Call for an International Crackdown on Counterfeit T-Shirts

October 3rd, 2001
By Naomi Klein

There are many contenders for Biggest Political Opportunist since the September 11 atrocities. Politicians ramming through life-changing laws while telling voters are still mourning, corporations diving for public cash; pundits accusing their opponents of treason.

Yet amidst the chorus of Draconian proposals and McCarthyite threats, one voice of opportunism still stands out. That voice belongs to Robyn A. Mazer. Ms. Mazer is using September 11 to call for an international crackdown on counterfeit t-shirts.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Mazer is a trade lawyer in Washington D.C. Even less surprising, she specializes in trade laws that protect the United States’ single largest export: copyright. That’s music, movies, logos, seed patents, software and much more. Trade Related Intellectual Property rights (TRIPS) is one of the most controversial side-agreements in the run-up to next month’s World Trade Organization meeting in Qatar. It is the battleground for disputes ranging from Brazil’s right to disseminate free generic AIDS drugs to China’s thriving market in knock-off Britney Spears CDs.

American multinationals are desperate to gain access to these large markets for their products—but they want protection. Many poor countries, meanwhile, say TRIPS cost millions to police, while strangleholds on intellectual property drives up costs for local industries and consumers.

What does any of this trade wrangling have to do with terrorism? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Unless, of course, you ask Robyn A. Mazer, who published an article last week in The Washington Post headlined, "From T-Shirts to Terrorism; That Fake Nike Swoosh May be Helping Fund Bin Laden’s Network."

"Recent developments suggest that many of the governments suspected of supporting al Qaeda are also promoting, being corrupted by, or at the very least ignoring highly lucrative trafficking in counterfeit and pirated products capable of generating huge money flows to terrorists," she writes.

"Suggest," "suspected of," "at the very least", "capable of"—that’s a lot of hedging for one sentence, especially from someone who used to work in the U.S. Department of Justice. But the conclusion is unambiguous: You either enforce TRIPS, or you are with the terrorists. Welcome to the brave new world of trade negotiations, where every arcane clause is infused with the self-righteousness of a holy war.

Ms. Mazer’s political opportunism raises some interesting contradictions. United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has been using September 11 for another opportunistic goal: to secure "fast track" trade negotiating power for President Bush. According to Mr. Zoellick, trade "promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle."

What do new trade deals have to do with fighting terrorism? Well, the terrorists, we are told again and again, hate America precisely because they hate consumerism: McDonald’s and Nike and capitalism—you know, freedom. To trade is therefore to defy their ascetic crusade, to spread the very products they loath.

But wait a minute: what about all those fakes Ms. Mazer says are bankrolling terror? In Afghanistan, she claims, you can buy "t-shirts bearing counterfeit Nike logos and glorifying bin Laden as ‘The great mujahid of Islam." It seems we are facing a much more complicated scenario than the facile dichotomy of a consumerist McWorld versus an anti-consumer "Jihad." In fact, if Ms. Mazer is correct, not only are the two world thoroughly enmeshed, the imagery of McWorld is being used to finance Jihad.

Maybe a little complexity isn’t so bad. Part of the disorientation many Americans now face has to do with the inflated and over-simplified place consumerism plays in the American narrative. To buy is to be. To buy is to love. To buy is to votes. People outside the U.S. who want Nikes—even counterfeit Nikes —must want to be American, must love America, must in some way be voting for everything America stands for.

This has been the fairy tale since 1989, when the same media companies that are bringing us America’s War on Terrorism proclaimed that their television satellites would topple dictatorships the world over. Consumers would lead, inevitable, to freedom. But all these easy narratives are breaking down: authoritarianism co-exists with consumerism, desire for American products is mixed with rage at inequality.

Nothing exposes these contradictions more clearly than the trade wars raging over "fake" goods. Pirating thrives in the deep craters of global inequality, when demand for consumer goods is decades ahead of purchasing power. It thrives in China, where goods made in export-only sweatshops are sold for more than factory workers make in a month. In Africa where the price of AIDS drugs is a cruel joke. In Brazil, where CD pirates are feted as musical Robin Hoods.

Complexity is lousy for opportunism. But it does help us get closer to the truth, even if it means sorting through a lot of fakes.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.