The Earthling

Two Days That Shook My Den 

I live in the Washington, D.C., area, only a subway ride from the site of this week’s protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. So, naturally, when I heard that the protests were underway, I packed a lunch, walked over to my couch, and watched the demonstrations on C-SPAN. Plus, I read some newspaper accounts. Here is my report from the scene.

Fashion tips for cops: Though most police wore standard police garb, special riot squads donned the apparel that was on display during Seattle’s World Trade Organization protests: those ultra-protective Robocop outfits. In Seattle, these were ridiculed as “Ninja Turtle” suits, but actually the image problem is more serious than that. In these futuristic, all-black get-ups, the cops look like fascist forces of the fantasized New World Order—as if they had just poured out of a black helicopter dispatched by the WTO. And the problem only deepens when they put gas masks on.

If I were a fashion consultant for riot squads in the new millennium, I’d recommend a less Darth Vader-ish color. How about something in a sky blue, with gold piping? Or maybe an Andy Griffith khaki? And, when the police are of local origin, signifying as much would lend a humanizing touch: replace the generic label “POLICE” on the chest protectors with, say, “Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police.” And maybe use a typeface a bit warmer than that stark sans serif.

You may laugh, but remember: Out there in TVland, watching these protests with a half-addled brain, could be the next Timothy McVeigh. Why encourage him?

Speaking of creepy outfits: When Pat Buchanan addressed the Teamsters Union during the run-up to the protests, one of his biggest applause lines was an ultimatum he promised to deliver to China if elected president: “You stop persecuting Christians, you stop threatening my country, or you guys have sold your last pair of chopsticks in any mall in the United States.”

Chopsticks, I venture to say, are a small fraction of total Chinese exports to the United States. And a peculiarly innocuous export: There are not hordes of unemployed Americans who once worked at booming chopstick factories in South Carolina. But whatever chopsticks lack in economic relevance they make up for in visceral resonance. Unlike shirts and socks and dolls and all the other things exported by China, chopsticks make you think of slanted eyes. Alien eyes.

Of course, this is why most self-respecting American labor unions won’t have anything to do with Buchanan: He’s a bad guy, and bad in a way that especially affronts the minority groups that figure prominently in most big labor unions. But the Teamsters seemed to love Buchanan—especially when he said that as president he would replace U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky with their leader, James Hoffa. Was Buchanan kidding? Maybe he was getting Hoffa mixed up with his father. Now there was a hard bargainer. (“It would be a shame if a nice Japanese trade negotiator like yourself had an accident on the way back to his hotel tonight—you know what I’m saying?”)

Nostradamus predicts: What do the labor and environmental activists who marched in Washington this week really want? So far as I can tell, the closest thing to a consensus is a vague desire to deep-six all those New World Order economic organizations: the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, WTO. But the truth is that, in the long run, these organizations could become key assets for the labor and environmental movements.

After all, as the protesters have noted, globalization can spur a “race to the bottom” in which nations competitively dilute labor and environmental standards to keep production costs low. One way to blunt that logic is to forge international agreement on minimal labor and environmental standards. But getting nations to accept such rules, and then enforcing them, requires leverage. And how many international bodies have real leverage? Not many. But the IMF and the WTO have it.

Imagine a day when the WTO conditions full trade benefits on adherence to a global-warming treaty. Or a day when the IMF insists that developing nations, in order to “pre-qualify” for emergency aid, must give workers the right to organize.

Sound crazy? Yet developments such as these have been predicted by a noted visionary (sometimes called “the Nostradamus of the post-Cold War era”) whose recently published history of the world depicts global governance as the logical culmination of humanity’s ten-thousand-year journey since the Stone Age. (Although, as this sage adds, global governance also includes other kinds of structures that are already taking shape.)

To be sure, many of the groups that converged on Washington have already embraced global labor and environmental standards—and have even said the WTO should enforce them. But I’m not sure they mean it. In Seattle, when Naderite Lori Wallach said, “WTO—fix it or nix it,” the emphasis seemed to be on the “nix it” part. As if to prove my point, Naderites are now using the slogan “WTO—shrink it or sink it.” Shrink it? Shrinking the WTO isn’t the way to “fix” it. The way to fix it is to expand it, carry its authority more deeply into environmental and labor law.

I sense a similar disingenuousness in the unions’ position on giving the president the prerogative to include labor standards in trade accords. Sure, unions nominally endorse that prerogative—and in fact have made it a prerequisite for supporting any bill that would renew the president’s “fast-track” negotiating authority. But I get the impression that union leaders would rather kill a fast-track bill that lacked this prerogative than pass one that included it. Certainly the last time around, when they did the former, they were ecstatic.

This is shortsighted. At present tariff levels—even without any further trade accords—the globalization juggernaut will proceed. If the unions really want to buffer its adverse impact, they’d better start thinking seriously about global governance. What’s the alternative? Raising tariffs? Pat Buchanan loves this idea. I rest my case.