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.