Thursday, May 30, 2013

Seattle and Washington, in relation to the '90s, WTO, and how things are now

Because it's somewhat different than I think people usually picture it. Not bad, just different. Here's why:

The notion that I had of Seattle when I moved to Olympia, in Washington State, in order to get back to school, was that Seattle and the Northwest were this huge hub of hardcore radical activity, and that the WTO directly came out of that. This was only partially true. The bigger context was that the radical activity that lead to the WTO was a subset of the greater, across the board, counter-culture activity that came with the alternative culture of the '90s. Seattle wasn't just the head of radical culture, but also of fringe culture, conspiracy theories, alt cinema culture, retro culture, punk, other weirdness, you have it.

A good indicator of this is how AK Press and Distribution was even in the early '00s, directly after WTO. At that point, AK still distributed a huge amount of 'zines and fringe culture topics, on top of the anarchism and radical politics. At a certain point, the 'zines may have been a bigger seller than the anarchism. These days, AK publishes lots of solid left books on history and politics in general, but this is actually a shift produced by the increased interest in these subjects that the WTO demonstrations produced.

I think, though I would have to interview a bunch of people to confirm, that the radical organizing and culture that lead into the WTO wasn't the first start of a radical culture coming to the surface, but was instead the end, the crowning moment, of alternative culture, where despite the many tendencies and interests, people came together to make a statement on things that were messed up in the world. And after the demonstrations, I think, but I can't prove, that although progressive organizing continued in Seattle, eventually folks went their separate ways, and the different parts of the counter-culture slowly went back to doing what they were doing before it happened. A lot of politically minded people moved to Portland, and contributed to jumpstarting things down there, although like Seattle, Portland was one of the foci of alternative culture itself.

Because of this, I don't think that Seattle was ever the utopia of radical-ness that folks sometimes made it out to be. It was the utopia of alternative culture as a whole, of which some radical culture was a part, but was not, as I thought when I moved up here, the natural place for the next step for the politics of the country. Instead, the rest of the country most likely did a lot of things that went far beyond what Seattle did.

But the thing is that the alternative culture that existed in Seattle back then still shapes the culture of the place, although separated by the course of some years. 


Lorraine said...

1. I wasn't aware that AK Press was into "fringe in general," with possible ventures out into vulgar "conspiracism." Interestingly, I always associated that particular form of anarchist mission creep with another Washington institution, Loompanics Unlimited.

2. I always assumed the 1999 battle of Seattle was the last gasp of whatever alternative was brewing in Seattle, and that whatever was left was probably 0% political and 100% trendy.

3. Long before 1999, my impression was that the anarchism capital of the USA was Eugene, Oregon, but I've heard that place may also have been discovered by yuppies.

These are strictly third hand impressions on a person (yours truly) who is a pathetic underachiever and embarrassingly not-well-traveled. When I was a kid, I didn't say "someday I want to be a 48-year-old American without a passport," but sometimes bad things happen to average people, and even people with at least some functioning work ethic sometimes have to move the goalposts, as it were.

One blog I have been following is, which is also by a Michigan->Seattle transplant, who in this case is (well, seems to be) a Tea Party type paleoconservative, but appreciates the much more permissive climate in Seattle to her gardening hobby, urban chicken farming, etc. Her impressions of Seattle from that Michigander perspective often parallel yours to a degree that's starling.

Seattle is still on my radar screen, even if not as a place that lives up to its billing, as a place possibly less dystopian than the vast suburban wasteland of Macomb County and the economic dead-end of metro Detroit in general, but is there even an opportunity for someone my age to relocate to there without being established in a career or profession? Not that there is such a place, but if Josie and I were to make some kind of voting-with-the-feet type pilgrimage, cheap housing would have to be the number one consideration, and somehow I find it hard to imagine Seattle having anything whatsoever to offer on that front.

John Madziarczyk said...

Very interesting. I'll have to check that out.