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Thomas Friedman, Revisited

March 9, 2009 Leave a comment

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A few months ago I wrote a post, Thomas Friedman and Conventional Wisdom, in which I used quotes from Bill McKibben (in his NY Review of Books review of Friedman’s book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America) and Glenn Greenwald (in a then-new post on his blog) to explain what has long bugged me about Friedman. I can’t resist returning to this subject because yesterday (thanks to a current Greenwald post, on a different subject) I discovered a brilliant appraisal of Friedman and his book by Matt Taibbi that appeared two months ago at New York Press.

Taibbi’s article is more than a little snarky, but in an informative way, and I highly recommend it. I especially recommend its discussion of Friedman’s extrapolation from a graph, with suggestions of other extrapolations one can make with Friedman’s methodology. I’ll end with one typical passage:

Like The World is Flat, a book borne of Friedman’s stirring experience of seeing IBM sign in the distance while golfing in Bangalore, Hot, Flat and Crowded is a book whose great insights come when Friedman golfs (on global warming allowing him more winter golf days: “I will still take advantage of it—but I no longer think of it as something I got for free”), looks at Burger King signs (upon seeing a “nightmarish neon blur” of KFC, BK and McDonald’s signs in Texas, he realizes: “We’re on a fool’s errand”), and reads bumper stickers (the “Osama Loves your SUV” sticker he read turns into the thesis of his “Fill ‘er up with Dictators” chapter). This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.

Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.’” And off he goes. You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights. And by the time you get all that sorted out, your well-lit tri-plane is flying from chapter to chapter delivering a million geo-green pizzas to a million Noahs on a million Arks. And you give up. There’s so much shit flying around the book’s atmosphere that you don’t notice the only action is Friedman talking to himself.

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Categories: Books, Culture, Economics, Politics