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Selling Tom Friedman

Stephen Kotkin reviews Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot Flat, and Crowded, for the business section of the New York Times today. Friedman himself has a bi-weekly column in the opinion section of the Times, which makes Kotkin’s review all the more pleasurable. Kotkin captures the formula Friedman inevitably uses to write his columns – and his books:

The content and method will be familiar to Mr. Friedman’s legions of readers: source, anecdote, pop metaphor. Repeat point. In italics. The unfamiliar reader should prepare for hyperbole, neologisms and aphorisms. “Affluenza.” “Code Green.” “The new Energy Climate Era (E.C.E.).” “We’ve already hit the iceberg.” We’re “the proverbial frog in the pail on the stove” (boiled to death after failing to jump out because the temperature rose only incrementally). “We are the flood, we are the asteroid. We had better learn how to be the ark.”

I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for Friedman. I generally read his column and have read several of his books. I read them with the same attention I give to reading a Grisham thriller – as both authors take big ideas and make them entertaining. (Grisham is a far superior entertainer however.) I find that reading Friedman forces me to think – because he describes great changes that are going on and then attempts to explain and solve them by using simple, salesmen’s terms: “The World Is Flat!” or “Obama-Cheny 08!” He takes interesting ideas and then trivializes them before their gravity sinks in. The New Republic, in an article written in 2004 or 2005, criticized Friedman for being a salesman for globalization rather than an analyst of it’s effects. And while Friedman certainly is enamored with globalization, I think the real issue with Friedman’s work is how he so crassly simplies every issue. However, it is probably this skill that has made his work so palatable and popular to those who shy away from serious writing on economic and foreign policy issues.

For all my criticism of him, I have to give Friedman credit for having been consistently pushing – for the past dozen years – what has become the obvious next step to achieve a greater measure of national security, to drain the funding of our strategic adversaries around the world, to stop climate change, and to establish America as a leader in a new worldwide industry. Again, from Kotkin’s review:

Mr. Friedman has an unabashedly American-centric solution: the United States can regain its national purpose and save the world via green innovation. This can happen, he says, if Americans recognize — in the words of John Gardner, founder of Common Cause — “a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”

Friedman told the story on Meet the Press this morning of what he says to young Chinese who justify China’s increasing pollution:

Friedman: You know, I was just in China a week or 10 days ago, Tom, and you know, young Chinese, you know, whenever I go here, they say to me, you know, “Mr. Friedman, you guys got to grow dirty for 150 years, now it’s our turn.” To which I always say to them, “You know what, you’re right. It is your turn. Take your time. Grow as dirty as you want. Because I think we just need five years to invent all the clean power technologies you’re going to need before you choke to death and then we’re going to come over and we’re going to sell them to you and we’re going to clean your clock in the next great global industry.” That’s when I see the headsets of the translators adjusting, “What is he saying?”

Clearly, Friedman has become a salesmen for green technology. He’s not analyzing – he’s advocating. Even if his presentation rankles, it’s worth listening to – and hopefully, he’s changing some minds.

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