McWorld and jihad
Friday October 5, 2001
There are many contenders for Biggest Political Opportunist since the September 11 atrocities: politicians ramming through life-changing laws while voters are still mourning, corporations diving for public cash, pundits accusing their opponents of treason.
Yet amid the chorus of Draconian proposals and McCarthyite threats, one voice of opportunism still stands out. That voice belongs to Robyn A Mazer. Ms Mazer is using September 11 to call for an international crackdown on counterfeit T-shirts.
Not surprisingly, Ms Mazer is a trade lawyer in Washington. Even less surprisingly, she specialises in trade laws that protect the US's single largest export: copyright. That's music, movies, logos, seed patents, software and much more. Trade-related intellectual property rights (Trips) is one of the most controversial side-agreements in the run-up to next month's World Trade Organisation meeting in Qatar. It is the battleground for disputes ranging from Brazil's right to disseminate free generic Aids drugs to China's thriving market in knock-off Britney Spears CDs.
American multinationals are desperate to gain access to these large markets - but they want protection. Many poor countries, meanwhile, say Trips costs millions to police, while strangleholds on intellectual property drive up costs for local industries and consumers. What does any of this trade wrangling have to do with terrorism? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Unless, of course, you ask Ms Mazer, who published an article last week in the Washington Post headlined "From T-shirts to terrorism; that fake Nike swoosh may be helping fund Bin Laden's network".
"Recent developments suggest that many of the governments suspected of supporting al-Qaida are also promoting, being corrupted by, or at the very least ignoring highly lucrative trafficking in counterfeit and pirated products capable of generating huge money flows to terrorists," she writes.
"Suggest", "suspected of", "at the very least", "capable of" - that's a lot of hedging for one sentence, especially from someone who used to work in the US department of justice. But the conclusion is unambiguous: you either enforce Trips, or you are with the terrorists.
Ms Mazer's political opportunism raises some interest ing contradictions. US trade representative Robert Zoellick has been using September 11 for another opportunistic goal: to secure "fast track" trade negotiating power for President Bush. According to Mr Zoellick, trade "promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle".
What do new trade deals have to do with fighting terrorism? Well, the terrorists, we are told again and again, hate America precisely because they hate consumerism: McDonald's and Nike and capitalism - you know, freedom. To trade is therefore to defy their ascetic crusade, to spread the very products they loathe.
But wait a minute: what about all those fakes Ms Mazer says are bankrolling terror? In Afghanistan, she claims, you can buy "T-shirts bearing counterfeit Nike logos and glorifying Bin Laden as 'The great mujahid of Islam'." It seems we are facing a much more complicated scenario than the facile dichotomy of a consumerist McWorld versus an anti-consumer jihad. If Ms Mazer is correct, not only are the two worlds thoroughly enmeshed, but the imagery of McWorld is being used to finance jihad.
Maybe a little complexity isn't so bad. Part of the disorientation many Americans now face has to do with the inflated and oversimplified place consumerism plays in the American narrative. To buy is to be. To buy is to love. To buy is to vote. People outside the US who want Nikes - even counterfeit Nikes - must want to be American, love America, must in some way be voting for everything America stands for.
This has been the fairy tale since 1989, when the same media companies that are bringing us America's war on terrorism proclaimed that their TV satellites would topple dictatorships. Consumers would lead, inevitably, to freedom. But authoritarian-ism co-exists with consumerism, and desire for American products is mixed with rage at inequality.
Nothing exposes these contradictions more clearly than the trade wars raging over "fake" goods. Pirating thrives in China, where goods made in export-only sweatshops are sold for more than factory workers make in a month. In Africa, where the price of Aids drugs is a cruel joke. In Brazil, where CD pirates are feted as musical Robin Hoods.
Complexity is lousy for opportunism. But it does help us get closer to the truth, even if it means sorting through a lot of fakes.