Saturday, June 04, 2005

The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened...

... says Thomas Friedman in one of the many inept passages in his book The World is Flat. Now Suhail Kazi sends me this link to a hilarious review by Matt Taibbi. Strictly speaking it isn’t so much a review as a long rant full of ad hominems, but it can be argued the Friedman book deserves no better.

Also, just had to share this bit from the closing pages of the book, it had me in splits:

"The flattening of the world...has presented us with new opportunities, new challenges...particularly as Americans. It is imperative that we be the best global citizens that we can be - because in a flat world, if you don't visit a bad neighborhood, it might visit you."

3 comments:

  1. Did you go for the book release? Looks like it was fun.

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  2. No, I missed it. But friends told me about the Aiyar incident.

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  3. Here's the Economist review, if you're interested....

    Globalisation
    Confusing Columbus

    Mar 31st 2005
    From The Economist print edition
    The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
    By Thomas L. Friedman

    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 admirable.

    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.

    By Thomas L. Friedman.
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 488 pages; $27.50.
    Penguin/Allen Lane; £20

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