Wednesday, March 2, 2011
I have to hand it to Thomas Friedman. Although much of the time his editorials are total partisan fluff, I believe there is a particular contribution he has made to the wealth of human knowledge that could well survive a thousand years: his splendid analysis of the human group and nation. In his magnum opus, "The World is Flat," which it has been many years since I read, he takes the world economy from both the angle of the nation, the producer, and the self-interested customer. Now, just recently, he has returned to what he is truly good at, with his recent editorial about Egypt.
In this editorial, he outlines Google Earth, a black president with Islamic last name, the rapid spread of information by way of the web, the ostentatious televised Beijing Olympics and a Palestinian populist as major influences on Middle East revolts. The bigger message is the notion of individual human beings connected to a plethora of information that teaches them, and causes them to change their decisions.
See, Friedman doesn't engage in abstractions. He doesn't know what a nation is, because he was never so overtaught as to ignore what his eyes and mind were telling him. Instead, looking at the businesses and the governments and the popular uprisings, he sees a pair of green eyes and a dark face, with a story of decades all his own, a family to support, a life to defend, and shame to carry, he sees a tall, confident businessman at the top of his game entrusted with performing well for his board of directors, he sees a top member of the Communist Party in China and a young child with his entire life ahead of him and an old man with his entire life behind him.
As the youngest child of a Minneapolis ballbearing manufacturing vice president and a navy mother in the 1950's, Friedman was always a bit strange. At a time when gender roles were preset, obligations were expected and life was supposed to be peaceful and sweet, Tom instead had a mother who alternated homemaking, bookkeeping, bridge championships, and telling stories about benchpressing on Navy destroyers, and a father who manufactured things that people don't buy in stores and don't usually know are important or in high demand. (The name of the company was "United Bearing.")
Thomas himself wanted to be a professional golfer, though this was not quite so unusual in the days of Bobby Jones and televised bridge, only to discover a love of journalism and the Middle East. What's more, he discovered a Journalism teacher who did a splendid job of keeping him out of Journalism college. She taught him well enough that he "never needed, or [took], another course in journalism since." As Thomas rightly points out, "Hattie was a woman who believed that the secret for success in life was getting the fundamentals right. And boy, she pounded the fundamentals of journalism into her students -- not simply how to write a lead or accurately transcribe a quote, but, more important, how to comport yourself in a professional way and to always do quality work." Now there's a lesson for all of us! Why not, instead of being Grammar Nazis and focusing on all sorts of ridiculous conventions and overtaught nonsense, we actually try to do our jobs? Still, she was no slouch: "Hattie was the toughest teacher I ever had." No one utters those words without meaning them.
Thomas, in college, took a major normally reserved for indecisive spoiled children and football players, and actually made good with it! He earned a BA in "Mediterranean Studies," and probably set a record for most classes towards a BA in Mediterranean Studies taken without falling asleep on a desk. He followed this up with a truly serious M.Phil. in "Middle Eastern Studies" from Oxford, then got a UPI job as a general assignment reporter in London, on Fleet Street. In London, he married an Economist, from Iowa, whose father built an asset-trading company that invested primarily in shopping malls. UPI later sent him to Beirut, where he would play golf next to a Palestinian military firing range.
From strange lives come important realizations, and when you live like Friedman, how can you possibly see people as groups? How can you ever again stereotype Navy sailors, Bookkeepers and Housewives when your mother was all three? How can you dismiss a business as unimportant when your father worked for a business once dismissed that way? Especially when, as it turns out, ball bearings are actually useful for a great many things...
Not surprisingly, many people are upset at Friedman, and the reason always seems to be the same. They drone on and on about corrupt officials, Halliburton, that administration from which only evil can be expected et cetera and so on! Every time, it's a group, a bunch of people, rather then one person making decisions. It's thoughts made long ago, against the efficient and effective clarity of living in the now. It's giving up on people, and in the end, life. We can't expect to achieve anything because the people are evil, and yet, not long ago, someone very different from Friedman suggested a way out:
"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition" -James Madison
Even if someone intends on doing wrong, you can use their actions against them. Thus, you are still an individual, as other people themselves can be used as well as helpful. And I'm not even looking yet at the potential of teaching a person something they didn't know. So many people, however, teach us that you are not an individual, but that some kind of group or category exists, when in all my life, I have spotted many strange things but have never once seen a collective!
Thus, Friedman looks only at individuals, and leaves the stereotypes at home. Sometimes it really is that simple to create something truly great, a single good idea, a single good method. Stephen Marshall was write to label Friedman the scribe of the new revolution. The remarkable thing, however, is just how little Friedman had to do. Think of how short Friedmans career is, and subtract away how much of it he has spent writing shameful propaganda, and we see just how absurd the thing is that Friedman has rebelled against.
As an aside, I love High Tories, even though I will never be one. Why, you ask? Because they get it. They understand that there is no such thing as a collective, only individualisms with hierarchy, and individualisms without it, and any number of gray areas in between. You can say you're part of something bigger, but what THING is it? It can only be a person you owe fealty to, as a person is all that exists.