Media Myths & World Trade

By Buell, John | The Humanist, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Media Myths & World Trade

Buell, John, The Humanist

The demonstrations late last year in Seattle, Washington, against the World Trade Organization already have had at least one positive effect: they have forced complacent mainstream media to acknowledge that opposition to corporate trade agendas is worldwide and broadly based. Unfortunately, however, the same corporate journalists who were surprised by the vehement protests persist in disseminating a very one-sided portrait of the political conflict. Five of the most prevalent media myths deserve closer examination.

Myth #1: President Clinton and the WT0 want to liberalize trade among nations, thereby facilitating economic development that will help everyone.

This line is at best a partial truth. The WTO and the Clinton administration have pushed for some tariff reductions that would expand trade. Nonetheless, WTO rules also force "developing" societies to accept patent and copyright protections that in effect tax and thereby limit many existing forms of trade.

China, for instance, has a booming trade in "pirated" software. New copyright protections would force the Chinese government to place a heavy tax on these transactions, thereby slowing trade and the dissemination of these technologies. Owners of software firms--mostly U.S. based--would benefit, but China would hardly gain from this aspect of trade regulation. WTO regulations regarding patents are equally problematic. They allow foreign corporations to patent genetic codes, thereby making it impossible for many developing-world nations to continue domestic sales of both traditional seed crops and medicinal remedies without paying prohibitive royalties to multinational firms.

Myth #2: The forces opposed to trade liberalization are protectionist. They are a throwback to the isolationists of the interwar period. They seek to repeal many of the most progressive currents of the twentieth century.

Contrary to this widespread media stereotype, what most stands out about the Seattle marches against the WTO is the exceptionally ecumenical and progressive nature of the protest. Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer and a participant in several of the Seattle symposia, nicely captured this flavor in a recent essay:

   The president of the Longshore and Warehouse Union proudly announced that
   his people had shut down West Coast ports from Seattle down to San Pedro,
   and recalled his union's history of support for Salvadoran workers and the
   Liverpool dockers.... Jay Mazur, president of the ... clothing and textile
   workers union UNITE!, declaimed that "we are one," environmentalists and
   workers around the world. While U.S. labor has never been known for making
   common cause with outside groups, the (admittedly mild) Sierra Club
   president Carl Pope made an appearance, as did the head of the Citizens
   Trade Watch, Lori Wallach.

Myth #3: Opponents of the WT0 fail to recognize that it is not world government. It merely regulates trade.

Such talk flies in the face of repeated WTO interventions that, far from being limited to trade, would undermine the quality of the food we eat and the air we breathe. In any case, many Seattle protesters do not object to expanded international authority if that authority is broadly democratic. If anything, they recognize one of the great lessons of the twentieth century: when corporate markets are completely unregulated, workplace and environmental standards gravitate to the lowest common denominator.

The WTO, by treating the advanced environmental standards of many modern nations as "restraints on trade," has in effect left many progressive nations with two choices: either they must repeal the regulations or face onerous economic sanctions in the form of high tariff walls on their principal export products. The recent comment by WTO Director-General Michael Moore that his organization hardly amounts to world government is utterly disingenuous.

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