Those demonstrations

by Chris Bertram on November 21, 2003

The widespread hostilty to Bush and Blair over the war and the run-up to it is well reflected in the numbers attending the demonstrations in London and elsewhere yesterday. Many people here are still very angry that they were lied to (as they see it) about WMDs and the “threat” from Iraq. At the same time, liberal hawks are asking rhetorically why there were no demonstrations against Saddam Hussein, or against other tyrannies.

(I think that last question is pretty easy to answer: people usually demonstrate because they are angry at their own government (or its associates) rather than at someone else’s. Even anger at yesterday’s bombings in Turkey wouldn’t translate into demonstrations because there would be no point in marching against Al Quaida.)

But even walking a few streets around my home and looking at the posters urging people to demonstrate, I’m quickly reminded why I would not. “Bush” is represented on many of them with a swastika in places of the “S”—an absurd implied equivalence anyway, and a grotesque one a few days after the synagogue bombings in Istanbul. The stunt with the statue also suggest the triumph of theatre over political and moral judgement. And then there’s the fact that the Stop the War Coalition calls for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq and that some of its components even support what they call the “resistance”. Since the imperative now is to stop Britain and the US from “cutting and running” and to insist that they ensure a transition to stable and constitutional Iraqi self-goverment (and put the infrastructure back together again) what the demostrators largely want is the opposite of what ought to be done.

{ 36 comments }

1

John S 11.21.03 at 8:52 am

“people usually demonstrate because they are angry at their own government (or its associates) rather than at someone else’s. “

Oh come off it Chris!

I went on loads of well-attended anti-apartheid marches in London in the 1980s. They were clearly demonstrations against the South African government. If you’re outraged you will demonstrate. Clearly Saddam’s activities didn’t outrage Britons enough.

2

drapetomaniac 11.21.03 at 10:04 am

But that demo against South Africa was 1) implicitly against the friendly relationship of the US (British in your case) govt with SA, 2) implicitly or explicitly in support of a decent indigenous opposition, 3) had at least some expectation of influence.

Clearly Saddam’s activities didn’t outrage Britons enough.

And to the point, I don’t know if there were demos in the streets at the time of Halabja, but there was most certainly critique of US complicity with Saddam.

3

Sam Dodsworth 11.21.03 at 10:29 am

I didn’t see any swastikas myself, but it was a big march. There was one sign comparing the Bush/Blair alliance to the Hitler/Stalin pact, though, and I think that was arguably worse.

The bottom line for me is: so what? A good 90% of the signs expressed some combination of “We don’t like Bush very much”, “Invading Iraq was a bad idea”, and/or “Blair should stop acting like Bush’s poodle”, which were basically what I was marching about – and most of the rest were generic “Peace” flags carried by the Quakers. Why should I worry about the precise position of the organizers if I agree with the overwhelming majority of opinions being expressed on the march?

4

The Tapir 11.21.03 at 10:58 am

From London: Pointed stuff on the protests that may be of interest:

“What Do They Want?”
http://dailyablution.blogs.com/the_daily_ablution/2003/11/what_do_they_wa.html

I Bought The Guardian Today – So You Don’t Have To.
http://dailyablution.blogs.com/the_daily_ablution/2003/11/i_bought_the_gu.html

5

Danny 11.21.03 at 11:30 am

The anti-war movement is less and less about the war, let alone the Iraqis. It is now almost wholly about America.

Clearly Saddam’s activities didn’t outrage Britons enough.

And to the point, I don’t know if there were demos in the streets at the time of Halabja, but there was most certainly critique of US complicity with Saddam.

This just demonstrates the loony attitudes of America haters. The important aspect is deemed to be America’s supposed support of Saddam, rather than the actions of Saddam himself. It is also a complete misrepresentation of reality: Saddam biggest allies outside the Arab world were the Soviet Union and France. I don’t imagine there was much critique of Mitterand or Brezhnev’s complicity, though.

6

Sam Dodsworth 11.21.03 at 11:42 am

The anti-war movement is less and less about the war, let alone the Iraqis. It is now almost wholly about America.

I was under the impression that it’s always been about the curent American government, because they were the ones who started it.

7

Matthew 11.21.03 at 12:13 pm

You read the “stop the occupation” demand as a call for retreat from stabilising Iraq and abandoning its people. But it only means that they think the current US military command and governing council vetoing is the worse actor to do the job and that they should cede power in some form or another.

Many anti-protest talking heads play on the confusion of this difficult problem to paint them as crazy irresponsible loons but it is missing the point. The current US-led handling of Iraq is plainly, for all to see, a disaster, and calling for a change is natural. But you conflate this with abandoning Iraq.

8

Jack 11.21.03 at 12:51 pm

Danny,
of course the US can still have been complicit and certainly helped out during the Iran-Iraq war and even turned a blind eye on Kuwait until it was too late. There was plenty of criticism of Brezhnev collusion and Mitterand too.

