You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

TRB From Washington: Sidelines

"World trade Centre ... anti capitalism ... anti globalisation ... was it one of us?" So read a Tuesday posting on , a site popular with anti-globalization activists from around the world. And it suggests one small lesson we can draw from the cataclysm of September 11: The massive anti-IMF and World Bank protests scheduled for later this month in Washington must not take place. They must be canceled not because the writer of those words is correct; he or she almost certainly is not. But because it is even possible to ask the question. The anti-globalization movement is, in part, a movement motivated by hatred of the global inequities between rich and poor. And it is, in part, a movement motivated by hatred of the United States. Now, after what has happened this week, it must choose.

Am I conflating hatred of the United States with legitimate criticism of its government? You be the judge. Here are some snippets of the chat at, in the first hours after the attack, while television and the Internet flashed scenes of the devastation in New York City. From a writer named "Buddy Bradley": "Can we draw one tiny element of goodness from this, in that it will maybe make America think again about its apparent invincibility in the modern age, or will this only serve to make them worse?" From someone called "twisted nerve": "Maybe this is what was needed to make a change for the better??? It was only a matter of time." Another correspondent joked, "looting anyone?" The Mobilization for Global Justice, the closest thing the D.C. protests have to an organizer, still called for demonstrators to "reclaim the capital city of the United States as a liberated zone."

In fact, some in the anti-globalization movement seem to loathe America so much that they embrace its enemies even when those enemies violate supposedly core movement values--like justice for the world's poor. In 1999, when French farmer Jose Bove ransacked a McDonald's to protest American domination, he became an anti-globalization hero. (Had Bove trashed a non-American company, even a non-American corporate giant, he would not have garnered a fraction of the adulation he enjoyed on the global left.) But if culturally, Bove is a warrior against American hegemony, economically, he's a warrior against the farmers of the Third World, whose exports France spurns as a result of its lavish agricultural subsidies and tariffs. Few of his supporters seemed to mind.

Or consider the movement's new bible, Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. If, as U.S. government sources suggested as tnr went to press, Tuesday's attacks were the work of Osama bin Laden, then anti-globalization activists will make the obvious point that the principles that animate their struggle and those that animate bin Laden's are completely different. But, according to Empire, that's not so obvious at all. As Alan Wolfe shows in a devastating review in next week's issue, Hardt and Negri reject the notion that Islamic fundamentalism is backward-looking, arguing instead that, like the anti-globalization movement, it is "postmodern." (In keeping with this upbeat assessment, Hardt and Negri do not call men like bin Laden ethnic terrorists. They call them "ethnic terrorists.") The two academics (one of whom is himself in jail for terrorism) write that "fundamentalism is postmodern insofar as it rejects the tradition of Islamic modernism for which modernity was always overcoded as assimilation or submission to Euro-American hegemony." And what is the anti-globalization movement itself rejecting if not "assimilation or submission to Euro-American hegemony"?

Except that in both cases, the "Euro" is basically irrelevant. Islamic fundamentalists such as bin Laden don't strike at France or Germany the way they strike at the United States. And for good reason: France and Germany are happy to buttress Islamic tyrannies. Neither their foreign policies nor their cultural exports represent nearly as great a threat to these regimes as do America's. And, similarly, the anti-globalization protesters see American capitalism as far worse than indigenous European varieties. When they refer to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as "Washington-based institutions," they are making a statement about more than geography. According to an analysis by 50 Years Is Enough, an activist network helping to coordinate the upcoming Washington protests, "the social democracies of Scandinavia and Germany" once offered "an encouraging alternative" of economic development and social organization. Guess which country they offered an "encouraging alternative" to?

Of course, not all the people preparing to demonstrate in Washington later this month see America as a global scourge. And many of them make no apology whatsoever for the bin Ladens of the world. The Mobilization for Global Justice's website read on Tuesday, in large type, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this morning's tragedy and their families." And while many of the writers at implied that, in some sense, America deserved it, numerous others simply registered their shock and grief. Even some of the activists who themselves seemed inclined toward violent protest were at pains to distinguish themselves from the people who attacked the World Trade Center. An "activist response to the crisis" sent across a student e-mail list insisted that "Anyone who was planning to go to DC should totally still go... We can still smash the state in a way that's respectful to the lives lost, and be condemning of this senseless act of violence." An incoherent condemnation, perhaps, but a condemnation nonetheless.

The anti-globalization movement is not unified in its disdain for America. It is divided by it. But if the movement tries to shut down America's capital while that capital reels from foreign attack, it will be divided no longer: It will, in the eyes of the nation, have joined the terrorists in a united front. Since its inception, the American wing of the anti-globalization movement has hovered on the edge of this country's political system. Sometimes it has tried--as in Ralph Nader's campaign for president--to convince other Americans of the rightness, even of the fundamental Americanness, of its cause. Other times it has shown contempt--preferring to shock and insult mainstream America than to participate in democratic politics as loyal and responsible members of this national community.

On Tuesday that ambiguity became impossible. This nation is now at war. And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides. By canceling the upcoming protests--and acknowledging that it is less important to ruin the meetings of the IMF and the World Bank than to let Washington recover--that is exactly the statement the anti-globalization movement would be making. And when peace returned and it came time to resume the globalization debate once more, their fellow citizens would remember.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.