Fried Friedman

As just about anybody who reads knows, columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has a new book out, "The World is Flat," another bestseller, this one about how globalization is "flattening" the world, and a recent review by Matt Taibi in NY Press perfectly summed up the reaction of much of my generation to the latest Friedman screed and its clunky metaphors.

I want to make two things clear before I get into this. First off, if you want to learn about globalization, read something by Jagdish Bhagwati or Paul Krugman or, hell, even Friedman's earlier "Lexus and the Olive Tree." These works have a great deal of insight, relevance, and originality. Secondly, Friedman can often be an excellent and insightful analyst of international affairs, and he is undoubtedly one of the world's most important, impactful columnists, so I don't want to seem to think the man a total fool.

Having said that, "The World is Flat," which argues that new technologies, increased international trade and the proliferation of democracy and open markets have led to a world that is more interconnected and, essentially, smaller. Somehow Friedman, in his endless dunderheadedness, is inspired by an Indian CEO, who tells him how the playing field is levelling, to equate this progression with a flattening. Now, as Taibbi's review mentions and my friends and I have endlessly pointed out, the metaphor is wrong from the get-go. Not only is a flatter world less interconnected and create greater distances between nations and businesses than a round one, but the concept, the image of a flatter world is, in one's mind, so antiquated and outdated as to clank against the pomo concept of advanced globalization and super-duper technologies. It's not only inaccurate, I mean to say, but completely inappropriate. And so those of us who have read Friedman almost religiously over the past decade or so -- and enjoyed and agreed with the majority of his work -- are now embracing the shaudenfriede wholeheartedly.

In the future, my guess is that old Tom with lose the "flat" metaphor toute de suite, and soon thereafter begin to speak of globalism and its effects with considerable insight.


I Dream of Death

Thoroughly enjoyed Frank Rich's Times Op-Ed today on Pope John Paul II and Terri Shiavo media coverage and the developing American Culture of Death. Got me thinking about how I experienced the pontiff's slow demise as it was happening. Full disclosure, I was raised Catholic and I'm a journalist, but I have to admit that by day 3 or 4 of the Pope watch I didn't give a shit. (This slightly undermined my efforts to get the goods when on a related assignment.) The important thing to me became not when the pope died -- because it was certain to happen, and soon, even though Fox's Shepherd Smith has now gotten into some trouble for reporting "the fact" about 24 hours early -- but who he was and what he meant. After he died, the majority of stories (as you well know), addressed not the legacy but the event. "Millions wait in line; some are turned back! Rome copes. Presidents and dignitaries arrive! The media is really blowing this out of proportion," some outlets reported. "The conclave, the conclave -- it's totally secret!" (OK, I admit I kind of like the conclave. It's excellent Broadway musical material.) Anyway, the point is that after wading through all this tripe I had neither the energy nor the determination to ferret out the gleaming nuggets about this historically invaluable man. Even now, I'm still essentially clueless about the former Karol Wojtyla, and I blame the media.

The other thing Rich got me thinking about is the excitement and preparation of these death watches. And then the great vast release of the post-mortem. The pre-death coverage is all masturbatory -- the tension builds, we get fantasy shots of humans in agony, closing in on their ultimate breath -- and the death brings an orgasmic explosion equivalent to the wattage of the celebrity. Witness the nonstop Pope chatter relative to the dead Terri who? More importantly, Americans can now dream a new and improved American dream: Death, it's the new life. If I cannot become a celebrity in real life, to be hounded by reporters and paparazzi, my every moment catalogued and deconstructed and analyzed ad infinitum only to be devoured by the vapid, faceless millions, the new non-thinking will go, perhaps I can still be famous in death, if only for a day or two. I'm not kidding. Just you watch, soon some lucky reporter will come across a suicide note that reads: "I'm truly humbled by all of this attention. For further info, please contact my PR agent at..."



