Departments People — 02 February 2018
Thomas Friedman gets serious, and seriously funny

By Greg Carannante

City & Shore PRIME Magazine

The big LOL took me by surprise. Who’d expect laughter so jovial to come from so serious-minded a fellow as Thomas Friedman?

He’s a big-thinking New York Times foreign affairs columnist and a best-selling author of six books, including his latest, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He’s also a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner who for 22 years has been revered for his ruminations on grave and weighty topics, from terrorism to Trumpism. But he was quick to crack up at my asking him if there was anything about our president he could get behind?

His answer, preceded by an extended moment of pregnant silence, was laughter as loud and hearty as a school-play Santa’s.

A caustic and outspoken critic of the man he calls “the chaos president,” Friedman was sure to point out that his appearance at the Broward College Speaker Series on Feb. 21 would not be an anti-Trump tirade.

“I’m going to be talking about my book and the 21st century, so people shouldn’t worry,” he said of his topic, “The Big Trends Shaping the World Today: Economics, Technology & Geopolitics.” “My talk is beloved by Republicans and Democrats, and I really want everyone to want to come and hear my message because — this is the God’s truth — it’s a message of unity and it’s very important to me as a columnist to be heard and listened to and respected by liberals and conservatives alike.

Nonetheless, Friedman spoke with City & Shore on the recent day that Trump endorsed moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. It was a natural starting point for our conversation.

What do you make of today’s news about Jerusalem?

My basic view is that if the president wanted to do this — I don’t know why we’re doing it now, but if you wanted to do it now — I would have gotten something for it. Had I been Trump, I would have said I’m going to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — something very valuable to Israelis that they’ve wanted for a long time — but in return I want a freeze on all settlements outside of the settlement blocks, for two reasons. One, it will preserve the possibility of a two-state solution at a maximum; and at a minimum, it will preserve the possibility of separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

So had he traded it for something, we really could have advanced the peace process, done something good for Israelis, good for Palestinians and good for America. But giving away something so valuable for free, it doesn’t make any sense to me.

Do you find it odd coming from the author of The Art of the Deal?

Well, I call it in my column ‘The Art of the Giveaway.’ [Laughs.]

 While we’re on the subject, you’ve been famously critical of Trump, so may I ask if there’s anything he has done that you can get behind?

[Silence.]

 Is there anything?

[Loud laughter.] I’m trying to think. I support a cutting of the corporate income tax, but I would have done it in a process of tax reform. I think we should be tougher on China on trade issues but I would have done it in the context of keeping the Trans-Pacific Partnership as leverage. So I don’t disagree with everything he’s done but he hasn’t done a lot of things either in a way that I would have done them or done a lot of things I would have done period.

Is there not even one thing that you can support without qualification?

Well, as a golfer, I really admire the amount of golf he’s played [laughter]. By the way I should say, in my speech I’m not going to be talking about Trump at all. What my book is really about, what my talk is really about, is helping people navigate the world today, because there’s just been so much rapid change I think a lot of people really feel unmoored. And my way of looking at the world is to never think in the box and never think out of the box — it’s to always try to think without a box.

And that’s why my analytical framework is to combine what I call the perspective of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law [the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years].

And so I’m always looking at how the interaction between climate and environmental issues, globalization and technology all come together to shape and reshape the world. And I use those frameworks basically to explain to people how their workplace is changing, how their politics is changing, how their geopolitics is changing, how their ethics need to change and how their communities are changing. And that’s the core of my message.

How do you see these accelerations, as you’ve termed them, playing out?

They’re just going to keep getting faster and faster. That is, I think the climate will continue to get warmer and more unstable. I think globalization will tie the world together ever more tightly and technology will continue to enable men, women and machines to do more and more, faster and faster and smarter and smarter.

So is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Oh, I think there is. The light in the tunnel is how you learn as a parent, a teacher, a politician, a leader to get the most out of these accelerations and to cushion the worst. And that’s what I think politics should be about.

 Back to Trump…

[...Laughter.]

 What do you think we should do to make America great again?

In this age of acceleration, the No. 1 important thing you need as an individual, as a parent, as a community leader is to create the possibility for and the inspiration for lifelong learning. Because when the speed of change accelerates this much, then the ability to be a lifelong learner — to not just say, ‘Well, I’ve got my two-year or four-year degree and now I’m going to dine out on that for the next 30 years’ — but to rather be a lifelong learner who’s constantly upgrading his skills, that’s going to be the single greatest competitive advantage.

If you were writing a review of your talks, what would you say?

I went to hear Tom Friedman. He was engaging, entertaining, funny, but most of all, he gave me a way to think about the world that makes me no longer feel overwhelmed, and he gave me a sense of optimism, that it’s going to be OK.

Now, that was a great question, wasn’t it? It makes me want to go to hear you even more.

[Laughter.] I’m going to tell you this, I’ve never been asked that question before.

At the end of Trump’s presidency, how do you think our country will be different than when he took office?

It’s very hard to predict. We’ve never had a president who attacked the FBI, or the Justice Department or a sitting judge in the way Trump has. We’ve never had a president who’s stretched the truth as much as he has. So we’ve seen our norms and institutions challenged, and I hope they continue to stand as a bulwark against any kind of extremes right now. But they’ve been tested and they’ll be tested some more and we will have to take our own measure at the end of four years and see where we are.

In your long, distinguished career, which accomplishment has meant the most to you?

That’s a very good question. I guess the greatest honor I got was to win the Pulitzer Prize [in 2002] for commentary after 9/11. As you may have noticed, there were a lot of people who wrote about 9/11, and to be singled out in that competition as someone who brought clarity and understanding and sympathy for a lot of Americans at a very critical time, that means the world to me. Did then and still does.

The Broward College Speaker Series is at Amaturo Theatre, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Speeches begin at 7:30 p.m. Individual tickets are $60 and can be purchased at BrowardCollegeSpeakerSeries.com. Student, educator and group rates are available.

ONLINE BONUS: More of our interview with Thomas Friedman follows

Can you give us a bit of an insider’s look at the Trump effect on the Times?

There’s no question that people are just engaged now more than ever and as a result of that, our online subscriptions have continued to soar since he’s become president because of the danger of fake news and because there’s a lot of people out there who want news they can trust. And they still trust us to give them the news without fear or favor. Donald Trump has been incredibly good for the thriving New York Times, not the failing New York Times.

 Is the effect palpable in the newsroom?

It’s nothing we really talk about, but it’s certainly understood. The reporters are engaged, there’s a sense that big issues are in play. And there’s a very high motivation. It’s not that we don’t make mistakes — we do — but we do correct our mistakes when we find them. And so it’s been a great time for New York Times journalism.

 

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