What is particularly odd about Thomas Friedman is that the man has had a ringside seat to the whole process of globalization. Jetting up and down to the frontlines in the U.S. and Asia no doubt at is paper’s expense, teeing off with a bevy of well-known CEOs on golf courses in Bangalore, you’d think he would come up with something better than breathless snippets from conversations clearly mangled in recollection.
The first chapter of The World is Flat gives you some idea of the pattern throughout. In fifty odd pages Friedman manages to cram in chitchat with six CEOs -- Nandan Nilekani of Infosys, “Jerry” Rao of MphasiS, Tom Glocer of Reuters, Rajesh Rao of Global Edge, Vivek Paul of Wipro, and David Neelman of Jet Blue. He’s on first name basis; he lets you know repeatedly, with every one of them.
The other nine people he talks to are a pretty select group as well: an elite university president (effectively a CEO, as well); a consultant with globalization guru, McKinsey; the head of an Indian government department created to attract foreign investment; the mayor of a leading center of outsourcing in China and the man in charge of foreign investment at one of its leading software firms; the top-ranking U.S. general; the U.S. Ambassador to NATO; a senior Dept of Commerce official; and a CBS anchorman.
Every one of this glittering crowd is complicit with, beholden to, an apologist for, or an active promoter of the economic policies of globalization. And the only plebs that Friedman gets around to interviewing are also a very selective and special group: call center operators and trainers in Bangalore, a grandmother who works for Jet Blue’s customer service, and soldiers in Iraq monitoring the war through laptops and TV screens. The message couldn’t be clearer -- globalization helps the proles. Only we never really get to see or talk to any of them.
Of course, we rush to point out that we have no special liking ourselves for self-appointed guardians of the masses, but if this is not a shamelessly one-sided presentation of the story, we don’t know what is.
In fact, we hear from no substantial critics of globalization, from the left or the right, except dismissively. For instance, here is how Friedman describes the anti-globalization movement in Seattle: a combination of guilt, protectionism, Old Left politics -- which he calls the Coalition to Keep People Poor -- resistance to change, and anti-Americanism. Oddly, that’s exactly what he calls Pat Buchanan, except that Buchanan is from the Old Right.
And even odder, the part of the Seattle brigade that brings tears to his weary global eyes is the part one finds most suspect: the bevy of well-heeled environmentalists, trade activists, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), who end up cornering the press and hogging the events. These worthy opponents, claims Columbus on the Hudson, don’t stand for whether-we-globalize, but for how-we-globalize . . . which makes them “well-meaning” and “constructive.”
In other words, the only critics Friedman will put up with are the ones who have already conceded the argument to him but might like to nit-pick his grammar.
Nowhere do we learn that the “well-meaning” NGOs he clucks over lovingly receive generous funding from the same corporations which make big bucks out of keeping the global playbook the way it is. Or that big NGOs have to follow rules laid down by the World Bank. And if they criticize anything, they must do it within the framework of the global game.
Nowhere do we hear that businesses often like to undermine credible opponents by co-opting their arguments or simply buying them out.
Don’t wait for Uncle Tom to tell you that NGOs can be as flush as government or corporate shills; or that they have as much in common with the people they claim to represent as a New York Times columnist has with yesterday’s ink-stained journalist, or that at the World Social Forum -- the leading hang-out for the anti-globalization brigade -- NGOs are seen as Trojan horses not comrades in arms.
But, it would be too easy to argue that the toney crowd he hangs out with has simply biased his thinking in its favor. The chances are that Friedman’s prejudices “just growed” -- like Topsy -- without any input, and that the quotes he takes from his CEO pals merely prop up arguments he long ago bought into… out of sheer laziness. It’s quite likely that a journalist with his wits about him could have gone to the very same CEOs and come away with a far different view of globalization from Friedman’s.
“Tom, the playing field is being leveled,” remarks Infosys’s Nandan Nilekani. From that phrase, as bland as any, Friedman invents the entire theme of the book, and supports it with other invented buzzwords -- all equally vacuous. The object seems to be to do away with any need for analysis but simultaneously inflate the importance of the inventor.
Not only themes, but even supposed facts owe their existence to idle chitchat. On p. 104 of the book, for example, he makes the preposterous claim that India has no resources. On p. 105, we find the source for the claim -- one Dinakar Singh. And what is Mr. Singh’s qualification to make this bogus pronouncement. Why, he is “one of the most respected young hedge-fund managers on Wall Street, whose parents graduated from an IIT and then immigrated to America, where he was born.” Indian economists are a well-known and widely dispersed lot, occupying perches in most major universities and think tanks. Or if you disdain academia, there are legions of Indian businessmen who can give you the lay of the land first hand. We wonder why Mr. Friedman avoids either source and goes to a hedge-fund manager instead.
