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Jewish World ReviewDec. 8, 1999/ 29 Kislev, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Rebirth of idealistic civic activism? --
ON THE NEWS, there were police in riot gear on urban streets, shop windows being smashed, angry crowds, clouds of tear gas. Was this Indonesia? The former Yugoslavia? No, it was Seattle, Washington, of course -- and not in the 1960s but now.

Some see last week's protests against the World Trade Organization meeting as a rebirth of idealistic civic activism. What I saw, as I followed the coverage of the battle of Seattle, looked more like aggressive latter-day Know-Nothingism.

The protesters were ostensibly motivated by anger at the injustices of global commerce, of which the once-low-profile WTO enforces the rules. But in fact, the men and women in the streets came from different backgrounds and had many different agendas. There were union activists anxious to protect American workers from "cheap labor" abroad (a goal transparently cloaked in the rhetoric of concern for the rights of the same Third World workers whom they would deprive of jobs). There were greens championing endangered sea turtles and fuzzy-headed rebels championing the oppressed everywhere. There were "Free Mumia" signs, referring to the cop-killer on death row in Pennsylvania and a favorite of the radical-chic crowd. It's hard to imagine a cause less connected to the WTO, but never mind.

Some on the left are almost weeping with joy at the sight of such solidarity among various "progressive" forces ("Lefties of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Nike shoes!"). One protester's sign, "Teamsters and Turtles -- Together at Last," inspired two different columns in major newspapers. Actually, that depends on what your definition of "together" is. A report on the New Republic website quoted a union guy as saying that the environmentalists in the turtle suits were "probably fairies" -- but, he added, "as long as they're against the same thing as me, I got no problem."

Among the protesters who converged on Seattle, there were those driven by economic fears which, however unjustified, deserve some compassion. But many -- from college kids to aging flower children -- seemed animated mainly by antipathy toward the market and the "bourgeois" order.

Some of them talked about the oppression of poor people. The WTO "values the market and values capitalism over the right of humans to make decisions about ... their societies,'' said a Brown University history major arrested in the protests. What she didn't learn in history class is that the market is the greatest engine for eliminating poverty and giving people choices.

Most of the world's poor gladly choose "sweatshops" over subsistence farming. But then, people may not rank that high on the protesters' list of concerns. Consider the dispute about those endangered sea turtles, for example. The WTO has ruled that the U.S. can't just ban the import of Thai shrimp because the shrimp-fishing threatens the turtles; we must negotiate with Thailand for a solution that will protect the turtles *and* the shrimp fishermen. The protesters' idea of a humane world is, "To hell with the fishermen."

In a revealing moment, an unkempt young man told a TV reporter that the rioters' destruction of property really wasn't violent: "Violence is harming animals ... or people, and that's what the corporations do," he declared, with "people" added almost as an afterthought.

If these folks were honest with themselves, they would admit that what really troubles them is not poverty but prosperity, the materialistic society they despise as spiritually impoverished. The protests give them a way to feel morally superior to this society, without actually giving up its comforts.

Granted, rapacious consumerism is not a pleasant trait, but neither is smug self-righteousness -- coupled, more often than not, with hypocrisy. The TV cameras captured protesters who smashed the windows of a Niketown store while wearing Nike shoes. A Seattle Times reporter described an 18-year-old who lectured a policeman on the evils of the Gap, which sells clothing made in sweatshops, and challenged him to disclose where he buys his clothes.

When the reporter asked her the same question, she pointed to various items she was wearing and explained, "My friend gave me this. My dad gave me this. I found this on the street."

At times, I've wondered if I missed anything because I wasn't around in the "idealistic" sixties (when I was a toddler in the Soviet Union). The Battle for Seattle took care of one thing: I won't be asking myself that question anymore.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©1999, Cathy Young