In a career spanning decades, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman was always looking for Minnesota.
Friedman, 63, was raised in St. Louis Park, and his years there take up a large portion of his new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” Following World War II, many Jewish families — Friedman’s included — moved to the west metro city, seeking to escape the anti-Semitism they encountered in Minneapolis.
“At a time of rising racial tensions and political debates tearing at the fabric of our country, I grew hungry to understand what made that little suburb where I came of age politically such a vibrant community, anchoring and propelling me and many others,” he writes.
The Star Tribune spoke with Friedman about what he called “the happiest time in my life” during his national book tour. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: You say the local community is and should be the most important facet of the 21st century. Can that local community coexist well with the rapid globalization that you write about?
A: The argument in the book is that it’s the healthy community that can be the ideal source of governance. It’s close enough to people to be able to address their needs and flexible enough to be able to be responsive quickly enough — when it’s working at its best.
Q: How did growing up in St. Louis Park impact your worldview as you went about reporting?
A: Growing up in a healthy community had two big impacts on me. When you see politics work — where there are partisan differences but they get resolved and they end up in action that supports the common good — it gives you the optimism that it can happen in other places. The second impact it had was that, when you feel tethered to a place called home, when you feel anchored in the community, it really enables and inspires and encourages you to reach out, not just to the stranger, but to travel far both emotionally and physically.
Q: Why do you think it was St. Louis Park that became a place where diversity was more easily accepted?
A: The macro answer is a mystery, because St. Louis Park is not surrounded by a moat or a fence or a river. Yet for 50 years it’s maintained quite a distinctive culture that has been passed down over several generations. I think the community was blessed with particularly good leaders, who did things certain ways, believed in really investing in education, promoted inclusion. Those leaders passed down that ethic to the next generation, and the next generation passed it down.
Q: You took a couple of research trips to St. Louis Park for the book. Does that sense of pluralism still exist there?
A: Now it’s much more pluralistic than when I was there. We have a much larger Hispanic community. We now have a Muslim community. We have Somalis from Africa, and there are other African communities there, and you have many more African-American families. The pluralism and inclusion challenge of St. Louis Park is certainly much easier than it was in my day of just white Judeo-Christians, primarily. It’s certainly not perfect — no place is. But what I am struck by is the number of people who want to get caught trying to make the place work.
Q: Were there any personal reasons for the trips home?
A: I spent the first 30 years of my career covering the Middle East [and] some amazing moments: the Oslo peace agreements, the Arab Spring, the Iranian Revolution, the attempt to bring democracy to Iraq. What they all had in common is they all failed. So I kind of took my idealism home in recent years and really focused on what I call nation-building in America. But then I started to feel that America was turning into the Middle East I just left. We were becoming Sunnis and Shiites — we just called them Democrats and Republicans. I went back and re-interviewed so many people and classmates and teachers and principals, and I decided that I didn’t make it up. It was real, and some of the lessons were worth sharing.
Q: You cite experiences and correspondence with other well-known people from the city, such as the Coen brothers and Al Franken. Is there something uniquely Minnesotan that unites you all?
A: We grew up in a place that worked, with all its faults and problems and issues. It was a place where politics basically worked, decisions got done, a really nice community where people want to raise their kids got built. We all wanted to take that Minnesota thing out to the world and share it. I think there was a strong civic pride.
Q: Is there one thing about Minnesota that people from around the nation can learn from?
A: I find in visiting communities that there is enormous social innovation going on. Whatever you think of, somebody else is doing it somewhere already, and you can learn from them. The Itasca Project, St. Louis Park’s experiment with local neighborhood councils — these are great social innovations that I really wanted to share with communities across the country.