Welcome Back Thommo

(Down Wombats – I’m not talking about our beloved pace bowler )

When the NY Times Op Ed columnists disappeared behind the Times Select firewall I missed Thomas Friedman the most. He is the newspaper’s ‘mister inbetween’ – viewed by the right as a screaming liberal and in a British publication called Why Do People Hate America – as a far far far right winger. Go Thommo! Ya gotta be doing something right.

In this column he is definitely up to his old tricks of playing both ends against the middle – suggesting tongue in cheek that a President Obama might want to keep Dick Cheney on as VP:

In sum, Mr. Obama’s instinct is right — but he needs to dial down his inner Jimmy Carter a bit when it comes to talking to Iran, and dial up a bit more inner Dick Cheney. If Democrats want to win this election, they have to get these two in balance — they have to learn how to criticize the Bush record from the right and the left, to show they can be better at engagement and coercion. Successful diplomacy requires both. Americans will want to know that Democrats can do both. My guess is that many still aren’t sure.

Apparently, as Friedman himself admits, this ploy is just a way of getting our attention until we notice that conservative observers are also noticing Obama actually channeling his inner Dick Cheney. In this Powerline post entitled Barack Obama – Neocon, John Hinderacker notices Haertz columnist Samuel Rosner noticing that on the issue of Pakistan all the Democratic presidential candidates are sounding like Neocons. Friedman’s metaphor goes deeper in that it reminds us that Neocons are a splinter group that left Democratic party and some of the issues still remain unresolved within the party. My point – when Thommo stretches a metaphor he gives us an opportunity to stretch our minds.

Here is a more serious example. In this review of Friedman’s book The World is Flat, Edward E. Leamer of the UCLA Graduate School of Management wonders, “What Might that ‘Flat World’ Metaphor Mean?” He is no dummy and he is not asking disingenuously. He is clearly confused.

Likening his Discovery Channel crew to the sailors on the Nina and the Pinta and the Santa Maria, when Friedman found in Bangalore not Indians but Americans in name and speech and business practices, he “shared my discovery only with my wife, and only in a whisper. ‘Honey.’ I confided, ‘I think the world is flat.” Once “flat” was in Friedman’s head, he couldn’t seem to get it out. When on that same trip to Bangalore, Friedman was told by Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys Technologies Limited, “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” Friedman concludes “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!” p.7

Flattened? I still don’t get it……

That is my way of saying that our language really matters, and metaphors need to be chosen carefully. I am open to a good new metaphor (economic model), but a metaphor isn’t going to work for me unless I can figure out what message is intended. I know what a “small world” means. I have some ideas what a “level playing field” may mean. But a “Flat World” for me is an elusive idea.

Forgive the lengthy quote, but it is necessary to see that Dr. Leamer genuinely does not get it. I think I do – probably because I have an affinity for outrageous metaphor. It’s a way of stopping the mind in its tracks – (in our thinking ‘tracks’ are tired metaphors) – and asking it to consider that something important and new is happening. The tired metaphor that Leamer readily understands is “level playing field”. In economics it refers to a fair or equal opportunity environment. Friedman is going well beyond the older metaphor – he is saying that globalization has gone so much further than he realized, that the economic environments of the US and India are essentially the same. He is repealing Kipling’s 19th Century declaration “East is East and West is West and never the twin shall meet.” And to channel my inner English teacher he is also pointing to an economic and cultural paradigm shift similar in scale to recognizing that the world is round. Good on ya, Thommo.

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