A Man of His Times

There is a consensus in the trade, I am sorry to report, that Thomas L. Friedman cannot win another Pulitzer Prize. This is not due to any dissipation of his talents. It is because, having already won three of journalism’s highest awards, he has been asked to join the Pulitzer board. Instead of receiving Pulitzers, his judgment is wanted in conferring them. Friedman may be the world’s most widely read newspaper columnist today. And even though his employer, the New York Times, recently took a bite out of his readership by putting his column behind a pay-to-read firewall at NYTimes.com, his words still move worlds. Or do they?

Rhetoric is in deep discount these days.(Continued below.) Sharp customers in the marketplace of ideas have noticed the similarities between Ronald Reagan’s dubious “War on Drugs,” and George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” There have been wars on a number of nouns over the years. Lyndon Johnson undertook a “War on Poverty,” which was an honorable diversion from his “War on Vietnamese People.” People are a lot easier to kill than other sorts of nouns; it’s been pointed out that poverty, drugs, and terror are still with us.

Still, this moment is different, unique, even—because we no longer find ourselves in a marketplace of ideas, but in a war of ideas. Ideas and the vehicles that launch them, like the transcontinental jet, the personal computer, the cell phone, the Internet, have become the world’s most powerful weapons, and Tom Friedman knows how to use them.

Friedman is a native Minnesotan. He is proud of this, and concedes it whenever he can. He is gracious and smart, unapologetic in his opinions. He knows he wields power on the New York Times op-ed pages, but he also wants to use his power for good. No one can dispute his work ethic; even Friedman’s harshest critics acknowledge that he is one of the hardest-working journalists in the profession.

Though the newspaper man travels the world speaking
to all kinds of charismatic people, moving through the corridors of power in far-flung nations and corporations, and though he is frequently on TV, or speaking at international conferences, he is not really a man of action. He is a man of ideas. Everything you need to know about Tom Friedman is right there in his books and in his columns; I wish I could say I tagged along with him to India, China, Brazil, and Japan to see how he works. Instead, I immersed myself in his words.

Friedman himself would never tolerate this kind of armchair journalism. When I spoke to him, he was yawning with jet lag (I think) after a recent return from Mombai, India—flight price eight thousand dollars, thank you New York Times travel-expenditures department. “I’m a big believer in this truth: You have to go to know,” he said. “Sure, you can do a lot of research and reporting at your desk and on the web, but there is so much more to see and hear when you travel the world—and sometimes the truth is in the raised eyebrow, or the sideways glance.”

If you believe his fans, Friedman has something rare in journalism these days: credibility and a reputation for fairness, an old-fashioned sort of objectivity when he approaches a subject, and no axe to grind. He only cares about ferreting out the facts and exposing the truth. He has no patience for anyone who stands in the way or casually contradicts him. That’s his reputation, but some argue that there are blind spots in his reportage, that he ignores inconvenient facts that contradict his view of the world. It’s a war of ideas, after all. But can Tom Friedman win?

***

A CHILD OF THE COLD WAR, Tom Friedman was born into a Jewish family in Minneapolis on July 20, 1953. Josef Stalin had died four months earlier, to be replaced by Nikita Kruschev. Seven days after Friedman’s birth, the Korean cease-fire was signed.

Friedman’s sophomore year at high school in St. Louis Park, where he was preceded by three older sisters, would define the rest of his life. First, he took a journalism class—his one and only—with a much-loved teacher named Hattie Steinberg. Second, his family traveled to Israel to visit one of his sisters, who was spending a year at Tel Aviv University. The journalism class would fire his passion for reporting—for his high school’s newspaper, he interviewed Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s defense minister, and the trip
to the Middle East led to three summers at an Israeli kibbutz, and a lifelong passion for understanding the complexities of the Israel-Palestine situation.

Today, Friedman credits his career to several high school mentors. “I was a great beneficiary of the absence of women’s lib,” he said. “I had three great teachers, women, who in another day and age could’ve been professors or investment bankers or diplomats.” They were Steinberg, history teacher Marge Bingham, and English teacher Mim Kagol.

