Under my byline

Blunted instinct

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 4 November 2007

Pulitzer prize-winning author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman delivered a lecture in New Delhi which was a little “flat”

Like great French historians, Thomas Friedman seems to be writing simpler as he gets older. In the case of the Frenchmen, however, the clarity of their late work comes from history shorn of its academic paraphernalia — such as footnotes, references and the laying bare of doubts, alternative interpretations and mea culpas — and turned into pure wisdom. In it, cause and consequence can be simultaneous, and simple things are said without simplification. Such clarity of thought and good-quality storytelling come, pure and simple, from long experience and accumulated impatience with inessentials.

Friedman certainly has experience, what with his decades as a columnist and roving reporter for the New York Times. He has won three Pulitzers. But where historians like Henri Pirenne or Fernand Braudel, and indeed most people who have to process vast quantities of information, develop an almost instinctive ability to sort material for meaningfulness and explanatory vigour (after all, history is essentially informed speculation), the nature of Friedman’s experience seems to have blunted his instinct.

Consider how effective a thinker you might be — and what constraints might be imposed on your thinking — if you were in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday; Dalian, China, on Friday; Bangalore on Monday; and back in New York on Thursday of the following week. (This is barely exaggerated.) Leave aside the physiological impact of jet lag and the constant parade of faces, accents, hotel rooms, odd meals and varying altitudes and pollution levels, not to mention two columns a week for the NYT, lectures to gangs of CEOs and who knows what else: travelling so damn hard, what would you be seeing? Would your eye maybe just catch on the familiar and the bizarre, and not the incomprehensible normal? If so, how reliable an observer and self-appointed purveyor of reality would you be?

Consider also the effect on the tenor of your reporting if you were a celebrity American columnist, recognisable in 20 languages and a moustache, forever toting a laptop and living in five-star hotels, led from one meeting opportunity to the next by more or less suck-up executives, local worthies or NGO operatives. Of course your eye would still be your own, but what a liability to overcome!

At a time when what is needed is visions of the future, then, like Friedman you’d be offering peculiarly distorted views of the present. You’d be a step behind history, rather than at the cutting edge. You’d be telling us what we all already know and act upon, without (as humans do) having thought much about it. You would, in fact, be a journalist.

Friedman is indeed a very good journalist, when he writes about West Asia. His first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem (1990), written after 10 years in the region, is convincing because, as he says, to be taken seriously on West Asia “you’d better have mastered the subject”. As a young American Jew, he says his high-school years were “one big celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War” of 1967. But he also travelled properly in Israel, and later Egypt, learnt Arabic, lived in Beirut, and overcame his original one-sidedness. In short, he’s qualified.

As a public intellectual, however, and a voice of reason on how the world and his fellow Americans are living, he’s not unassailable. His argument is so heavy on anecdotes (many of which feature himself) that it’s almost self-indulgent. On the one hand, the ever-present “I” proves that he has been on the spot, but on the other, it shows that he carries this “I” everywhere he goes. There’s something endearingly honest about this, but I suspect it makes him less alert to dissonant notes in the grand symphony he senses — that is, the thumping theme of globalisation and the “flat” world.

Friedman was in Delhi on Tuesday to deliver the first Penguin India Annual Lecture. It was titled, excruciatingly, “The World Is Still Flat”. He spent half the lecture describing how his blockbuster book came to be, and the other half setting the stage for his forthcoming book, Green is the New Red, White and Blue. Regular readers of his columns can surmise the content. The remainder of the lecture was peppered with anecdotes (all pre-aired).

Friedman is no orator, although he commands $100,000 a speech. He’s engaging, mobile and a little melodramatic, very much like my Jewish history professor when he taught an undergraduate class. Unlike a professor, however, he’s not trying to deliver complex insights gently — his insights are simple. Perhaps that’s what makes them potent in the marketplace. Perhaps that’s what makes him influential, too, because for policy-makers, simple is occasionally actionable.

In a fulsome introduction, Friedman’s pal Nandan Nilekani described him as an “intellectual entrepreneur”. It’s an excellent description, because it reflects his canniness and understanding of the consumer. Friedman is upfront about it: “If you can name an issue, you own it.” He’s done this a few times now, and he’ll probably do it again.

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