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April 25, 2005 3:33 PM   Subscribe

A contrarian review of Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" - "It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans." Having watched Friedman flog this book on seemingly dozens of talk shows in the last month, I can't say I disagree...
posted by GriffX (54 comments total)

 
I liked the cover that Rees did, as well.
posted by hackly_fracture at 3:43 PM on April 25, 2005


I have never been ovzerly fond of Tom F., but after readinbg this dimwit review which says nothing about what globalization is doing, is all about, and instead getting an overly long and turgid put-down of Friedman's prose and use of metaphor, I am now convinced that the book, just about any book, has to be better than this review (?) of a book. ps: Columbus was a latecomer to the idea that the world was round.
posted by Postroad at 3:49 PM on April 25, 2005


a friend sent me the following letter that probably won't be printed in the NY Times:

Editor:

I must be missing something. Thomas Friedman (April 22, 2005, "Sizzle, Yes, But Beef, Too") refers to Tony Blair's support for President Bush during "the darkest hours of the Iraq drama, when things were looking disastrous."

I've been following the New York Times coverage of the war with diligence, and for the life of me I cannot imagine why Mr. Friedman places "disastrous" in the past tense. That coverage is a relentless series of accounts that reflect a disaster growing steadily more disastrous.

Is Mr. Friedman privy to positive information about the war that the New York Times has chosen not to report? Would Mr. Friedman care to share that information with his readers?

D.
posted by warbaby at 4:09 PM on April 25, 2005


I think it's pretty valid to criticize a columnist for his writing. Here's a related article that manages to criticize his writing *and* his arguments, from an earlier MeFi thread.
posted by freebird at 4:10 PM on April 25, 2005


To be fair, the substancelessness of Friedman's book is also a target of the turgid put-downs: Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore.) That's the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that's all there is.

also
posted by fleacircus at 4:10 PM on April 25, 2005


A review of the book need not necessarily summarize the contents; it's a pretty common thing for a reviewer to comment on the writing style.

That said, the review is decidedly one-sided (one dimensional?) (get it?) but it's clear that Friedman is a pretty terrible writer.
posted by Specklet at 4:16 PM on April 25, 2005


Columbus was a latecomer to the idea that the world was round.

Thanks for that. I despise the myth that Columbus was a brave, brilliant maverick arguing for a round earth against the flat-earth establishment. The shape of the globe (oblate spheroid) was known to the ancients; Eratosthenes calculated the radius (something a flat earth emphatically does not have) to within 1,000 km or so, and it's been suggested the Egyptians were even more accurate.

Certainly no educated person in Columbus' Europe believed in a flat earth, and certainly the Spanish royal house would never have funded his expedition had they expected he was going to go sailing off the edge.

Columbus' bold claim was that it would be quicker to sail to India by going West than by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. On this count he was wrong, and not only because of the unexpected continents in his way. His calculations of the Earth's circumference were considerable worse than those of Eratosthenes.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:18 PM on April 25, 2005


It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius.

Glorious. Reading literary skewerings like this is such a guilty pleasure.
posted by flaneur at 4:20 PM on April 25, 2005


If the review is accurate about how mixed and broken metaphors obliterate (or even significantly reduce) the readability of Tom's book, I don't care if the book has the most important content ever --- I can't read it. Especially as a NYT columnist, Tom should understand that the onus is on the writer to get the message across. It can't be left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by about_time at 4:24 PM on April 25, 2005


This was great. I think it's unfortunate that someone can read that review (or rather, NOT read it and pretend to have read it.) and think it was only critical of his prose style.

The entire point was that his book was boring, poorly thought out, and wrong.

Does anyone else, reading this, feel like instead of writing a book Friedman should have just contributed heavily to NYT Circuits? (back when it still existed). I mean, describing wireless internet as the ultimate revelation of your book is not only boring and poorly thought out, but also almost 10 years behind the curve.
posted by shmegegge at 4:44 PM on April 25, 2005


I enjoyed reading this review a lot!
posted by chaz at 4:47 PM on April 25, 2005


Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity. ... Things are true because you say they are. The only thing that matters is how sure you sound when you say it.

