Back to the future in a world that’s flat

The other day, my wife confessed to someone on a train that she admired George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. He replied she was in a distinct minority in Canada. Factually, it is undeniable. But as a riposte it implies that in this land of independent thinking everyone wants to be original but no one wants to be weird.

Thus Paul Martin lets it be known he’s been reading Thomas Friedman. It’s meant to make him look deep, but if he were any shallower he’d bulge. Margaret Wente responded, “who hasn’t? Mr. Friedman’s bestselling book, The World is Flat, is on the bedside table of every respectable CEO and politician.” Well, I haven’t. I say, find out which way the herd of independent minds is currently stampeding and go someplace else, to read and think where the buzzwords don’t buzz. Whereas Mr. Friedman believes we’re moving into a fast-paced trans-competitive knowledge-based globalized economy where China is a giant and ... zzzzzzz.

I’ve long treasured the Red Dwarf episode in which Dave Lister, suddenly facing death, declares that among his unrealized ambitions, “I’ve always wanted to read ... a book.” But lately, I’ve realized you have to be more precise. For perspective rather than applause, Mr. Martin could try Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can’t be jammed.

Messrs. Heath and Potter are resolutely, even stubbornly, left-wing progressives. But intelligent. And frustrated by some of the dumb things coming from their own ideological camp, especially old errors repackaged as stunning novelties. Like the concept that just by being a weirdo you can shatter the artificial conformity capitalism imposes to sell banal products. Been there, done that, didn’t work. They know the independent thinker is such an icon of western culture, and hence of marketing, that smashing bourgeois convention has become a bourgeois convention. How to respond is not obvious if you wear Nikes to the antiglobalization protest and clutch Naomi Klein’s book to brand you as cool. But ignoring it just makes you stupid.

How can we discuss whether something is a desirable change when it’s not a change? Hey, guys. Let’s diversify trade away from the United States. Let’s ignore aggression by foreign tyrants. Let’s have sexual liberation. Let’s discard the past. Uh, didn’t we already try that? I’m not sure. See, I discarded the past, and...

One columnist just gushed about Michaëlle Jean that “a new Canada seeks to fashion a new kind of freedom, the freedom to renounce ethnic perimeters.” Meltin’ pot ain’t new, boy. Likewise, the most ghastly thing about New Economy prattle is the fatuous air of novelty with which this dusty relic is placed before us. What apostle of lifelong learning declared it “a commonplace” that “education should not cease when one leaves school?’’ Right. John Dewey. In 1916. He added, “The extension in modern times of the area of intercommunication” and “the cheapening of devices ... for recording and distributing information -- genuine and alleged -- have created an immense bulk of communicated subject matter.”

Wait a minute. We already had the information age? Why wasn’t I told?

Globalization is not new. No discussion will get far that overlooks this key point. Yet no discussion is likely to get started that acknowledges it. (Except in this newspaper, and on TV’s iChannel, where I hope you’ll join me this fall.)

Our trendiest thinkers are too conventional. I recently let a copy of The Economist enter my house, despite it being the universally recognized badge of independent thinking. It told me “Politicians must suspend moral judgments if AIDS is to be defeated” and China is a rising economic superpower. I banished it. And In Praise of Slow author Carl Honoré, a recovering “Scrooge with a stopwatch,” notes that World Economic Forum president and founder Klaus Schwab recently warned, “We are moving from a world in which the big eat the small to one in which the fast eat the slow.” Right. In a world where everyone is already rushing about madly, ultra-chic Davos extols ... starting to hustle. And Paul Martin got there slowly. Poor chap, he’s not a hip “early adopter” but one of the marketers’ dreaded “late majority” whose discovery of a trend not only signals but helps cause its loss of coolness.

Like Canadian columnists who endorse separating church and state. Such courage puts my breath back. Especially if they also say it makes us different from Americans or, as one just did, “In its origins, in Greece and Rome, politics did fine without religion.” Um, weren’t Roman emperors through Diocletian officially gods? But no one will notice or care because such opinions are so safe. So bold. So fresh. And so centre-of-the-herd. No sir. No lion’s gonna get me. Whereas praising Rumsfeld, or God, puts you right on the fringe of the tall grass that’s sort of moving by itself.

Mind you, it’s quieter out there.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson