PORING through Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” I found myself over and over again turning pages and saying, “I had no idea.”Sigh. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to head out to the woods like Thoreau and spend the rest of my life living in a log cabin. It’s not the complete corporatization of America. I’ve already developed psychological defense mechanisms to protect myself from that, and when those fall short there’s always booze. No, I’m referring to the absolute cluelessness of Thomas Friedman, a pundit that our increasingly misguided nation has chosen to make influential.
I had no idea that in the year 2000, as Sandel notes, “a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space,” or that in 2001, the British novelist Fay Weldon wrote a book commissioned by the jewelry company Bulgari and that, in exchange for payment, “the author agreed to mention Bulgari jewelry in the novel at least a dozen times.” I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now “even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event,” writes Sandel. “New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base. When the umpire calls the runner safe at home plate, a corporate logo appears on the television screen, and the play-by-play announcer must say, ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life.’ ”
Here is a major apostle of free markets, which in reality means corporate hegemony, just now waking up to the fact that his pet system has many unsavory aspects to it, such as turning our entire culture into nothing but a series of advertisements. This stuff is old hat to anybody with two eyes and the rudiments of a forebrain, but to the great Thomas Friedman it’s an epiphany.
Tellingly, he had to learn all this from a Harvard professor who, he informs us, was also his boyhood friend. Apparently, the shrill voices of the out-groups who’ve decried corporatization for years don’t reach the lofty peaks where Friedman and Co. live. You have to be in the inner circle to be heard. An idea is not a bad idea until one of the elect says so. Until that happens, columnists like Friedman and his colleague David Brooks will wander Mr. Magoo-like right past the wreckage they’ve helped create, smugly believing in the correctness of their biases.
When it becomes professionally safe — or should I say professionally necessary? — to change opinions they look around at the damage, seemingly aghast, and exclaim, “I had no idea!” Then they change direction as swiftly as a herd of ungulates and race off to pursue some new folly.
But Friedman has only just begun to see the horror. Its full dimensions don’t become clear until a little further down the piece:
Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.
Who knew that stark divisions between the haves and have-nots eroded our sense of common purpose? Who could have predicted that privatizing everything would allow market values to crowd out civic practices? Who knew that starving schools of funds would make them whore themselves to corporations and become incubators of consumerism? Who indeed? No one at Thomas Friedman’s book tours, I guess.
Now that the ugly consequences of unbridled free markets, “market values,” are coming into full poisonous bloom, the more moderate types among the faithful like Thomas Friedman want to recant. Either that or, sensing a shift in public opinion, he’s shrewdly postioning himself to be relevant in a world where the market is no longer God.
One can only hope that one of Friedman’s pals will write about the horrors of globalization in the Third World. Then he might make some progress on that front as well.