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Friday, July 27, 2001
By Paul Ford
Politics keeps me up at night.
Dancing -- or Yawning -- on the Grave of Carlo Giuliani. Journalists are hinting that the protester killed in Genoa deserved to be shot and run over with a jeep. Time magazine: “You reap what you sow.”
Before reading that, I didn't care much about Carlo Giuliani. He was one victim of conscience among many, over many years, and I observed his bloody mask-shrouded head without much interest. People all over the world are dying because they are an inconvenient part of someone else's plans. I have come to be comfortable with the fact that all human beings are really horrible amoral fascist monsters, including myself, and news of another stupid, awful incident did not raise my heartbeat too much, especially when it comes through the rather narrow channel of news media, and not in a direct way, like having my head beaten with a truncheon or watching my children starve.
But even my armchair nihilism was shaken up when I read “you reap what you sow” about a fellow in his 20s, some anarchist among many, killed by cops. For a minute, I sat before the screen with fists and teeth clenched, mouth open, hissing “you fucking evil fucking fucks” over and over right now, angry at almost everyone.
Is the world moving back to Old Testament justice? So what if he threw stones (it's not clear what he was doing to “provoke” the cops, if he was doing anything at all)? So what, even, if he was a total asshole and kicked puppies? Reap what he sows? Was Carlo Giuliani the enemy, that we should shoot him and run him over with a jeep, then blame him for the circumstances of his own death? What kind of shiny gunmetal seed do you put in the ground to sow that? Shall we now do as the old Argentina death squads, and send the family of an executed man or woman a bill for the bullet used in the execution? Should Carlo Giuliani's estate be billed for street-cleaning and tire-checkup? Is that justice the world-economy way? If it is, I have a list of people who could use some lead-and-rubber-tire therapy.
Carlo Giuliani was out there because he was pissed off at people who, he felt, take their power to be a license to do what they please, to play games with the world. He probably didn't expect to become an object lesson on the effects very things that upset him most. I wonder if they'll dig up some trivial criminal past, some stolen bicycle or drug charges, like when the cops kill Blacks in the U.S. “See? It was just a matter of time for he committed a real crime.” Poor bastard. He's gone to anarchist heaven, where there's no gate or St. Peter, and anyone can get in.
I try to like cops - in NYC cops can be, I swear to God, your best friend in the world, and they deal with some awful shit that I'd hate to deal with. Cops and global economic competition are both fine in my book, as long as the former doesn't get trigger happy and the latter doesn't get insanely, lustfully, pig-snortingly greedy. What bugs me, though, is stupid, willful ignorance, which is what the globalization folks and the media seem to be making their their specialty. I'm stunned that the people in the IMF, or the WTO, or the police chiefs, or the TV anchorpeople and magazine columnists could be such amazing, amoral shitheads. We're talking about human-defined economic systems, not some God-given stone-inscribed systems of truth. It is almost 100% probable that the WTO is wrong about a lot of stuff, unless they happen to be the very first economic institution in the world that created a perfect working model for global free trade. I'm sure they're right about a lot of stuff, too. But they do not seem to be listening, or even respectful, to dissent. Given the amount of power these organizations have, and the ears that listen to their advice, this process of willful denial of dissent will only lead to more anger and frustration.
The constantly repeated myth is that the protesters are misinformed and the people in the WTO are well-informed, but I have yet to see evidence that the WTO's strategies are so scientifically valid as to be immune to outside criticism. And there is no reason that criticism should come only from academics and government wonks; people have every right in the world to cry “bullshit!” Except we don't actually seem to have that right, unless we want a good beatdown from cops, or tear gas Q-tipped onto our eyes.
In the midst of this crazed outburst, other movement “firsts” almost went unnoticed. Genoa saw the first direct attack on the press at a summit protest, and a brutal stomping of the nonviolent umbrella protest group, the Genoa Social Forum. This action left many hardened organizers to question their safety in an era of increased violence and repression.
The cops also allegedly threatened some protesters with rape. Cops are supposed to be standard bearers. That is why we pay them out of our taxes - to uphold a common level of moral decency, and to protect the weak from the vicious. We can't compromise and say, “well, these cops just were in over their heads.” That's like saying “it's okay the that priest just pissed in the communion cup” or “it's fine that the garbageman just brought trash into our house and threw it everywhere.” The police are paid to uphold law and they are given more power than most of us, including the power to use violence at their discretion, in exchange for promising to keep the rest of us safe. Their betrayals of common decency and legal justice, as in the killing of Carlo Giuliani, must be addressed for the security of everyone, in all countries; certainly police brutality is one of the most endemic problems in the world today.