It's fair polemics, though Friedman got too sententious for anyone with a brain a long time ago.
posted by Zurishaddai at 4:48 PM on April 25, 2005


For a different view of globalization, Naomi Klein's No Logo isn't outdated yet, and well worth the read.
posted by muckster at 4:56 PM on April 25, 2005


I'm a big Thomas Friedman fan and this had me cracking up. I will now always have Matt Tiabi's voice in my head while I'm reading Friedman, in much the same way that I can hear The Onion in my head when I read a newspaper.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:02 PM on April 25, 2005


Taibbi. I can't type.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:03 PM on April 25, 2005


Meh. Knock on Taibbi all you want for the content-free review, but on Friedman's part, I don't think it should count as insightful anymore to say "there's a global labor market! This changes everything!"

For more substantive info on globalization, check out Martin Wolf's "Why Globalization Works" (which is obviously partisan, but a very approachable summary of the accepted wisdom on that side), Joe Stiglitz's "Globalization and its Discontents" (not as anti-trade as you'd expect from the title, but very against the IMF / Washington Consensus approach to it) and finally Dani Rodrik's "Has Globalization Gone Too Far?" (which is dense but quite insightful and gets right to the core of some of the real problems with globalization as currently implemented).
posted by rkent at 5:10 PM on April 25, 2005


Lions?
posted by boo_radley at 5:18 PM on April 25, 2005


It's not a herd, it's a pride?
posted by muckster at 5:23 PM on April 25, 2005


People can act in herds but also hunt. Perhaps Tom wasn't making an analogy.

Ants?
posted by about_time at 5:34 PM on April 25, 2005


I have been reading Friedman's book and I have to agree with some of Tiabi's statments about the metaphors but I don't think that The Wolrd is Flat is trying to "hypnotize" people into liking Globalization.

The article was still very funny... kind of like that quick time vid of that guy ranting about Macs.
posted by graham1881 at 5:38 PM on April 25, 2005


I kept hoping that Jon Stewart would say something cutting and witty when Friedman was on The Daily Show but since he's usually nicer to someone when they're a guest than he is when they're not, I was out of luck.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:51 PM on April 25, 2005


Spin magazine once ran a review of Jewel's poetry collection that talked exclusively about the font and other design details. This strikes me as a similar kind of thing: the content of Friedman's argument isn't even worth discussing, and the really spectacular thing is his Frankensteinesque way with metaphors.

Also, Tiabbi's not a literary critic, he's a media commentator, so the argument that he's not done his job as a reviewer is moot.

Furthermore, I laughed out loud in several places, such as this one . . .

Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end—and I'm not joking here—we 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.

And finally, as I mentioned in the previous discussion of this book, Friedman's use of (for example) the presence of Pizza Hut billboards in the posh parts of Bangalore as proof of his flat world without mentioning that the overwhelming majority of Indians cannot afford to eat at Pizza Hut demonstrates that he's either grossly intellectually dishonest or else spectacularly naive (or perhaps both).
posted by gompa at 5:56 PM on April 25, 2005


i am amused like a small boy with a wide ambitious collection of toys. my heart fills up like a basket of smooth shiny rocks, and i get it! *winks* i'll pull my fish into the boat before it runs away! thx for all the mammories

p.s. axis of evil? more like axes of weevil if you think about it thats what life can be like with out democracy cause demo =tape weevil , cracy = nancy drew, axes are for cutting down trees.
posted by nola at 6:04 PM on April 25, 2005


Oh man, I thought he was talking about Milton Friedman at first and I got totally confused.
posted by mecran01 at 6:21 PM on April 25, 2005


This is the funniest thing I've read all week. Thanks!
posted by buriednexttoyou at 6:24 PM on April 25, 2005


Hilariously, deliciously vicious review. Just saw it via A&L Daily scant minutes ago, and loved every damn word.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:31 PM on April 25, 2005


Holy shit, that rocks.
posted by undule at 6:33 PM on April 25, 2005


This is what book reviewing should be, at least when the book really sucks. Great post!
posted by LarryC at 7:15 PM on April 25, 2005


I've been hating on Friedman for a couple years now- ever since my mother tried forcing me to read Latitudes and Attitudes- but I could never quite articulate exactly what bothered me about him.

