It is with barely restrained glee that P.J. O’Rourke, writing in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly, attacks last April’s protests in Washington. Reported as the largest pro-Palestinian demonstration in the history on the Unites States, the protests were really an amalgamation of numerous causes: Various Mid-East issues; our eroding civil rights; economic policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These different (often conflicting) opinions provide fertile ground for O’Rourke’s attack. He plays up divisions amongst the marchers and accuses protesters of being confused, uninformed hypocrites. He attempts to discredit the protests as a meaningless mishmash of impotent action and empty rhetoric.
His column began with the following teaser quote: “A kid waved an American flag that had corporate logos instead of stars on the blue field. He was wearing Adidas shoes, a Swiss Army watch and a Mountainsmith backpack.” I wore that outfit. Yes, that “hypocrite” was me. I even remember a man asking me what brand of backpack I was wearing since my flag covered up the logo. O’Rourke points out what appears to be hypocrisy, plain and simple. Well, it’s not. I was not protesting the existence of brands.
To do so in any seriousness in our consumer driven world is an effort in futility. Brands are practically inescapable. I could just as easily been targeted for driving down in a Chrysler Minivan or filling up at a Shell gas station. I shake Morton Salt and squeeze Heinz ketchup. The fact of modern life is that to function within our society, branded goods are unavoidable. There are no local watchmakers and few cobblers, let alone auto manufacturers, making affordable alternatives. Certainly with some effort I could live a self-sustaining lifestyle that would separate me entirely from brands, but to do so would be a full time job, requiring monkish devotion.
I was not protesting brands; the flag I waved represented the blatant pro-corporate ideology of our government. Despite campaign finance reform legislation and post-Enron caution, large corporations still have the ear of U.S. leadership – Democrat and Republican alike. The corporate flag, with logos for stars, is a statement concerning the direction of our country and makes a valid point – in our country it seems the 50 largest companies are more important than the states the stars are supposed to represent. We watch the rise and fall of the stock market closer than we do our failing schools and inner cities.
The anti-globalization (probably better called “the alternative-globalization”) movement is misunderstood by a majority of its critics, many of whom seem to think protesters are idiots. The movement is composed primarily of two groups. One part is a well-educated body of students, activists and academics who have read the books and studied the economics and have the privilege of class and the economic wherewithal that allows them to attend marches and face mass-arrest.
Of greater importance are the working poor of the world who don’t need to read the books or understand the intricacies of trade law to know they are being left by the wayside. They live with the faulty policies of the World Bank and see false promises of improved lifestyles trap them in bad jobs that drag them deeper into debt. They might not be as visible a part of the movement, since their class and status don’t often afford them the luxury of media coverage or political attention, but those being screwed by the current form of economic globalization far outnumber any other demographic.
These two groups know as well as any about the current shape of the world and to assume, as O’Rourke does, that they are fools reveals a deep misunderstanding of the depth of these issues. While my message was not hypocritical in my mind, perhaps I bear some responsibility for my message being seen as hypocrisy. Surely in this age where image is everything demonstrators need to be doubly careful that their message is not lost because of conflicting appearances. I can wear logos and still protest brands influence. That it seems hypocritical is nonsense.
I don’t want a world without brands, I want corporations that are good global citizens and don’t exploit their labor. I’m not against international trade bodies; I just want ones that also factor in environmental and labor concerns. I’m not opposed to the World Bank; I just wish it always had the best intentions of developing nations at heart.
I’ll be in Washington again this weekend to protest a joint meeting of the World Bank and IMF. I’ll wave my flag. It’s the right thing to do.
Jess Piskor can be reached at email@example.com.