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Thomas Friedman’s Brave


“THOMAS FRIEDMAN is one of America’s leading interpreters of world affairs… Mr. Friedman has also won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting for The New York Times…” (Biographical note under Friedman’s name on page iii of his book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” HarperCollins, 1999)

One can imagine the pleasant surprise of the readers of the Greek daily ELEFTHEROTYPIA when on June 6, 2001 they found that two entire pages (of Village Voice size) were dedicated to Thomas Friedman, the leading interpreter of world affairs.

The main feature of the dedication was an interview given by Friedman to Takis Mihas, a Greek journalist. Mihas is one of the three or four journalists (out of all the Greek journalists) that approved of the US bombing of Yugoslavia and Kosovo, while “(t)wo surveys conducted 25 days into the air war showed that Greeks were 96 per cent to 98.6 per cent against the bombing… most Greeks opposed the bombings as immoral…” (“Degraded Capability”, Edited by Philip Hammond and Edward S.Herman, p.170)

The caption of the Friedman interview by Mihas was: “The complaint of the poor (peoples of the world) is that globalization is truncated.” In the interview Friedman explains: “In other words, the demand of the poor is more and not less and asymmetric globalization.”

Friedman was in Athens on that summer day of June to promote the Greek translation of his book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” which “delivers the best (and most enjoyable) answer yet [to what globalization means] (The New York Times book Review)”.

Let us (try to) follow and enjoy the (rather amusing) interpretation of globalization by Friedman:

(Note: At this point, I stopped writing this Commentary because of the 9/11 events. The priorities changed. I resumed writing on February, 2002.)

First, a short explanation of the title of this commentary. The Greek word “lexis” means “word” (lexicon, lexical, etc, in English). The plural of “lexis” is “lexes.” Therefore the title reads: “Thomas Friedman’s brave words,” and was inspired by Friedman’s words on page 389 of his “Lexus” book. Friedman: “O.K., O.,K., so the rest of the world thinks Americans are obnoxious bullies and are envious to boot. So what?”

(Friedman does not clarify what he means by “Americans.” A rational person does not think that the American people are “obnoxious.” It is a different matter with its leaders: e.g. Kennedy and his assassination attempts against Castro, LBJ and Vietnam, Bush and Iraq, Clinton and Kosovo, Bush-son and Afghanistan and so on.

As for being “envious to boot,” the “rest of the world” claims that Bach, or Rodin, or Phidias were not Americans and that the riches of the US elite are not a matter of envy but of injustice to boot.)

So, on with the rest of the brave words in “Lexus.”

There are at least 19 (direct or tacit) definitions of globalization by Friedman in his book.

– On page 9 Friedman writes: “I define globalization this way: it is the INEXORABLE integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before…” (The emphasis was added.)

– “Economic self-interest (is) the very metabolism of the globalization system.” (p.209. From now on numbers in parentheses refer to pages of Friedman’s book.)

– “Globalization is everything and its opposite.” (p.406)

– “Globalization emerges from below, from the street level…Yes, (it) is the product of the DEMOCRATIZATION of finance, technology and information…” (p.348, emphasis added)

– “(Globalization) also gives those brutalized by it a greater ability to tell people about their pain or get organized to do something about it…)” (p.357) Does Friedman mean Seattle, Genoa, Porto Alegre, etc? Unbelievable!

– “…Globalization as a culturally homogenizing and environment-devouring force is coming on so fast, there is danger that in just a few decades it could wipe out the ecological and cultural diversity that took millions of years of human and biological evolution to produce.” (p.278)

So, is Friedman for Globalization? Of course, he is! And also makes a living propagandizing for it all over the world.

It seems that in Friedman’s deep analysis of globalization, enters a very significant factor known by its technical term as “Americanization.”

But, before we take up this REALLY important matter, let us refer briefly to an interesting ability of Friedman’s. He is very adept in describing situations or concepts by means of extremely picturesque expressions.