"So it's no surprise that global consumers respond to what they see as U.S. imperialism by shunning brands that trumpet their American provenance. According to a December poll by Global Market Insite (GMI), 50 percent of respondents in Asia and Europe said they mistrust U.S. companies, and 20 percent said they consciously avoid U.S. goods. The poll caps a wealth of anecdotal evidence, including calls by politicians for boycotts and stories of European restaurants turning down U.S. credit cards. "

And it's not just products, says Clay Risen's excellent piece on Brand America in the current issue of New Republic, which clarifies and magnifies an enormous issue for the Bush administration and the US in general. Risen talks specifically about multinationals suffering due to an American image problem abroad, but the subtext is all about the means and ends of American soft power, which has been popping up everywhere of late. In the March/April Foreign Affairs, foreign relations expert Steven Cook talks about the right way to promote Arab reform, and of course there's the UNDP's 2004 Arab Development Report (Executive Summary), which does attack the Bush administration somewhat, but is generally fair. The newest Bush tool, the Millenium Challenge Accounts, which supposedly delivers money to nations who show improvement in key developmental and political areas and most recently approved funding for powerful and so strategically relevant Madagascar, is essentially impotent, having coughed up a measly $110 million since its 2001 inception.

What we have to wonder is when this administration will wake up and realize that it is fanning, not extinguishing, a fire. The US is selling not only Royales with Cheese and Grande Mocha Lattes, but also democracy, and while some seem to be buying with gusto, some are reluctant to dive in, and still others offended. The problem with Bush and the neocon efforts is that their salesman do not use a sweet, seductive sales pitch but the butt of a gun, embargo threats, or other economic sanctions. Marketers for multinationals are able to adapt to anti-Americanism, and have even begun to do just that:

"Pepsi may have taken the new anti-Brand America strategy the furthest: According to The Economist, the soft drink-maker has launched an ad campaign in Bahrain that builds up Coca-Cola as an American brand while positioning itself as the local favorite."

Perhaps what is best about the CEO's and marketing VP's of major multinationals is that they have no policy power, and are thus unable to inspire fear. Here and now I call for a reversal of the strategy the Department of Defense employed to steal Robert McNamara from Ford for its Secretary position. Let's send our best foreign policy officials back into the breach, as heads of international marketing for McDonald's, Starbucks, and the like, and we might soon see understanding break over previously staunch global citizens. Wolfowicz' appointment as World Bank President is probably a step in the right direction.


The New Name of My Blog

Until I find something that I can settle into and live with longterm, the name of my blog will be a rotating series of somewhat random phrases. This current one has been lifted straight from Beck's new album, Track #2, Que Onda Guero, which means, in English, "where are you going, white boy?" Here in my blog the titular question refers primarily to me and to where I might take my thoughts, but also to my neighborhood, Williamsburg, my President, my country, and just about anybody else I choose.

Beck's song, on the other hand, is a funked out, riffed up, bouncy jive take on his own LA adolescence, with bits of Spanish lyrics and satirical shout-outs to Yanni, James Joyce and others. Like "Two Turntables" years ago, it is primed to become THE good times anthem of the Summer of 2005.


Iraqi Prez

Big news today from Iraq, where after two weeks of bickering and infighting the interim leaders finally settled on a President and two Vice Presidents to lead the new government, which will write the Iraqi Constitution. More importantly, the selections include a Kurd, a Shiite, and a Sunni, suggesting that these groups may be able to work together just well enough to stave off civil war. Insh'allah.
The Pulitzer prizes were announced yesterday and my first reaction was in regards to the dearth of awards for what most consider the best U.S. dailies, the NY Times (one prize) and the Washington Post (zero). But then I figured that these awards are bestowed not for general excellence, which these papers clearly produce, but for specific pieces, features, stories, articles, and investigations. And then I wondered whether this is a shortcoming of the Pulitzer prize system of its board -- that the awards do not accurately reflect the best journalistic outlets, merely the best individual pieces (and journalists). So, for instance, one might pick up Willamette Week (investigative prize) or the Star-Ledger (Breaking News) and expect masterful, thorough writing, reporting, and an excellent newspaper overall. Or envision top-notch coverage of geopolitics and international affairs and grab a Newsday (International Reporting). One would be vastly disappointed on all counts.

Does this suggest that the awards process is faulty or the list of prizes is less than comprehensive? Perhaps. But surely Joe Morgenstern of WSJ is a less insightful, referential, and just generally less enjoyable critic than both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the Times, not to mention New Yorker Anthony Lane.


Lost in Locke


Finally, Terry O'Quinn gets some press props in this Sunday's Times for his work as hunter, survivalist, and unpredictable Zen master John Locke on ABC's "Lost." I've been watching this show since Day One and can only think of two television actors who've been equally good in recent years: Ian McShane on HBO's "Deadwood," and James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos."

