The radical centrist: previewing upcoming Thomas Friedman’s Bryan Series appearance

Sixteen years ago this September, Thomas Friedman appeared at Guilford College for an on-campus lecture as the first speaker in what later became The Bryan Series. On April 16, 2013, Friedman will return to the series, this time with hundreds of New York Times editorials, five more books and a third Pulitzer Prize under his belt.

“There are a number of people out there who are so compelling that you would want to seriously look at having them back, and Tom falls in that category,” said Vice President for Communications & Marketing Ty Buckner via phone interview.

“Tom, in a survey (among Bryan Series subscribers to nominate speakers) we conducted actually more than a year ago, rated very highly — and not unexpectedly. He’s simply one of the most popular columnists and authors out there today and particularly popular with our audience.”

While Friedman covers topics ranging from globalization to climate change, the proposed theme of Friedman’s talk is “The Middle East: An Update on Changing Events.”

Few journalists are more qualified to speak on the matter.

Friedman’s biweekly New York Times column focuses on foreign affairs, and his three Pulitzer Prizes were for reporting on the Lebanese Civil War, the state of Israel and the threat of global terrorism.

“I think both personally and professionally, he has deep interest in Israel’s security,” said Campus Ministry Coordinator Max Carter. “He has a dog in the fight.”

Friedman often criticizes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies concerning Palestinian and Israeli security, criticism that draws ire from pro-Israel groups.

“Israel needs a wake-up call,” Friedman wrote in “Driving Drunk in Jerusalem,” an editorial for The New York Times. “Continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, and even housing in disputed East Jerusalem, is sheer madness.”

“Israel plays such an important role in Jewish consciousness that even Jews who criticize Israel — I know this personally from Jewish friends I have — are accused of being anti-Semitic,” Carter said. “I appreciate Friedman’s willingness to subject himself to that kind of criticism when he is vocally critical of Israeli policies.”

However, Friedman himself states allegiance to “radical centrism,” a movement that brings together viewpoints from both left- and right-wing sources. Possibly owing to his political pragmatism, Friedman supported the invasion of Iraq.

“Friedman’s a realist who doesn’t have romantic notions,” said Carter. “He’s seen awful stuff. And he knows the various evils abroad in the world first hand. I think he made a rational decision for himself that we had to go into Iraq.

“I don’t know whether he believed there were weapons of mass destruction, but (the Bush administration) made a case. Colin Powell was snookered. Why wouldn’t a journalist like Friedman be snookered, too?”

Buckner expects a stimulating, thought-provoking speech from Friedman.

“(The Bryan Series) present speakers with all sorts of life experiences and viewpoints,” said Buckner. “One of the goals is to present speakers who will make us think. Their talks may reaffirm what we believe … they may cause us to change our opinion.”

In any case, Thomas Friedman’s return to the Bryan Series promises to be a powerful close to this season’s Bryan Series.

“I’ve heard Tom speak a couple of times, and he’s really good at delivering on the topic as promoted, but also bringing some of his other work into the program,” Buckner said with a laugh. “We show the speaker the stage, and for the next 45 or 50 minutes, it’s all them.”