Postcard from London (Thomas Friedman style)

by Michael Dorf

I spent the last week-plus in London on a family vacation. I’ve been to London several times before, but because this was the first visit there for my daughters, we visited the sorts of places that one goes as a first-time tourist (the Tower, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Globe Theatre, etc.) We also saw a few shows that wouldn’t have been tops on my list were this an adults-only trip. For a bit of lighter fare for this Labor Day, I offer some pseudo-reflections in the style of a column by NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In what follows, I italicize actual true events that occurred on our trip, to distinguish them from the portions that simply parody the substance and style of Friedman’s preposterous writing. I have tried to relate the true bits in Friedmanian prose as well.


A World Without Buttons

The news that a French court had invalidated the Nice burkini ban reached me a couple of days before I saw Disney’s Aladdin on the London stage. Watching a scantily-clad princess and her equally exposed ladies in waiting as they portrayed women from a fictional Middle Eastern country, I found myself wondering what the actual Middle Eastern women sporting hijabs scattered throughout the audience made of the spectacle. And I couldn’t help wonder whether the visibility of devout Muslims in London contributed to the “leave” vote in Brexit. Everyone knows that 60% of Londoners voted “remain.” But few people realize that 40% of them voted “leave.”

To understand what’s really happening in the UK—and in most of the West—you need to know three things. First, the rise of the nationalist right is driven as much by the appearance of hijabs as it is by the disappearance of “he-jobs.”

The Englishmen in the industrial north who voted “leave” were upset that dependable industrial jobs had already left. Yes, they and the aging white American heartland supporters of Donald Trump express their grievances in xenophobic language, but in a flat world, economic dislocation and xenophobia are squished together like the scallion pancakes you can buy in any of the Asian fusion takeaway shops that have opened in London in the last few years.

That’s the second thing to keep in mind in trying to make sense of our fast-paced planet in the age of airbnb, baidu, and Snapchat. If you don’t keep up with the latest global fad, you’ll find yourself opposing trade deals that would really benefit you, whether you know it or not.

The real scandal in Hillary Clinton’s emails is how techno-challenged she was and probably still is. She reportedly traded in new Blackberries for old ones when she couldn’t master the new buttons. The next president—whoever he or she is—will need to know how to navigate a world that doesn’t even have buttons anymore. While Donald Trump wants to make America great again, what we really need is someone who can make America great in a buttonless world. Our first buttonless president needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, while dancing backwards in heels.

Third, we need to figure out how to run faster than China and Russia without our shirts flying off from lack of buttons. The good news is that Silicon Valley is still ahead of the state-run hacker collectives in Beijing and Moscow. The bad news is that our political leaders aren't there yet. While Putin rides shirtless, with one exception, Western leaders remain all buttoned up. Justin Trudeau just might have the abs--and the courage to display them--to challenge Putin, but the Canadian mounties are no match for the Russian military.

Can our leaders be dragged into the buttonless era by the creatively disruptive private sector? To get a sense of how the adjustment is going, I tried to do some field research in the cab I took back to my hotel after the show. I wanted to know how competition had changed the taxi trade. If Uber is to driverless cars as cucumbers are to pickles, then the traditional black cabs of London are to horse-drawn carriages as cole slaw is to cabbage.

But before I could even ask my question, my cabbie asked me whether I was a “Trumper.”  Two days later, during the porter scene in Macbeth at the Globe Theatre, one of the few updates to Shakespeare’s language made reference to Trump as a devil.

The demonization of Trump left me uncomfortable, not because I have any sympathy for him or his program. He’s a wall person, but we need web people. Web people don’t need buttons, because they work in their pajamas while telecommuting from Tel Aviv or Mumbai. Web people in pajamas without buttons, zippers, or even velcro will transform our economy from he-jobs to e-jobs.