Enter Taibbi's review, which says everything I've been thinking but unable to verbalize; suffice it to say that since I've read it I've been feeling pretty vindicated and clever.

The next time my mom tries to push Friedman on me I'm totally going to gank Taibbi's witty barbs and pretend I came up with them myself. She won't be the wiser!
posted by elisabeth r at 7:24 PM on April 25, 2005


Friedman's a love/hate person. Me, I hate. I once had to read The Lexus and the Olive Tree for a reading group. I thought that it was painfully, cluelessly, execrably written. It's one of the few books I have been unable to finish simply because it was so bad, and I'll read pretty much anything, if only because I've damn well paid for it.
posted by carter at 8:15 PM on April 25, 2005


Flat Earth is essentialy a 19th C construct to make modern man look smart compared to Medieval man, but for those who know the etymology, it achieves the opposite.
posted by stbalbach at 8:22 PM on April 25, 2005


More on the "Myth of the Flat Earth"
posted by stbalbach at 8:25 PM on April 25, 2005


So far the literature on globalization and outsourcing tends to be either a)a doomsday scenario where westerners end up completely jobless, or b)a polyanna scenario of grand "retraining" schemes and westerners getting paid just for sitting around and get ideas. The second is quite common in the American business press. Frankly I don't think that either extreme makes for a believable case. The world will be flat the day I can actually live in North America for roughly $100 per month... then the playing field will truly be level.
posted by clevershark at 8:34 PM on April 25, 2005


clevershark, are you reading anything on global justice outside of metafilter?

I have no idea what people are reading when they say that people like Naomi Klein / Joe Stiglitz / Arundhati Roy / Shiva / the global justice crowd are "anti-trade."

Sure, a lot of the movement emphasizes sustaining local economies, perhaps at the expense of not contributing to remote economies, because that's what political / economic / cultural action that a marginalized movement is capable of taking. Sure, the deep(er) ecologists point out that global trade is dependent on transportation technologies which are in turn dependent on finite and dangerous energy sources--but that doesn't mean they are "anti-trade"--they are just anti-exploitation. Perhaps the confusion and false dilemma comes because of the wide range of opinions on trade within the movement.

But how is traveling to mexico and latin america to get indigenous crafts and products from worker-owned collectives from revolutionary Chiapas or Nicaragua to sell to financially privileged and sympathetic Gringos "anti-trade"? How is organizing a Shade-Grown / Organic / Collectivized / "Fair Trade" coffee market in the states so coffee growers in the Tropics can live more decent, dignified lives "anti-trade"? How is starting your own sneaker line "anti-trade"? How are Indymedia, the beehive collective, and the bicycle donation networks "anti-trade" when all they do is exchange? many globalization activists travel as much as any businessman.

why is the equation global capitalist hegemony=global economy (in ceteris paribus, for sure) so bolted down in so many people's minds? It's very frustrating. Why isn't the "war on drugs" "anti-trade"? Why aren't people trying to stop the kidnapping and extradition(sp?) of sex workers "anti-trade"?

The global justice movement is not "anti-trade"; it's certainly more internationalist, even, than the status quo (hello, world social forum=> as compromised as it is, is still an amazing event of international exchange).

Two books from "either side" that are closer than usual, economically speaking (but these are very different, politically speaking):

George Monbiot The Age of Consent
http://www.monbiot.com/index.php?p=883

Jeffery Sachs The End of Poverty

Monbiot cracks revolutionary and muses wistfully on the institutions of economic / financial exchange nearly implemented by John Maynard Keynes at the Bretton Woods Accords, if not for the shrewd dealings and tough bargaining of the US. He argues that the US has consolidated power within the World Bank, IMF, and UN as a whole to the extent that the only way to make these institutions work for the 1/6 of us on the planet that live on less than a dollar a day will be to take these acronyms down a notch, if not replace them completely. They are unreformable due to the nature of the documents and agreements that constitute them, and must be effectively destroyed.

