The Magazine

The Cliché Expert

He's never met a hackneyed phrase he didn't use-twice.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By RANDY BOYAGODA
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The World Is Flat

A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

by Thomas L. Friedman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 488 pp., $26

THESIS: "CLEARLY, it is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world--using computers, email, networks, teleconferencing, and dynamic new software." Source: A social studies paper from a middling high school student, or a scintillating study from the New York Times's most prominent columnist?

In its sloppy jalopy cadence and stunning banality, this sentence suggests a tenth-grader's efforts. But to Thomas Friedman's embarrassment, this statement fuels his car-wreck of a new book, The World Is Flat. Subtitled, with criminal deceit, "A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," this nearly 500-page tome is a testament to our age along the lines of London's Millennium Dome--a monstrosity of poor design, cloudy thinking, and rank hubris.

When Friedman visited the headquarters of a software company in Bangalore, he was casually informed that "the playing field is being leveled" between America and Third World giants like India and China, thanks to the rise of global telecommunications networks. Boardroom chitchat led to this horrifically outdated book: "What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened. . . . Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!"

As happens so many more painful times afterward, Friedman here offers us a play-by-play of his mind at work, presuming that we will be thrilled by detailed descriptions of this hamster spanning the globe while spinning in its wheel. Moreover, Friedman bungles the metaphor that spills across the rest of his pages: A level playing field is simply not analogous to a flat world. Even a facile understanding of either term makes clear the clumsiness of this pairing, not to mention the baffling historical associations and logical reversals that Friedman summons in subsequently declaring that the world is flat. But clarity of thought and style are not this book's strong points; superego and literary licentiousness carry the day.

The Olympic height of Friedman's egotism is nowhere more apparent than in the book's foreign policy section, where he tries to make sense of Islamic fundamentalism's roots and its rise through the reach and grasp of modern technology. After Bernard Lewis's authoritative writings and Buruma and Margalit's recent effort, Occidentalism, Friedman's commentary on the cultural humiliation and totalitarian philosophy that drive radical Islam comes off as obvious, if not derivative. The self-congratulation, however, is exclusively his, and is on spectacular display in his discussion of Osama bin Laden's reference to Spain in a 2004 message: "Somehow, bin Laden heard or read about this first Arab Human Development Report [released in 2002] from his cave. For all I know, he may have read my own column about it, which was the first to highlight the report and stressed the comparison with Spain."

Leaving aside Friedman's ignorance of history--bin Laden was primarily and bitterly referring to La Reconquista when he called Spain "the lost Andalusia" in the message under discussion--the direct geopolitical influence he claims for himself, as evidence of worldwide information spread, is simply outrageous.

More egregious than the author's self-circumnavigation of the globe is his apocalyptic devastation of the English language. Friedman has a remarkable penchant for thinking in clichés: "this definitely wasn't Kansas," "What goes around, comes around," "What will they think of next?" and "this really is rocket science." He also seems congenitally incapable of devising a sound metaphor: Friedman declares that Indians can now "plug in and play with the flat world" while Americans "have to dig into ourselves" and tend to the "secrets of our sauce" to "claim [our] slice of the bigger but more complex pie" that is produced when "all the flatteners start to get turbo-charged by all the steroids."

Beyond his vapid clichés and malformed metaphors, Friedman breeds the book's impaired literary conceit: Flat begets flatten, flattened, flattening, flattener, China flattener, coefficient of flatness, Age of Flat, Age of Flatism, compassionate flatism, unflat, various unflatteners, and the Mother of all unflatteners. The only flat word Friedman ignores is the one that characterizes his windy prose.