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.
But if the bill, which contains harsh eligibility rules that will force African nations to alter their social and economic policies to suit the needs of foreign investors and the dictates of the International Monetary Fund, is so wonderful for Africans, then why does Nelson Mandela call it “not acceptable”? Why did the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions term it “an attempt to undermine the development of our economies” by introducing “conditionalities that will only further weaken our economies and destroy the nascent industrial base that has been created”? Why does Randall Robinson of TransAfrica complain that it “contains numerous provisions mainly aimed at benefiting large foreign private investors and multinational corporations at the expense of true and equitable African development”? Why, moreover, is the bill opposed by virtually the entire African labor movement? Are all these people full of the same “phony baloney”?
To Friedman, such principled opposition is unfathomable. He attributes UNITE’s position to “sheer knee-jerk protectionism,” even though, as he himself points out, “the bill has tough measures to protect against any surge in imports from Africa.” Readers of his column would hardly be aware that the union is supporting an alternative act, introduced by Jesse Jackson Jr. and endorsed by seventy-four (mostly progressive) representatives, forty-three HIV/AIDS organizations, sixty-six African nongovernmental organizations. The HOPE for Africa Act adopts what its supporters call a “holistic” approach to encouraging trade that includes aid, debt relief and AIDS prevention and treatment. Friedman told me he does not consider its free-trade provisions to be sufficiently attractive to global capital to create genuinely productive industries in the sub-Sahara, but Ebrahim Patel, general secretary of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union, disagrees. After being quoted by Friedman in support of the principles of free trade for Africa (and with no complaints about the accuracy of his words), he co-signed a letter to the Times with UNITE’s president that condemned the Growth and Opportunity Act’s failure to “promote labor rights in Africa, in an effective manner, with trade union involvement in monitoring and verification,” and its “harsh requirements that would force African countries to privatize government services, cut corporate taxes and other measures that, while welcomed by corporations, would not support development in Africa.”
“Shame on the people blocking this bill. Shame on them,” Friedman writes, as if parodying an old Rosenthal anti-Arab rant. But to cry “shame” from your perch on the Times Op-Ed page at your political and intellectual opponents–even opponents like Nelson Mandela–is both cheap and easy. To convince people to see the world your way, however, you must first demonstrate respect for their honor and intelligence, and engage the substance of their arguments. Friedman seems unwilling to do this, which, if not exactly shameful, is at least a damn shame.