two writers

I’ve been re-reading One Market Under God for an article I’m supposed to be writing and I’ve been struck, once again, by what a fantastic writer Thomas Frank is. Frank was the editor of the legendary Baffler (which is now apparently about to be revived) before writing The Conquest of Cool, One Market Under God and What’s the Matter with Kansas. Each book develops the argument of the one before. In the Conquest of Cool, Frank documents how the advertising industry recuperated the slogans and iconography of sixties rebellion; in One Market, he analyses the way the market populism of the nineties incorporated the tropes of rebellion into an argument for extending free markets; in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, he compares the left populism that dominated the mid-west in the 1890s with the right populism hegemonic today.

Each of the books is important in its own right but  but there’s also a real pleasure in reading Frank’s prose. Below, for example, is a passage from One Market Under God, analysing the various fraudulent management texts that sold so well in the 1990s.

Perhaps it is best, then, that the book by which the management theory of the nineties be remembered is the asinine and chronic bestseller, Who Moved My Cheese? While the book’s repetitive, infantile story, its Dick-and-Jane-sized typeface, and its home-computer-generated graphics initially cause the reader to suspect that he has mistakenly picked up a book written by a child and vanity-published by doting partents, it quickly becomes apparent that the oversized typeface and pointless, page-hogging illustrations are merely a device to push the thing to a barely respectable ninety-four pages. And yet within these slim covers — and even slimmer intellectual parameters — the author, serial management writer Spencer Johnson, is able to pull off a work of breathtaking obscenity, to both call for childlike innocence before the gods of the market and openly advance a scheme for gulling, silencing and firing workers who are critical of management — and also to incorporate into the book’s very plot a thinly disguised pitch for a whole array of Who Moved My Cheese? spin offs and sequels. The mysterious sounding title metaphor turns out to refer to four allegoical workers (not wanting readers to miss any of his genius nuace, Johnson eventually just informs us that the characters are symbols for different worker personality types, two of them ‘littlepeople’ and two of them mice, who spend their days racing through a maze in search of cheese. As the cheese materialises in the same place every day, they become complacent. Then the cheese disappears. They never do find out ‘who’ moved it or why, as this is simply a part of the unknoweable byeond (this is ‘change’); the important question is, how do the characters react to their cheese being moved? Naturally, the blue-collar workers, ie the mice, are accustomed to looking for new work; they ‘did not overanalyse things’, they react well to ‘the inevitable’, and they promptly take off in search of ‘new cheese’. The two ‘littlepeople’, however, ‘ranted and raved at the injustice of it all’ , believing that they were ‘entitled’ to their cheese. This is supposed to be transparently foolish; in facct, even to wonder about the logic of the cheese’s movements or to ask the title question Who Moved My Cheese? is to commit workplace error of such magnitude that management can rightly ‘let’ workers who are given to such thoughts ‘go’. So while one of the ‘littlepeople’ remains stubbornly at the place where he last sighted the cheese, the other sets off through the maze again, running the rat race, but finding along the way that job insecurity is good for his soul and composing a number of pithy observations about adapting to ‘change’ that he writes on the wall of the maze — much like the pithy management sayings that adorned so many office walls in the 1990s.

There’s nothing particularly flashy about the writing; it’s just cool and elegant and with a constant undertone of irony that makes it clear where Frank stands in relation to the ridiculous and pernicious figures about whom he’s writing.

Anyway, re-reading the book today, Frank reminded me of another writer whose work I admire. Matt Taibbi writes for Rolling Stone and his slightly gonzo style is occasionally reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson. But he’s better than that. Like Frank, he writes about (among other things) business; he’s currently running a major campaign against Goldman Sachs at the Smirking Chimp blog. His book The Great Derangement, an account of increasing alienation of ordinary Americans from the political mainstream, is well worth reading. But for a taste of his prose style, it’s obligatory to read Taibbi’s now classic review of the odious New York Times‘ columnist Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat:

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 phrasethe 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 contrastingironically, as it werewith 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 IndiaBangalore to be specifiche 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.

And boy, does it take off. Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the endand I’m not joking herewe are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman’s book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author’s metaphors.

Read the rest of it here — and if you think Taibbi’s unfair, try reading the book. It really is as bad as that.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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    1. Well, jinx. The post was originally gonna be called ‘three writers’ and culminate by quoting Rundle’s recent Crikey piece where he explained which Stalinist leader all the News Ltd honchos represented. There are a few other Australian public intellectuals who are funny – and even one or two who are both funny and Leftwing. But I don’t think there’s anyone who has Rundle’s breadth. He can move so effortlessly from discussing Parvus to writing doggerel about Michael Jackson. Plus he makes it all look so easy.
      Anyway, he’s launching my book so I took out all the references to him, cos I thought it might look like I was sucking up. J

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