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Dear Mr. Friedman

02.24.2000 | MEDIA

If you read the preface to Tom Friedman's celebratory tome on globalization, you will be informed that he has "the best job in the world." You will learn that not only does he get to travel widely and interview political elites at the knock of a door, but he also--the lucky bastard--"gets to have opinions."

Friedman's not so subtle message is that unless you own a New York Times press pass, you aren't allowed the exercise of critical faculties. And, if by some tweek of fate, you end up with a few thoughts on things, they aren't worth much; at least not as much as those of Thomas, the fully credentialized Pulitzer winning pupil. You, gentle reader, are dismissed.

Such pomposity is not surprising coming from a star of the Times Op-Ed page. Between the superegos and sour wits of William Safire and (the thankfully now defunct) Abe Rosenthal, one almost expects the personalities of famous Times columnists to grate against healthy skin.

But unlike Safire or Rosenthal, Friedman does not usually mix his egomania with mean spiritedness. And he is occasionally capable of taking strong and sensible stands in the face of conventional thinking, as he did in opposing NATO expansion.

So it was all the more disapointing when Friedman started taking indiscriminate journalistic whacks at Seattle protestors before the blood had even dried on the nightsticks of King County's finest last December.

In a witlessly titled column that doubtless set the tone for many a small city editorial, Friedman famously declared that anti-WTO protestors were "Senseless in Seattle." Leaving aside the writer's weakness in the face of an obvious and unforgivably lame Tom Hanks reference, the piece revealed a bare-knuckled contempt for the great benighted mass of the Non-Credentialed. Who are THEY to think THEY know ANYTHING about ANYTHING, was the basic idea. Who indeed.

I remember when this piece was being passed around by WTO protestors in the makeshift headquarters of Direct Action Network on the day of its publication. Under happier circumstances we might have laughed at it, and had it been a bit less snide it might have just been ignored, as were most of the official condemnations that were circulating around planet CNN that week. But it was considerably more obnoxious and personal than the others. By strides.

The column recounted a tour Friedman had once been given of a Victoria's Secret factory in India--a factory so clean "I would let my daughters work there." Ignoring the likelihood that his daughters will ever enter a factor of any sort, one wonders if Friedman is truly unaware of the thousands of other factories that do not offer tours; factories which maybe aren't so clean or safe or legal. One wonders if he is really unaware of the extent to which the WTO is complicitous in the existence and multiplication of these hell holes.

In any case the nutty protestors must be imagining such places, seeing as how all they really care about is satisfying their "Sixties fix." And here Friedman is on target. In fact, just before leaving for Seattle, myslef and some Greenpeace friends went to a local union hall to watch our favorite clips of the 1968 Democratic convention, pausing the tape during our favorite battle scenes. (Like, Jerry Rubin was so with it! Right on, even!) After the filmstrips were over we ate acid and fantasized about how fun it would be to get gassed and have to pour vinegar water over our inflamed eyeballs. Friedman spent time in the middle east, so he knows what a blast that it is.

If by "Sixties fix" Friedman means the natural desire to fight against injustice, then he is right. Although it is interesting to see an ostensibly liberal commentator try to smear a large cross-section of the population by associating it with the Evil Decade. Don't Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz co-own the trademark to that one, Tom?

And if the protestors are filling their Sixties fix by protesting the indefensible, then establishment columnists are merely filling theirs by defending the indefensible. No doubt every young commentator since Vietnam has romantically hungered after the opportunity to slam a peace and justice movement during their very own historical moment.

Which brings us to another interesting element of the Sixties analogy. That decade not only saw protest from the 'senseless' and reaction from the 'columnists', but also the fossilization of columnists who clung desperately to discredited ideology. One thinks of the Restons and the Kemptons mouthing crusted pieties about 'credibility' and 'honor' against a tsunami of anti-war sentiment. Unless Friedman learns to seriously nuance his reading of globalization and its opponents, he too risks losing credibility and becoming a dinosaur.

If he really wants to play out the Sixties thing, then he and his colleagues should start thinking less about total victory and more about ways to get the NLF to the table and work out a negotiated peace. Otherwise its going to be Tet after Tet after Tet. The sooner Friedman and Co. figure this out, the less likley they are to be grasping at a rope ladder on the roof of a shattered neoliberal embassy.

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