Take the two expressions that “Lexus” is replete with: “the Electronic Herd” and “the Golden Straitjacket.” The “Herd” is defined thus: “(The) global markets are made up of millions of investors moving money around the world with the click of a mouse. I call them ‘the Electronic Herd,’ and this herd gathers at key global financial centers, such as Wall Street, Hong Kong,…, which I call ‘the Supermarkets.’ ” (p.13).

The “Straitjacket” is worn: ” (W)hen (a country) recognizes the rules of the free market in today’s global economy, and decides to abide by them, it puts on what I call the Golden Straitjacket… The Cold War had the Mao suit, the Nehru jacket, the Russian fur… If your country has not been fitted for one, it will be soon.” (p.104)

Also Friedman has a rare talent in “synthesizing” new words from old ones. Take his inventions: “globalution” and “glocalization.” Friedman writes: “I call the process by which the herd helps to build the foundation stones of democracy ‘revolution from beyond,’ or ‘globalution.’ ” (p.169). Marvelous! But, is Friedman that naive? We shall try to find out as we move on.

About “glocalization” he declares: ” I define healthy glocalization as the ability of a culture, when it encounters other strong cultures, to absorb influences that naturally fit into and can enrich that culture, to resist those things that are truly alien and to compartmentalize those things that, while different, can nevertheless be enjoyed and celebrated as different.” (p.295).

Friedman could offer as an example the people of Leipzig or Dresden, who “could absorb the influences” of the “strong culture” of Disney and McDonald’s. Friedman is modest enough to acknowledge that “Glocalism is actually a very old process, going back to ancient times…,” the only thing lacking was the term “glocalization,” finally invented by Friedman. By the way, one wonders what might be the opinion of Friedman about Martin Bernal’s “Black Athena”?

At this point a brief parenthesis is quite amusing: For a strange reason, the Greek translator of Friedman’s book translated the word “globalution” (global + revolution) as “globalysis” (global + lysis, that is: global + solution, in English). According to Webster’s 10th: “lysis is: the gradual decline of a disease process” or ” a process of disintegration or dissolution.”

I wonder if Friedman is aware of the lapse in the translation. If he is, then whose disease, decline, or disintegration he and the translator refer to? The Globe, that is the planet?

Also, the translator rendered the word “beyond” in Friedman’s expression “revolution from beyond” as “hyperperan” (in Greek) which means “the world beyond the grave” (in English). So, Friedman’s expression in translation reads: “revolution from the world beyond the grave”!!

I do not know about the translator, but does Friedman really believe in “life beyond the grave”? It seems he does, if one reads his words on page 473 of his book: “I, for one, won’t be surprised if I wake up one day and discover that the Almighty has made the Internet crash just the way He did the tower of Babel.” I do not think that Friedman is joking. He would not speak the name of the Lord in vain. End of the parenthesis.

Now, back to Friedman’s deep analysis and “Americanization.”

Again the direct or tacit (through the words of others) definitions of “Americanization” are numerous- over 17.

– “Culturally speaking, globalization has tended to involve the spread (for better and for worse) of Americanization-from Big Macs to iMacs to Mickey Mouse.” (p.9)

– “… in so many ways, globalization is us-or is at least perceived that way by a lot of the world.” (p.381). By “us” Friedman means the US.

– “Does globalization mean we all have to become Americans”? (p.340). Words of a Cairo professor, as reported by Friedman.

– “While the distinction between what is globalization and what is Americanization may be clear to most Americans, it is not-unfortunately- to many others around the world. In most societies people cannot distinguish anymore among American power, American exports, American cultural assaults, American cultural exports and plain vanilla globalization.”(p.382)

Maybe, another ZNet Commentator (as one of “most Americans”) can comment on why that distinction is clear. And Friedman goes on: “I am not advocating that globalization SHOULD be Americanization-but pointing out that that is how it is perceived in many quarters.” (p.382, emphasis added).

– After a few pages Friedman boasts: “(F)or every North African who is reacting to Americanization-globalization by shaking his fist at it, another is simply falling into line and trying to make the best of it.”(p.392).

– And so on.

