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Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Hot, Flat, and Crowded

That's a description of the unairconditioned gym where I went to hear Tom Friedman speak last night about his new book, coincidentally entitled "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," subtitled "Why we need a green revolution - and how it can renew America." Listening to someone I have little respect for isn't in my normal course of affairs, but I'm visiting my mother for a few days, and she had tickets, and there I was.

Friedman, the evangelist of "entrepreneurship" as the savior of the world, no, strike that, make that the savior of America (his concern for the rest of the world is rather less), thinks that America has "lost its groove" and that "GT" (get it? his clever play on "IT") is how "we" will get our "groove" back (and fix the economy and save the world etc. etc.).

Well, I had a chance to read the first chapter of the book before the talk, and when the floor opened for questions, I was second at the mike (not bad considering there were 1500 people there!). I had a lot of things to choose from, just from having read the first chapter, but here's what I said (quoting from memory of course):

"I was surprised to read on page 20 of your book, and I'm quoting, 'The strong and competitive sectors of our economy are as strong and competitive as any in the world.' Other than Google, just which sectors of the economy did you have in mind exactly? Manufacturing? Banking?"
Before I get to the rest of my question, I have to tell you a bit more about the book. Friedman being Friedman, even though the book is about energy and the green revolution, "Islamic terrorism" is never far from his mind (or his pen). So he starts by talking about how low the opinion of America has fallen in the world (part of the "groove" we've lost). And the anecdote he starts with is about how the U.S. consulate in Istanbul used to be downtown, but after 9/11 it got moved out of town, and now looks like nothing less than a maximum security prison, complete with 15-foot walls, barbed wire, etc. It's described as "so well guarded they don't even let birds fly there." So Friedman points out that this means that the locals can no longer just drop in, the Americans are more isolated, and that (and similar things like fingerprinting visitors to the U.S.) are why "they" don't like "us" any more.

So I continued:

"And I was also surprised to read in the first chapter, which I admit is the only one I've read so far, that when you talk about the increasingly negative opinion that the world has of the United States you mention such things as the new fortress consulate in Istanbul, but there isn't a single mention of the invasion of Iraq or the invasion of Afghanistan, or the deaths of hundreds of thousands, probably more than a million, Iraqis, thousands of Afghans, not to mention nearly four million Iraqis forced from their homes, as well as many dead Somalis, Pakistanis, and others."
About when I got to the Somalis he cut me off (politely), and said (again, quoting from memory),
"We [I think he meant people in general, not he and I] have differences in opinion about the war in Iraq, and I don't want to refight those arguments, but thank you for getting that off your chest, and if you want to discuss it further after you've finished the book, I'll be glad to give you my phone number."
A complete and utter ducking of the two questions, not to mention completely missing the point of the second question, which wasn't to reargue the justification for the invasion of Iraq (or Afghanistan) [by the way you can read his thoughts on the subject here, which are truly repugnant], but to question his explanation for why people think so little of the United States.

After the talk finished, I quickly (I'm not usually a pushy guy, but when the occasion warrants...) jumped up and got to the podium before he even left to go sit at a table to sign books (where there were several hundred people in line). I handed him a card on which I had written: "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil," and told him this was a documentary (my review here) very much on point to his lecture and book and he really should see it. He seemed genuinely interested, and did give me his phone number. :-) Not that I expect to be using it.

Let me share one of the things I didn't ask him about, which really didn't hit me until I thought about it later. He concludes (both in the book and in his talk) the anecdote about the U.S. Embassy in Turkey with the "upside" of the moving of the Embassy out of center city:

"But here's a hard truth. Some U.S. diplomats are probably alive today thanks to this fortress. Because on November 20, 2003...Turkish Muslim terrorists detonated truck bombs at the HSBC bank and the British consulate in Istanbul, killing thirty people including Britain's consul general, and wounding at least four hundred others. The bomb-ravaged British mission was just a short walk from [the former site of the U.S. consulate.

"One of the terrorists captured after the attack reportedly told Turkish police that the group had wanted to blow up the new U.S. consulate, but when they checked out the facility, they found it impregnable."
Now you have to think about what he's saying for a second. Because the only way this is any kind of counterpoint or upside to the loss of contact of the Turkish people with the U.S. consulate, is if British lives and Turkish lives are worth less than American lives. Perhaps Friedman doesn't think so consciously, and would deny it if asked. But really, that's the only way what he writes makes sense. And of course it is precisely the defining principle of U.S. foreign policy as manifested virtually every day in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and anywhere else, where, as I have written many times, a small chance that there might be a "terrorist" (by which they mostly mean an opponent of U.S. occupation) someplace, the U.S. is perfectly willing to bomb without having a clue how many innocent civilians might be in the way, and if there is the slightest chance that a U.S. soldier's life might be at stake, they'll open fire and mow down as many Iraqis or Afghans as are in the way, no matter who they are. This is quite simply the logic of occupation.

There's lots more I could write about Friedman's talk, such as his claim that what we are doing now (replacing incandenscent bulbs with CFLs, buying Priuses, etc.) is just a "party," because everyone's happy, and you can't have a "revolution" unless people get hurt (a point on which we absolutely concur), but then completely ducking the question of where that "hurt" is going to come and basically positing that some brilliant entrepreneurs are going to come up with clean, cheap energy and solve all our problems. But let me stop there, and refer readers to my thoughts on the solution to the energy/climate crisis, with the title "We all live in a crowded theater."

The Tom and Eli show, coming soon to a theater near you. :-)

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