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Summit of the Americas

By Will Baker

I watched this evening’s news with amused concern. Hooded protesters climbed the chain link fencing, attempting to push back the police lines. As tear gas, chants, and protest songs wafted on the breeze. Was this a flash back to Seattle you ask? No, it is springtime in Quebec. And the state of Vermont, and it’s Northern counties in particular have a good vantage point for observing the spectacle that is unfolding across the border this weekend. You see, there are many border crossings in Vermont, and a surprising numbers of Border Patrol Agents are stationed here.

President Bush made his arrival earlier in the day, to the first major meeting of world leaders of his presidency. And the protestors have come as well. In fact, a steady stream of them have been making their way through our state Northward and some of them are being turned back at the Canadian border. In preparation for this essay I did some research. I wanted to know what the protestors had planned, yet I am also interested in the manner in which, the authorities respond to their activities. And I approached my research with an open mind. You could say that, prior to speaking with them (read: the protestors and the authorities) and reading their materials I "emptied my cup."

Of course, most folks are focusing on the core issues around the trade pact that is being negotiated, but not me. I am interested in the spectacle. For me, it seems that the issue of free trade is almost a no-brainer. But I do respect the views of the protestors, and I admire their coalition-a curious mixture of labor types, environmentalists, feminists and anarchists. Yes, they are quite a diverse assembly. I also believe that, at least as far as this issue is concerned, they have it quite wrong. And I believe that the authorities have it at least as wrong as the protestors do. There is violence happening in Quebec. Folks are getting hurt. There is a huge police/military presence on both sides of the border. In fact, I have never seen so many police on the streets in Burlington Vermont than at this very moment (no doubt as a contingency against the folks who get turned back at the border and decide to spend the weekend in town). I can only shake my head and wonder.

For some perspective on what’s happening, let’s go back in history to the Roman Empire. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. At its height, its borders were reasonably secure, and the people’s needs were, by and large met. There was enough free time available to the upper classes so that time could be spent in "higher thought." As a result, in many important ways, society progressed. The people were in reasonably good health, they were educated, and there were public buildings and even good sanitation. But there was also persecution, intolerance, slavery and rampant injustice. Yes, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

And there was commerce. The folks in control, the folks running the system, needed to add to and defend their spoils, so they build an amazing network of roads, to facilitate commerce, so that they could get richer, and to provide for the movement of troops, so that they could secure their wealth. And yes, goods and services did flow over these reasonably safe roads. And ironically, although it was illegal in the Roman Empire until the fourth century, these roads also allowed for the spread of Christianity to take place. Some would argue that Christianity, something that was banned in the empire, spread by virtue of commercial activity. It is probably a stretch to assert that Christianity’s spread was due entirely to it, but it is pretty easy for me to imagine how commerce helped greatly to spread it.

And Christianity wasn’t the only thing to spread that way. Philosophy, mathematics, the sciences and artistic concepts of all types spread that way. But then, for a variety of reasons, many of which were self-inflicted, the Empire collapsed upon itself. One could also argue that the collapse was a manifestation of the evils of the system, evils that could not be sustained. But evil or not, at it’s zenith, the Empire shone brightly. And it is no coincidence that history calls the era that followed its collapse the Dark Ages.

All very interesting you may say, but what in the world does this have to do with this weekend’s Free Trade Meeting in Quebec, or the associated protests and the related police response? When I was a little boy I was once lost in a large city. The circumstances regarding why and how I found myself in that situation are irrelevant to this story. The point is that I was quite lost, and after wandering the streets for the good part of the morning I had to call my mother for assistance. By the way, as a parent, I can now appreciate how this dear woman must have felt to receive that call. She was hundreds of miles away from me at the time, and she knew what a "clueless-shit" I could be. Anyway, prior to placing the call to her, I received some very good advice from a gentleman that I stopped on the street to ask directions of. He said: "Son, sometimes all you need to know is the general direction. And then the rest might take care of itself. If you need to go west, don’t travel south"

You know, it seems to me that more lives have been lost, more environmental damage has been wrought, more property has been destroyed and more dreams have been shattered in the name of defending or extending political boundaries than anything else. Gentle reader, when I look at our race, I see such potential for humanity. But based upon my understanding of our story, as told by history, it seems to me that we are a "Collective." We advance ourselves in a cumulative fashion. Our knowledge base grows only when we exchange ideas with one another and then build upon them. In this regard, I believe that we may be a collective organism.

And philosophically speaking, I do wonder about humanity. And after considering the matter for some time I have reached the conclusion that collectively, we can probably only become actualized through a globalization of ideas. And yes, I believe that commerce, as it has in the past, can play a major role in the advancement of this ideal. But I can hear the cries of some environmentalists. "Globalization…sure let’s impose our environmentally destructive business practices on the rest of the world. That will help the environment." And I can hear the labor folks also. "Globalization: you hear that giant sucking sound? There go our jobs!" And the peace and justice advocates will say that through Globalization we will be imposing our system on other peoples, to their disadvantage. To be fair, I will stipulate that there is some truth in what these folks say. But now let us turn to big business.

Ms. Fat-Cat multinational businessperson, please do not confuse what I am saying regarding my views towards Globalization. I am not endorsing your short-term thinking. And I know that very few of you give a rat’s ass about the environment, or any other issue that does not directly relate to your earnings per share. But I do know that most of you are not evil. And I firmly believe that there is more intrinsic good in free and open trade than badness. But your practices are inciting the people to riot and you would be wise to look to the past. For the exchange of goods and services, which you help facilitate among different peoples, also provides for the exchange of ideas. Therefore, it seems to me that this discontent will probably spread. And it seems to me that morality does evolve over time. For example, the colonial robber barons have been either shut down or forced to go under ground-- the King of Belgium no longer personally owns the Belgian Congo.

When I was lost in the city that man said, "don’t walk south if you need to go west." Well, I know, a priori perhaps, that our redemption lays in the unity of our actions through Globalization. But I would be a liar if I said I knew how to accomplish this without all of the negative aspects of the human condition manifesting itself. But I do know this: as a result of nationalism I saw the oil well fires burn in the Kuwait oil fields, and I noted hundreds of nuclear weapons tests over the course of my life time. And arguably, due to hemispheric economic disenfranchisement I watch the continued deforestation of the rain forests. And because there is a market for a traditional national dish, the "scientific" whale harvests, so called so that they can skirt international rules, are still being conducted by the Japanese. And as an environmentalist, all of this sickens me. And yet I note how, during my lifetime, I have seen the collapse of a very wicked, repressive and environmentally destructive empire. And you know what? Tanks and artillery fire didn’t bring down the Berlin wall. No, ideas did… the exchange of ideas.

So where does this all leave us? Well, probably with more questions that when we began. And, this weekend, with some high quality entertainment to boot--in the form of live news video from Quebec. Will the authorities utilize a heavy-handed approach that feels so wrong to me on so many levels? Will they crack some heads in the name of keeping the peace? "I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse…"





 (Essay Collection)