After graduating from high school, Friedman enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he studied Arabic. He spent semesters abroad at American University in Cairo and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Eventually, he transferred to Brandeis University, where he graduated with a degree in Mediterranean studies in 1975. He won a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford, where he took a master’s degree. While in England, he also began writing opinion columns, which he sold to the Des Moines Register, his wife Ann’s hometown paper, and to his own hometown newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

After finishing at Oxford, with a dozen published columns in hand, Friedman applied at the Associated Press and the United Press International offices in London. The AP was dismissive—they hardly wanted a columnist with no reporting experience. Recalling the interview, last fall with Marvin Kalb at the Press Club, Friedman said the AP didn’t look twice at him. “Forget it kid, you haven’t even covered a fire.” But a bureau chief for UPI decided to hire the Minnesotan in London. After about a year, UPI’s correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon, was injured by shrapnel in a bombing. It was 1979. Suddenly Tom Friedman, just twenty-five years old, found himself the number two man at UPI’s Beirut office, in the middle of a major, historical world event.

In May of 1981, editors at the New York Times business desk hired Friedman because they liked his UPI reporting on the oil industry. A year later the bureau chief’s position in Beirut opened, and Friedman was the obvious candidate to take over. He arrived at the new post just in time to witness Israel’s June 6, 1982, invasion of Lebanon, and reported extensively on the subsequent war. This reporting won him his first Pulitzer prize. In 1984, he moved to Jerusalem, where his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada won another Pulitzer; shortly thereafter, Friedman published his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem.

Later, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Friedman had a prime inside vantage point from which he saw Bush, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft “bring the Soviet Union in for a soft landing”—he was working as the Times’ chief diplomatic correspondent in its Washington, D.C., bureau. When Bill Clinton won the presidency, Friedman briefly became the Times’ white house correspondent, but by 1994, he and his editors began to define a new beat—globalization—which they felt would anticipate coming geo-political trends, and also comport perfectly with Friedman’s background and expertise in technology, foreign policy, and trade policy.

Friedman’s beat got noticed. In 1995, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offered the reporter what some would call the Holy Grail of journalism: a column in the op-ed pages of the Paper of Record. For the next four years, he reported extensively on the subject of globalization—the increasing freedom of capital markets to cross national borders, the rise of transnational corporations and trade agreements, the ecstatic growth of capitalism in China and India, and the inevitable growing pains that resulted. In the summer of 2000, this work culminated in a book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Friedman identified globalizing forces in the wake of the Cold War: networked computers, cell phones, and the erosion of national trade barriers. Most presciently, perhaps, he identified a worrisome, atavistic backlash, headed by what he called “super-empowered angry men”—terrorists. His main example of such a person was an influential and wealthy Saudi Arabian exile by the name of Osama bin Laden.

Thus September 11 put Tom Friedman once again at the red-hot center of world events. His interpretive columns after September 11 were collected in Longitudes and Attitudes, and he won his third Pulitzer prize in 2002. In 2003, he began doing television documentaries for the new Times-Discovery Channel partnership; for one of these, The Other Side of Outsourcing, he went inside the proliferating call centers in India that serve many American companies. The reporter realized that the globalizing effects he had identified in The Lexus and the Olive Tree had accelerated considerably. A year-long investigation followed, which led to last year’s bestselling The World is Flat—a book that is credited with creating a new paradigm of thought about globalization.

***

FROM GLOBALIZATION TO the Arab-Muslim world to oil, Friedman’s issues are the world’s most crucial ones. His views can be drawn in broad strokes: He believes that Israel and Palestine must pragmatically find a way to peacefully coexist, not least because the whole world is shrinking rapidly (“flattening,” he would say), and international relations will demand that people and products move more freely than they could during the Cold War.

He has famously argued that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants have ever gone to war with each other (the former Yugoslavia convincingly disproved the theory), and also reported extensively on the origins of terrorism. Friedman believes Al Qaeda and similar Islamo-fascist movements arise essentially as a result of intense psychological humiliation. Thanks especially to the access they have to modern media and communications technologies, young Arab Muslims can see on television, in movies, and in magazines what is denied to them. While they should be angry with their leaders, who are the true source of their suppression, their leaders have cleverly deflected their anger to America and all things American. Young people become suicide bombers because they have been ruthlessly humiliated and manipulated by their cynical leaders. “Humiliation is the single most underappreciated force in international relations,” Friedman told me.

