Global Warning

Andrew Hultkrans on Naomi Klein at the NYPL

New York

Left: Harper's Magazine editor Roger Hodge and Naomi Klein. Right: NYPL director of public programs Paul Holdengräber. (All photos: David Velasco)

From the moment I emerged from the Bryant Park subway station, I knew this wasn’t going to be your average “Live from the NYPL” event. First off, no line of punters snaked around the library, waiting for admittance. Second, instead of entering the building and sliding into the majestic Celeste Bartos Forum, I was shunted through a labyrinthine trail down halls, around corners, up one elevator, through more halls, down another elevator, and up some stairs, until I realized that I was treading on the old marble of the original edifice no longer, but on a space-age chrome superstructure built inside—but not attached to—the library walls.

A neat architectural trick, no doubt mandated by landmark laws, but it served as an appropriate introduction to the issues that would be discussed therein by antiglobalization poster gal Naomi Klein and Harper’s editor Roger Hodge—the use of military force (or the exploitation of natural disasters) to erase all vestiges of a country’s traditional culture and install a gleaming new free-market utopia for US corporate interests. The NYPL’s internal superstructure implied the right way to merge the new with the old—respectful coexistence; Klein, in her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, calls to account the wrong way, as evinced in Iraq, Afghanistan, post-Katrina New Orleans, and other unfortunate locales.

The timing of Klein’s book, whether intended or not, provides an apt corrective to The Age of Turbulence, the revisionist, self-serving new memoir by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, whom Klein had debated on the Democracy Now! radio show earlier in the day. With all due respect to Hodge, that would have been the livelier face-off to cover, but, as with so much else these days, the Klein-Greenspan conversation was disembodied, providing little fodder for the ogling, ambulatory writer. So, not exactly Ahmadinejad at Columbia, but a promisingly contentious evening nonetheless.

Given No Logo author Klein’s “Battle of Seattle” fan base, I was jarringly disarmed by the genteel crowd of youngish, well-dressed New York sophisticates sipping designer wine in the hall outside the auditorium, even more so by the dulcet strains of a live classical violinist. Where were the tear-gas masks and Dead Prez tracks? Entering the room, I spied front-row seats reserved for Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (never to be filled) and found my place in the press section. Hodge, who resembles a younger, hipper Clark Kent, introduced Klein, noting that he had commissioned the seed piece for the book—a reported essay on the trade-show machinations of US corporations and contractors on the eve of the Iraq war, and the resulting capitalist Disneyland of Baghdad’s nascent Green Zone.

Left: Violinist Arianna Rosen. Right: Naomi Klein.

Klein took the stage in a, well, conservative black skirt-suit, sporting a neatly trimmed, highlight-streaked bob. Though Hodge promised to “goad” her, he proved to be a friendly, sympathetic interlocutor, guiding her through a summary of her thesis: an intriguing linkage of the “economic shock therapy” advocated by Milton Friedman and his radical free-market disciples for foreign nations resistant to US economic imperialism with the horrific electroshock brainwashing that research psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron performed on behalf of the CIA on unsuspecting, nonconsenting patients at McGill University during the 1950s. While Klein’s argument initially seemed fanciful, hung on the “shock” terminology endlessly echoing between the two fields, the historical connections mounted quickly and convincingly, ending up as a rhetorical Möbius strip: The cold-war-era economic invasions urged by Friedman and his Chicago Boys in the third world (Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere) were made possible by the CIA through engineered coups, puppet dictators, and regional secret police trained in torture methods based on Cameron’s research—methods that persist today in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

In Klein’s view, the “shock and awe” military invasion of Iraq was not just followed by, but was indeed of a piece with, the country’s subsequent invasion by US corporations and contractors, enabled by Paul Bremer and the CPA’s shredding of the Iraqi constitution under the guise of reconstruction. Klein sees the same dynamic in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, post-Katrina New Orleans, and other regional victims of natural or manmade catastrophe, and always with the same cast of characters involved—Halliburton, Bechtel, Blackwater, Fluor, DynCorp, L-3, CACI, and others, private contractors serving the US government in Friedman’s mission of installing a “higher form of freedom”; not democracy, but “ownership society.”

Hodge noted that, around these issues, liberals sound like conservatives, while neoconservatives recall Sino-Soviet communists. Like Mao, this breed of Republican pursues complete cultural erasure to create blank-slate societies on which to paint beautiful, dollar-green pictures. Klein later mentioned that Greenspan, a Friedmanite and (Ayn) Randian, wrote in his memoir that Rand’s novels and “philosophy” lent a morality to what he was already doing as a Wall Street ingenue; to which Hodge quipped, “That’s the best kind of morality.” True enough, but as I left the chilly auditorium and made my way through the old library, it occurred to me that the world might be a bit better if The Shock Doctrine sold as many copies as Atlas Shrugged, or even if Klein and Hodge could pack the Celeste Bartos Forum as easily as Bernard-Henri Lévi and Tina Brown, with their bloviations on American culture, did many months ago.