So, in his peregrinations on the intranet, Keyser comes across some reviews of book written by someone named Thomas Friendman,who is apparently an op-ed writer of the lowest order for the Mew York Times. Long-time readers know of Keyser’s aversion for Pravda on the Hudson, both for ideological and practical reasons (fuck signing in to read a lot of leftist drivel), so Keyser had hitherto been unaware of this fellow’s existence. Just as well, to judge by the comments of the review, someone named Matthew Taibi.
Apparently, this Friedman guy is an erstwhile advocate of globalization, whose screeds are couched in rather doubtful English.
..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.
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 Bangalore:
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 leveled.”
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 world.
“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 knowledge.
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.
That’s about the first book. Here’s the second:
I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.
Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:
The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”
First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.
Even better was this gem from one of Friedman’s latest columns: “The fighting, death and destruction in Gaza is painful to watch. But it’s all too familiar. It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called: “Who owns this hotel? Can the Jews have a room? And shouldn’t we blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque?” There are many serious questions one could ask about this passage, but the one that leaped out at me was this: In the “title” of that long-running play, is it supposed to be the same person asking all three of those questions? If so,
does that person suffer from multiple personality disorder? Because in the first question, he is a neutral/ignorant observer of the Mideast drama; in the second he sympathizes with the Jews; in the third he’s a radical Muslim. Moreover, after you blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque, is the surrounding hotel still there? Why would anyone build a mosque in a half-blown-up hotel? Perhaps Friedman should have written the passage like this: “It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called: “Who owns this hotel? And why did a person suffering from multiple personality disorder build a mosque inside it after blowing up the bar and asking if there was a room for the Jews? Why? Because his editor’s been drinking rubbing alcohol!”
Okay, Keyser imagines that you’re laughing to yourselves as you wonder, “But what does that have to do with Valerie Bertinelli’s ass?” Funny you should ask.
In The World is Flat, the key action scene of the book comes when Friedman experiences his pseudo-epiphany about the Flat world while talking with himself in front of InfoSys CEO Nandan Nilekani. In Hot, Flat and Crowded, the money shot comes when Friedman starts doodling on a napkin over lunch with Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. The pre-lunching Friedman starts drawing, and the wisdom just comes pouring out:
I laid out my napkin and drew a graph showing how there seemed to be a rough correlation between the price of oil, between 1975 and 2005, and the pace of freedom in oil-producing states during those same years.
Friedman then draws his napkin-graph, and much to the pundit’s surprise, it turns out that there is almost an exact correlation between high oil prices and “unfreedom”! The graph contains two lines, one showing a rising and then descending slope of “freedom,” and one showing a descending and then rising course of oil prices.
Friedman plots exactly four points on the graph over the course of those 30 years. In 1989, as oil prices are falling, Friedman writes, “Berlin Wall Torn Down.” In 1993, again as oil prices are low, he writes, “Nigeria Privatizes First Oil Field.” 1997, oil prices still low, “Iran Calls for Dialogue of Civilizations.” Then, finally, 2005, a year of high oil prices: “Iran calls for Israel’s destruction.”Take a look for yourself: I looked at this and thought: “Gosh, what a neat trick!” Then I sat down and drew up my own graph, called SIZE OF VALERIE BERTINELLI’S ASS, 1985-2008, vs. HAPPINESS. It turns out that there is an almost exact correlation! Note the four points on the graph:
1990: Release of Miller’s Crossing
2001: Ate bad tuna fish sandwich at Times Square Blimpie; felt sick
2008: Barack Obama elected
That was so much fun, I drew another one! This one is called AMERICAN PORK BELLY PRICES vs. WHAT MIDGETS THINK ABOUT AUSTRALIA 1972-2002.
Or how about this one, called NUMBER OF ONE- EYED RETARDED FLIES IN THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA vs. LIKELIHOOD OF NUCLEAR COMBAT ON INDIAN SUBCONTINENT.
Obviously this sounds like a flippant analysis, but that’s more or less exactly what Friedman is up to here. If you’re going to draw a line that measures the level of “freedom” across the entire world and on that line plot just four randomly-selected points in time over the course of 30 years—and one of your top four “freedom points” in a 30-year period of human history is the privatization of a Nigerian oil field—well, what the fuck? What can’t you argue, if that’s how you’re going to make your point? He could have graphed a line in the opposite direction by replacing Berlin with Tiananmen Square, substituting Iraqi elections for Iran’s call for Israel’s destruction (incidentally, when in the last half-century or so have Islamic extremists not called for Israel’s destruction?), junking Iran’s 1997 call for dialogue for the U.S. sanctions against Iran in ’95, and so on. It’s crazy, a game of Scrabble where the words don’t have to connect on the board, or a mathematician coming up with the equation A B -3X = Swedish girls like chocolate.
So, there you have it. Let’s all hope that Valerie Bertinelli does better with Jenny Craig than Kirstie Alley did. From her ass to your happiness!
Or something like that.