In the aftermath of September 11, Friedman believed that we had been forcibly dragged into what he called “World War III,” but now, as he said during our interview, he believes that it is actually a war within Islam. He rejects the idea that we are engaged in a “clash of civilizations.” Instead, it is a clash within a civilization—that is, within Islam. Moderate Muslims, he said, must take control of their lives and their geo-political situations and deny leadership to the violent, medieval, anti-modernist Islamists who are doing all they can to whip up a fight between East and West.

Nevertheless, Friedman has been a hawk on the Iraq war. It was his firm belief that the U.S. needed to invade Iraq in order to “hit someone” in the Arab-Muslim world, to make it clear that the U.S. intends to confront terrorism and tyranny with blunt force. This force would, with any luck, result in planting the seeds of democracy in the very heart of the Middle East—and therefore lead eventually to the extinction of anti-American sentiments and terrorism. More recently, however, Friedman has come to believe that the war in Iraq has been badly botched, largely by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who insisted on sending “just enough troops to fail.” With insecure Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds unable to overcome tribalism and distrust, Friedman most fears that the U.S. will be forced into the position of “babysitting a civil war.” Recent developments in Iraq certainly point in that discouraging direction.

But if he is increasingly pessimistic about the situation in Iraq and the entire Arab-Muslim world, Friedman has also developed a new line of thinking. It is a natural evolution of his previous reporting and writing. The next chapter in the Friedman book supercedes terrorism and globalization, and in some ways resolves the paradox of the two. A kind of unified field theory for geopolitics in the twenty-first century, it is about the next wave of human innovation, based on two words: renewable energy.

***

WHAT IS THE ROLE of a newspaper columnist today? Tom Friedman certainly fits the mold of a foreign-affairs columnist like James Reston, or a Walter Lippmann: a journalist moving very close to the center of current events, with access to many of the most important decision makers and actors on the world stage, and acting both as a conduit for current thinking about geo-political trends and an impartial witness to history. Whereas Reston and Lippmann at the peak of their powers were frequently attacked for losing their objectivity and becoming partisan cheerleaders for some of their more influential government sources, Friedman seems to evade that charge.

He may have his blind spots and his prejudices, but they appear to be wholly his own. “Everybody who knows me, knows I am my own man,” he told me. “When I do my job, I only care about one thing, and that’s my opinion. And I’m going to do whatever I can to get all the facts I need to form my opinion, and that’s it. I’m trying to start with reality the way I see it and then filter it through my Minnesota kind of pragmatic progressivism. There’s a lot that’s very Minnesota about my attitudes. Very centrist, very progressive, but not extreme one way or another.”

Friedman sees this pragmatism as basically a function of doing good, sound journalism—getting the story straight. “There are two kinds of columnists,” he told me. “Columnists in the heating business and columnists in the lighting business. I occasionally do heating, but most of the time I prefer to do lighting.” He thinks the ultimate goal is both to hold a reader’s attention and to surprise him or her, to never allow a reader to think, “Well of course Friedman would say that.” Partisan predictability is anathema to the columnist.

His boss, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., agrees that this centrist fairness is a key asset. Sulzberger told me, “People come to the Times op-ed columnists for judgment, for insight, for helping to place the events of the world in a context that makes sense, even if they don’t agree with it. Nobody does that better than Tom. In his field, he’s the best and we’re blessed to have him.” The Times publisher recognizes the subtle asset that Friedman represents in a time when the marketplace of ideas is hot and loud and highly polarized. “There’s a moderation to him. You’re not going to find Tom shrieking on the extremes. That’s just not who he is. When he does on occasion come out strongly, people listen harder, I think.”

