Common senseless in Seattle

IT WAS A LARGE, AND FOR THE MOST PART, PEACEFUL CROWD THAT LOCKED OUT WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION (WTO) ministers from their triennial meeting in Seattle last November, focusing a rare public spotlight on what is one of the world's most powerful policymaking bodies. Some of these protesters confused grassroots resistance with mindless acts of window-smashing vandalism, and Seattle police replied with generous disbursements of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber projectiles.

The Seattle demonstrators simply offered a bit of wisdom to the WTO: Put people before profits.

  While the fracas in the streets predictably distracted the television media, what was perhaps most interesting about the demonstration coverage was the hostile and ultimately misleading response of media "opinion makers." After the summit ended in bureaucratic and municipal disarray, a phalanx of media editorialists held forth against the demonstrators, suggesting they stick to tree hugging and community organizing while the weighty matters of global trade and the fate of the earth is resolved by the world's better-informed professional realists.

Mainstream commentators were quick to assail the protectionist and isolationist views supposedly harbored by demonstrators, charging them with attempting to stop trade or romanticizing the "failed" strategies of socialist economies. Only the vibrant economic growth encouraged by free trade, they said, can rid the world of the poverty and human deprivation protestors deplored. Here the pundits performed a neat rhetorical sleight of hand, attacking extreme positions that the majority of those protesting in Seattle didn't really hold in order to discredit the truths they were trying to articulate.

In reality, there were likely few demonstrators who sincerely want to see an end to global trade, few who believe this vast interconnection of economies and state systems known as globalization should somehow be ended. Globalization is a cultural and technological reality that cannot be turned back. The demonstrators themselves, an international amalgam of different people, cultures, and interests, were a primer of globalization in positive action. And the planet is truly in a calamitous state if the only economic models before us remain an unrestrained capitalism or a soul-quenching socialism. The world—and our choices—are more complex than that.

Ultimately the folks who campaigned against the WTO in Seattle simply offered a bit of wisdom to its dedicated followers of economic fashion: Put people before profits. Why was this message so hard for media and government elites to hear?

The sensus fidelium, or "sense of the faithful," is a time-honored recognition within the Catholic Church that truth does not always have to trickle down from above. A broad understanding of the sensus fidelium suggests that sometimes the people can be trusted to hold the truth of things, and it becomes the hierarchy's turn to listen.

But, as Catholics know, it can take a long time for the church to grasp the common sense the People of God attempt to offer; sometimes it never does. That experience might be something the folks who protested outside the closed doors of the WTO might bear in mind as they endure the criticism of their supposed naivete.

After a lengthy, U.S.-led campaign to make the world safe for neoliberalism, Seattle was profound evidence that not everybody was ready to receive this economic wisdom from above. Here was a display of a secular sensus fidelium that made government and media nervous. While free-market advocates have long wooed Americans with promises of expanded wealth and improved living standards, many have duly noted free trade's contribution, not to the end of global poverty and human deprivation, but to vast social dislocations, the growth of low-wage service jobs, and the global flattening of cultural expression.

The folks who peaceably demonstrated in Seattle have seen the net effect of the globalization constructed through the intercession of entities such as the WTO, a globalization that elevates free trade to an idolatry and subjugates humankind to corporate and economic interest. They have watched the growing disparities in wealth distribution, the antidemocratic concentration of political power and communications media, and the ecological degradation it has engendered.

The battle in Seattle was not a Luddite's call to end trade, but civic society's warning that it will have a role, not in ending trade and globalization, but in determining the kind and pace of trade and globalization, asserting its right to help define a trade system that places human dignity and economic and ecological sustainability above profit maximization.

By Kevin Clarke, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.

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