Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Barnum and Bailey

The tents are gone, the performers packed up. The elephants (and, to be fair, donkeys and other animal metaphors (do any other countries refer to political parties as animals?) a memory. Entrance ramps are no longer blocked by camouflaged humvees and downtown no longer resembles a ghost town Wild Wild West scene where, at any minute, one might expect to encounter twangy guitar music, a ball of brush and a good old-fashioned duel. The G-20 has come and gone, leaving Pittsburgh, with that day-after-Christmas hangover. The city has received praise on the international stage--a formerly rough-and-tumble industrial city, which, in recent years, reinvented itself as a center for education, research and development and green technology. This kind of international publicity, observe excited local PR execs, cannot simply be bought; it positions Pittsburgh with the likes of London or Sao Paulo or Seattle. In other ways, the G-20 seems like the errant houseguest who departs and is discovered to have stolen his host's wallet, finished everything in the fridge and Naired the shampoo bottles, for good measure. Did the expected economic benefit materialize? The promised boon has turned to bust for many local businesses, who lost money--and not even the likes of Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu could have penetrated the Steel Curtain of riot cops blocking off large parts of downtown. We are unlikely to know the minutiae discussed at the forum, but, because much of American society is consumption-driven, we are conditioned to believe happiness is something acquired through possessions or professional achievement--with the latest car, the latest dress, that plasma tv, the corner office--we can be sure that many of the decisions made facilitated this. As John Lennon said, "If everybody wanted peace instead of another tv, we'd have peace." International economic and political progress is assuredly a many sided beast, whose moral calculus may be an infinitely more complex thing to calculate. In general, international corporations benefit from the lax system of treaties, trade restrictions and cheap, expendable labor in developing nations. Indigenous and poor peoples lose their rights to life-affirming employment, land and, in many cases, their lives. I have benefitted greatly from the system when compared with the rest of the world, but I have also inherited a deep sense of existential guilt. What goes on at the G-20 is pretty darn unsexy and unsettling. So unsettling, in fact, that the spouses of delegates were whisked away to dinners and local performances during much of the deliberation. (For some reason, this makes me think of Victorians, in corsets, retiring to chaises in drawing rooms, or Shakespeare in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', warning the ladies of unsavoriness ahead of time. I'm sorry, I just thought it was interesting...) I was saddened to hear University of Pittsburgh students were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets while trying to flee from riot cops, who posed with detainees as 'trophies'. I was also wearied by the many 'media whore' types who acted as provacateurs for a little excitement. I heard the term 'police state' batted around by friends last week. The tension between human rights and national security had become a cold, hard reality. For the first time, many Pittsburghers worried about taking a wrong turn, wearing the wrong thing, being in the wrong place at the wrong time,worried they might get me gassed or subject to the screeching of LRAD (Long-Range Accoustical Device-- used by militaries in the country of Georgia, authorized for the first time here in the US.) Last Friday's permitted People's March from Oakland to the North Side was a high point of the forum. From anarchists to Falun Gong advocates to dreadlocked sixties leftovers and photogs galore, it was the kind of spectacle which would have made Ben Frankilin, (of "Dissent is the Highest Form of Patriotism" fame) smile down from wherever he must be smiling from. Nearly 8,000 marchers gathered to bring awareness to international issues: human rights abuses, corporate greed, climate change and the Iraq war. As I walked along on a beautifully balmy afternoon, I witnessed street theatre at its finest: the costuming, the signs, the chanting ("You're sexy, you're cute, take off your riot suit!"), a group of what looked like ex-marching banders playing fight songs on trombones, tubas, French horns. There were ladies dressed as Gaia, people dressed as world leaders and, in a bizarre twist, someone dressed as Christian Bale's Batman. The Daily Show's Jamie Oliver was on hand for the action; a friend and I spotted him on Thursday at Shadyside's Harris Brill. People sang, chanted, cheered. Protestors climbed onto a McDonald's billboard to take an ironic bite of McChicken. Photogs climbed to dizzying heights on the Andy Warhol bridge. The march ended on the North Side where a group of people fed the crowd, Biblical fishes-and-loaves-like, by a nice group of people with beans tacos and rice.

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