Battling Globalization in Seattle: Seattle In Pop Culture Part II

Seattle has long been connected to cutting edge technology: Boeing’s aerospace dominance, Seattle’s 1962 World Fair, and more recently the rise of Microsoft and Amazon. The ascent of “digital Seattle” was arguably best captured in two books; Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews on Microsoft in Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in the World (1994) and Brad Stone with The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (2014).

366497pr
PIONEER SQUARE, LOOKING EAST. – Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel, Seattle, King County, WA, Jet Lowe, 2008, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

That said, Microsoft lacked the sheen of Apple; its steady profits and success felt purely Seattle, steady and unexciting. Films like the Pirates of Silicon Valley portrayed Gates as a savvy businessman, less the innovative, technological guru than his counterpart Steve Jobs. Granted, IT professionals anticipated new Windows offerings, but more often to highlight security flaws in the software than to hail its innovation. Contrast that with the giddy atmosphere of Jobs-era Apple, which Danny Boyle depicted in all Jobs’ maniacal glory in the 2015 film, Steve Jobs. Nonetheless, Microsoft played a critical role in creating the technology and infrastructure that made internet commerce possible and drove the nation toward its online and globalized economic present and future.

As historians have discussed, globalization is hardly new; its political valances might simply have coalesced in more visible ways at the end of the 20th century. In 1999, Seattle briefly occupied the national consciousness when the World Trade Organization Protests drew the media’s attention. For globalization advocates like Thomas Friedman, protesters represented a “Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” Understandably, demonstrators like Janet Thomas, author of The Battle in Seattle: The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations (2000) disagreed with Friedman’s assertion. Thomas branded the New York Times columnist a cog in the mainstream media machine, accusing both he and the paper of serving as little more than “a voice for corporate interests.”

Unknown

The film Battle in Seattle awkwardly attempts to depict the event the outcome of 40,000-60,000 protesters descending on the city. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, and Ray Liotta, it’s a clunky film that strives to present the opposition’s protest in the best light. As critic Stephen Holden correctly asserts, however, characters are often reduced to “rhetorical plot device[s].”[1]

Other works have tried to evaluate the 1999 protests. In addition to Thomas’s book, Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Allen Sekula produced Five Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond in 2000 and Rebecca Solnit published The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle in 2009.

Last year, Sunil Yapa sought to capture the demonstration and its globalized tendrils in his debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Fist. AS Bishop, the Seattle Chief of Police searches for his estranged son, Victor, while attempting to clear the streets of protesters, he considers the city’s physical landscape and its more iconic elements:

“There was the space needle standing alone. A structure Bishop had always loved despite himself. Erected for the ’62 World’s Fair, some architect’s vision of the future, it looked like a plate balanced on two chopsticks, wavering improbably six hundred feet in the air, something beautiful but faintly ominous about the whole thing.”[2]

Bishop’s is one of several interlocking stories Yapa introduces in an attempt to place Seattle and the WTO meetings at the nexus of globalization.

51aC6RSAn+L._SY346_

The novel takes its name from a famous woodcut created during the protests by artist Dalia Sapon-Shevin. Yapa himself resided in Seattle for a short period and provides views of the event and the politics behind the demonstration through several characters: Bishop’s lost son Victor; Kingfisher , an eco-warrior/eco-; Seattle police officer Timothy Park; and his colleague and fellow cop Julia (“originally Guatemalan … via Los Angeles”) referred to as Ju by her colleagues. Like their activist counterparts, the two officers, Park and Ju are no strangers to urban debacles. Park played hero at the Oklahoma City bombings and Ju, worked the 1992 L.A. riots before absconding to the Pacific Northwest. To the book’s credit, characters hail from diverse backgrounds ethnically, racially, geographically, and even ideologically.

Yapa also adds a Sri Lankan delegate to the WTO conference, Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, as a means to balance the novel’s political message, which leans heavily toward the activist side. The protest impedes Wickramsinghe’s attempts to reach the meeting and secure a trade agreement for his nation, the war-torn and chronically poor South Asian island nation. Initially, the Sri Lankan delegate views the protesters with a studied wariness.

The contrast between his memories of civil war in Sri Lanka and the ethnic violence often attached to the conflict contrasts negatively with protesters.

