On Wednesday morning of last week, downtown Seattle looked more exciting than I'd ever seen it. The city balanced on a line where anything was possible, although within a very narrow range of activity. Everybody had a role -- cop, protester, spectator, photographer -- and those roles seemed to be equally divided among the available people, so that there was one person with a camera for every cop, one protester for every spectator. The city was upside down, a scary kind of carnival: cars parked in the middle of streets, buildings emptied of people and streets filled with them, crosswalks full of motionless pedestrians (with big clubs).

The city looked like a model built at a 1:1 scale; every building had its meaning stamped on it by whether or not it was boarded up, whether or not it had cops surrounding it, whether or not it was open for business. In the lines of variously uniformed city and county cops, state patrol officers, and National Guardmembers walling off the ends of streets, you could see a new geography of value imposed on the seemingly neutral grid of downtown. One could suddenly see that the Westin is an important hotel, where traveling dignitaries are likely to stay, while the Warwick -- a perfectly swell hotel, and one whose basement pool is surprisingly easy to sneak into -- is not. Alleys I'd never noticed before popped into view, brought into focus by their dumpster barricades and their stick-wielding guards.

And these city-defining acts by the city's political and commercial phalanges had their populist versions too, most readily seen in the Thursday evening parade down Broadway following two nights of police attacks on Capitol Hill. "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" chanted a huge contingent of locals -- and you could tell they were locals, because they kept to the sidewalks and waited for the light to change before crossing the street.

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A Los Angeles friend, who's been immersed in the history of modernism recently, wrote to ask about my experience of the WTO week. He'd been thinking about the repeated history of violent contortions associated with modernity, then checked himself: "And yet, this is pretty obviously not simply about latter-day Luddites."

Actually, I think this is simply about latter-day Luddites, I wrote back. The only thing all the various contingents of protesters seem to agree on is that developing nations should remain societies of (breathtakingly poor) hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. Their citizens shouldn't be allowed to work in factories, or eat at McDonald's, whether they want to or not, because we know better than they what their cultures should be like -- and god forbid they choose our kind of prosperity!

Modernism has often drawn from primitive cultures for inspiration, looking back as it looked forward. I'm beginning to wonder whether our apparent need to have primitive cultures remain primitive is completely benign, or whether it's just as imperialist as the desire to have them look more like us, McDonald's and all.

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Several people I ran into last week remarked on the oddity of my "How to Get to Sesame Street" article -- a celebration of my Capitol Hill apartment building -- appearing the same week that my neighborhood was overrun by tear-gas-happy riot police. I didn't see the irony, though. My building's amazing ecology was unaffected by the upheaval. Wednesday night, most of the building's residents (several of whom had been active protesters) gathered in a second-floor hallway, running from one end to the other to get better looks at the action, the braver of us occasionally venturing out for a closer look. It all felt very neighborly.

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