We wonder if Mr. Singh speaks any Indian language, visits the country with any regularity and has ever read a competent book of history or economics on the subject.
As for our intrepid representative of the fourth estate -- it is apparently not worth his Pulitzer-studded time to flip open even the most basic primer on India -- nay, even to click on AskJeeves.com to verify this piece of drivel.
Of course buzzwords have a specific role, besides substituting for actually cortical function. Their purpose is to make everything described in the book seem inevitable, ineluctable, a force of history impossible to deter.
For instance, there’s the Dell Theory of Conflict Avoidance. Friedman addicts will recognize the concept from the Lexus and the Olive Tree, where it was first introduced as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention:
“As countries got woven into the fabric of global trade and rising living standards, which having a network of MacDonald’s franchises had come to symbolize, the cost of war for victor and vanquished became prohibitively high,” he argued there.
Ergo, no two countries with MacDonald’s would ever go to war with each other. Of course, he admits that the Golden Arches theory was proposed tongue-in-cheek. And so is its updated version, the Dell Theory. But still, one can’t help feeling that secretly he takes his theorizing very seriously.
“The advent and spread of just-in-time global supply chains in the flat world are an even greater restraint on geopolitical adventurism than the more general rising standard of living that McDonald’s symbolized,” he writes in the penultimate chapter of his book.
Since the last chapter, “11-9 versus 9-11” is the core of the book’s argument, you have to believe that the Dell Theory is pretty significant despite Mr. Friedman’s demurral.
Of course, there’s the inevitable CEO sound byte from Dell’s chairman, Michael Dell, to buttress the theory.
“Once people get a taste for whatever you want to call it -- economic independence, a better lifestyle, and a better life for their child or children -- they grab on to that and don’t want to give it up.”
Perhaps Friedman… and Mr. Dell... have not read Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion. Published in 1913, the book argued that it was no longer possible to go to war to reap wealth because the world was so interconnected that there would be no real victors any more. Both victor and vanquished would lose. As a business, war was a no go, argued Angell. One year later, the First World War broke out. Over the following four years, some million young men were killed and three empires -- the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the German -- were wrecked. A fourth -- the British -- sustained a blow from which it never recovered.
Angell, like Friedman, forgot two things: first, human beings fight for many other reasons besides financial ones. Second, that even though war might not be worthwhile to the majority of people, who have to suffer its results, a small minority stands to gain. In war, costs are borne by society as a whole; but profits are reaped by a few. For those few, war will still be worthwhile no matter how disastrous it is for everyone else; it will be still be a bonanza . . . however convex, concave or flat the rest of the world.
And Friedman probably knows that too. It’s just that his winning little word games get the better of him.
Describing how the information technology business put pressure on the Indian government to back down during a confrontation with Pakistan in 2002, for instance, he writes:
“The example of the 2002 India-Pakistan nuclear crisis at least gives us some hope. That cease-fire was brought to us not by General Powell but by General Electric.
And then he can’t resist adding, “We bring good things to life.”
Too bad that Friedman can’t bring life to good things.
Globalization may be a good thing . . . or not . . . but is surely more than a long commercial jingle alternating between Chinese and Hindi. There must be more to India, we feel confident, than Zippies (“a young city or suburban resident, between 15 and 25 years of age, with a zip in the stride. Belongs to Generation Z. Can be male or female, studying or working. Oozes attitude, ambition and aspiration. Cool, confident and creative. Seeks challenges, loves, risks and shuns fears,” according to the trendy Indian magazine, Outlook and Untouchables -- “In India, untouchables may be the lowest social class, but in a flat world everyone would want to be an untouchable. Untouchables, in my lexicon, are people whose jobs cannot be outsourced”).
The Indian population is over a billion. Out of that, a few million are part of the information technology world. Zippies form a small proportion of that group, and Untouchables whose jobs can’t be taken away from them are an even tinier proportion.
How does the unzippy, very touchable mass of people outside fit into Friedman’s upbeat little promo? He doesn’t say. Nor do we expect or want him to. We are not in the business of social work or social science. We merely find something bizarre and entertaining in the spectacle of a man making calculations about a billion plus people he knows nothing of on the basis of vapid slogans culled out of a popular magazine and we find something even more bizarre and chilling in the spectacle of allegedly intelligent people taking him seriously.
Ultimately, understanding globalization by reading a book by Friedman strikes us as about as useful an exercise as measuring a heat wave by sticking a thermometer into the hind-parts of your parakeet.
Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Argentina, and the author of the must-read book, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She can be reached at: email@example.com. Copyright (c) 2006 by Lila Rajiva
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