“What if they knew what a real revolutionary was? How bloody is a real revolution. He looked around suddenly feeling the need to sit, and saw nothing but their faces, their round wet faces staring back at him. What a violence of the spirit to not know the world.”[3]

Later, larger systems at work blunt his attempts at securing a trade agreement and he comes to better understand and respect the motives and animating spirit of demonstrators.

How much does Yapa capture Seattle? It depends on how one thinks about that question. By the late 1990s, the rise of the “Asian Tiger” economies and Seattle’s position on the Pacific Rim helped secure a key place in the increasingly globalized economy. As a site for a WTO meeting it fit the bill the figuratively and metaphorically.

Throughout the novel, characters recount their global journey to Seattle. Seattle native Victor runs away from his step-father, Police Chief Bishop, following the death of his mother, to better experience the world. He returns on the eve of the protest in order to sell a bunch of weed and thereby secure a plane ticket to his next destination. Kingfisher, on the lam since burning down a Vail ski resort, snuck back into the U.S. from Mexico to reengage the movement, but not before playing a role in a separate tragedy. John Henry, “Holy man of the Rust Belt”, comes to the Emerald City with quotes from Mahatma Gandhi tattooed across his chest and an undying belief in non-violent protest.

“John Henry heard their voices and knew this was no ordinary protest, this congregation in the streets. No, this was the new American religion. This desire which leapt continents. The longing of the heart to embrace a stranger and be unashamed.”[4]

Several of the book’s characters do live in the city and provide brief commentary on its economy and landmarks. Police Chief Bishop provides a loose schematic of the city’s more famous locations when peering upon the thousands of protesters gathering below the police vantage point above downtown. “He looked down through the bubble and saw the crowds massing. In the red square at the University of Washington; at Pine and Fourth, and the Seattle Community College on the northeastern corner; Pike Place Market to the west; a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands – all on the move.”[5]

12107r.jpg
Pike Place Market, coffee cup detail on sign. Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith photographer, between 1980-1986, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Despite its recent publication, Your Heart feels almost as much a time capsule as the 1992 film Singles. Whatever impact the WTO protests have had or might have had was obscured or subsumed by 9/11. In the context of shootings in Orlando, San Bernadino, and even more recent attacks in Paris, London, and Alexandria, Virginia, the WTO protests remain troubling but not threatening. Then again, protesters sought to disrupt globalization by bringing the conference to a standstill. Even Dr. Wickramsinghe comes to appreciate the demonstrators. While detained by local police aboard a bus with protesters, he engages in conversation with them, discussing corn subsidies, the fate of Mexican farmers, and other ills of globalization. “They were the faces of that part of American character that believed not in American destiny, but in the promise of America itself, that same promise with which they had once welcomed dusty hardworking immigrants to their shores,” he thinks to himself.

Brexit and President Trump’s campaign rhetoric (if not necessarily his policies, whatever they might be) seem to indicate that the radicalism of WTO demonstrators, if not the ideology, has ensconced itself in electoral politics. “That part of the American character” that Wickramsinghe identifies, right now feels drowned out by nativism.

366465pr
VIEW NORTH NORTHWEST FROM ABANDONED APPROACHES TOWARD ROYAL BROUGHAM. INCLUDES ORIGINAL GUARDRAILS. – Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel, Seattle, King County, WA, Jet Lowe, 2008, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Than again, anti-globalization sentiment – admittedly for different reasons – has captured the attention of Americans of all political leanings and demographics, from the college campuses of Berkeley to the steel towns of the rust belt to the agricultural communities of the South. Yapa channels some of this effectively in his novel, but too often falls into atavistic clichés regarding the left even as he clearly tries to avoid doing so. Seattle is really more the backdrop than the subject of Your Heart is the Muscle the Size of a Fist—much as the WTO demonstrations feel more like a disconcerting example of millennium unrest rather than the thumping existential threat of terrorism.

 

[1] Stephen Holden, “When Worlds Collided by Puget Sound”, New York Times, September 18, 2008.

[2] Sunil Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2016), 106.

[3] Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle, 144.

[4] Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle, 14.

[5] Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, 107.

One thought on “Battling Globalization in Seattle: Seattle In Pop Culture Part II”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s