In a perfect meeting of actor and character, O'Quinn's worn yet available face and intense eyes are perfect for Locke's preternatural calm, anecdotal wisdom, and flinty gravity, which present a character somewhere between Clint Eastwood's drifter and Caine from TV's "Kung Fu." You're not sure what he'll do next, but you definitely want him on your team.

Thanks, Mr. O'Quinn. I'll be watching until they take Locke away from us.

Hirsi Ali, Women and Islam

A story in this week's Times magazine about controversial Somali-born Dutch Parliamentarian Hirsi Ali got me thinking again about global efforts to reform the religion and move it away from strict fundamentalism, which includes the oppression and mistreatment of women and often leads to Salafism, jihad, and, our favorite albatross, terrorism.

The article is essentially a straightforward piece of reporting on Hirsi Ali's life, politics, and handling of death threats, and I think it only touches on the heart of the tale, which is the powerful, compassionate, and fiercely beating heart of its subject. Her steely-eyed stare and ability to smile and charm through a time of torment during a recent "60 Minutes" interview made Hirsi Ali a great deal more enthralling than Christopher Caldwell's piece. Hirsi Ali is a strking woman, in appearance, tone, and words, and to practically ignore this power is to misrepresent the person. The attached picture proves this point.

Also, I would've liked less discussion of Holland and more placement of Ali's thoughts and politics into the international sphere, where they belong. Reading the article I couldn't help thinking about Canada's Irshad Manji, ex-Muslim and author of "The Trouble with Islam." Both have started a firestorm in their homeland and have the Muslim diaspora debating change and modernity and fundamentalism and jihad.

I wonder why I can look across the Western world and find no Muslim men taking a similarly vocal, tough, and transgressive stance. Where is the Martin Luther of Islam? Why have so few Muslim men stood up and attacked their faulty faith? Perhaps because female oppression within Islam -- genital mutilation, male bigamy, lack of social worth, public hiding and shame -- has bred a bolder strain. Suffering is often the midwife to courage and insight, and these two women would seem to be prime examples.

But that seems too simplistic a reason. For Hirsi Ali and Manji are keenly aware of their task, which is less about a clash of civilizations than a bridging of three cleavages: that between Islam and its new home, the West; that between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims; and that between men and women within the faith.

I'm thankful for their courage and their faith in the human capacity for change, but my guess is we will begin to see a real Islamic transformation when prominent Muslim men finally point the finger at their oft-misguided brethren.


My Bulls

nice article by the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith re my favorite nba team and their corralling of wunderkind lebron james and his cleveland cavs last night.

Sam Smith Story

i watched the whole game, and nocioni did some real nice work on lebron. but what smith doesn't mention is the cavs possession just before gordon's pass to chandler, when lebron was isolated against noci with the game tied and the clock ticking down to under 30 seconds. lebron faked right, went baseline, and noci slid over cat-quick. james, surprised to see the white boy there at what he thought was going to be his big moment, stuck out a forearm and gave a smallish shove for some separation. BEEEEP! whistle blows, offensive foul, we're goin the other way. incredible D. but i think if it were michael, or perhaps lebron in five years, they wouldn't have made that call. same thing michael did to byron russell to end finals 7 years ago.

anyway, the most impressive thing about this team is that they are the most nameless, headless, scrapping, intelligent basketball-playing unit i've ever seen. by that i mean there are no stars, no clear-cut leader on the floor, they play with passion and considerable intelligence. and most of all, they play together. their offense is unlike any in the league. they actually cut and move and screen and step out and dump in and whoever finally gets a good look takes it. antonio davis hits a jumper. then pargo. chandler gets a garbage hoop, noci hits a twenty-footer; hinrich draws a foul. maybe it was because curry didn't play, but i honestly don't think there was a first, second, or third option; it was the most egalitarian display of offense i've ever seen. i have yet to look at the box score, but when i do i'll be surprised to find that any one player outscored any other. they seem to exist in a vacuum, or in 1950. nobody has an ego, or an agenda, or a tattoo. they almost never dunk. they discuss strategy like ad-men. and scott skiles, i'm sorry, but the guy was born to coach. he doesn't open his mouth that much because his face is so expressive the players know exactly what he's saying. and he's a great leader. always focused and fierce, never flustered, right there with them in the fight. that they're bringing up other names for coach of the year is ludicrous.