Whatever happened to equality? Didn’t it used to be part of what you could call the ethico-political milieu? Back in the eighteenth century (it seems like just yesterday), the American Declaration of Independence said, “All men are created equal.” The slogan of the French Revolution was Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Note that liberty, as in freedom of the marketplace, went with equality. Now, in the era of globalization, the slogan might be, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Something inspiring like that.

So in yesterday’s Globe, Marcus Gee wrote about a Cambodian woman who moved from a life of prostitution in the bars to working for low wages in a factory that ships for Nike and the Gap, allowing her to rent a room and feed her five kids. The same argument gets made about peasants from rural Mexico who move to squalid, poisonous maquiladora zones. Now I don’t think it’s up to you or me or Marcus Gee to say how such people should feel: some will be grateful, some will be bitter, and some will be mixed. But what I find striking is how any meagre economic increment is seized on as justification for the process. Back in the days of slavery, there were people who argued that the economic status of Africans transported in the slave trade had improved, and maybe they were right, statistically. Fortunately, there were people who said: These are human beings and anything less than full equality is unacceptable.

If Marcus Gee and others have eventual equality in mind, they don’t say so. And the actual effects of globalization run in exactly the opposite direction. The stats on this are awesome. The incomes of the top fifth have gone from 30-times to 74-times the size of the bottom fifth. The world’s 200 richest people own more than the billion poorest. Of the 100 biggest economies in the world, 51 are corporations. The gaps are as big within countries as between them. They’d better at least change that slogan: A rising tide lifts all boats, but some of them way more than others – a strange image.

The non-debate. There is a dissonant, unsatisfying quality to the “debate” on free trade and globalization as it’s been carried out in recent weeks, and I’d like to take a stab at the cause. It seems to me that those on the “pro” side want to debate free trade and those on the “anti” side want to talk about free-trade deals. Those on the pro side want to discuss globalization in the abstract, and those opposed prefer to talk about particular forms it takes in the FTA, NAFTA, the WTO, the GATS and the FTAA. So Andrew Coyne in the National Post declares victory over Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians because she said her side is “not opposed to globalization of some form.” He says back in the early days of these battles, in the 1980s, she had been opposed to “free trade itself.” As I recall it, that was never the case. The argument was always about the particular effects the actual deal would have, and it didn’t really get going until the late point at which we saw the text. Then the conflicts about water, culture, sovereignty or how to settle trade disputes could take place. The seminar ended and the politics began. As for the FTAA, they still haven’t given us the damn text.

On violence and fun. It’s not the violence that may or may not happen in Quebec City this weekend that is the real subject of concern in this context. It’s the violence that has underwritten various forms of globalization in different parts of the world: driving people off their land, destroying their livelihood, with its effects on individuals, families and communities. José Bové and Maude Barlow were right to point that out this week, as the context of anger and frustration. For the most part, we in Canada feel shielded from the most lacerating aspects of such violence. Take human rights. Last weekend, I happened to be on a panel about writers and human rights at the Blue Metropolis literary festival in Montreal. Also on the panel were Iranian writer Reza Baraheni, who was first imprisoned by the Shah and then by Ayatollah Khomaini, and Sergio Ramirez, who was vice-president of Nicaragua during the Sandinista years and knows the full power of what can be plainly, unrhetorically described as American imperialism. Believe me, it was humbling. What was I going to complain about – Peter Newman wouldn’t give me a column in Maclean’s and Robert Fulford wouldn’t run my articles in Saturday Night?Still, the Chrétien government has militarized the situation in Quebec City – in a Canadian, not a Latin American, way – and many of those going are worried and scared, yet willing to face it. They don’t just feel supportive of people elsewhere in the hemisphere; they are dismayed at the suppression of rights and equality in our own society. The worst thing the Prime Minister can think of to say about them is that they’re going there to have a good time – as if enjoying yourself while doing something significant is unthinkable. I don’t suppose Jean Chrétien has ever had a good time while doing his duty as PM.

Originally published by The Globe and Mail. Rick Salutin’s column appears every Friday. Posted on rabble.ca with permission.

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.