Welcome Back Messrs. Friedman and Brooks

I used to have two clear favorite columnists on the NY Times Op Ed page – Thomas Friedman and David Brooks. Now that they are back in the conversation - what my son Julian refers to as Web 2.0 in social media terms – I realized how much I had missed them. Two years ago when they went behind the firewall I even sent David Brooks an email ironically suggesting that he consider getting a job elsewhere so he would continue to be heard. Significantly I didn’t rush back to the Times OP Ed page the moment I could – I had to be nudged. I had developed the habit on not reading The Times, but then my sister sent me a link to Friedman’s latest – China in Three Colors.

It’s a classic Tom Friedman column written, as it often is, on location – in this case Beijing. The result is that his observations are up to date and based on direct experience of the place and people involved. Given his institutional clout as a representative of America’s leading newspaper, (and it infuriates me all the time) he gets to talk to a lot of important people. (It is interesting how outsiders like bloggers like Michael Yon and Bill Roggio have used their institutional connections and understanding – in their case being ex military – to get at stories the MSM miss because they don’t hire people who know their way around that beat.) In Friedman’s case I think he has a special ability to come up with metaphors that single out what is significant in a situation while avoiding oversimplification. In this particular column he uses political colors to paint the picture and pose a critical question in a few words:

Can China go green without going orange? That is, can China really undertake the energy/environmental revolution it needs without the empowerment of its people to a whole new degree — à la the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004?

And his conclusion:

Right now they want it all — higher G.D.P., greener G.D.P., and unquestioned Communist Party rule. I don’t think you can have all three. I also don’t think they are going to opt for democracy. I am not even sure it is the answer for them right now. So they are seeking a hybrid model — some new combination of red, green and orange. I hope they find it, but right now the vista is mostly an ugly shade of brown.

That and the rest of the article is consistent with everything I know about China. I have a friend, fluent in Mandarin, who currently works for a major Chinese businessman and is consequently in touch with what China’s business elite is thinking. He says that they want China to achieve full superpower status but not just yet. Left unsaid is the idea that there are still too many unresolved issues – like the degree of political freedom the people should have. Or how to deal with pollution.

Putting this level of talent in the right place at the right time is just what the MSM and the NY Times should be and are good at. Hiding it behind a firewall in a networked environment didn’t work because there was too much other talent out there for free. In the first column I read by David Brooks one thing really stood out. He refers to three main sources. One in the Sunday Times Magazine and the other two on the Web. It is clear that he never left the conversation – rather it’s like he had a bad case of laryngitis and just got his voice back.


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