Sachs, mr. "shock therapy" himself, in the heart of the elite bureau, with his trusty rock-star sidekick, is so repeatedly surprised at the continual (he counts 20 years of) failures of his beloved institutions to end world poverty that i can't help but think he's pulling our leg. (perhaps the cost of access to the halls of power is a forced credulity in their effectiveness.)
His stories of the sweeping economic changes of the nineties are 95% political intrigue, even tho he couches them in economic terms. Not all of us, after all, are so highly placed that we can serve the governments of Bolivia, Poland, Russia, etc. in one lifetime. He would never dare to voice that the system is inherently flawed, it's not in his audience, i think. His nitpickings about Joe Stiglitz are laughable, when you read his laments over the 1997 crisis. His plans for ending poverty are enormously informative and compelling for any human, if nothing else.
And his suggestions that the un-science of economics become more holistic and scientific are absolutely heretical things to be heard from someone in his position.

so don't paint yourself into a false dialectic, bro. Ideology is brain disease.
posted by eustatic at 10:18 PM on April 25, 2005


The focus of the (hilarious) review is less upon "globalization" and more upon the fact that Friedman is unable to tell us anything new about it:

In a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread the instant a suggestive word like "Windows" is introduced; you wince, knowing what's coming, the same way you do when Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian.

Come on, that's good shit.
posted by ssukotto at 10:50 PM on April 25, 2005


eustatic writes " so don't paint yourself into a false dialectic, bro."

I'm genuinely unsure as to whether that comment was meant for me or not... Just sayin' that Friedman's frankly forced metaphor, you know, the ersatz cute image used to sell the book, is inherently false.
posted by clevershark at 12:23 AM on April 26, 2005


Taibbi's good, check out his book on the 2004 campaign if you like his style. one almost feels sorry for Friedman, who at this point is journalistic fish in a barrel -- he sucks so bad we should probably make up a new word to define how much he sucks. TurboSucks? MegaSucks? we're not in Kansas anymore, Tommy.

new tagline:

MetaFilter -- Don't Paint Yourself into a False Dialectic, Bro
posted by matteo at 12:35 AM on April 26, 2005


Smartypants dormroom sophistry might be good for a laugh, but it doesn't make for much of a book review. Any asswipe can focus on this or that off-key metaphor, say little or nothing about a book's central argument, and feel superior about hisself.
posted by luckywanderboy at 1:41 AM on April 26, 2005


Um, I think the off-key metaphor is the book's central argument.
posted by kersplunk at 5:08 AM on April 26, 2005


off-key metaphor

Self-referential comedy gold!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:36 AM on April 26, 2005


eustatic: the war on drugs is anti-trade, as are the wars on gambling, prostitution, terror, and poverty.

But the Fair Trade movement is a joke.

Naomi Klein isn't just "anti-trade," she's a fucking moron. Bhagwati and De Soto have written the two most balanced and insightful books on the subject, IMO.
posted by Kwantsar at 6:45 AM on April 26, 2005


The Economist [subscription] had a far more interesting review of Friedman's new book.

Taibbi does a good job skewering Friedman for his mixed metaphors, but I think he shoots himself in the foot by being so cavalier about the book's intellectual arguments.

I vigorously second rkent's suggestion that people look into Martin Wolf's 'Why Globalization Works', Stiglitz's 'Globalization and its Discontents', and Dani Rodrik's expanding body of work on globalization and institutions for a more nuanced and intellectually rigorous view.

Naomi Klein's No Logo is captivating reading, but her arguments are so one-sided that the book, in terms of its arguments about globalization and trade, amounts to nothing more than a siren song of autarkic propaganda. As an anti-marketing/advertising/billboards suck book, No Logo shines. But Klein's arguments about globalization don't hold much water.