***

TOM FRIEDMAN MAY BE among the most respected journalists today. Nonetheless, there is a reasonable and informed resistance to some of his ideas among some thoughtful critics. Some see Friedman’s idealism as overly simplified, in the grand tradition of the Olympian newspaper columnist reducing the complexities of the day to a trickle of condensed truth. Chris Lehmann, an editor at Congressional Quarterly, told me, “I think he’s the pundit’s equivalent of the motivational speaker. He goes out to these emerging market countries, and says, ‘Build a McDonald’s and you’ll never have a war. Here’s my one glib formula for achieving the edge in the new global economy.’” Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, has said that Friedman’ s experiences as a globetrotting journalist are “broad and thin,” and that his writings are thus “simple, dramatic, and relentless.” To Lemann, this is a natural result of Friedman’s compulsion to fit every fact he encounters into his “theory of everything.”

Tom Frank, who may be the nation’s preeminent emerging public intellectual, agrees that this idealistic compulsion is a problem. “He just doesn’t look very deeply into things,” said the author of What’s The Matter With Kansas? and One Market Under God. “He accepts blithe textbook, utopian views about capitalism. His worldview is actually a nineteenth-century doctrine, all hopped up with the language of the new economy and the Internet. Friedman is forever inventing little schemes for how the world works, as if everything is symmetrical and governed by natural law.”

According to Frank, this has led Friedman to some uncritical thinking about the way capitalism and democracy can actually work against each other. Frank pointed out that globalization hasn’t even been unequivocally good for its main advocate, the U.S. “Capitalism hasn’t been good for American workers—far from it. It’s been good for some, very bad for others,” he said. “All this optimism is a cover for the real goal, which is the reconstitution of ruling power. Power for the U.S. financial industry and certain sectors of the U.S. economy. It’s the recovery of ruling-class power.” Frank said wage distribution lists going back 150 years show how dramatic the difference between rich and poor has become, everywhere in the industrialized West, and now in the developing East. “These people talk a lot about freedom,” he said. “They’re especially concerned about the freedom of money. Other kinds of freedom absolutely get crushed.”

It wouldn’t be a war of ideas if there were no opposition. For his part, Friedman saves his most blistering vituperation for what he calls the “anti-globalization movement,” and he had very harsh words for the activists who protested the 1999 World Trade Organization tribunal in Seattle. When I asked him why, he said he thought most of the movement consisted of “latté-sipping liberals” who felt guilty about getting rich off the dot-com boom and were trying to compensate by opposing any opportunity for other people to get rich. Friedman said he saw them as “the coalition to keep poor people poor.” He went on, “If you listen to what Ralph Nader has advocated, it’s really protectionism, and it’s the economics of North Korea. Which I say is fine, then you should live in North Korea. But the fact is that more people have grown out of poverty faster in India and China thanks to the policies of globalization in the last twenty years than ever before in the history of the world. That’s why when you look around, how many Chinese and Indian faces do you see in the anti-globalization movement? I have utter contempt for people who aren’t serious and kind of dole out this economic advice, or throw a stone through a McDonald’s window.” Friedman believes that an absolute improvement in conditions for the poorest is more important than the dramatic gap being created at the same time between a country’s richest and its most destitute.

That is not a universally acceptable tradeoff. Ralph Nader, for one, sees Friedman’s dismissal of free-market capitalism’s critics as patronizing. Responding to Friedman’s assessment of him and the anti-globalization movement, Nader scoffed, “We are going to give Tom Friedman the award for the reporter who has traveled the world most, and learned the least.” Almost every study done by the UN, Nader said, shows that the world’s poorest nations are worse off today than they were twenty years ago, before the onset of globalization. Even in the U.S., household incomes are lower today than they were in 1973 (adjusted for inflation). But his main critique of globalization involves a specific, detailed assessment of its negative impacts.

First, international trade agreements, especially as expressed by the WTO, supersede the sovereignty of any nations that are signatories to it. “These trade agreements are conducted in secret and they cannot be challenged by our courts, legislature, or executive branch agencies,” said Nader. “Food standards, pollution standards—whatever these international trade agreement autocracies agree on, that’s it. The only thing we can do is give six months’ notice and get out of WTO, which is a draconian measure that will not occur.”

These standards, Nader wants you to understand, are set by a corporate-managed, non-government entity. And you may not like those standards, but you will have no choice. “For example,” Nader said, “in Minnesota, you cannot buy a product made from child labor in the U.S. because child labor is illegal here. But we as the United States, because we’re signatories to the WTO, so heralded by Tom Friedman, cannot block the importation of products made by brutalized child labor in foreign countries. Because it’s permitted under WTO, and therefore has the force of federal law. That doesn’t seem to bother dear Tom.”

