Kipling On the Loose
Thomas Friedman’s Toxic Tourism
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, July 5, 2006
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 Wednesday'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 any stage where two or more lobbyists compete for a legislator’s price. Seen up close of course the last thing any of this jungle stuff 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.”
Leave aside the subtle comparison of someone in this equation—certainly not the Israelis—to irrational jungle-bunnies (what Kipling would have called “lesser breeds without the Law”). Friedman’s conclusion, after two paragraphs profoundly reminiscent of the intellectual quotient of soldier beetles, is this: “Species that behave that way in the rain forest,” meaning like Palestinians, “become extinct.” And here we were thinking globalism’s fixation on rapid growth, untrammeled lucre and luxury (and global warming) were driving species to extinction! Silly us. I also recall my post-adolescence in early-Reagan America when becoming extinct at the drop of a Mirved missile had us marching in the streets in the shadows of Reagan’s turgidity for Pershing missiles and ICBMs, while the Soviets were pointing their own arsenals of mass extinction at us all the way up to the Berlin Wall. Compared to that, even the jungle’s most derelict species look like models of civility. And from that, Friedman jumps to this: “As for the Internet in the rain forest, my point is this: There is none.” This, ladies and gentlemen of the jungle, is what earns the man a twice-weekly perch on the world’s most august op-ed page.
And we wonder why he never had a doubting word about the “war on terror” (“Semper Fi,” is how he ended his first post-9/11 column) and the war in Iraq until it was pointed out to him, with the sort of repetitive insistence perfected by laboratories devoted to researching the abilities of simians to learn, that at some precise points in the genesis of both—namely, when the Bush administration declared both wars as their playground—both wars were, are, a sham. And still, he has doubts. His trips to the jungles of the world are not really attempts at seeing the world from different lenses. They’re exercises in reassertion, in exporting his unchanging, neo-imperialist world view to those places that have as yet been spared the reach of his religion (globalism), but not quite its effects. Friedman, in his travels to those lost corners, is not just Kipling without style. He’s America’s latest Lewis or Clark without enlightenment—the advance scout of civilization’s grasp and crass, its pretend humility wrapped in the wide-eyed props of the ingénue. It might have worked in the age of The Quiet American. It ain’t working now, not least because the American has become so loud.
Speaking of his jungle guide, Friedman concludes, unresisting before that last entomological pun: “He was totally disconnected from the Web, but totally in touch with the incredible web of life around him. I wonder if there’s a lesson there.” He went to college, too.