Sometimes it seemed as if no two protesters were holding the same sign in the streets of Seattle: Pictures of sea turtles bobbed next to banners supporting the Zapatistas; portraits of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi danced in the charged air next to placards denouncing Monsanto.
And so, of course, the pundits called it a “kooky crowd” (Charles Krauthammer in Time), a “circus” (Tom Friedman in the New York Times), a “motley crew” (Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek), a mob of “militant dunces” (The Economist). “Disparate isn’t the word,” complained Newsweek in its coverage. “Those on the streets included steelworkers, animal rights activists, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Pat Buchanan, French makers of Roquefort cheese, anarchists, fans of a Free Tibet, students against sweatshopped sweatshirts, grandmas, and a fine turnout of local folk too.”
To understand why it was the most significant protest in America since the waning days of Vietnam, though, you needed to look more carefully through the haze of pepper spray. There was one small sticker plastered on hundreds of very different people, and all it said was: “Wake Up, Muggles!” That’s what was happening here.
If you are currently short of children, you may not get the reference. J.K. Rowling’s three (so far) Harry Potter books camped atop the best-seller lists for most of last year. They tell the story of an England full of magic: wizards, witches, a boarding school packed with wand-wielders in training. But it all exists inside the England we know, the England full of telly-watchers and car-drivers and stuff-grabbers. The England that looks like America, that looks like every place the global culture has now spread. And the people who live in this world, oblivious to all the wizardry around them: They’re “Muggles.”
Some new force came of age in Seattle. You can call it the left if you want, but it doesn’t have much in common with the left of the last two decades, the left of identity politics. Where was Jesse Jackson, the most visible leader of this left, during the Seattle protests? He was in Decatur, Illinois, defending the right of kids to rumble at a football game without being expelled. He may be right and he may be wrong — but at best he’s mopping up, finishing the work that the civil rights movement began more than 40 years ago.
The anti-Muggle “left” is a different thing altogether. With the exception of some of the union activists, most of the people in Seattle didn’t show up on their own behalf: They weren’t angry about how they were being treated. (Chances are, many of them had benefited from America’s long economic boom; Seattle, anyway, is full of people who can afford to take the day off.) The protesters were exercised on behalf of someone or something else, be it sweatshops or sea turtles, and mad about the pervasive McDonaldization of the planet.
On day three of the protests, I was inside Planet Hollywood, talking with the store manager. The giant-screen television carried a newscast of protesters surging up a street, but even at larger than life-size they were muffled, contained within the same dull square box that has defined American life since its invention. But then I turned around and looked out the door — these pictures were coming from this very street. There was real life there: anger and good humor and tension and sheer energy. Forget Planet Hollywood — this was Planet Earth.
What drove the responsible Muggle press to distraction was that logic didn’t seem to work with this crowd. Michael Kinsley, in Time magazine, wrote the calmest and most sensible argument for the World Trade Organization. True, he said, free trade sometimes robs textile workers of jobs. But it makes sweaters cheaper for everyone. “On average, free trade benefits us all,” he wrote. “Do the math.”
For a decade, math has been all that’s mattered. Bill Clinton told us it was the economy, stupid. The Dow Jones mesmerized us. Wired magazine and the e-ristocrats promised an endless boom. And so far it has all come true. These protesters, though, weren’t doing the math: They were laying down their bodies for the proposition that there’s more to life than money. In the roughest outline, they were demanding a world where growth doesn’t always come first — where human rights, environmental protection, and a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth count too. They weren’t ideologues: If anything, they shared only their distrust of the ideology of laissez-faire expansion. In the truest sense of the word, they were sympathizers — with other humans, other creatures.
Which is not to say they all were noble. As any Harry Potter fan knows, the wizard world is at least as stained with darkness as our own. Pat Buchanan is well cast as Voldemort, Lord of Darkness — it makes perfect sense that he’s an apologist for Hitler as well as an opponent of free trade. And what of the 75 or 100 anarchists who smashed windows, threw bricks, and beat up those protesters who tried to stop them? They were frightening, ugly, bitter; they blurred the message. It took the Students for a Democratic Society a decade to breed the Weathermen; it may happen faster this time.
The SDS grew from the prosperous 1950s. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort,” Tom Hayden wrote in 1962. Despite their comfort, they were “looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit” — a world still plagued by segregation, a world shadowed by the Bomb. Those of us a generation or two or three younger now look ahead at least as uncomfortably. An area of Arctic ice larger than Maryland and Delaware combined is vanishing annually, thanks to the global warming caused by all of us Muggles in our Muggle lives.
Such growing environmental horrors did more than anything to wake up this new movement, I think. Not just climate change, but also the undemocratic, unexamined expansion of genetic engineering. In the course of a decade, biotech crops have spread from the laboratory to 60 million acres around the country. But the sudden revulsion of European consumers last spring at the swelling tide of “Frankenfood” helped launch this new movement. People were upset that their health might be at risk — but I think they were upset, too, by something deeper. It was Prince Charles who said, in an open letter to the British public, that genetic engineering may be taking “mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.”
The movement that paralyzed Seattle snuck up on the conventional wisdom a week before the WTO talks began. White House officials were still demanding that the trade negotiations they hoped to launch there be called “the Clinton round.” That talk vaporized in the first whiff of tear gas; now it’s hard to imagine that there are many cities bidding to host the next negotiations. How did it happen? There’s no question that e-mail played a major role. I’ve spent years being wary of the Internet, and continue to fret about the amount of time we spend in front of various screens. But there is no gainsaying the fact that instant, free, data-rich communication gives an edge to activists.
We used to think that computer power helped the octopus — the centralized heavyweights who could comb your files, know your life. And doubtless it does. But centralization exacts a price: Giants are not so nimble. To reach a little further back into English fantasy literature, Seattle was akin to the triumph of the Lilliputians, who tied down a giant with a million threads. Ask Monsanto what it thinks of e-mail.
In the end, the powerful were reduced to the ultimate powerlessness: crude violence to control people unresponsive to the usual charms, sticks for a mob that suspected the carrots were probably genetically modified and not worth eating.
Hours before the first anarchist broke the first window, at 9:45 a.m. on Nov. 30 on the corner of Sixth and Union, the police sprayed “chemical agents” on a crowd of people sitting peacefully in the intersection. I got several lungfuls. It works: When you’re pepper-sprayed, your resolve diminishes immediately and you run away. But as the tears stream out, your vision may clear a little too. A little of the old consumer enchantment washes away; you’re not in Niketown anymore, Dorothy.
If, as they used to say, a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, then we need a new word to describe a Muggle who has noticed the ozone hole, the rising temperature, the fact that his sweater comes from a sweatshop. A new word for a Muggle who’s been gassed.