When we last visited New York Times foreign affairs pundit Thomas Friedman during last year’s Seattle protests, he was attacking critics of the antidemocratic World Trade Organization as a “Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix” who had been “duped” by pro-fascist presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. But we flat-earth yuppies needn’t feel too bad. Friedman is an equal-opportunity insulter. He also calls right-wing critics of globalism “isolationists without high-school degrees” and “moronic politicians.” Given his penchant for insult, one is tempted to term him the Howard Stern–or at least the Don Rickles–of the Council on Foreign Relations set.
Friedman tends to treat all political and ideological adversaries with the same patience and empathy that his former colleague Abe Rosenthal demonstrated toward the PLO. This is unfortunate, for he occupies some of the most influential real estate in journalism and is devoting himself to one of the most important debates the country can have right now. For the global elites who live in what Benedict Anderson termed the “imagined community” of the New York Times (and International Herald Tribune), Friedman, more than anyone, is defining the new rules of the road.
Readers of his column and his recent manifesto, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, will be aware that Friedman has cast himself as the full-throated town crier of the new global village. The scourge of trade barriers everywhere, he rarely bothers to distinguish between those who seek to protect sunset industries, defend indigenous cultures, strengthen labor protections or preserve rainforests. Friedman says he believes that social democracy is just as necessary as open markets to peace and prosperity. “You have to bring the have-nots and know-nots into the game,” he told me. “Morally, it’s wrong not to, and politically, it’s shortsighted.” Lately, moreover, he says his thinking on the question of WTO (and A16) protesters has evolved. He now says, “Without activist protesters, neither governments nor corporations will be pushed to value the environment.” But he insists that these same activists “have the power, and the responsibility, to create coalitions–with business, government and affected communities–that don’t just make a point but make a difference.”
Friedman is very particular about what kinds of trade agreements he likes and what kinds he doesn’t, and he doesn’t brook any differences of opinion. When the AFL-CIO, led by the textile workers’ union UNITE, recently came out against a NAFTA-like bill for Africa called the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Friedman let loose with a neutron bomb of rhetorical abuse in three separate columns. He called the opposition a “travesty,” a “source of shame for all Americans,” which, if successful, will “be an ugly stain on the US labor movement that will highlight all the unions’ phony-baloney assertions in Seattle.” Friedman then went on to imply that union leaders and other opponents of the bill would prefer to see 290 million Africans starve to death–or die of AIDS–than rethink their stupid, outdated-but-occasionally-self-serving-in-the-short-term protectionist ideology.