The Prattle on Seattle

The Prattle on Seattle

The ideological rigidity that governs punditocracy trade debate transcends right/left dichotomies.


The ideological rigidity that governs punditocracy trade debate transcends right/left dichotomies. Yes, the increasingly marginalized reactionary crank Pat Buchanan is accidentally on the democratic side in this fracas. Far more significant in this case are the liberals, like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, and centrists, like Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Foreign Affairs, who are so deeply committed to the ideological preconceptions of “free trade” that they fairly ooze contempt for the other side. In writing about Seattle, this group makes one long for the modesty and good manners of, say, George Will or Henry Kissinger.

Reading Friedman, Times readers might be forgiven for wondering if the columnist had become possessed by the spirit of Joe McCarthy: “These anti-W.T.O. protesters…are a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix,” he wailed. “If the protesters in Seattle stopped yapping, they would realize that they have been duped by knaves like Pat Buchanan.” Not for a nanosecond does Friedman entertain the possibility that the protesters–and the intellectuals, activists, politicians and citizens who support them–may be operating from an eminently sensible set of principles and priorities. Nor can he countenance the belief that democracy itself is of intrinsic value when making decisions that affect workers and communities across the globe.

“The biggest negative fallout from Seattle,” he writes in a second, slightly apologetic column, “is the way it smeared free trade. I fear that politicians all over America will look at Seattle and say, ‘Wow, if that’s what you get when you support free trade, I’m hiding.'” Just what has Friedman so worried–given the corporate stranglehold on our political system–is hard to fathom. But would that it were true. What if Americans started to question some of the homilies they are traditionally handed by the intellectual class? What if they determined that the idyllic notion of “free trade” is really no such thing, but merely a utopian smokescreen masking a series of institutional arrangements that allow corporations to move capital without concern for communities, workers or local ecological systems?

What if they discovered, say from Harvard economist Frank Taussig, that in the United States “manufactures in general grew and flourished” during the forty-five years prior to the Civil War, when US tariffs were near their historical height but began a precipitate decline during a period of unilateral free trade in the 1960s? (The same was true in Great Britain.) And what if they learned of Taussig’s Harvard colleague Dani Rodrik, whose research demonstrates that “no widely accepted model attributes to postwar trade liberalization more than a very tiny fraction of the increased prosperity of the advanced industrial countries”? Would America crumble to dust?

Well, so long as the mandarins of the punditocracy control debate, this day will never come to pass. Here is Zakaria venting in Newsweek: “What happened in Seattle was an unmitigated disaster…. Political support for free trade might have been damaged, which is bad for workers everywhere…. Beyond all that, the spectacle was simply embarrassing.” Yes, democratic demonstrations can sometimes be embarrassing. We’re sorry. Zakaria continues: “The purpose of trade agreements is to reduce trade barriers and thus expand economic growth. Period.” End of discussion. If these same agreements lead to despoiled communities and lower standards of living and safety, well, tough luck. Write a letter to your Congressman. Ask him to please ignore his corporate contributors next time he votes on a trade issue and listen instead to the little guy with a part-time job and no health insurance. If that doesn’t work, well, life is tough all over, fella. Just look at the crap those poor trade ministers had to put up with in Seattle.

By contrast, the straightforward coverage–at least in print–of the Battle in Seattle was pretty good. Most reporters made a conscientious effort to separate the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters from the few who smashed windows. (It is a bit late in the game, I fear, to ask television newscasts to avoid focusing on violent confrontation in order to spend more time on substantive economic and political debate.) Many print reporters did considerable justice to the protesters’ arguments. Michael Elliott did a fine job opposite Zakaria in Newsweek. So did the Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein, who noted in a front-page news analysis that Seattle transformed the trade debate into a debate about “the food people eat, the air they breathe, the quality of medical care, and the social and cultural milieu in which they live.”

This may be too optimistic by half. The singular political problem in America is the ability of the corporate class, through its campaign contributions, lobbyists and media apologists, to manipulate the system on a daily basis. Protesters, however, have to settle for hoping that politicians will “hear their message.” Well, Bill Clinton made a fine speech in Seattle, but the checks are going to come from the same people tomorrow as they did yesterday. Yes, a “Sweeney-Greenie” alliance–in Todd Gitlin’s felicitous phrase–was thrilling to view in conception, but it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain now that the protesters and the journalists have gone home. Lobbyists never go home.

Today the ideologues of the punditocracy are no less dedicated to the charade of “free trade” than their counterparts were to the war they insisted we were winning back in 1968. That year, most of the country had had more than enough of that senseless war, but the system–responding to its own undemocratic imperatives–came up with three presidential candidates who equated the desire for peace with procommunist treason. Now all four serious presidential candidates support the WTO and the disastrous prospect of China’s admission to it. Meanwhile, reflecting on the goals of Seattle’s protesters, Friedman complains of “a country that tried that. It guaranteed everyone’s job, maintained a protected market and told everyone else how to live. It was called the Soviet Union.” Sound familiar?

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