Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Gentle Sterility

Leaders: love them or hate them you can't get away from them.

Cambridge vigil when 100th UK soldier was killed in IraqIt's inevitable that substantial movements give selected people a high profile. Whether that's Tariq Ali, Ms Dynamite, Sami Ramidani or Kate Hudson faces change but the fact of leading lights does not.

Usually these big name notables have earned and earned again their place on any platform or celebrity sofa and it's not my intention to attack the value of any individual, but I do want to question the way the UK anti-war movement handles that relationship between high profile figures and those who have took part in the movement to oppose the Iraq War.

Sometimes the focus has become more about the individuals than the social forces they are linked to, who become reduced to a stage army giving the speaker weight. It tempts us to see the movement as one that follows particular commanders rather than one where representatives can naturally emerge.

The impression of activists as admirers of important individuals is extraordinarily dangerous because the core source of strength for any mass movement is its social composition. Ideological and social diversity is not just a politically correct 'add on' but the precondition for millions taking to the streets as part of a tidal wave against war.

As such those we choose to represent us must not only have sound personal qualities, they must *as a group* incorporate that diversity. That means the exclusion of, let's say, direct actionists or quakers is to say these currents were not legitimate parts of the cacophony of ideas.
All the currents shouldn't just be artificially present they must be articulated as well, if the sympathetic are to feel they have a home in the anti-war movement.

Unfortunately, in the UK, we fail on both counts.

Anti-war demonstrationPropaganda is boiled down to the most simplistic areas of concensus "Troops out" or "Don't attack Iran" - well, duh.

This kind of sloganeering is neither persuasive to the unconvinced nor inspirational for the activists. We actually need to have debates about the role of demonstrations, the structures of the movement (not one organisation within it), centralisation vs autonomy, our position on terrorism at home, how we relate to serving soldiers and a whole host of other questions. This requires discussion, which definition requires a number of different positions to be put relatively fully. We are failing to provide spaces where those who continue to oppose the war can come together and discuss their ideas freely and in depth.

I'm sick of hearing Lindsey German (who should know better) say the war was wrong because it was illegal, or because UK and US service men have been killed, or it cost money that should have been spent on public services or pensions - grow the fuck up - if the war was right all these things would have been justified, the war was wrong because it was an imperialist venture in the interests of a tiny number of people and whose human cost has been unthinkably high.

Bland does not have the power to unite, only to bore.

But we also fail because the Stop the War Coalition (specifically) has a very narrow vision of who should be allowed onto any self respecting anti-war platform. The official speakers are (roughly) Kate Hudson, Lindsey German, George Galloway, Rose Gentle, Andrew what-is-his-name and these are about the only ones you'll find on local anti-war platforms regularly. All good fighters one and true I'm sure you'll agree - but hardly representative. And because this goes on over time it makes activists not in the club feel other people are the anti-war movement and that meetings are dull - both utterly disasterous in terms of inclusivity.

I could draw up an alternative list at random, say, Caroline Lucas, George Monbiot, Jeremy Corbyn, Bob Crow and Liz Davies - all equally capable and who can often be given space at national events but are never seen as a real part of the coalition. It boils down to centralised gate keeping to the movement.

My argument is certainly not that the second list should replace the first as our 'official representatives' but that we shift away from inadvertently creating such lists by an over reliance on central decision making bodies. If we can't think for ourselves and grapple with new ideas we cripple our ability to be effective political agents.

It's not just that it's sterile and stale to have one section of the movement against the war being portrayed as the whole thing - it's also a barrier to its much needed rejuvenation - and a prevention of an airing of the very real debates that already exist.

Cindy Sheehan, US anti-war campaignerWhich brings me onto my final and possibly most sacrilegious point.

Whilst someone like Rose Gentle deserves to be admired for her tenacity and respected for the loss she has felt in her life she is also a fetter upon meaningful discussion.

I'm genuinely sorry to say that, and I feel obliged to point out that it is not her fault in anyway, nor would I like to see her barred from anti-war platforms because it would be to deny activists the opportunity of an extremely moving experience. But her ubiquity is a problem.

We need to engage with those who still have reservations about the anti-occupation arguments and they will not come to hear Rose Gentle speak because they know they will never be able to raise their concerns in such an emotionally charged environment.

Whilst the anti-war activists that come will also feel constrained in her presence and unable to engage in unrestricted discussion. We really do need to have more political analysis about the situation and less emotional posturing.

Many activists question the value of demonstrations - but how many would do so in this kind of arena? But if we don't have the discussion how is anyone to be pursuaded that demonstrations are still worth building and attending? We need spaces where people can safely, in a comradely atmosphere, express thier opinion.

Both sides can learn from each other. We can broaden the number who feel ownership over the movement beyond the ranks of small, often barely real, organisations. In other words we can let some fresh air in.

Unless we start providing a space where those who have doubts about the anti-war case will come and be given something to think about and where those already convinced of the case against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have something that deepens their understanding, then we are building self purpetuating rallies rather than advancing the cause.


Jim Jay said...


I want to amend this slightly. There was a meeting Cambridge on Monday with Rose Gentle and others which I couldn't attend.

Anyway, having just spoken to someone who was there there was some critical debate against one of the Military Families Against the War speakers (not Rose, a woman called Sarah Chapman) who circulated a petition calling for military aircraft to have extra armour or something (which would have prevented her loved one from being killed)

One of the audience did raise the fact that they would not be signing the petition because they thought the British should be kicked out and extra armour, military hardware etc means they get to kill extra Iraqis and stay longer.

Well done to the brave person who raised that point - which is one of the key debates that rarely happen - that of the contradiction between supporting military families and supporting the armed reistance.

AN said...

To be a techie.

I believe the issue is for the fuel tanks to have extra honeycomb in them to prevent them being explosive if hit.

Jim Jay said...

That's right. That's the issue that the audience member objected to.

AN said...

If i flew in one of those planes I woulsd want thewm to have the honeycomb.

I don't see any contradiction between supporting that and wanting the Brits to lose the war.

It is a question of exaggerating the contradictaions and problems for the government and the armed forces.

In this regard similar to the issue of fragging in Vietnam, which was not a protest against the way, but a protest aginat officers who enforced the dangerous SOP of searching NLF tunnells instead of blowing them up from outside/

So the grunts were in favour of killing without taking prisoners, the officers in favour of taking prisoners.

Jim Jay said...

Actually I disagree. Particularly the way most of the left articulates the two ideas.

They have sad vigils when the 100th UK soldier was killed and say unconditional victory to the Iraqi resistance (it's the fake sadness that really offends me).

Fact is if you want victory for the resistance you can't also argue for better equipment for their enemy without creating a massive contradiction.

Now some people are more sophisticated at recognising that contradiction than others - fair play to them - life is contradictory - but in the hands of the less thinking leftists both positions are end up being recruitment tools. imo.

AN said...

It is sad that British soldiers are killed. We spend a lot of time arguing for the soldiers to be brought home becasue it is in their interests, and showing that the military establishemtn don't give a toss aboutthe life and liombs of the working class boys they send to do the actual fighting is an importnat argument to take up.

The American expression "rich man's war, poor man's fight" explains the paradox.

AN said...

and in the hand of some lefries EVERYTHING is a recruiting tool, so i don't thknk you can base too much on that ;o)

I am sure that if we ever do see socialiam in britain there will still be full timers of some organisations saying that they key thing now is to sell more papers and rcreuit.