The Flat-World Fairy Tale

Three of my favorite writers, V.S. Naipaul, John LeCarre, and Alan Furst, keep me thinking about Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. Friedman sees globalization as the great leveler–or, perhaps, the great empowerer, allowing almost anyone from anywhere to rise to the top. Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick in his incarnation as a lass from Mumbai or lad from Guangzhou. It’s an optimistic, peculiarly American belief, is Friedman’s, one that could only arise in a country formed out multiple cultures on what was, in cultural respects, an almost blank field. Formed, also, out of insistence that “class” is an illusion. It shows absolutely no understanding of the role of class and of ethnic roots in human psyche.

Right now, I’m in the middle of both LeCarre’s new book The Mission Song and Alan Furst’s recent The Foreign Correspondent. Next on my list is Naipaul’s Magic Seeds, two years old and sequel to Half a Life. All three of these writers are dealing, these days, with the situations of people who have lost their old homes and cultures (if they had them, in fact) and are thrown into worlds with little place for them.

There is no “gold mountain” (as the Chinese have sometimes called the United States) waiting for any of their characters, no “happy ever after.” The type of success Friedman imagines as open to everyone proves empty, even when achieved.

The flattening of the world that Friedman extols can only really happen if one stays at home (particularly now, when the United States, that one refuge, is becoming more and more anti-immigrant). Without the infrastructure of family and culture, success in an alien culture turns to little success at all–unless one comes from one of the global cultures (English Commonwealth white plus American, Chinese, Russian, Indian, and a few others) that have outposts (at least) in most of the world. Yet others, in this increasingly global world, are forced to leave their homes, sometimes even feeling forced to jettison any sign of country of origin–for fear of being sent back. The world is churning, and millions of people are finding themselves removed from their homes. They are lost, and are the subjects of all three story-tellers.

Though people are starting to dress more and more alike, and even are listening to the same music and watching the same television, cultural differences mark clear boundaries–almost as clear as those of class. Only if we manage to develop a truly global culture, spatially, economically, and educationally, will the world ever flatten in the way Friedman imagines.

Until then, the types of tragedies the three writers of fiction present will continue to be part of life on Earth. The reality will remain in their stories, the fairy tales in Friedman’s columns and books.