Thomas Friedman no longer enjoys the influence that he did twenty years or so ago, but he is still turning out two or three columns a week. He has not mellowed at age 68. For decades he has pontificated on foreign policy and the consequences of globalization. His full-scale endorsement of the war in Iraq did nothing to reduce his eminence within the establishment, which is chronically forgiving of its own mistakes. Theodore Draper pointed out around 1980 that no leading official had suffered for advocating the Vietnam War or benefited from having opposed it, and that pattern has repeated itself with respect to our Middle Eastern adventures. Friedman interests me in particular, however, because he exemplifies the approach of the modern op-ed writer--a species that takes up about three times as much space in our newspapers as it did half a century ago. In the age of James Reston, Roland Evans and Robert Novak, and Marquis Childs, op-ed writers essentially reflected in a more relaxed fashion on the news of the day, or provided scoops of their own about who thought what. Now they see themselves as moral arbiters who instruct political leaders about what they should do, regardless of how well their advice turned out in the past.
Friedman's most recent column--"China and Russia are giving authoritarianism a bad name"--extends his judicial reach well beyond the United States. While expressing concern over Putin's war in Ukraine--a theme of most of his recent columns--he is more interested in using that war to make a broader point about the course of history. He is not worried that we have entered an era in which powerful states will use force to conquer their neighbors--rather he argues that Putin undertook this war because he runs an authoritarian regime, and authoritarian regimes are on the wrong side of history. They do not understand, as Friedman does, that only the free flow of information leads to progress. Putin got himself into this mess because his subordinates feared telling him the truth. The underlying tone of the column--which has become very common in op-eds in general--is that if Putin were only as smart as Thomas Friedman, the world would be a better place. The same thing, meanwhile, has happened to historians, most of whom now discuss the past merely to show how benighted earlier generations were, how much their values differed from those of a 21st century faculty lounge. I am increasingly convinced that good history and good journalism require a certain degree of humility. Journalists and historians should try to chronicle the present and the past, not to try to determine what they should be. An understanding of things as they are is the first step towards thinking about how they might be improved.
Regarding China, Friedman isn't concerned that the Ukraine war might encourage Beijing to invade Taiwan (a possibility that increased, in my opinion, when the sinking of the Moskva showed how vulnerable surface ships have become.) He merely wants to point out that China, at this moment, is having a harder time with the pandemic than the West is, because its vaccines have been less effective against new variants. That is true, but it's equally true that China did much better than we did against COVID earlier on, because it could impose much more significant restrictions on its populace.
Friedman's real problem is his certainty that history is moving in the direction that he has marked out. The Ukraine war has shocked a great many westerners because we thought we had outgrown the era in which such a war could take place--even though the US began a new era of military imperialism back in 2001 in response to 9/11. We should have learned in the last 30 years that history is not linear, and that movements towards democracy or authoritarianism still depend on a host of circumstances. Friedman concludes by arguing, in effect, that while democracy has problems, they are not nearly so great. "I am worried sick about our own democratic system," he says.. "But as long as we can still vote out incompetent leaders and maintain information ecosystems that will expose systemic lying and defy censorship, we can adapt in an age of rapid change — and that is the single most important competitive advantage a country can have today." Given the failure of our own government to deal seriously with immigration, climate change, inequality, and a host of other issues, that strikes me as a most optimistic reading of our own situation.
More broadly, the growth of the op-ed page has been a catastrophe for journalism. It usually takes me less than an hour to write these posts--it wouldn't take me a day to write three of them a week. For a comparable amount of labor, Friedman and his ilk make at least $200,000 a year these days. Some of them write from a much more ideological perspective than he does--especially those hired to provide a particular demographic viewpoint. The decline of newspapers--like the decline of history and serious publishing--has a great deal to do with the product that it is putting out.