Monday, June 27, 2005

Americanisms III

John Dolan on the United States' propaganda laureate Thomas Friedman:

"[This is] the most interesting aspect of the whole Friedman phenomenon: not that Friedman is a bear of very little brain (because after all, there are a lot of Poohs in the woods) but that this Pooh is a leading writer for America's newspaper of record.

Why would a hegemonic world power hire an outright halfwit as spokesman?

The very stupidity of Friedman's analyses must somehow serve the Empire's purposes. Once you admit this possibility, you can see that it fits an historical pattern. Again and again, the truly powerful Empires hire mediocrities; it's the marginal empires which generate the great sloganeers - Mao, for example. Whatever else may be said about him, Mao came up with some great lines, from "paper tiger" to "Let a hundred flowers bloom." When those five-million-strong crowds chanted in Tienanmin, they were quoting some first-rate poetry. That little red book they waved enclosed some of the best lines of the century.

Friedman, slogan kommissar of a much stronger Empire, couldn't get drunken Manchester United fans chanting. Consider his use of numbers. This was one of Mao's favorite mnemonic devices; "Smash the four olds!" "Destroy the Seventh Snake!" All Friedman has to offer is "The Three Democratizations" - but Friedman's three D's are so uninspiring that two days after finishing his book, I can only name two of them. If this guy was working for the Chinese Propaganda Ministry, he'd soon find himself collecting glowing camel-dung in the most radioactive districts of Sinkiang.

But the US, like nineteenth-century Britain, is so strong that it doesn't want talented poets working for it. Think of the intentionally flat slogans of the British Empire:

"England expects every man to do his duty." "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton."

Dull lines - meant to be dull. The British, in their glory days, revelled in their dullness, associating real poetry with women, the French, and other lesser species. There was an element of gloating in the very dullness of their slogans: let the conquered know that they are ruled by mediocrities.

The slogans Friedman develops in this book have the same triumphant dullness. Their purpose is not to inspire Americans, but to convince everyone else that there's no way to stop "Globalization-Americanization" (his term). Take his favorite oxymoron, "The Golden Straitjacket," his name for the state-model created by Thatcher and Reagan. It's "Golden" because if you implement it, your country will supposedly get rich. It's a "Straitjacket" because, as Friedman says over and over again, it takes away all your freedom. He compares this straitjacket to the Mao suit, evoking those grey-clad crowds in the great Tienanmin Square rallies:

'The Golden Straitjacket is the defining garment of this globalization era. The Cold War had the Mao suit, the Nehru jacket, the Russian fur [sic]. Globalization has only the Golden Straitjacket. If your country has not been fitted for one, it will be soon."

Friedman comes up with dozens of glib, sloppy metaphors implying that there is no way out of "globalization-Americanization," and that anyone who tries to resist will be stampeded. He refers to the wired-up leaders of the movement as "the Electronic herd," which tramples anything in its way. He takes the cattle-herd metaphor further, dividing the wired American elite into "long-horn" and "short-horn" cattle, and adds that the herd is served by the "bloodhounds" of financial-rating services like Moody's.

Friedman doesn't seem to know that cattle herds aren't usually guided by bloodhounds. But the clumsiness of his metaphors is part of his job. He's here to threaten those who seem reluctant to join the herd. Who wants subtlety from a leg-breaker? The cruder the metaphor, the more frightening. Good poets don't make good goons. And Friedman is pure goon, brass-knuckled platitudes all the way. Like a Naked Gun voiceover, he lets his violent metaphors stampede where they will. One of the most ham-handed metaphorical panics is what happens to this "electronic herd." Within pages of its introduction, the "herd" is transformed from cattle to wildebeest, grazing the Savannah. Ah, but that's only the beginning. You have to read it to believe it, so take a deep breath and follow Mr. Friedman into the Serengeti of international finance:

"Think of the Electronic Herd as being like a herd of wildebeests grazing over a wide area of Africa. When a wildebeest on the edge of the herd sees something move in the tall, thick brush next to where it's feeding, that wildebeest doesn't say to the wildebeest next to it, "Gosh, I wonder if there's a lion moving around there in the brush." No way. That wildebeest just starts a stampede, and these wildebeests don't stampede for a mere hundred yards. They stampede to the next country and crush everything in their path. So how do you protect your country from this? Answer: You cut the grass, and clear away the brush, so that the next time the wildebeest sees something rustle in the grass it thinks, "No problem, I see what it is. It's just a bunny rabbit." [...] What transparency does is get more information to the wildebeests faster, so whatever they want to do to save their skins they can do in an orderly manner. In the world of finance this can mean the difference between having your market take a little dip and having it nosedive into sustained losses that take months or years to recover from."

Is he TRYING to be ridiculous here? I don't think so. Friedman is a perfect spokes-beest for the entire herd. His endless Mister-Ed monologues comfort the other ruminants, reminding them of their hegemony.

But that doesn't make for great Imperial poetry. In fact, by the end of that paragraph, with its African bunny rabbits, transparent wildebeest and brush-clearance program, poor old Mao is banging his head against the coffin-lid. Mao's corpse is praying to Marx, Stalin, and Kwan-Yin for one day back on Earth, just time enough to liquidate this Friedman, whose hack-work shames ideological poets everywhere. In fact, seismologists detect widespread vibrations as Imperial poets from Virgil to Kipling batter their coffin-lids, screaming in agony, as Friedman drones on.

But there are horses for courses, and this garrulous Mister Ed is perfect as mouthpiece of the gloating, swaggering American Empire in its moment of triumph. Because Friedman's not just dumb; he's mean, too. He just loves to tell those about to undergo "Globalization-Americanization" that the process is going to hurt:

"Unfortunately, the Golden Straitjacket is pretty much 'one size fits all.' So it pinches certain groups, squeezes others....It is not always pretty or gentle or comfortable. But it's here and it's the only model on the rack this historical season."

But of course he has to offer something which passes for evidence. So, to fill the time between "insights," he recounts inspirational anecdotes gleaned from lickspittles and Uncle Toms the world over. Friedman meets the son of a leading PLO general, and is gratified that the boy is now working as a software salesman with no hard feelings over the fact that his father took a hundred bullets from an Israeli hit team. He is told by Anatoly Chubais, that herd bull of the Russian Young Wildebeest herd, that it's Russia's own fault entirely that the country is in ruins.

Russia, in fact, is the villain of this book. Friedman hates Russia - truly hates it, with a mealy-mouthed venom which does not make pleasant reading. His book begins with a quote from an American businessman whining that it's "aggravating" that the Russian crash actually affects his profits. When he needs a bad example, it's always Russian. He tells the hoary anecdote (an "insight" in this case, naturally) about the Russian elevator with misnumbered floors, and the equally venerable anecdote about the Russian who drives his tank to town because he doesn't have a car. Oh, those funny, funny Russians, with their aggravating habit of starving to death just when we want to celebrate. Like many of the Empire's leg-breakers, Friedman hates Russia for all sorts of reasons: as a child of cold-war America; as an Israel-can-do-no-wrong Middle-East correspondent; and above all as a popularizer of the get-with-the-program hegemony of the Golden Straitjacket. Russia doesn't fit into the Golden Straitjacket very well. In fact, the Straitjacket made Russia so uncomfortable that by 1998, its screams were audible even in the offices of the New York Times. Friedman and his masters will never forgive Russia for ruining the gloat-fest with that discordant scream." ( John Dolan, "Do Fries Come with this Tripe?" The Exile (issue #11/92), June 8-22, 2000).


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