though it turns out to be just
the opposite of Columbus's. An entrepreneur in Bangalore tells him that
"the playing field is being levelled" between competitors there and in
America by communications technology. The phrase haunts Mr Friedman. He
chews it over, and over, and over. And then it comes to him: "My God,
he's telling me the world is flat!"

Of course, the entrepreneur, even by Mr Friedman's own account, said
nothing of the kind. But Mr Friedman has discovered his metaphor for
globalisation, and now nothing will stop him. He shows his readers no
mercy, proceeding to flog this inaccurate and empty image to death over
hundreds of pages.

In his effort to prove that the world is flat (he means "smaller"), Mr
Friedman talks to many people and he quotes at length lots of articles
by other writers, as well as e-mails, official reports, advertising
jingles, speeches and statistics. His book contains a mass of
information. Some of it is relevant to globalisation. Like many
journalists, he is an inveterate name-dropper, but he does also manage
to interview some interesting and knowledgeable people. Mr Friedman's
problem is not a lack of detail. It is that he has so little to say.
Over and over again he makes the same few familiar points: the world is
getting smaller, this process seems inexorable, many things are
changing, and we should not fear this. Rarely has so much information
been collected to so little effect.

A number of truly enlightening books have been published recently which
not only support globalisation, but answer its critics and explain its
complexities to the general reader--most notably Jagdish Bhagwati's "In
Defence of Globalisation" and Martin Wolf's "Why Globalisation Works".
Because of Mr Friedman's fame as a columnist, his book will probably
far outsell both of these. That is a shame. Anyone tempted to buy "The
World is Flat" should hold back, and purchase instead Mr Bhagwati's
book or Mr Wolf's.

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