I knew there was a problem when my mother called my hotel in Prague. She had been watching the news and was under the impression that, if I were at the protests against the World Bank, I was either in hospital or in jail. I told her things got pretty tense for a few minutes but that, on the whole, the protests had been peaceful. "Don't believe everything you see on television, Mom."
Only it's hard not to. All week, I've been poring over TV and newspaper reports and all I've seen are Molotov cocktails and flying paving stones. The activists are dismissed as "anti-trade" Luddites. This caricature was drawn most crudely by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who plagiarized his own writing post-Seattle, calling the Prague protesters "a rogues' gallery of Communists, anarchists, protectionist unions and overfed yuppies" determined to "keep poor people poor." If the protesters have any ideas about alleviating poverty, we didn't hear about them.
What seems to most enrage the delegates to the meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Prague this week is the idea that they even have to discuss the basic benefits of free-market globalization.
That discussion was supposed to have stopped in 1989, when the Wall fell and history ended. Only here they all are—old people, young people, thousands of them—literally storming the barricades of their extremely important summit.
And as the delegates peer over the side of their ill-protected fortress at the crowds below, scanning signs that say "Capitalism Kills," they look terribly confused. Didn't these strange people get the memo? Don't they understand that we all already decided that free-market capitalism was the last, best system? Sure, it's not perfect, and everyone inside the meeting is awfully concerned about all those poor people and the environmental mess, but it's not like there's a choice—is there?
When I arrived in London on Sunday, the city was like a jittery heroin junkie who had just shot up. The panic that gripped Britain when a coalition of truckers and farmers blockaded the nation's oil refineries had been replaced with an unreal calm. The gas was flowing again and, at the stations, dazed customers injected their tanks with rivers of unleaded.
As is the case with any powerful addiction, the fuel crisis hasn't disappeared; it has been, momentarily, sated. Protests against oil taxes are cropping up across Europe and they may well return to Britain after the moratorium called by the truck drivers expires in two months. Canadian truckers are even threatening to mount copycat actions.
Watched from a distance, the oil blockades in Britain look like spontaneous popular uprisings: regular working folk, frightened for their livelihoods, getting together to say, "Enough's enough." But before this David and Goliath story goes any further, it deserves a closer reading.
One time, when I was on the phone with Sympatico customer service, I shamelessly abused my privilege as a writer for this newspaper. "Look," I said, "I'm a columnist with The Globe and Mail and I need e-mail access now."
Of course, this was an extreme situation: I had tried and retried the connection, reconfigured my settings, reinstalled my modem software, and shut down and restarted my computer 16 times. Only then, when I still couldn't file my column, did I mention The Globe.
In New York City today, leaders of 150 countries are gathered for yet another meeting on globalization. Unlike all the other high-level meetings on the same theme, there won't be raucous crowds of environmentalists, workers and human-rights advocates outside, yelling about all the issues that have been bungled by the politicians inside. Why miss a perfectly protestable opportunity like this, in easily accessible, downtown New York?
Because the Millennium Summit isn't hosted by one of the many international agencies whose sole mission is to open up markets for free trade, while assuring a wary public that economic growth will magically eliminate poverty and save our ailing planet.
I wasn't thrilled that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service quoted my book in its new report on the anti-globalization "threat." In some of the circles in which I travel, writing for The Globe is enough of a political liability, never mind being a de facto CSIS informant. But there it is on Page 3: No Logo helping CSIS to understand why those crazy kids keep storming trade meetings.
Usually, I welcome any and all readers, but I have this sneaking suspicion that, a few months from now, this report is going to be used to justify smashing in the heads of some very good friends of mine.
In April, Quebec City will play host to the most significant free-trade summit since the World Trade Organization negotiations collapsed in Seattle last December. At the Summit of the Americas, 34 states will meet with the purpose of launching the Free Trade Area of the Americas—a version of the North American free-trade agreement for the entire hemisphere (except, of course, Cuba).
When Mayor Mel Lastman distributed 326 naked moose statues to artists around Toronto, he imagined himself as a modern Medici. Just as the Medici family kept Renaissance painters in oils and canvases, he would hand out white fibreglass moose and coupons for Benjamin Moore paint, then sit back and let the magic begin.
Mr. Lastman was certain that his beasts would become a vast blank canvas onto which our city's collective creativity, humour and ingenuity would be projected. This had allegedly happened in Chicago, where civic pride was boosted by a herd of painted plastic cows. Or so reported Mel's friend, George Cohon. And Mr. Cohon is an expert in transforming cityscapes with iconic plastic monuments—he brought the Golden Arches to Moscow, as senior chairman of McDonald's Canada.
Tonight is the finale for insiders and outsiders in Los Angeles this week: In a few hours, Al Gore will be giving his acceptance speech at the Staples Center. A few feet away, thousands of activists will hold a rally outside. Yet at the Community Convergence Center, a four-story warehouse on Seventh Street in the Pico-Union neighborhood, the mood is more melancholy last day of camp than first day of the revolution. In the rooms upstairs, activists are collapsed on their knapsacks, sleeping. Downstairs, pacing up the middle of the floor, is a cranky punk with a bullhorn: "Somebody took my black hoodie," she booms, referring to that indispensable anarchist accessory, the black hooded sweatshirt. "I want it back now." She pauses to shoot a death stare at a reporter from Channel 22.
Nearby, the antisweatshop banner-making sessions seem to be taking place in slow motion, and the mood isn't improved with the return of a handful of activists, back from a demonstration outside Citibank. "How was it?" asks Yuki Kidokoro, one of the LA organizers of the Direct Action Network.
"Lame," someone replies.
Last week, I ended my month-long technology fast: no e-mail, no cellphone, no voice mail. Don't worry, I won't be smug. No extolling the virtues of face-to-face interaction over the vastly inferior, mediated one you're having right now. No sermons on the Zen-like rewards of the media cleanse (such as the ones we've become accustomed to hearing from those who have just had their colons irrigated).
Don't get me wrong: I'd love to make these self-satisfied assertions, but it wouldn't be right. First, I cheated. Second, it wasn't even my idea.
In June, on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver, the person in front of me decided to take a nap. Since we were both enjoying the decadent luxuries of Air Canada economy, his reclining chair instantly crunched my laptop monitor, felling the machine for good. The next day, barely recovered from the loss, I was politely asked to return the borrowed cellphone I had been abusing for, oh, about seven months.
"This rice could save a million kids a year."
That was the arresting headline on the cover of last week's Time magazine. It referred to golden rice, a newly market-ready variety of genetically engineered grain that contains extra beta-carotene, a property that helps the body produce vitamin A. All over Asia, millions of malnourished children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and death.
To get their supposed miracle cure off the ground, AstraZeneca, the company that owns marketing rights for golden rice, has offered to donate the grains to poor farmers in countries such as India, where, perhaps not coincidentally, genetically engineered crops have met fierce resistance.
It's possible that golden rice could improve the health of millions of poor children. The problem is that there is no way to separate that powerful emotional claim (and the limited science attached to it) from the overheated political context in which the promise is being made.