16 May 2014

'Square' people in a round world

Thomas L. Friedman thinks he's discovered a global trend by traveling to Ukraine and Vietnam. It isn't the sometimes violent resentment by small countries of giant superpower neighbors -- witness recent anti-Chinese riots in the latter country on top of the familiar news from Eastern Europe -- but the emergence of what Friedman inelegantly calls the "square people." You might be excused for thinking he coined such a label just so editors could put a "Hip to Be Square" headline over his article, but the name is presumably meant to evoke Tahrir Square in Egypt, the Maidan (which can be translated as "square" in the sense of urban park) in Kiev, and probably Tienanmen Square in China as well, since the 25th anniversary of that suppressed protest movement is fast approaching. Paradoxically -- and Friedman, author of The World is Flat, loves paradoxes -- the "squares" are young people embedded in up-to-date social networks, wielding the latest information technology, or the latest that their governments allow. He imagines their credo:

“We now have the tools to see how everyone is living, including opportunities abroad and corrupt leaders at home, and we will not tolerate indefinitely living in a context where we can’t realize our full potential. And also we now have the tools to collaborate to do something about it.”

Friedman compares the "squares" favorably with the so-called "Davos man," the class best suited by wealth or privilege to benefit, regardless of nationality, from globalization, and with the authoritarian governments against which squares typically protest. Square people are democratic and idealistic, but while Friedman endorses the claim that square people "are demanding a new social contract," I wonder whether he describes it accurately or fully. What does Friedman mean, or what does he assume that square people mean, when they protest that "we can't realize our full potential?" It occurred to me that Tea Partiers in the U.S. could say exactly the same thing. They'd be arguing that an intrusive (if not authoritarian) government is holding back the entrepreneurial innovation necessary to revive our economy ... and realize our full potential. My point isn't to equate the often courageous protesters around the world with Tea Partiers, but to ask the question Friedman's quote begs: our full potential for what? Americans have plenty of answers when Tea Partiers or libertarians protest that our own government keeps us from realizing our full potential. Could it be that the people in the squares in other countries also make unreasonable demands sometimes? It's one thing to argue for transparency and rule of law, as Friedman notes approvingly, where these things seem not to exist, and another altogether if realizing our full potential means nothing more than each person getting as rich as he or she can. I'd like to think the people who sometimes risk their lives protesting want more than that. It comes down to what "our full potential" means to people in each square, in each country -- whether "our" means "each of us" or "all of us."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Frank Herbert, within his "Dune" books, made a valid observation: Wealth is a tool of freedom, but pursuit of wealth is a path to slavery.