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September 29, 2008

Can we even remember what democracy looks like?

American Prospector Ezra Klein reviews the "Battle in Seattle" over at the Guardian website. Along with a quote from Stuart Townsend that shouts us out, here are some highlights from Ezra's take on the movie:

Of the fissures running through the American left, the deepest, and most impenetrable, is probably trade... It's a complicated issue. But you wouldn't know it from Stuart Townsend's new film, Battle in Seattle. ... It is, in Townsend's telling, a seminal moment in political history. It's just not clear why.

The core of the movie is the protesters. But the core of the protesters proves curiously hollow. ... At no point does any character explain the problems with the World Trade Organisation, or detail their vision for a better world or give a reason for their presence that doesn't sound like the sort of thing you'd say to get laid at a protest rally. If Townsend's point was that protest is a form of superficial self-definition rather than an actual engagement with the issues at hand, then, point well made. But I don't think that was his point...

Toward the end of the film, Django and Jay are sitting in jail. Trying to cheer up his friend, Django leans over. "Look man, a week ago nobody knew what the WTO was!" Then he considers the statement. "Actually, they still don't know what it is! But at least they know it's bad." Having thus articulated the movie's thesis, they both laugh.

It continues to be revealing to me that the best reviews the movie has gotten were from people active in the global-justice movement and from journalists that actually covered the protests, including from the typically pro-corporate trade Seattle papers. Is this motivated by the narcissism of seeing ourselves depicted on the big screen? Maybe in part. But I think there's more to it than that.

Stuart took a big risk in depicting recent history. As an artistic matter, BIS is one of a crop of recent movies set in the 1990s, along with "The Wackness" and "Recount," about the 2000 election. The Seattle protests were the culmination of a decade of Clintonism, where the left was paid short shrift when it wasn't thrown directly under the bus. Meanwhile, corporations like Citigroup and Wal-Mart ruled D.C. (still do), pushing the creation of new commercial institutions and instruments that required a law degree to understand.

Middle-class left activists groomed in the late 1990s drew more inspiration from tree-sitters and direct action than the debating salons of the Ivy League, or their modern-day equivalent: political blogs run largely by Ivy Leaguers. Watch Recount and Battle in Seattle right next to each other: you'll see, on the one side, a Democratic Party that had forgotten how to fight (personified by Warren Christopher) and, on the other side, the cry of the excluded. My reaction to the depiction of Christopher is probably akin to the many centrist movie reviewers when they saw BIS: retching at the all-too familiar stench of players on the other side of a political divide.

Which brings me back to Ezra's review. In no particular order:

  1. What is "The American Left"? I hate this question. If I answer it honestly, almost everyone in Washington is excluded. On the other hand, shouldn't I be psyched that people aren't turned off by the label? While I don't like to exclude peeps that want to join my club, I will say that I don't know of any person that identifies as a leftist who would also be identified by the actual left as a leftist who is not against NAFTA and the WTO. Sure, there are some left folks that have a critique at the margin about full-throated, fair-trade strategy. Defenders of status-quo trade policies are, almost be definition, not leftist, since doing so would require abandoning class politics, international solidarity, and the fight against corporate-led deregulation. There may be a fissure on trade, but it is not within the left.
  2. I'm tempted to call those that advocate unfair trade policies "centrists." But here's the rub: a majority of people across the political spectrum from left to right are skeptical of NAFTA and WTO. So trade is one of those issues where the position favored by the left happens to be the median voter's position as well.
  3. The late 1990s attempt at creating a mass "organization" against the WTO was very difficult. The knowledge gap between the median activist and a Clinton administration official was immense. On the other hand, the leadership of the global justice movement better understood the long-term legal and political ramifications of trade pact-sponsored deregulation than the leadership of the Clinton administration. This presents a political-organizational question that confronts any outsider movement for social change: do you wait until everyone is perfectly informed before you start taking action, or is it legitimate to learn-by-doing? If we had to wait around until everyone understood the health insurance industry before fighting for health care reform, we'd be waiting a long time. The best social movements have always insisted that it's a civic right to participate and agitate: you don't have to wait for accreditation from on high. The poll tax era is over.
  4. The exchange between Django and Jay is taken from a folk saying of the global justice movement. It captures the tension between mobilization and education that illuminates both the promise and challenge that face the GJ movement. So, yeah, that's the thesis of the movie: this is what democracy looks like, and it ain't always gonna win the Pulitzer. And that's just fine.

For those of you looking for a more articulate analysis than mine, I highly recommend Mark Engler's article on Alternet. Here's an excerpt:

Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is to dismiss protests out of hand, arguing that demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won't make a difference. But if any case can be held as a counter-example, Seattle is it.

The 1999 mobilization against the World Trade Organization has never been free from criticism. As Andre 3000's character in the movie quips, even the label "Battle in Seattle" makes the protests sound less like a serious political event and more "like a monster truck rally." While the demonstrations were still playing out and police were busy arresting some 600 people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists were just "looking for their 1960s fix." This type of disregard has continued with the release of the film. A review in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked, "Remind me again what those demonstrations against the WTO actually accomplished."

While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs and threats to the environment can witness remarkable changes on the international scene.

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Comments

Todd Tucker

Just a few additional points; I'm sure they won't be my last.

1. Many commentators use labels like "progressive," "liberal" or "Democrat," instead of left. Out of all these phrases, left is the phrase that actually means something. There are fissures within the Democratic Party, and perhaps also among "liberals," over trade. The fissures within the progressive world are small, and revolve around how much emphasis to put on trade issues.

2. Just because your average activist didn't know as much as a Clinton administration trade lawyer, I am not suggesting they did not know anything. In fact, often I am amazed at the casual familiarity with subjects like the TRIPS agreement and the sea-turtle case among regular ol' activists, which is are captured in the film. In fact, I think your average GJ activist probably knows more than is efficient from a division-of-labor-within-the-movement perspective. A lot of that has to do with the complexity of the issues at hand, no doubt.

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