Thursday, July 06, 2006

Kipling on the Loose: Thomas Friedman's Toxic Tourism

LIMA, Peru—The best part of this job is being able to step outside of your routine and occasionally look at the world through a completely different lens. The Peruvian Amazon rain forest is such a lens, and looking at the world through this dense jungle has given me new perspectives on two issues — Middle East violence and the spread of the Internet.
—The first lines of Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column, July 5, 2006

From the doorway of La Crónica Santiago looks at the Avenida Tacna without love: cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy skeletons of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday. At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?
—The first lines of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1974).

One quote appears to have nothing to do with the other. But neither do Friedman’s juxtapositions, or his quests for the soppy metaphor. You’d think the New York subway would be as good a place as any, jungle-wise, to “look at the world through a completely different lens.” There’s a subway stop half a block away from Friedman’s office. Timesmen who work on the building’s eleventh floor must think the underground peruvia non grata. So the juxtaposition begs the question: at what precise moment did Thomas Friedman go Peruvian on his own Amazon rear? Answer: January 1, 1995, the day he published his first “Foreign Affairs” column for the Times and heralded the age of imperialism with a liberal face. Or Rudyard Kipling minus the poetry, the style, the occasional substance, the ear for irony.

So we get sentences like today’s: “What is so striking about the rain forest, when viewed up close, is what an incredibly violent place it is—with trees, plants and vines all struggling with each other for sunlight, and animals, insects and birds doing the same for food.” Funny. I could say the same about the copse of woods in back of my Floridian house, or stage where two or more lobbyists compete for a legislator’s price. Seen up close of course the last thing any of this is is violent. It’s placid, well-mannered, immobile. It takes perspective, a bit of analysis, seeing the forest for the trees sort of thing—doing what Friedman seems incapable of—to reflect the ecosystem’s violence. It takes abandoning the very preconceptions and presumptions going to a place like the Peruvian jungle was meant to do. So he goes from vines and jungle animals competing “with an identifiable purpose” to describing the violence between Israelis and Palestinians as “utterly without purpose.” Read the rest...