Demonstrators Give Birth to Brand New Left
December 1, 1999
The satirist Tom Wolfe coined the term "radical chic" to characterize the way certain stylish New Yorkers in the 1960s fawned over, and financed, law-breaking groups like the Black Panthers.
Just as the New Left attempted a "baby-boomer" imitation of real revolutionaries from still earlier eras, something like a Brand New Left is attempting to be born during the World Trade Organization meetings here.
It’s an unconscious imitation of the ‘60s imitation, with a ‘90s fillip of GenX fashion consciousness.
They are driving down from a special anti-trade agitator school in British Columbia and jetting in from New York and Palo Alto. Pace-setting eco-writer Bill McKibben has arrived to "cover" (that is, encourage) the stated program of civic disobedience, declaring that the demonstrator hordes are "turn(ing) Seattle into the most important place on earth the week after Thanksgiving."
The next week it will be some other place’s chance, mind you. But for now, rain-besotted Seattle is Chic City. The Cannes of Concern. Put on your $250 REI Gore-Tex and march against trade.
You might think the visitor is being provided guidance for some Alternative Music Festival. For there, behind a Seattle Weekly cover that evokes the modish poster art of ‘30s Socialism (a big black WTO fist about to crush the Earth), the editors list all the "events" a busy demonstrator can attend. They chirp their yuppie benediction: "Have a great week at the barricades!"
In the ‘60s, draft-card-burning students held teach-ins on Vietnam, sang "Give Peace a Chance" and stormed the Pentagon. To educate the American public about the evils of free trade in the ‘90s, a San Francisco arm of the Anti-WTO coalition called The Global Exchange rappelled down the front of the Old Navy store in Seattle with a banner chanting, "Sweatshops: ‘Free Trade’ or Corporate Slavery?" Others bashed in windows at McDonalds and Niketown. Incongruously, some of the oppressed had cell-phones, camcorders and super-looking cameras.
The Emerald City’s police force doesn’t know what to do with these people, arrest them or offer them tourist discount coupons. Seattle, as the millennium does its swan dive into oblivion, is a place where thousands of demonstrators can announce their intention to break the law, and yet the city government sends out an e-mail appealing to townspeople to quarter the protestors in their spare bedrooms.
This is a hard appeal to make, however, since a large share of the native population is abandoning the city in advance of the threatened transportation paralysis (in a town already a regular rush-hour heap). There are somber warnings from downtown building owners to lock ofice doors to strangers during the WTO confab. Security precautions like that may be standard in Washington. D.C., but they paint a scary prospect in this other, milder Washington. What are householders to do when they flee the socio-cleansing, turn over their keys to some Eddie Bauer-clad commune from Los Angeles?
The bemusement of locals is only heightened by children who bring home reports of efforts to get them to cut classes and take part in the demonstrations. When my 14-year-old and his pal declared this intention, it turned out that their knowledge of the WTO was rather limited. "Is it about how bad trade is?" my son tried. Well, that’s what they say, I answered, but before you boys join the protests, why don’t you take off your shoes and see where they were made.
Oops. One pair said "Thailand," another "China." Guess you’ll have to go barefoot, I suggested. Never mind, they replied. Back to school.
Maybe the shoes test might be a good one for all the demonstrators. You are disqualified from demonstrating if you are objectively part of the exploiter class. Nine-tenths of the throng being organized at the University of Washington would be reduced to their skivvies, if not rendered naked to the autumn rain. You should be pilloried on NBC News if you are caught with a "Made in Malaysia" label.
Meanwhile, the delegates from Third World countries who are attending the WTO to demand a bigger share of the world boom that free trade has caused -- so that they too can afford to improve their countries’ air and water the way the developed West has been doing -- must wonder at the privileged youth come to Seattle with their foundation grants and their professional pied pipers, like Ralph Nader. Are American puppeteers on stilts going to decide for the Third World what trade is "fair" and to whom?
One could understand protests on behalf of the poor if the policy under attack was the U.S. sugar quotas that favor a tiny elite in Florida and Louisiana, hold up high sugar prices in the United States and keep down cane production in Central America and the Philippines. That would mean a protest for more trade, not less.
Instead, the Brand New Left thinks the villains of our times are … Boeing … and Weyerhauser … and Starbucks … and Microsoft, the very people who raise standards of living and working conditions worldwide.
Bill McKibben, the anti-free trader, writes that he wants people in Seattle to object to the importation of vegetables and fruit from Mexico. For "that means that land is not being used to grow crops that Mexicans eat." Never mind the sweet consolation a Mexican melon offers our winter palates in the dreary North, has this man actually consulted any Mexicans about the import prohibition he advocates? Cutting off international markets for Mexicans is surely one of the more bizarre economic cures proposed to combat poverty in that country.
Have the folks being mobilized to protest heard about the days of "fair trade" protectionism that kept nations insular -- and antagonistic -- most of this war-ridden century?
How do the anti-trade troubadours get the nerve to tell people who finally are glimpsing prosperity -- people of the world who at last are becoming able to make their lives better -- that they should go back to those swell days of high trade barriers and low life expectancy?
"All we are sayyying is, Give Trade a Chance."
Bruce Chapman, president of Discovery Institute in Seattle, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations organizations in Vienna in the 1980s.
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