Nader also pointed out that market values, as defined by globalizing corporate interests, are displacing non-market values. “What Tom Friedman refuses to pay attention to,” he said, “is that the WTO subordinates consumer, environmental, and worker rights to the supremacy of commercial values.” He continued, “Now that is turning around historically our country. Every time we have had progress—like the abolition of child labor, or the establishment of motor vehicle standards—we have said through our congress to commercial interests, ‘Companies, you are going to have to subordinate your profit-seeking commercial interests to the supremacy of getting rid of child labor, of building safer cars, of installing cleaner environmental technologies, of respecting fair labor standards, minimum wage, and so on.’ What the WTO and NAFTA do is reverse that, and put in the supreme position the commercial profiteering interests.”

It’s true that Friedman can seem to have an almost naive optimism in the good will of corporate interests. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in the New Yorker, Friedman’s is a “business-friendly moderate liberalism, which for purely practical reasons does nice things for needy people.” Naturally, such benevolent corporate activities must be enabled by a government that has essentially restricted its role “to help the market function more smoothly.”

Indeed, in this vision of a globalized world, even the press is consigned to the role of cheerleading. Nader pointed out what he sees as the supreme irony of Friedman’s position. Because they are secret, WTO meetings and decisions cannot be scrutinized by any journalists. “Tom Friedman cannot go as a reporter or a columnist and cover any tribunals in Geneva, because they are closed to the press and all citizens.”

***

WHEN I NOTED TO FRIEDMAN HOW, as the world has gotten flatter, it has also grown significantly more dangerous, he agreed. It seemed a paradox, because he is generally optimistic about globe-leveling technologies. “Listen,” he said. “I’m a technological determinist, but not a historic determinist.” He explained, “If there is a World Wide Web where people can do business anywhere and have customers everywhere and have suppliers anywhere, they’re going to use that World Wide Web to do that. If you have a cell phone that allows you to call around the world at zero marginal cost, you’re going to use that cell phone. What you’re going to use it for, whether to plot the fall of the Berlin wall or the fall of the Twin Towers—that’s another question.”

Still, looking at Friedman’s whole body of writing, you can’t help but feel that he essentially believes that good will prevail over evil, and that free market capitalism will triumph over centralized, isolationist, or corrupt nations. This is partly because he is not concerned about the staying power of nationalism, localism, tradition, religion, and other non-market values which continue to influence people throughout the world. When it comes to terrorism, Friedman has very deftly articulated a subtle bit of wishful thinking; it may be reassuring to believe that September 11, and all other Islamist terrorism, is the result of psychopathic outliers who are humiliated by their own inability to reap the fruits of globalization. But this ignores the wider, more reasoned rejection of American cultural and corporate imperialism. It also denies the misogyny, anti-materialism, and anti-individualism that inhabit most political strains of radical Islamism. The anti-American critique is steeped in ideology, theology, and history. It’s dangerous pretending otherwise, especially when those views are in the ascendance.

Even a sympathetic, ecumenical Islamic scholar like William Graham, dean of the Harvard Divinity School, has reservations about how the pro-globalization community dismisses conservative Muslim concerns. “What many of the Friedman-like pro-globalization types forget,” he told me, “is that globalization is not just about modernity or open trade doors; it is also about power differentials that are still as real as in the days of European and American colonialism and imperial domination of much of the rest of the world. Leveling the global economic playing field may still result in a field tipped at an acute angle against the underdeveloped nations. I don’t think that Islam per se, or Muslims per se, have anything intrinsically against globalization. It is not in the first instance a religious issue, though in the second it can become one.”

Perhaps Friedman hasn’t interviewed enough Islamic radicals. Some critics say that despite his reputation for thorough reporting and fact-gathering, the columnist’s views can be flawed because of his sources. Call it the “Judy Miller defense”—you’re only as good as your sources. In his reporting on globalization, for example, Friedman’s sources are often powerful CEOs, trade secretaries, and managers—people who are profiting handsomely from globalization and can hardly be expected to talk about the downside.