Are police often underpaid and undertrained? Yes. Are they trapped in labyrinthine systems of regulations without real guidance from those making the rules? Yes. There needs to be some sympathy for the situation of cops, and I think most cops are decent people trying with strong moral beliefs. But poor training and low pay do not justify torture, threats, intimidation, and murder. I have sympathy for the hard work and danger of policework, but no sympathy for the cops who killed Giuliani, or who spray tear gas indiscriminately, or who use chokeholds and other forms of undue restraint, or who deny prisoners the rights of legal process. Such police are violating the contract; they are themselves criminals, even if they are wearing all the symbols and ensignias of crime-fighting.
So something must change; the WTO must listen; the cops must calm down; the poor must eat. But Change-with-a-capital-C is upsetting and things like the Genoa protest are ugly, ambiguous, and tiring. People, very sensibly - again including me - have work to do, and kids to raise, and TV shows to watch, and friends who need their help and support right here, and not in some 3rd-world country. So we justify very stupid behavior as “the way it is.” Because fighting it is too tiring, and we have things to do now, for today, and no time to read Marx.
But that doesn't seem to be working, and ultimately it comes down to a bit of enlightened self-interest. Let's start at an extreme: I do not want to live in a world where someone can kill me and my son, then rape and enslave my wife and daughter without fear of punishment. Yet that was much of the world an eyeblink ago; the Romans must have shrugged their shoulders and said, “that's the way it is.” I do not want to live in a world where I can be shot for wanting a decent wage, but violence against unionizers was common less than a century all over the United States, and continues in many countries. I don't want to be handcuffed for speeding in my car, but of course I can be, today. I believe the social rights we take for granted can easily be taken away, even while those in charge promise greater returns, more security, and enhanced safety for every reduction in freedom of speech or right of assembly.
I wonder, reading up on the protests, if what we have now is turning into a very bad case of “the way it is.” People hated the civil rights agitators, and before them the abolitionists, union agitators, signers of the Declaration of Independence, papal reformers, and early Christians. All of them were seen as impractical people whose beliefs were simply too radical to ever work, and then when their beliefs panned out, the effects were seen as inevitable - they weren't; we could still have slavery in the United States today if no one had fought it; we could still have water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored.”
Socrates had to be poisoned. The critics hated the Impressionists. They threw tomatoes during the first performance of “Rite of Spring.” No one likes to be forced out of their habits, and we'll do anything we can to avoid breaking up our structured lives and fracturing our sense of safety-in-ritual. That's why fat bodies and cancerous lungs prevail across large swaths of the world, and why we stay with lovers or spouses we long ago began disliking, or have intercourse without condoms.
Immediate comfort feels better than long-term health and happiness. Taking the long view is hard. But we probably should be taking it, because things do seem to be getting genuinely worse, at least by the numbers - more economic disparity between rich and poor, a faltering economy that people promised would go up and up forever, and of course the general wars, unrest, and religious persecution that never go away.
It's key to remember that the protesters are angry about a specific kind of human behavior - the behavior of the very wealthy and powerful members of global trade organizations. There is nothing God-given or even vaguely proven about the latter group's efficacy, moral bearings, or good intentions, but the protesters and critics who question them are criticized most harshly by people like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, and hundreds of other pundits.
It's an old pattern - scold the people without power for not keeping their place, for not having trust, for thinking bad thoughts. But this is a conflict of ideas, between groups of people, and that's all it is. One group inherited a system they refuse to change, another group feels that the system must change. Someone will have to budge. If you read (and read and read) up on the issues, it seems likely that some of the protester's goals would actually increase the economic power of smaller nations, and spread out the power a little bit from the big, hungry countries. Would human corruption still get in there? Sure. Would things be fixed forever? No. But it's clearly a good time for some compromise, if the goal really is, as the pro-globalization folks tell us, to lessen the long-term suffering in the world and give more people the opportunity to find their talents and use them.
Sadly, you can't trust rich people to help out. Rich people give most of their charitable gifts - something like 85% or 95% - to their alma maters, arts organizations, and political parties, not to help poor folk. I remember, at college, hearing an administrator say, “we have no trouble getting people to give us millions for buildings that'll be named after them, but we can't afford to hire janitors to clean the buildings once they're up.” Human nature loves to buy a building but abhors paying for a janitor. So we must figure out a way to get people in who can clean up, do the basics, support the infrastructure.
