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The View From Davos

How Thomas Friedman Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Globalization

THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE;\o7 By Thomas L. Friedman; (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 416 pp., $27.50)\f7

May 23, 1999|DAVID RIEFF | David Rieff is the author of several books, including "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West" and "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World." He most recently co-edited "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know" (W.W. Norton)

"The reader will notice," writes Thomas Friedman in the acknowledgment section of his new book, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," "that I quote a great deal from two outside sources." His first debt, to the Economist, is neither surprising nor controversial. Almost everyone else in the English-speaking world interested in foreign affairs takes a hard look at that journal every week. But Friedman's second source is startling: ads from Madison Avenue. "For some reason," he writes, "advertising copywriters have a tremendous insight into globalization."

And globalization is what Friedman has sought to understand or, more accurately--and it is not clear that even he would quarrel with this characterization--at least conditionally, to celebrate.


This is first and foremost a triumphalist book. Friedman may indeed have written "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," as he insists with appropriate sobriety early on in the book, "to explain how [our] new era of globalization became the dominant system at the end of the twentieth century." But too often, it seems that for him anatomization and celebration amount to the proverbial distinction without a difference--like, well, the advertising copy he finds so instructive.

In fairness, Friedman expends considerable effort in trying to rebut those of his detractors who contend, in his words, that "he loves globalization." "I feel about globalization a lot like I feel about the dawn," he writes. Like the dawn, Friedman insists, there is no stopping globalization. "All I want to think about," he claims, "is how I can get the best out of this new system, and cushion the worst for most people. This is the spirit that motivated this book."

Perhaps. But even in unpacking the meanings implicit in Friedman's "inevitabilist" hedge against accusations that he is a booster who has confused himself with an analyst, the degree to which he has assimilated most of the cliches about globalization and delivers them afresh soon becomes apparent. By comparing globalization with the dawn, Friedman elides the fundamental distinction between a natural phenomenon and a geopolitical system. The first really is immutable. The second exists only so long as economic forces, military power, ideological hegemony, effective leaders and popular consent combine to warrant its continuation. Friedman is much taken by the advertising slogan of the brokerage house Merrill Lynch that "the world is ten years old" and uses it as a chapter title. But this is not thought; this is hype, as the copywriters who prepared the ad doubtless understood, even if Friedman does not.

The pity is that while hype is a copywriter's job, it should not be that of the chief foreign-affairs columnist of the New York Times. Friedman is, of course, perfectly within his rights to believe that globalization is a good thing, even if that is the received wisdom of our age. And he is more than entitled to write a book making that case and suggesting, as he does with verve and sincerity throughout "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," various programs for its improvement. But his opinions should not license him to dismiss all criticisms of the current global order as being akin to criticizing an immutable fact of nature like the dawn.

Friedman's book would have benefited greatly from a serious engagement with the ideas of such critics of globalization as Benjamin Barber, Zygmunt Bauman, John Gray and William Greider. But having arrived at contrary conclusions, he writes as if no further debate is warranted. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Friedman is taken, sometimes to the point of almost laughable vanity, both with himself and his metaphors. "Being the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times," he writes, apparently with perfect sincerity, "is the best job in the world." The fact that Friedman's own views seem to leave few openings for the skepticism that is the good journalist's intellectual stock in trade is disheartening. So is a certain tendency toward extreme and surely ill-considered statements. The Thomas Friedman who wrote in a column a few years ago that he didn't "give two cents for Bosnia" makes his appearance more than once in "The Lexus and the Olive Tree."

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