michael at michaelbutler.com
Fri Apr 1 08:01:47 PST 2005
Mar 31st 2005
>From The Economist print edition
THE term ³populariser² 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 ³A Brief History of the Twenty-First
Century², but it is not brief, it is not any recognisable form of
historyexcept perhaps of Mr Friedman's own wanderings around the worldand
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 imprecisionless kind readers might even use the word
³sloppiness²permeates 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 discoverythis
time on a trip to Indiathough it turns out to be just the opposite of
Columbus's. An entrepreneur in Bangalore tells him that ³the playing field
is being levelled² 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: ³My God, he's telling me the
world is flat!²
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 ³smaller²), 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 readermost notably Jagdish Bhagwati's ³In
Defence of Globalisation² and Martin Wolf's ³Why Globalisation Works².
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 ³The World is
Flat² should hold back, and purchase instead Mr Bhagwati's book or Mr
By Thomas L. Friedman.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 488 pages; $27.50.
Penguin/Allen Lane; £20
Copyright © 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights
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