“As Friedman trots around the globe,” wrote Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker, “he keeps most intensively in touch with one subculture, that of international finance.” Congressional Quarterly’s Chris Lehmann put it more sharply: “More and more, he just parachutes in and talks to a CEO. It’s like the old foreign correspondent’s stereotype of asking your cab driver, ‘What do you think of the Dayton peace process?’ And he gives you the salty down-to-earth version. And this is even worse than that. It’s like going to ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap and saying, ‘Tell me about your shareholder value.’”

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger rejects this line of criticism. “Imagine having good sources!” he said with a snort. “The world would come to an end if all journalists had good sources! If the City Hall reporter is considered corrupt because he speaks to the mayor, we’ve come to a terrible place in the profession that I love.” It’s a good point, but then readers must continue to trust that the columnist’s interest in truth is not clouded by some larger ideological conceit that makes certain facts more attractive than others. “I think if he wanted to report,” countered Lehmann, “he could interview some union activist or shop worker, except under his ideological scheme, they’re doomed, they’re in the dustbin of history. What’s pernicious about his column is that he’s hypnotized himself into believing that there is this inevitable logic to history.”

***

IT IS IN THE NATURE of newspaper column writing that a person stays on a beat until the beat is, well, beaten. So the appetite for new material is inevitable and strong—first, surely, among readers. In recent months, Tom Friedman has become obsessed with the intimate connections between oil, the nations that produce it, the nations that consume it, and the bizarre geo-politics that have resulted. It promises to be an engaging third chapter to add to his coverage of the Middle East and globalization.

It is a kind of unified field theory that encompasses and surpasses his previous theories about peace, terrorism, and globalization. That is because, having delved into the business of oil, Friedman has come to the conclusion that our nation’s energy policy and our security are inherently connected. In his recent columns, he has loudly averred that America today desperately needs the kind of forward-looking and inspired leadership we last saw when President John F. Kennedy responded to the launch of the Russian spaceship Sputnik by pledging to put a man on the moon within a decade. Friedman points out that today’s moon shot must be establishing “energy independence” from the medieval Islamist governments on which we rely so heavily today. We need to make a great leap forward in developing renewable-energy sources and technologies.

This is no isolationist agenda. Friedman believes that these governments are propped up largely by the high price of oil, and that they will never reform until the bottom falls out of the oil market. How to make this happen? For Friedman, there is one simple sacrifice to make: He has proposed that Americans pay an additional dollar in taxes on each gallon of gasoline to finance this new moon shot. This would involve all Americans in positive change—the kind of sacrifices that we have traditionally been asked to make and have willingly made, when world events demand it.

Despite the current administration’s rhetoric about alternative energy—which frankly sounds like it may have been cribbed from the Times—Friedman believes it is unwilling to do anything concrete. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, he said, “would rather that one percent of America sacrifice by carrying the burden of the war with Iraq, make the ultimate sacrifice of having a loved one in Iraq, rather than have all of us make a small sacrifice, which would be accepting a gasoline tax. It’s actually deeply cynical, but as a result they’re going to fail on both.” This is the sort of idea brokerage we have come to expect from Friedman, and if it comes lightly salted with hubris à la Scotty Reston or Walter Winchell or Walter Lippmann, well, who can disagree on the merits of the argument?

But it’s his latest line of argument, that the flat world must set its sights on becoming a green flat world, that will test Friedman. The environment has been an interest, but never a beat for him. But the new theme will challenge because it will require him to take seriously this question of whether transnational corporate interests will do what they’ve never done before—which is to allay their profit margins for the greater good of the planet and its passengers. (Why must our government require a gas tax? Why won’t private commercial interests voluntarily transform our energy appetite?)

It may also require Friedman to more seriously address another nagging question, one that lies at the center of anti-modernity movements: If a person wishes to be righteous more than she wishes to be rich, who can gainsay her? There are things to desire from life other than the Lexus. To some, if it’s a competition, then the olive tree is preferable. And Friedman would surely agree that even more dear to the human heart than the cell phone, or the wi-fi laptop, or even the profit margin, is something a bit more archaic: the freedom to self-determine.