But Friedman, being an honest writer, inevitably connects the globalization to the power of the US. He writes: “In the globalization system, the United States is now the SOLE and DOMINANT superpower and all other nations are subordinate to it to one degree or another.” (p.13 and emphasis added).

Note, that it is Friedman speaking and not “many others around the world”. Later in his book Friedman becomes even bolder. He announces (rather proudly): “In a winner-take-all world, America, for the moment at least, certainly has the winner-take- a-lot system. This makes America a unique superpower… It has a large standing army… so that it can project more power farther than any country in the world. And deeper too.” (p.376).

Finally, Friedman attains the ultimate in honesty. He thinks that: “The most powerful agent pressuring other countries to open their markets for free trade and free investment is Uncle Sam, and America’s global armed forces keep these markets and sea lanes open for this era of globalization…” (p.381). This Commentary could have ended at this point. What more can one expect? Yet, unfortunately, there is more.

The US maybe the “sole”, “unique”,etc superpower, but it is a benevolent superpower. “Sustainable globalization requires a stable power structure, and no country is more essential for this than the United States. All the Internet and other technologies… and all the wealth this is generating, are happening in a world stabilized by a BENIGN superpower, with its capital in Washington , D.C. .. The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden FIST.” (p. 464 and again emphasis added).

“America truly is the ultimate benign hegemon and reluctant enforcer.” (p.467).

Is Friedman naive, or what? No, Friedman is a professional, in the sense of the professional people (religious or secular) that make a living by pretending to “believe” all kinds of things.

As mentioned earlier Friedman states that globalization (i.e. Americanization) is inexorable. His book is saturated with this (tragic) idea of the inevitability of the victory of the US imperium. Here are some samples of these threatening dictums: – The Golden Straitjacket “is not always pretty or comfortable. But it’s here and it’s the only model on the rack this historical season.” (p.105).

– “If you think you can resist these changes (of globalization)… then you are deluding yourself.” (p.109).

– “(I)t would be naive to think that somehow we can stop the global juggernauts of McDonald’s or Taco Bell from opening franchises everywhere around the world.” (p.294).

And so it goes on and on. So, does Friedman really believe that Disney and Macs will conquer the world because they fulfill “enormously powerful human aspirations”?

Back in the late 60s I visited some friends in Redondo Beach in California. My host suggested that he and his wife take me to the neighboring Disneyland, just to see it out of curiosity. The wife angrily reprimanded her husband, because she thought that that was an entirely ridiculous suggestion. That was an ordinary (non-leftist) American couple more than four decades ago. I wonder if Friedman has any explanation for the reaction of the wife.

To close this piece: I realize that most (rational) people will say: why bother with Friedman? That is not a serious task.

My answer: In any human community the individual who spreads rumors (i.e. propaganda) is despised and the reaction from the community could be (judicially) punitive, if the rumors result in deaths of innocent people (Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans, etc).

At some point in history there are going to be Nuremberg Tribunals for the Reagans, the Bushes, the Clintons, and their future successors. There is going to be “finite justice” for all of them. However, at a lower level the Kissingers, the Rumsfelds, the Albrights, the Friedmans, etc, are equally responsible for the atrocities of the people at the top, as settled in Nuremberg.

Furthermore, one should not ignore the quality, as individuals, of the people that gravitate around the Hitlers, the Bushes or other “benign hegemons” of the World.

P.S. I cannot resist a few remarks on Friedman’s clever symbolism: “The Lexus” (“what is as new as an Internet Web site”) and the “olive tree” (“what is as old as a gnarled olive tree on the banks of the river Jordan”).

Delphi, a tiny Greek village situated on the side of Parnasos Mt., according to the “patriotic” Greeks (past and present) and some salivating intellectuals of the West, is the “navel” (!) of the earth. Adjacent to Delphi at sea level there is an olive grove extending over a fairly big plain. The (gnarled) olive trees of this plain (with a history as old as those of the Jordan) belong to people that have nothing to do with the “old”. They are modern and RICH enough to send their offspring to be educated in Switzerland, or Paris, or London since the early 1900s.

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