Since there appear to be some bad breakdowns in the functioning of democracy, especially in the States, the short-term way these issues will be addressed is probably through more violence. Violence is one thing that's louder than dollars and euros, and enough of it might make businessfolk nervous enough to calm down their relentless world-raping just a bit. Anger and frustration do not even pretend to be rational, like the study of economics does, and bombs are easy to make.
Applied democracy would be a better option than violence, but democracy is so commercialized and non-representative, especially in the U.S., as was made totally clear by our hellish, racist, illegal-on-both-sides election debacle, that it feels like violence will be the way the ideas are worked out. And there is no real democratic input to the WTO or other global organizations. It's a terribly failing, but perhaps real democracy is simply impossible for humans resistant to change - too egalitarian, too chaotic.
When the American civil rights agitator Hosea Williams died, his obituary in the Economist explained how useful he'd been to Martin Luther King, Jr. Williams, who sometimes advocated violence and revolution, served as an example of what would happen in America if there wasn't compromise. Williams scared white people. He made them think about what it would be like to be killed by Black people, and it made King's plan for desegregation and equal rights look like a sensible compromise.
Perhaps that could serve as a model. We need to make the leaders think what it would be like to be blown up by anarchists, and out of the anarchic chaos of these last protests, and the future protests, which will only become more intense as the number of martyrs and the incidences of violence increase, a viable compromise solution could emerge, a lessening of the pressures on the poor, a collection of small compromises adding up to something substantive, something which could lead to better days.
After a solid decade or two of anger, boycotts, and a perpetual sense of being hated, the middle ground might begin to look very nice to governments and corporations. We'll need an alchemical personality, someone to merge the concerns of the world poor with the ability to compromise with those who have enormous guns, while still looking like a champion, someone who can speak to America, Europe, and the formerly colonized parts of the world at once. Such a person cannot exist, but it would be helpful if he or she did.
I grew up with a mother who fought for civil rights, and the one thing I learned is that it takes frigging-forever, that social change is slow as molasses and awful and frustrating. You go one day at a time, carrying signs, writing letters, going to court cases, everyone working for free and feeling unappreciated, and people from inside and outside the struggle stomp all over your feet whenever they can.
And of course you're never done. In fact, let's make a date - I'll meet you here next century, 2101, as the same battles are fought in the same cities by the great-great-grandchildren of those having truncheons applied to their skulls today, joined by the great-grandchildren of the cops and the Washington pundits, all their blood diluted and mixed together, screaming and scrawling slogans to attack the exact same forms of greed and selfishness.
And yet what else are we to do but keep trying? Giving up is not an option; it's more fun to hope and plan for an interesting, peaceful world than one of infinite transactions and one big-business monoculture, and writing about it is a way for me to wash some of the blood off my own hands. (Plenty still remains, immune to simple textual scrubbing.) Perhaps a truly peaceful world would be boring, as many argue, but creating one wouldn't be, and we could let the great-grandkids figure it out from there.
So, after all that, what will I do? Well, I'm leaving next Thursday for Israel for a few months; maybe, if they can use me, I can help Indymedia Israel while I'm there, at least in some small Web-programming ways. I'm also working with a friend on a site about the American schedule of work, with ideas about what would happen if people had more time for their families and themselves, instead of spending all their time committed to someone else's goals.
While I'm over in Israel, I'll figure out a personal strategy for effecting larger social change, and when it makes sense, I'll publish it here. On I return to the States I'll try to implement it and stick to it, and I'll let you know where it seems to work and where it fails. Part of the plan might include small things, like trying to connect Ftrain readers to one another, or reading up on basic issues. Maybe I'll try to join up with another homeless shelter, get back into that sort of simple giving. Maybe I can use my ability to write and create Web sites to help out. Or I'll go do some Habitat for Humanity, or give part of my (dwindling!) income to good organizations I respect, like heifer.org.
And of course, it's probably time I started going to the protests, at least the ones on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.
In truth, I don't know what I'll do. But I need to do something, not only out of some moral obligation, but because it feels right and complete, because giving away as much as I can seems to work out well for me; it brings me new connections and opportunities, whether I'm handing out these simple-minded essays on the Web, or giving cash to organizations, or helping a non-profit, or buying the next round. A little more potlatch wouldn't hurt, especially since the economy's gone sour and loose money isn't so easy to find. Besides, I trust my friends more than I trust my government or my mutual fund, and right now, with only myself to support, I'd rather make more friends than more money.