Everyone wants to put a tag on 1999, but what can you say about a year in which an empty-headed, nose-abusing drunken frat boy-turned-smarmy Bible thumper became the early front-runner for the presidency of the United States? In which an equally empty-headed but clever young hustler who made his bankroll selling overpriced fraternity watches became (as Fearless Editor noted last week) "the most powerful unelected politician in the state," whiplashing the public agenda and trashing transit and other basic services with a run of half-baked free-lunch ballot measures? In which the giddy young founder of an online bookstore-turned-shopping-mall with no profits on the horizon became Time's "Person of the Year"?
But put Jeff Bezos, Tim Eyman, and G. W. Bush in a lineup and a pattern emerges. They've triumphed by the sheer invulnerability of their optimism and, at least in Eyman's and Dubyuh's cases, the invincibility of their ignorance and their sheer indifference to consequences. Bezos levitates miraculously above old-fashioned notions like profitability, improvising giddily while intoning that the key to success is a solid business plan. George W. prattles about "compassionate conservatism" while cheerily signing 113 death warrants, including one for fellow born-againer Karla Faye Tucker, and commuting not a one. Eyman blabs about helping the needy and restoring democracy while moving to gut the transit that is the needy's lifeline.
We all knew kids like this in school, class presidents and good-time boys who dodged the work but skated by on a smile, a stunt, and a little timely sucking up. Their heedlessness is their charm. They're Reagan's children, schooled in the politics of wishful thinking. All they need to know is that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time, and that hard truth counts less than passionate conviction, or an appealing simulation thereof.
Seattle, the concept
Let's also celebrate what was both the most prescient and most clueless quote of 1999. On October 13, a month-and-a-half before the trade ministers and sea turtles came to town, City Council member Margaret Pageler published a P-I op-ed on the "choice between progress and protesters." She led off by saluting Seattle as "the Pacific Rim city that's so dynamic the US government chose to bring the trade ministers of the whole world here for their conference." Dynamic indeed—beyond their wildest dreams.
But give the local WTO hosts credit. They wanted to Put Seattle on the Map, to stamp an indelible, ineluctable identity on it. And they succeeded, beyond their wildest dreams. Seattle has joined the select list of places so inseparably associated with certain events you need only say their names to evoke the events. "Vietnam," for the Vietnam War. Kent State. Pearl Harbor. And now "Seattle." The Economist, that consummate informer of elite opinion, dispenses with "battle of Seattle" and "debacle in Seattle" and calls the turmoil that rocked the city and the world trading system simply "Seattle."
For the free-trade-favoring Economist, that's no triumph. "The real losers in Seattle," it lamented two weeks ago, are the world's five billion poor, whose hopes of cracking the rich countries' protected markets and working their way up got trashed "amid the debris of Seattle." But there's also glory in the association: Here greens, labor unionists, and folks who don't trust or feel part of the local and global booms rose up and jammed the works. Rather than aspiring to be a world city, Seattle can preen over becoming a world-stopping city.
Politics outlives art
Meanwhile, like "Seattle," Margaret Pageler has become an unlikely lightning rod. To her erstwhile activist allies she's the personification of all that's cold, corporate, technocratic, and "downtown" about the glittery new Seattle—Darth Sidran's legislative counterpart. Last Monday Allied Arts tapped this sentiment at its annual Holiday Party and "First Annual Alien Abductee Awards." The avowed intent of the event: to expose "the awful truth" behind the "sudden malevolent swerves" and "bizarre shifts of behavior" of leaders who "were all human once, just like you and me." (Hey, what makes you so sure?)
Various "celebrity nominators" (including the Weekly's John Longenbaugh) proposed various celebrity cases of alien possession. The audience voted with its applause—and Pageler beat out even Sidran as alien abductee supreme.
That's some turnabout. In the 1980s, Pageler was president of Allied Arts and a Licata/Steinbrueck-style insurgent—the only member of the pro-neighborhood Vision Seattle slate eventually elected (after repeated tries). But today's activists scorn her with a fury reserved only for turncoats. They especially resent the way she preempted proposals to require 1 Percent for Art outlays for utility projects outside the city limits, and to raise the arts allocation to 1.5 percent of city construction budgets. "It just seems mean-spirited, and not particularly smart," complains Allied Arts' current president Alex Steffen. Pageler counters that it would be mean to raise struggling pensioners' utility bills and dumb to make suburban water customers pay for public art.