On preview: nod to Kwanstar. Little strong there, but I generally agree Klein has it all wrong about trade.
posted by nyterrant at 7:23 AM on April 26, 2005


Wolf has a nice summary of some of his points from Why Globalization Works here.
posted by nyterrant at 7:26 AM on April 26, 2005


Naomi Klein isn't just "anti-trade," she's a fucking moron

And what many morons would give to be the one she's fucking.

Fair trade is no joke, townhall.com links are.
posted by nofundy at 9:52 AM on April 26, 2005


I thought about posting this when when it came out in the last NYPress issue. Thanks for the reminder.

I read the NYPress every week, though I don't think I know anyone else personally who does. They used to be much more right-wing before the change in editors a few years back. I used to read it anyway because they're so mean it's funny.

It's also funny to watch them skewer the Village Voice again and again. I do wonder if the Voice has ever even acknowledged their existence in its own pages. This makes it all even funnier.

posted by nobody at 12:05 PM on April 26, 2005


nobody: Me too. People tell me it's too vicious and petty. I say, it's New York, get over it.
posted by fungible at 12:16 PM on April 26, 2005


I think he shoots himself in the foot by being so cavalier about the book's intellectual arguments

Yes indeed. Because when a rigourous theorist such as Friedman tours the most prosperous city in an impoverished nation of a billion people about which he is demonstrably ignorant ("India, a country with few natural resources and a terrible climate," quoth the sage Mr. Friedman with comical inaccuracy) and then uses an offhand comment from the head of its most powerful tech corporation to build a thesis that the whole world (even just the whole business world) enjoys the same privileged position as that corporation and its billionaire CEO, well, we should take what he builds from this thesis very seriously.

And certainly more seriously than any crackpot bullshit theories spewed by some uppity reporter who wastes her time talking to people who, you know, work in the factories that produce the commodities that Infosys has made billions providing customer support for.
posted by gompa at 1:05 PM on April 26, 2005


I should rephrase, gompa. I think he shoots himself in the foot by not addressing the intellectual arguments that Friedman is trying to explain using his silly oversimplifications (e.g., Infosys CEO says 'playing field being leveled,' means India can do software, ergo labour markets are becoming globalized, and that's a good thing).

Klein is the guilty of the same degree of oversimplification as Friedman, only from the other side ( e.g., these shoe factory workers can't *believe* how much these Nikes sell for in the US of A, and Adbusters is cool,....ergo Seattle was totally awesome, the WTO is the devil, and globalization must be stopped).

The thing is, while Friedman's silly oversimplifications in favor of more free trade/enterprise have intellectual arguments to back them up, Klein's arguments against free trade/enterprise rest on an intellectual house of cards.
posted by nyterrant at 1:37 PM on April 26, 2005


Oh, that's rich.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:40 PM on April 26, 2005


Kwantsar: I went to your first "Fair trade is a joke" link, and didn't bother with the rest. Mostly because the first so fundementally mischaracterizes Fair Trade and the effects of globalization on agriculture as to be submoronic. It's a handjob for already-committed ideologues, such as yourself. Portraying Fair Trade as being concerned primarily with the price to consumers of coffee is like saying that abolitionists were in a tizzy over the low price of cotton.
posted by klangklangston at 1:46 PM on April 26, 2005


Well, then, klangklangston, how would one accurately portray the concerns of "fair trade(rs)"?
posted by Kwantsar at 2:06 PM on April 26, 2005


And, sonofsamiam, I'll take Ricardo's bulletproof syllogisms over Klein's semantic screeds anyday.
posted by Kwantsar at 2:09 PM on April 26, 2005


Tabbi rules.

Friedman is...he's just for show. He's the well-connected Jewish kid shooting his mouth off in the NYT. Honest to G-d, the man has no talent for writing at all.

Tabbi would write rings around him. So would Rall.
posted by rougy at 5:56 PM on April 26, 2005


If you want a review that is a little more clearly about the ideas and less about the prose, The Economist has a clear review here.

Apologies if the link-in doesn't work - I still can't tell what on their site allows for public linking in, and what requires the magic subscriber cookie.
posted by heresiarch at 9:54 PM on April 26, 2005


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