Book Review: That Used to Be Us

When Thomas Friedman, foreign correspondent with the New York Times and best-selling author, teams up with Michael Mandelbaum, Director of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University, to write a book the result can only be excellent. Certainly, That Used to Be Us — the product of their collaboration — is a triumph.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, to give the book its full title, is a cutting examination of our government and its issues, as well as the world that the United States has created in the decades since World War II. It discusses the recent decline in America’s fortunes and it, very briefly, discusses possible solutions. The fact that its authors were able to write such a book while avoiding triteness and preachiness is testament to their skill and dedication.

People familiar with the politics of the center-left will not find anything particularly new in this book. What is new and somewhat refreshing about That Used to Be Us is that it baldly states that, as we are now, America will not recover its former glory. The outlook, however, is not necessarily grim: the authors, who call themselves “frustrated optimists”, suggest that, given hard work and political reorganization, America can thrive once more.

Unfortunately, here lies the biggest flaw in this book. It is a clear-eyes discussion of How America Fell; what is lacking is the real advice as to How We Can Come Back. Instead of concrete solutions, the authors devote at least thirty pages to their discussion of that rarest of political animals, the viable third party. One comes away from the book with the feeling that only a third party — or a viable independent presidential candidate — can give the American political landscape the “shock therapy” it needs. Clearly, of course, the issue is not so simple.

Leaving behind its confused conclusion, however, the book is otherwise fascinating, cogent, and well-informed. Friedman and Mandelbaum draw on personal experiences, popular culture, interviews with national and international leaders, and political observations to create a clear picture of the America of today. They discuss modern education (an interest for us as students) as well the influence of the Internet, of oil, and of the Tea Party, among others.

When SLS students went with the Center for Leadership to Yale University to hear Thomas Friedman speak about his new book, they heard a quote which Friedman has repeated on countless occasions, and dually finds its way into this book. It concisely and cleverly illustrates the ever-changing world we now live in and the role America has played in the evolution of the twenty-first century (all of the following are American products and companies):

“When I wrote The World is Flat, Facebook didn’t exist; Twitter was a sound; the cloud was in the sky; 4G was a parking place; LinkedIn was a prison; applications were what you sent to college; and Skype for most people was typo. All of that changed in just the last six years.”

According to Friedman and Mandelbaum, we need more of that sort of change to get us out of the mess we, as a country, seem to have fallen into. If you agree — if you agree something needs changing — you’ll probably enjoy That Used to Be Us.

Sebastian Bates, World News Editor

Posted by on January 4, 2012. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry