Friday, April 22, 2005

IF YOU ENJOY reading hilariously funny, very well-written reviews of truly awful books, then you should read Matt Taibbi's review of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat.

I haven't read Friedman's book, but apparently the man is the Master of Malapropisms.

The book's genesis is conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani causally mutters to Friedman: "Tom, the playing field is being leveled." To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase—the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: "The playing field is being leveled."

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!

This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting—ironically, as it were—with Columbus's discovery that the world is round.

Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus's discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the "flat world" into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

"Let me... share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round," he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

To recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward India. Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman "had Lufthansa business class." When he reaches India—Bangalore to be specific—he immediately plays golf. His caddy, he notes with interest, wears a cap with the 3M logo. Surrounding the golf course are billboards for Texas Instruments and Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut billboard reads: "Gigabites of Taste." Because he sees a Pizza Hut ad on the way to a golf course, something that could never happen in America, Friedman concludes: "No, this definitely wasn't Kansas."

After golf, he meets Nilekani, who casually mentions that the playing field is level. A nothing phrase, but Friedman has traveled all the way around the world to hear it. Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought. That he misattributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.


If you've read The World Is Flat and are craving a good book; or even if you haven't read The World Is Flat and you're craving a good book, pick up Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle.

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, takes the first part of its title from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous quote of Theodore Parker's observation: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The book resurrects a murder trial that took place in Detroit in 1925. The case was famous among Detroiters, so much so that even today many long-time residents of Detroit still know about it; but outside of that city, most Americans have never heard of it.

In the early 1920s, a young black doctor, Ossian Sweet, set up a practice in Detroit. After marrying and having a child, Dr. Sweet bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. It would be hard to overstate what a revolutionary act this was at that time and in that place. Detroit, like many northern cities in the second decade of the twentieth century, was rigidly segregated. Black Detroiters were forced to live in one small section of the city called Black Bottom. Even after the black population grew way beyond the capacity of that one neighborhood to provide safe and decent living conditions for its residents, African-Americans were not allowed to live anywhere else. Black Bottom was for blacks. The rest of Detroit was for whites. And that unwritten rule was enforced with intimidation and mob violence whenever it was violated (which was not often). The year before Dr. Sweet bought his house, another black man who bought a house in a white neighborhood left after one terrifying night in which hundreds of whites massed in front of his home, screaming racial epithets, storming the house, and threatening to lynch him. Not many black Detroiters had the courage it took to cross that color line.

Dr. Ossian Sweet was one who did. Before he and his family even moved in, word spread around the neighborhood that a "nigger" family had bought the house. An organization was formed for the specific purpose of putting the Sweet family out of the house. The first night that the Sweets were in their new home, a crowd of whites from the neighborhood massed in front of the house. The Sweets had moved into the house earlier in the day, knowing that when the sun was out, they were relatively safe; adults were at work and children at school, and the pogrom they fully expected was most likely to start after darkness fell.

Dr. Sweet was just as terrified as you might imagine him to be, but he was determined not to flee. He was strengthened by the conviction that he had the right to live anywhere in the city that he could afford to live and wanted to live. That first night, the mob was outside until the small hours of the morning, but no violence occurred.

The next night was different. Whites massed in front of the house again; but this time the mob was huge: At least 800, with some reports at over 1,000, whites invaded the Sweets' block, completely filling and overwhelming the surrounding streets. Luckless black people who found themselves in the area by bad chance were attacked and beaten. One man who was in his car drove into the neighborhood by accident and was immediately set upon by hundreds of whites who tried to smash his windows and drag him out of the car. He was badly hurt, but finally escaped.

Inside the Sweet home, the Sweet family was neither alone nor unarmed. Ossian had brought a cache of weapons into the house, and had prevailed upon friends and family to stay in the house that night and help him protect his family and his property. The insane tension continued to build. Then, people in the mob outside started to attack the house with rocks. The rocks pelted the roof and knocked tiles off. Then rocks began to smash against the windows in an upstairs bedroom, where one or more of Ossian's friends were keeping guard. Suddenly a gun thrust through the bedroom window, and shots rang out. Outside, the lynch mob panicked and began to run, but two white men were shot, one of them fatally.

Go to Part 2 of this review.

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