Whose Side Are They On?

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All attempts to explain the antiglobalization roadshow which has moved from Seattle to Davos to Washington D.C. have overlooked the issues of childlessness and pet ownership. It is that old saying, "People without children have pets, people without pets have causes," that connects these issues and the protests. Whether the cause is nuclear power or bottle-nosed dolphins, Third World debt or globalization, the same faces seem to show up at demonstrations. Can it really be that all these people hold identical views on all these issues? Is this rent-a-crowd at work? Or is it that the cause du jour is incidental, that the protests are first and foremost about protesting? After all, delivering a blow against the powers that be satisfies the adolescent urge to rebel and gives succour to unquiet spirits. For those without children or pets it is something to fill the vacancies of life.
Economists who point out that there are more pros than cons to globalization are, of course, perfectly right. Yet they miss the point. Likewise those commentators who attribute the protests to the vested interests of trade unionists and farmers who are afraid of losing their livelihoods. The collar of those who drive the antiglobalization campaign, and most other campaigns, is not blue but white. It belongs to a brand-name shirt worn by children of the suburban uplands. Having been born into unprecedented wealth is a source of shame to them. To assuage their guilt they seek refuge in the medieval practice of self-flagellation.

This bourgeois self-loathing explains why, starting with the Vietnam War, Westerners could only ever be mobilized to protest against something that symbolizes the West, i.e., themselves. There were countless demonstrations against the defensive alliance called NATO, but do any come to mind against the strike-first Warsaw Pact? It was de rigueur -- and laudable -- to turn out against South Africa's apartheid regime, but few dreamt of demonstrating against the Idi Amins of this world. People demand the incarceration of General Pinochet in the morning and in the afternoon idolize that other Latin American despot, Fidel Castro. When, under the rule of the Shah, Iran was a Western ally it was a ritual object of demonstrations. The mullahs, not much of an improvement, have largely been spared similar treatment. When Russia was still the Soviet Union and the West's "evil empire" it was considered uncool to march against its various invasions. Now that Moscow is no longer an antagonist, Western activists are up in arms about Chechnya.

The credit for formalizing the Western guilt complex must go to Australia, which in 1998 invented the Sorry Book. Whites could sign their names to acknowledge responsibility and express remorse for the injustices visited upon the indigenous population. The books were displayed, among other places, in malls, so that people could conveniently flagellate themselves while shopping.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo seems to harbor the suspicion that the demonstrations against globalization are driven less by concern for the poor than by self-loathing of the rich. "Why are you trying to protect the developing countries from development?" he asked the protesters who want to impose Western-style environmental and labor standards on the Third World. To environmentally inclined Americans, smokestacks south of the border spell pollution. To poor Mexicans they spell jobs.

The demonstrators seem to forget that there were no emission controls or 35-hour weeks when the West developed. They should not prevent the Third World from emulating the First. The Western route to wealth is full of imperfections. It is also the only one known to man.

From Seattle to Washington, attention has been focused on the organizers of the protests, the myriad non-governmental organizations. The sponsors of the Washington event range from the predictable -- the Progressive Librarians Guild, the Lesbian Avengers -- to the oxymoronic -- the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, the Action Committee on Women's Rights in Iran.

NGOs have been cast as the good guys, fighting the good fight against governments and corporations. But they have their own vested interests. Unelected and accountable only to themselves, NGOs speak for nobody but their members. It is often hard to resist the impression that rich Westerners have anointed themselves the spokesmen for the poor in the South. The people of the Third World, however, have their own voice -- the elected governments of India and Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico.

Seeing themselves as the source of all earthly evil in the same way that their forefathers saw themselves as the source of all earthly good, the protesters of Washington seem to carry a latter-day version of the white man's burden. These days, the feeling of superiority has been replaced by the guilt complex, which is an equally unwise counsel. What have remained are condescension, delusions of grandeur and self-righteousness.