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Friedman, Feynman and their master narratives

by Robert Teitelman  |  Published October 12, 2011 at 12:15 PM
scarecrow227x128.jpgIt feels like a week or so where the metaphors have gone a little berserk, the rhetoric blows hot and unsteady and the intellectual quotient recedes to a tiny dot. There's the backwash of Steve Jobs' death. There's the commentary around and about Occupy Wall Street. There was the Republican debate on the economy last night, which Andrew Sullivan this morning kindly called "surreal." And now, donning the laurel crown for overheated punditry, comes Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. Friedman, the World's Greatest Columnist, has famously become the progenitor of a style of thinking and writing that leans heavily on the rhetorical trope -- "the earth is flat" or "the earth is hot" -- to explain complex, ambiguous and profoundly contingent trends. He did not invent this style; the bookstores have been crowded with tomes purporting to explain the world for years. A generation ago, Alvin Toffler of "Future Shock" fame dominated the business. Now it's Friedman.

(An aside: It's a great pity the late Dwight Macdonald, whose collection of essays eviscerating the conventional wisdom and its journalistic heralds, "Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain," was recently re-released by the New York Review of Books, isn't around to opine on Friedman. To quote from the jacket: "Dwight Macdonald was an indefatigable and indomitable critic of America's susceptibility to well-meaning cultural fakery." That's midcult.)

Today Friedman has gone hunting for confederates in the universal explanation game; what he calls, portentously, "master narratives." What does he want to explain to us all? "When you see spontaneous social protests erupting from Tunisia to Tel Aviv to Wall Street, it's clear that something is happening globally that needs defining." Friedman then trundles forth two "unified theories" that "intrigue him" (and what intrigues him must pique our interest as well): "The Great Disruption" and "The Big Shift." The Great Disruption argues that the "current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits." This is followed by a very long and turgid quote from the Australian environmentalist who seems to have coined it, though given that it's essentially the venerable "last stages of capitalism" argument beloved of finger-waving Marxist theoreticians, combined with some global-warming overtones, "coined" might be more figurative than literal. Another way to say it: The world is hot. The Big Shift -- it's poetry -- argues that we're seeing the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution (revolutions always get capitals). This is followed by a long and wandering quote from its author, who seems to work at something in Silicon Valley called the Center for the Edge at accounting firm Deloitte, that argues that this fusion (a kind of acceleration of trends Peter Drucker sketched out decades ago) will allow companies and individuals to tap into massive flows of information that create more problems and more problem solvers than ever. In other words, the world is flat.

No wonder Friedman was intrigued. He got to promote both his favorite ideas.

I will consign my criticisms here to a single overweight paragraph. First, it doesn't seem to dawn on Friedman that all these events (and all the interpretations of what these events mean) don't necessarily have to be linked -- the correlation-does-not-suggest-causation meme -- or that, if they are, the triggering mechanism might be as simple as the many effects of a global financial meltdown, or the rise of China, or demographics, or that damn butterfly flapping its furry wings. Second, "master narratives" suggest that everything -- democracy (in all its variations), capitalism (in all its flavors), culture (etc.) -- is connected everywhere in the world; we're close to a midcult popularization of the Hegelian Zeitgeist here. Thus some protests for peace in Tel Aviv are the equivalent of revolts against kleptocracies in oppressive Middle Eastern states are the equivalent of a protest movement off Wall Street against a thousand things (where's the Tea Party fit in?), mostly involving what in the '60s was called "the establishment." But the world is a giant place, with lots going on, Mr. Tambourine Man. Europe is a mess - riots in Greece! -- but Brazil, Russia, China and most of Asia seem to be placid and prosperous -- for now. How come they're not part of this? Third, the world is always falling apart; always being disrupted; always shifting; always being reconstructed in strange ways. Capitalism and democracy were entering their last throes in the '30s. Somehow they recovered. Capitalism then lurched to its final breakdown, with overtones of world hunger, environmental disaster and sweaters, in the '70s. We have been struggling with big shifts involving globalization and information technology for decades now; that's what "Future Shock" was all about. I've got a copy here somewhere.

These master narratives are an excuse from the hard work of trying to understand the individual in the local in the national in the global, to try to separate the general from the unique, the universal from the parochial. They are warm baths of abstractions. Friedman wants to make it easy on him and on us; but that easy road leads to emptiness -- to midcult. By chance today, I came across a video on Sullivan's Daily Dish that featured the late physicist Richard Feynman discussing the complexity of nature. It's worth just listening to Feynman, with his Brooklyn accent and his tumbling onrush of words and ideas. "The world is very strange," he says. The rules are very simple. If you only look at a very small part of it, "you can work out exactly what's going to happen ... and yet, in the real game there are so many pieces that you can't ever figure out what's going on. So there's a sort of hierarchy of different complexities. It's hard to believe -- it's incredible, and most people don't believe it -- that the behavior of one person, me, a yak-yak and you nodding and all this stuff, is a result of lots and lots of atoms all obeying very simple rules that comes out with such a creature after billions of years of evolution. ...

"There's such a lot in the world, such a distance between the fundamental rules and the final phenomenon that's it's almost unbelievable that the final variety can come from such a steady operation of such simple rules. ... Nobody ever asks about a simple, ordinary phenomenon in the street, like what about those colors? ... Everybody wants the big final result. Well, then, it's going to be complicated." - Robert Teitelman
Tags: Alvin Toffler | Andrew Sullivan | Dwight Macdonald | Future Shock | Masscult and Midcult Essays Against the American Grain | master narrative | Occupy Wall Street | Peter Drucker | Richard Feynman | Steve Jobs | The New York Times | Thomas Friedman
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