A gratuitous post about Thomas Friedman

There is a pecking order in the media and I am not too far from the bottom. I would place myself a rung above the bottom, a spot where the muck and penury do brush against one’s buttocks ever so often.

The only good thing about being at the bottom of the totem pole is that you have the luxury of being able to take shots at those higher up. Before this description gets any more labored, let me come to the point.

The India Ink blog of The New York Times today features some readers’ questions and op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman’s answers. In certain quarters, Friedman is a much reviled figure for his worldview. Those who belong to these quarters seem to forget that he is just a columnist trying to make sense out of global trends. He is undeserving of the kind of contumelies which are often heaped on him. By that I mean he does not matter so much as to deserve contumelies.

One of the questions that Friedman has been asked comes from a reader named Venkat from New Jersey. He asks who bears the social cost of globalization and whether it should be regulated.

Friedman answers: “The first thing you need to understand about globalization is that it is everything and its opposite. So it is take it with one hand and give it with another hand.

On the one hand it is automating more things faster. On the other hand I met with young Indian entrepreneurs who are leveraging the cloud, open-source tools and very small amounts of capital, and are able to invent companies that can complete globally like never before.

So, who is the exploiter and who is the exploitee in this system? If horses could vote, there never would have been cars.”

It is the reference to horses that caught my eye. Friedman makes a great point about horses. After all, which animal does not love being ridden rough shod, harnessed, saddled, blindered, reined in and even whipped? I can see how the global equine population would have seriously mourned the loss of their primacy as a means of transport for humans if they had the capacity to feel such emotions.

As an aside, I wonder whether Alexander or Chengiz Khan driving a Hummer or a Land Rover while conquering the world would have made equally compelling figures.

If Friedman is reviled by some, he is also equally celebrated and gushed over by many for what they think is his unique way to explain a world in ferment. One such explanation that has come to define him is the idea that the world is flat. Although not his original construct, it is now associated with him. His 2004 book ‘The World is Flat’ remains one of his career’s highlights. So it is inevitable that he gets asked questions about it. He is indeed asked by a reader who wants to know if the world is still flat.

Friedman replies, “I wrote the “World Is Flat” in 2004. I have to confess, I now realize the book was wrong. The world is so much flatter than I thought.”

In response to another question about globalization he says, “First let me make a general response: I did not invent globalization. I promise you. I just wrote about it.

I wrote about the upsides and the downsides. I didn’t start it and I can’t stop it. I have my own problems with it.”

I cite these two responses to illustrate how an op-ed columnist, who has been virtually canonized in certain quarters, tends to unselfconsciously believe in his own myth.

When he says he was wrong about the world being flat because it is flatter than he thought, you might think he is recognizing the limits of his prognostications. What he is actually saying is that he was so right even when he was not fully right. So imagine how right he would be when is fully right!

On the point about his not having invented globalization, what’s the point of that? Who thinks he did? Also, who thinks he can stop it?

Note to self: As I reflect on today’s post, its gratuitousness (except the point about horses) becomes uncomfortably obvious. But then having come this far into my daily blog, it seems such a waste not to go through with it.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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