Tom Friedman Taking on Brexit Is My Personal Hell

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Let me preface this by saying: I know I brought this on myself. I chose to move to the United States almost seven years ago, having spent a year here in college. I made this decision knowing that there is nothing Americans love more than to ask British people about whatever the last piece of news from Britain they heard was, whether that’s a royal wedding/baby, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, or the results of the latest Great British Bake Off. (Other versions of this are “My cousin is from Hartleby-Upon-Widlington, have you been there?” or “When are you going back to London?”, a place I have never lived.) In the grand scheme of things, this is a minute problem and is far outweighed by the joys of living here, but I am nevertheless irked by it.


The inverse of this annoyance is when Americans take it upon themselves to explain British stuff to me. And though I know that Thomas Friedman did not write this column about Brexit specifically to annoy me, it really does feel that way.

Yes, Tom Friedman, one of those New York Times columnists who is probably paid enough to pay two or three reporters and basically gets to do whatever he wants, like puffing up a murderous dictator, has turned his beady eyes to Brexit. The result is insufferable.

Let’s dive in, starting with the absolute worst part of the piece:

I understand the grievances of many of those who voted to leave the E.U. For starters, they felt swamped by E.U. immigrants. (The E.U. should have protected the U.K. from that surge; that was German and French foolishness.) There are reportedly some 300,000 French citizens living in London, which would make it one of the biggest French cities in the world. I had a drink with a member of Parliament in the bar in the House of Commons on Tuesday, and as we sat down he whispered to me that “not a single person working in this whole building is British.”

Hoo boy. First of all, let’s get the name of that MP, shall we? Seems like quite a nasty thing he said there, and it would be in the interest of your readers and the British people to know who said it. Second, I just love to read casually racist statements about being “swamped” by immigrants in the New York Times. Third, London has a population of approximately nine million people, and the metro area is roughly 14 million people, making those frightening 300,000 French people two percent of the population. New York City, where Tom lives, has roughly 450,000 Europeans in a city roughly the same size of London. Quelle horreur! There are almost a million people born in Asia living in NYC—would Tom write a column about how NYC is swamped by Asians? Indeed, you have to wonder if Tom picked the number of French people in London to highlight, rather than the much bigger Indian or Polish populations, because it makes him sound less racist to complain about the French (a pastime he may have picked up in Britain, to be fair).

Tom goes on to say he understands Britons’ objection to “faceless E.U. bureaucrats in Brussels,” and rural Leave voters’ resentment of “globalized urban elites.” And it is then that we enter his favorite territory: the deployment of meaningless cliches about global politics. Friedmanopolis. The Friedman Zone.

But I also get what it means to be a leader in the 21st century. And it sure doesn’t mean asserting your sovereignty over all other considerations or breaking out of the giant E.U. market, where the U.K. sends over 40 percent of its exports, without a serious national discussion of the costs and benefits.

What do the most effective leaders today have in common? They wake up every morning and ask themselves the same questions: “What world am I living in? What are the biggest trends in this world? And how do I educate my citizens about this world and align my policies so more of my people can get the best out of these trends and cushion the worst?”


“Leadership” is the favorite buzzword of the stupid columnist. It’s something you can demand from any politician, left or right, without being intrinsically attached to any kind of specific ideological or policy content. Trump Should Lead By (Closing the Border/Standing Up to Racists). Barack Obama Should Lead By (Bombing Syria/Bombing Iran/Bombing Libya).

As usual, this means nothing. I don’t think the world’s most effective (what effects?) leaders ask themselves “What world am I living in?” unless they are all concealing Trump-level dementia from us. I do not think they are asking themselves every morning about “trends.”


According to Friedman, the world in which we live is “becoming so interconnected — thanks to digitization, the internet, broadband, mobile devices, the cloud and soon-to-be 5G wireless transmissions — that we are becoming interdependent to an unprecedented degree.” This is an observation from 1999, updated with 2019 technology. It is probably lifted from The World Is Flat, his book about how marvelously interconnected we all are. This is his whole thing, basically. And when you have a signature thing, it’s very easy to write column after column about how everything that happens proves your thing is right.

Friedman then talks about how “knowledge flows” and not “knowledge stocks” are what defines success in business today, and says that “keeping your country as open as possible to as many flows as possible” is key to success for countries. It’s a TED talk, basically. He is a Success Win Guy, but for globalization. In doing this, he deploys my least-favorite pro-immigration argument:

The second thing the best leaders understand is that in a world of simultaneous accelerations in technology and globalization, keeping your country as open as possible to as many flows as possible is advantageous for two reasons: You get all the change signals first and have to respond to them and you attract the most high-I.Q. risk-takers, who tend to be the people who start or advance new companies.

In the U.S., who is the C.E.O. of Microsoft? Satya Nadella. Who is the C.E.O. of Google? Sundar Pichai. Who is the C.E.O. of Adobe? Shantanu Narayen. Who is the C.E.O. of Workday? Aneel Bhusri. Hello London? The best talent wants to go to the most open systems — open both to immigrants and trade — because that is where the most opportunities are. Britain is about to put up a big sign: GO AWAY.


Please, I am begging you: Stop using immigrant tech CEOs as paragons of immigrant virtue. Stop talking about immigrants in terms of the value they produce. They are not commodities, something you import to enhance your country’s Economic Success Winning. Immigrants are good whether they run Google or drive buses. Immigrants who want to come here to have a better life for themselves or their family should be able to do that whether or not they intend to run Adobe. You also don’t need to put “high-IQ” next to “risk-takers.” All immigrants are taking a huge risk; asylum seekers who cross the Mediterranean to flee violence are taking much greater risks than a guy who spends a bunch of venture capital money to make an app.

And then we come to the end of all these very complicated and expensive thoughts:

Sorry to be so despondent, but I went to graduate school here on a Marshall scholarship from the British government, was married here and started as a journalist on Fleet Street in London. I like the place. But this is not the reasonably competent British government I grew up with.

It’s being led by a ship of fools — a Conservative Party bloc that is now radical in its obsession with leaving Europe and a Labour Party that has gone Marxist. If the people here can’t force their politicians to compromise with one another and with reality (there’s still a glimmer of hope that this might happen), there is going to be a crackup of the British political system and some serious economic pain. This is scary.


Sorry to mention this, but I am very clever, by the way. It’s fine, Tom—you don’t need to mention it. It happened like forty years ago.

Of course, of course, he had to Both Sides Brexit by asserting that Corbyn is a Marxist (and, by implication, that Marxism is bad)—something that the staunchest Brexiteers love to say, too. It is also wonderful that he finished his article about the lack of compromise hours after Theresa May announced she would, in fact, be open to compromising with Jeremy Corbyn to achieve a Brexit deal. I imagine that “glimmer of hope” line was added late in this process.


As with most writing by centrists on American politics, the plea for Leadership runs parallel with the plea for compromise or bipartisanship. There is never a recognition that one party has gone fucking mental, never a recognition that compromising with absolute insanity brings you further away from good ideas, not towards them. One party is driving us to the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit, and the other is... not doing that. But it makes a nice, neat end to your column to say “I wish these two frightful parties would compromise,” because that’s a value everyone is supposed to appreciate.

He didn’t even do that, though. He said “This is scary,” unnecessarily restating the implication he spent the last three paragraphs setting up. A dull, flat thud to end a dull, flat article. Please, Tom: Stick to writing about any other country. Britain is full.

Splinter politics writer.