Thomas Friedman, Shape Shifting in Chattanooga & Our Brave New World.

Last night Kittisaro and I went to listen to Thomas Friedman, well-known and well-respected American journalist, columnist and author. We have read some of his books, (Beirut to Jerusalem was excellent), enjoyed many of his columns and have marveled at his command of world affairs which he deftly translates into meaning for the present and a vision for the future.

His talk filled Chattanooga’s Tivoli Theater to capacity with 1,000+ captivated people. We listened intently to this confident, lucid, intelligent man glean clarity from the sharp shifting sands that continually pull away certainty and sense of what exactly America’s role is in our strange new world. A world, Mr Friedman pointed out, that absolutely defines itself in relationship to America — while in truth America stumbles against a supersonic, coal & solar fuelled, leaping speeding forward, innovative China. (Not mentioned by Mr Friedman is China’s appalling human rights – think Tibet. Or workers rights – think Foxconn factories laced with netting to catch suiciding Apple iPhone workers who fall from its windows. Or China’s environmental devastation – as in the notorious 3 Gorges Dam which displaced more than 1.2 million people, flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages and which scientists and environmentalists now contend an environmental disaster.)

Closer to home, post waking up from the election to a brave new demographic reality, the headlines of Chattanooga Free Press declare in a blaring splash of red front page headliner RED RULES (Republicans forever TN.) Maybe something of Queen Gertrude’s (Hamlet) “The lady doth protest too much?” Nevertheless, whatever our political leanings and ranting, (from which Mr Friedman did an admiral job of cleaving a middle way to great applause) Here we are… at the cusp of …..??

Into this unknown territory Mr Friedman fearlessly led us with a stunning diagnosis of our new world of “hyper connectivity.”  Once upon a time, he recollected, he would write a column with the thought of maybe — 7 or so — competitors in mind. Now it’s 70,000 + or some such overwhelming stat (overwhelming stats being the operative word of the night.)  But as all great wise one’s of old, Mr Friedman had a remedy to hand, one oft told to his children:

  1. Be like an immigrant – on heightened alert seeking one’s niche – but be a little paranoid – security of placement can be swept away any time; in other words, be on your toes all the time.
  2. Be like an artisan – take pride in your individual expression – make it YOURS
  3. Be like one of those guys in Silicon Valley – a “starter upper” – of all things possible – innovation, innovation, innovation – a job isn’t “found” anymore, only “invented.”
  4. Be like a waitress with an entrepreneurial spirit – use what’s around you & give a bit more to the customer to encourage good returns.

So with a diagnosis of our malaise and something of a remedy, Kittisaro and I drove away, awed by the genius of the night, but feeling something “wanting.” A slight pale of depression descended as we considered how the bar for us humans, now set as an impossibly vague future we can never get to, generates a maddening pressure to shape shift the hell out of ourselves in response to the siren call of the wilds of an insatiable market place. One felt the flutter of momentary excitement fall back into the exhaustion of it all.

It all sounds good, keeping up with deft new skills equipping us for the global market, to which Mr Friedman attuned us further, flicking off “outsourcing” to affirm that there’s actually no “in” or “out.” Sounds comfortably Zen, but the hallmark of contemporary corporate locusts, roaming the globe for cheap labor, is a tendency to zero ethical and social conscience, utter disregard for eco awareness and a complete lack of loyalty to workers, State and Country. For example, the Walmart Empire of “All Things VERY CHEAP” morphing into ASDA Europe with claws spread over India ready to pounce for new spoils. The Walmart family owns more wealth than the “bottom” 40% of Americans, a staggering $102.7 billion, while Walmart workers face poverty wages, dangerous working conditions and unreliable schedules. When they demand better treatment, management has offered little beyond threats and retaliation. This is just one of many examples of increasing wealth of billionaires that sharply contrasts typical families who have lost 39 percent of their wealth over the last 3 years.

Another popping illusion and rude awakening is that countries like China and Bangladesh, long associated with cheap labor, are just the harbingers of a globe falling under the plague of unchecked consumerism at all costs. Even soulless Foxconn has its greedy eye on the cheap pool of labor in an America hungry for jobs. However at what price? Sweden’s Ikea pays less than half the wage it would in its home country, just $8 an hour against $19, and offers 12 days holiday as opposed to the 5 weeks due you if you worked the same job in Stockholm. Volkswagen, now operating in Chattanooga to much local acclaim, can avoid high wages, good benefits and strong unions that protect worker’s rights while in Germany a Volkswagen worker can sit on the board and have a say in the company’s future. Alongside this, the profits from these company’s go straight back to home base bypassing the hosting country. Conversely in the UK Starbucks pay almost no tax. Taxes, there’s a hot button. Consider this; probably the wealthiest corporation in all history – Exxon Mobile – paid no income tax in 2009 according to the Securities and Exchange Committee. And so it goes on, racing forward at increasing quantum speed with barely a pause for considering where this is all going.

Rattling around my poor, pounded brain, which wasn’t making the shape shift grade, was the tug of something vital missed. That small screaming feeling pulling down, down into a gaping chasm of unease, like some fundamental koan not quite grasped but haunting to the debilitating tune of our fundamental blindness. The sheer weight of a rushing world un-tethered from the fact of its own looming demise at the hands of global warming; a simple truth truly hard to grasp and even more impossible to meet from our well pumped pathways of more, more, more.

From that primordial chasm, a quiet insistent whisper, STOP, there’s something important not to miss. Mr Friedman’s brilliant diagnosis was not wrong, his skill sets resonated, but the human in me begged more truly human and less supersonic, highly wired, inter-connected successful conqueror. It probably comes down to my not believing the myth. The Buddhist in me knows it’s not about “somewhere over the rainbow” of an ungraspable future, but about the here-now state of our consciousness, because from there all consequences are forged. We have just touched the tip of the iceberg of this quantum physics awakening the observer and the observed are one and the same, of Einstein’s a problem cannot be solved from the same consciousness that created it.

What is left to conquer is not global dominance, (surely a game truly bankrupt of all that is worthy in us as humans) but the land of our hearts and souls. I don’t recommend a conquering by religion, but only by our innate and natural understanding of the oneness of all things. What is left to deftly develop are skills to overcome the blindness of an egoism that is never satiated. What is left to emphasize is strength of ethics, compassion and wise consideration. And what is left to understand is that the wealth of billions is still not enough for one who has yet to grok that we ultimately own nothing, not even the very breath that keeps us alive. Then, maybe, our brave new world will be a good — a truly good – place to dwell for ourselves and a wonderful inheritance for those to come.

And this Mr Friedman, true to your welcome advice, I shall blog out into the milky way along with the billion other bloggers I share this extraordinary and precious planet with!

 And it is grace to know that suffering can turn to joy

and joy is where all belongs

And joy turns to peace as the ancient way of the heart

whispers at sunrise and sunset.

In the pauses between certainty when the known track evaporates

rain pours onto parched land in the promise

that all things interconnect.

And faith has its own beauty when eyes are too dim to see

when we forget our worries and allow ourselves to be.

While here we all are, breathing and dreaming

as brown ducks quack, herons fly and turtles paddle around.

And subtle is the path of heart

(Simple Sense of Being – Thanissara)