WTO reservations

I felt bad about coming down so harshly on Patty Murray a couple of weeks ago in this space. Really, I did. But the reason I did so was again amply demonstrated by the Paramount’s cancellation as a “security risk” of a reservation for an anti-WTO forum the day before the kickoff of WTO festivities in the same space. Three fairly mainstream groups by fair trade protest standards—Global Trade Watch, the Humane Society, and the Animal Welfare Institute—had planned the Paramount venue for an all-day forum. The Humane Society is a security risk?

The managers of the Paramount—like many movers and shakers in Seattle and elsewhere—have equated two very different ideas: that of opposing a policy and being a “security risk.” Is it possible to dislike the WTO’s priorities for economic development without being a bomb-throwing revolutionary? Of course it is. But maybe not, according to Murray and the many terrified policymakers who are thinking in the same way.

When did we lose this? When did it become impossible to say, as a citizen in a democracy, that something is wrong with a public policy without becoming a menace to those who think it’s right? In a democracy, we need not just the vague paternalism of the First Amendment—”I don’t want to allow you to have your say, but I guess I have to”—but the welcoming of diverse viewpoints, the kind of public debate that ultimately leads to better and wiser decisions. That is the sort of openness most strikingly absent from the World Trade Organization itself, and this lack is one of its most worrisome aspects. The public is most decidedly not invited to participate in the WTO’s abrogation of our laws, despite the Clinton Administration’s rather absurd efforts to paint labor and environmental groups as able to “consult” and “dialogue” after the meaningful decisions have been made behind closed doors.

When members of the public, in Seattle or from around the world, insist on being part of the debate of either WTO policies or the legitimacy of the WTO itself, we are rhetorically reduced to bomb-throwers. People who support the WTO and free trade would not be labeled security risks. It’s offensive, and any person committed to clich鳠like democracy and freedom ought to be alarmed at this turn of events.

At the same time, I hope WTO opponents will be thoughtful in their choice of responses. Stunts like hanging banners from buildings have their place but are at this point somewhat redundant; they are useful for engaging the attention of a media that is already listening. What will be useful is numbers of people. I hope that no matter how dismal the weather, people take the day off from work November 30th and join in the march to demand that the WTO become a more accountable institution.

The death of Mumia

In early December, the outrage of millions around the world will be focused on the United States, and it won’t even be because of the WTO talks in Seattle. While I was away, a sad and outrageous thing happened: the signing of a death warrant for Pennsylvania’s Mumia Abu-Jamal. There is no point going into the celebrated details of Abu-Jamal’s case here; they’ve gotten plenty of media attention. Despite the strong feelings on both sides, it’s impossible to say whether or not Abu-Jamal shot and killed a Philadelphia policeman one night in 1981.

What can be said, with absolute finality, is that he has never received a fair trial. This alone is why he should not be executed.

Mumia’s has become a notorious case because of the politics of celebrity and racism. But the case illustrates as easily as hundreds of others why the death penalty is fundamentally flawed, and why only notorious human rights abusers like Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and the US are eager practitioners. It’s far too easy to execute an innocent man (or woman). Why are people who normally distrust powerful government often the same folks willing to give governments the power to legally kill? It’s beyond me. Meanwhile, an articulate and very possibly innocent man is about to die in Pennsylvania. Save Mumia.

Delivering health care

I missed last week’s column because I spent 10 days in the hospital with double pneumonia; I’m fine, but I had plenty of time to reflect on the strengths and abundant weaknesses of how we make health care available in America.

It would be easy to focus on the problems. As a relatively knowledgeable and assertive patient at one of the best hospitals in the region, I experienced the following in the course of a 10-day stay: having to go through the emergency room for primary care; unnecessary, expensive, harmful, and/or redundant tests and procedures; overcrowding and understaffing; doctors and residents with enormous egos and contempt for patients; worries about whether my insurance policies (I have three) would, among all of them, pay for essential treatments; and, of course, the preference for aggressive, invasive procedures and multiple drugs that is the hallmark of Western medicine.

But you knew all that. What struck me most during my stay was something else. It was the dedication of a small army of health care industry workers, some of whom see the patients, many of whom don’t: nurses and nurse aides; pharmacists; dietitians; lab techs; the folks who design, make, and maintain the machines; vendors; physical therapists; engineers; receptionists; housekeepers; and so on. In the aggregate, they make possible enormous institutions like the ones on First Hill. The doctors get (and demand) most of the credit, thanks in no small part to bad TV, but these folks are just as responsible for saving lives, in spite of all the inefficiencies and idiocies of modern medicine. Thanks.