"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why We Love Conferences And How Thomas Friedman Will Make A Lot Of Money

Apparently Thomas Friedman has gotten into the act with his own, New York Times-sponsored conference on – you guessed it – everything.  As Lydia Depillis reports in The New Republic (4.25.13):

The New York Times Global Forum: Thomas L. Friedman’s The Next New World, scheduled for June 20, promises to “explore the complex dynamics of new-world infrastructure, especially the transformative electronic, digital and mobile environment,” impart “invaluable insights into strategies for success in today’s new world order,” and answer the question: “What World Are You Living In?” Invitees can attend the one-day forum for the early-bird price of $995.

Friedman is but one of a long line of hucksters selling their wares.  Evangelists have been cramming the faithful into revival tents for years, Southern pastors preach to thousands in mega-churches every Sunday, and self-help gurus earn millions in inspirational talks about self-confidence or making money in real estate. Why should Friedman come under such attack, especially by a fellow journalist?

Friedman proposes to answer [questions about the state of the world] by chatting with a set of white men on subjects including “Threats or Possibilities,” “What Happened to Power?” “What You Don’t Know Is Coming,” and “What Energy Is Going to Be.” If that weren’t enough, the website promises the presence of droves of C-Suite executives, venture capitalists, “content providers,” “hardware manufacturers,” and “service providers.” But it’s still exclusive: You have to “request an invitation” before they’ll let you pay your money.

It all sounds pretty awful, tacky in fact, and not something a reputable New York Times columnist should be up to.  After all, conferences are not for those who really want to learn anything, but who want to shmooze with like-minded people and to have their prejudices confirmed.  If you are a Friedman addict and New York Times reader, you are concerned about an ever increasingly complex world fraught with danger – environmental degradation, invasion of privacy, jihad, junk food, and epidemics; and you know that Friedman, with his avuncular manner and easy, conversational way will never scare you, but reassure you.  Yes, there are perils in the world, he says, but if we act reasonably and in time, we can eliminate them.

The list of Friedman’s topics suggest that he will be preaching to the converted.  Who, for example, especially New York Times readers, has not reflected on the impact of the Internet?  Is there anyone out there who has not caught a glimpse of its power and universality? Anyone who has not surfed the net, worked at home, engaged in social networking, or bought something on Amazon?

Not only have Times readers contemplated our connected world, they have subdivided themselves by issue.  There are the privacy freaks who worry about Big Brother and his satanic acolyte Big Business.  There are the nannies who worry about cyber-bullying and sexting; neo-Thoreauvians who worry about virtual reality and the irretrievable loss of the prelapsarian world of Walden Pond; liberals who see ‘progressive’ values lost in the commercialization of the world. They all convene their own conferences, chat groups, and seminars to talk to themselves.

In other words, the conference is about promoting Friedman and the Times, making people feel good, and strengthening the solidarity of the community of world citizens for whom a peaceful, harmonious, and sharing world is still a luminous ideal.

I hate conferences, and have gone to them only under duress. I have had to sit through treacly polite introductions and thank-you tributes; achingly boring plenary sessions; mind-numbing, useless break-out sessions followed by perfunctory, aimless, report-out sessions; and ducked out of one self-serving paper presentation after another.

Seminars are less painful only because they are smaller and because both presenters and participants are selective.  A seminar on quantitative easing would be attended by economists; one on drug-resistant TB by doctors, etc.

Workshops are the very worst, designed to gin up support for the boss’ new program or to improve sagging office morale; and especially to increase respect for diversity – and usually all three. In some companies these torture sessions are routine and frequent and do more to fragment a naturally cohering group than consolidating it.

Conferences are a huge waste of money.  The United Nations, never known for its efficiency and financial acumen, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on conferences on every possible socially ‘progressive’ subject.  One of the most well-known and revered is the Cairo Conference on Population and Development (1994).  Untold amounts were spent to fly delegates to and from Egypt for long debates on everything from family planning to spatial redistribution of the population. Results? Platitudes, consensus on what everyone already knew, and goals that were idealistic, unreachable, and politically tone-deaf.  The conclusions were no more than a ‘progressive’ manifesto for universal education, abortion, and women’s rights.

Similar conferences have been held on Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and these, too, ended with similarly unreachable, idealistic objectives which satisfied the incestuous international community more than it did provide any real guidance to individual countries.  What it did do was to provide easy political cover for donors to contribute without serious reflection to the eradication of all the ills of the Third World.

What participants in all these conferences came away with was an invigorated commitment to their mission.  International Development is not a job but an ordained duty to help others; and proclamations of universal education or health care are banners to be carried back to the rabbit warrens and rat mazes of the bureaucracy.  Conferences are legitimizing events.  They are symbols of higher purpose and meaning; they are rallying points for the faithful; and they are mating grounds for the professionally ambitious.

It is no surprise, then, that Thomas Friedman has decided to cash in on this phenomenon.  He knows that mass-market conferences like his are not serious teaching enterprises; that each topic will be raised, discussed, and debated not to educate but to motivate – motivate to buy his books, read the NYT, and gain adherents to his worldview.  If he were interested in seriously raising the level of intellectual discourse on any one of the subjects he talks about, he would get off television, discard the pseudo-intellectual mantle placed on his shoulders by the media, and continue writing – or better yet teach higher-level courses at the War College, West Point, or Harvard Law School.  Of course he is not ready for that, but few are; so we should be a bit more gentle in our criticisms of him.

There is a great scene in the movie Quiz Show where the young, ambitious lawyer pursuing Charles Van Doren for cheating on ‘Twenty-One’ asks, “Why did you do it, Charlie?”.  Why would a respected college professor at a prestigious university, son of a scion of the literary world and an old-line aristocratic family go on a tacky quiz show to show off his knowledge, and then cheat by getting the answers?

“Wouldn’t you?”, replied Van Doren. Wouldn’t you take the fame, glory, and fortune of Quiz Show?  Wouldn’t you be tempted by adulating groupies, seduced by the new, special attention of young, female students? Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to be catapulted into the national spotlight after years spent in dusty library carrels? 

“No”, says the lawyer. “I would not”.

So is it then with Thomas Friedman.  Everybody does it these days.  Everyone knows that Jesus Christ is Our Savior, but we need to hear it again and again from the pulpit.  We need to hug our neighbor in the pew next to us and rejoice together in our salvation. Everyone knows that climate change is upon us and the world will soon turn into an infernal hell; but we want to hear the harangues of the doomsayers, the more fire-breathing, the better.  We want to see dark, gloomy films of corn crisping in the burning sun; smokestacks billowing black, noxious smoke; nuclear cooling towers, and rivers lined with belly-up fish and pools of cobalt blue and copper green.

Friedman is particularly smart because he confections his offering to a subset of this impassioned crowed of doomsday groupies.  His audiences feel themselves above exaggerated rhetoric, bombast, and fulmination; and respond warmly to his reasonability.  He is asking them to think, they say, even though they already know the message before it comes out of his mouth.

So, good luck, Mr. Friedman.  I think The New Republic picked on you a bit unfairly.  Yes, your enterprise does smack of Elmer Gantry hucksterism, and intellectual rabble-rousing; but so what?  Billy Graham never hurt anybody in his well-meaning and well-financed appearances, and there were probably more committed Christians coming out of the tent than entered it.

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