Free Trade's Happy Face Peels Off
SEATTLE -- After enjoying a free ride in American news media for many years, the World Trade Organization just hit a brick wall. The credit should go to a vast array of civic activists -- represented by tens of thousands of protesters from every continent who took to the streets here with determined nonviolence.
The WTO has been fully accustomed to operating with scant media scrutiny in this country. Even for alert consumers of mainstream news, the WTO was apt to seem distant, aloof and fully protected from the intervention of mere mortals. No more.
By the time President Clinton arrived in Seattle on Wednesday for the WTO summit, it was clear that mere mortals have thrown themselves onto the gears of global trade designed by the rich and powerful. The Oz-like curtain shielding the operators of corporate machinery had gone up in smoke -- symbolized by the tear gas and pepper spray wafting over the city.
This month began with the acrid smell of illusions turning to ash. For the general public, the WTO will never again be able to claim automatic legitimacy. And while the hotshots running the WTO lose momentum, the parallel activities of global loan sharks like the International Monetary Fund are also sliding into further disrepute.
The peaceful marchers in downtown Seattle compelled media attention because they were so clearly and deeply rooted in communities across North America and every other continent. Formerly isolated from each other, advocates for diverse interests -- the environment and labor rights, for instance -- are finding common cause.
At a union-sponsored demonstration that stretched for many blocks, amid protesters dressed as sea turtles (endangered by WTO edicts), I saw a sign that captured the moment: "Turtles and Teamsters -- United At Last."
Over the years, news coverage has been stuck in a default position, routine and implicit: When government leaders and top corporate officials reach agreement on economic rules for the planet to live (and die) by, those rules are basically sound. Kindred elites arrived in Seattle hoping for a celebratory event. Instead, resistance spoiled their party.
Guardians of the WTO's image got a break when a small group of hoodlums went on a window-smashing spree and drew appreciable media attention. It's easy enough for TV cameras to videotape scenes of random violence in a shopping district. A much more difficult task would be to cover the institutionalized violence that is a quiet part of daily life.
While Western banks collect huge interest on loans to poor countries, the suffering -- and the links between wealth and poverty -- go largely unreported. That's how 20,000 children worldwide continue to die each day from preventable diseases.
The chain of events that led to a virtual military lockdown of Seattle's core business district at midweek was set in motion by wide opposition to the WTO in many societies around the globe. Now, the battle of Seattle has torn off the WTO's happy-face stickers.
Without such visible opposition, reigning power brokers are glad to pose as tolerant souls. But at the historic crossroads in Seattle, when the WTO found itself unable to proceed with business as usual, it was time to exchange the velvet glove for the iron fist.
This is logical. After all, the World Trade Organization is supremely anti-democratic. Unelected WTO officials deliberate in secret and issue rulings that deem local or national laws to be unfair "trade barriers" if they impede the pursuit of profits. This, we are told, is "free trade" -- and laws that protect workers or the environment or human rights are supposed to get out of the way.
As I write these words on Wednesday evening, a few blocks away police are attacking nonviolent protesters in downtown Seattle with heavy batons and new rounds of pepper spray and tear gas. Armored personnel carriers have moved in. Some policemen are arriving on horses. National Guard troops are putting on gas masks. All day, helicopters have droned steadily overhead.
In a perverse way, all this seems to make sense. While boosters of the World Trade Organization keep talking about "free trade," the consequences of contempt for democracy include more contempt for democracy. Elites may insist on the right to rule, but the rest of us -- including journalists -- should not go along to get along.