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Chris Geis: Listen to Friedman: He's smart

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Thomas Friedman may be one of the smartest people in America.

Friedman spoke Tuesday at Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel with a breadth and depth of knowledge and intellectual agility that captivated a near-full house — even though, as he noted, the Wake Forest basketball team was playing up the street and the weather was cold and rainy.

“Mother nature ... always bats last and she always bats a thousand. Don’t mess with mother nature,” he said later in discussing climate change.

Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times, a best-selling author and a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He earned a master’s in philosophy from Oxford and has spent considerable time reporting from the Middle East and other parts of the world. But he is a native of Minnesota and has that solid Midwestern sensibility that is quintessentially American, like a white button-down oxford shirt.

He is writing a book about how to be a newspaper columnist. This might seem a somewhat pedestrian topic for a person of his range except for its essential underpinning — which is that, to be a good journalist, one has to listen more and speak less. You will not persuade people if they think you do not respect them, he said, and you earn their respect by hearing them out.

The day after the midterm elections, Friedman published a column titled “America Dodged an Arrow.” He was referring to the loss of nearly all candidates, endorsed by a certain lunatic, who claimed that American elections are stolen and democracy cannot be trusted when they lose.

The key to our government is the peaceful transition of power and a belief in the legitimacy of elections. And, “if we go dark as a country” on this point, he said, “the whole world goes dark.” The world may make fun of our naivete, but it envies us and sees us as indispensable. Russia and China took note of the results.

Russia was counting on election deniers because they have no use for American aid to Ukraine in its just war against Russia. I would note that the deniers are not smart enough to understand that if Russia’s aggression is unchecked, it will not stop with Ukraine. Russia has no interest in freedom. How does one follow the logic of people who tout freedom and claim to hate socialists and communists but are fine with an authoritarian and once-communist enemy of America destroying an aspiring capitalist democracy?

Fortunately, Russia “managed to get every single thing wrong” when it invaded Ukraine, Friedman said. It made “a huge mistake with global implications.” Europeans saw it as an invasion of Europe, akin to Germany in World War II. It “reminds us that there are some enemies of freedom out there.“

In his book “The World Is Flat,” Friedman wrote about how the world was becoming inter-connected and inter-dependent. “It is flatter than ever,” he said Tuesday. “Two-thirds of the planet now has a smart phone.”

The instability of the 21st century has changed political parties everywhere. They were built out of the Industrial Revolution on a left/right axis to deal with the creation of the welfare state. The left wanted a bigger welfare state and the right a smaller one, but they agreed on the need for one.

Now, that framework has been displaced by technology and climate change and the only thing holding parties together is identity. But the world needs better and more complex coalitions that are not set up on a traditional left/right axis because our problems don’t lend themselves to such solutions.

One technological change Friedman laments is the advent of social media. Twitter, Facebook and the like have been “a cancer ... the worst thing ever invented. ... I hope the whole thing blows up,” he said. In the meantime, local newspapers, which “are community-builders,” have disappeared and “that’s been a disaster for our country.”

When President Obama campaigned, he went to conservative southern Illinois and met with the local newspaper’s editor. The editor concluded, “The Black guy is OK,” Obama told Friedman. He vouched for Obama with his readers, who trusted him. Now that newspaper and the editor are gone. Newspapers have been a buffer against harm to our society, or the mangroves that filtered out pollution and protected us from hurricanes, and we are paying the price for their loss.

Even a newspaper columnist of average intelligence can recognize this.



Chris Geis is a lawyer in Winston-Salem and a retired commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

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