However I don’t think that is the point. We are told that we invaded Iraq to

a) find WMDs
b) to liberate the people of Iraq
c) because Saddam was a very bad man
However there are no WMDs, it doesn’t look exactly like a liberation (where France would be a better comparator than Germany according to the rhetoric) and Saddam is a bad man but his most heinous crime (if it does not turn out to have been committed by the Iranians) was committed more than 15 years ago and we didn’t say anything at the time, didn’t do anything when we invaded a few years later and haven’t taken similar action against other people who have done the same thing. When this reason is trotted out as justification for the war, one might be forgiven a little irritation and one might respond a little overzealously. However the basic objection sound, it might be a good reason but it is not the Bush administration’s reason. From their mouths it is diversionary BS.

At bottom the current justification is ” we are not as cruel as Saddam although we are not upholding the standards we demand at home and it is good for us to have bases in the middle east”. In fact that might be justification enough but I find it rather depressing and I would prefer something more ambitious.

9

drapetomaniac 11.21.03 at 3:57 pm

This just demonstrates the loony attitudes of America haters. The important aspect is deemed to be America’s supposed support of Saddam, rather than the actions of Saddam himself. It is also a complete misrepresentation of reality: Saddam biggest allies outside the Arab world were the Soviet Union and France. I don’t imagine there was much critique of Mitterand or Brezhnev’s complicity, though.

Follow along.

1. Prof. Bertram suggested that people usually demo against their own govt.

2. “John S” suggested that people have demo’d against other, foreign govts.

3. I replied that even in those cases where the demo is against a foreign govt, what people are demoing against is implicitly their own govt’s complicity with the foreign govt in question.

I made no remark about whether the US was the biggest supporter of Saddam. My point was that a) people in the US *had* protested Saddam, b) it was a protest implicitly of their own govt in being complicit with Saddam, c) which more or less agrees with the original point by Prof. Bertram that people demo pretty much as a way of affecting their own govt’s policies.

This should all be pretty obvious, but perhaps you are demonstrating the loony reading habits of right wing nuts.

10

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.21.03 at 5:09 pm

“‘Bush’ is represented on many of them with a swastika in places of the ‘S’ — an absurd implied equivalence anyway”

Yes, it’s not as if the Bush regime has arrogated to itself an entirely extra-constitutional right to imprison American citizens without trial, or kidnap foreign citizens and hold them in concentration camps, or send Canadian citizens to third countries to be tortured.

It’s not as if the Bush regime has lied without shame and without cease in order to promote overseas wars in the service of a my-way-or-the-highway ideology, not incidentally in the process enriching the specific trans-national corporations with which the regime has the closest personal ties.

And heavens to Betsy, it’s not as if the regime came to power in an illegitimate putsch backed by violence and the threat of more violence.

So how on earth could anyone be so indelicate as to use such symbols? Tsk tsk and tut tut tut. This is just the sort of thing that’s bound to happen when people get the idea that they’re entitled to express themselves without proper training. Very embarrassing, really. Certainly the most important fact at hand is that some protesters are a little silly and overwrought. And of course, human history repeatedly shows that change and reform only happen when people master their unruly passions in favor of mild-mannered, reasoned tones.

11

taak 11.21.03 at 5:09 pm

I think it’s pretty obvious the protests were meant to exhibit a general rage with President Bush… that said, I don’t think the protesters should have tried to rationalize so much out of that.

12

josh 11.21.03 at 5:17 pm

Great post, Chris – and some good comments here.
One comment I’d like to take issue with, which hasn’t yet been addressed, is this:
“You read the “stop the occupation” demand as a call for retreat from stabilising Iraq and abandoning its people. But it only means that they think the current US military command and governing council vetoing is the worse actor to do the job and that they should cede power in some form or another…”
Well, this seems to me an awfully sympathetic reading — it doesn’t seem to me to be at all self-evident in the rhetoric I’ve heard and seen. It seems to involve reading an awful lot in to statements the most obvious meaning of which seems to me to be rather different. At least, my own first inclination is to take ‘stop the occupation’ as meaning ‘cease to occupy Iraq’, that is, ‘get out of there’. But then it seems to me a large part of the problem of the anti-war movement is that their rhetoric has always been far too broad, simplistic, and over-charged to make such effectively and respectably subtle or nuanced points as Matthew attributes to them. And, yes, part of this is that the anti-war movement has been unfairly ‘spun’ by pro-war or anti-anti-war commentators. But it does seem to me that the anti-war movement’s played into their hands. And, as someone who was initially (ambivalently) anti-war and now thinks the occupation is a mess and likely to be a failure, I’ve found myself repeatedly alienated and turned off by rhetoric on the part of the anti-war movement, to which I might otherwise have been sympathetic. It isn’t just hawks who are reading the protestors this way.
As for ceding power: to whom? To an Iraqi authority which doesn’t yet have a functional or well disciplined military force and can’t agree on a constitution, and whose claim to popular support is dubious? To a democratically elected Iraqi authority — elected without a constitution or stable state being in place? Or to an international organization, such as the UN, which seems to me likely to be rather reluctant to wade into the mess the US has made against its will and bear the brunt of reconstructing Iraq? I think that objecting to this situation, which the US has largely created, is perfectly fair and right; but to suppose that it can simply be solved by the US getting out seems to me to beg an awful lot of questions.

13

Harry Tuttle 11.21.03 at 5:23 pm

Right the fuck on Patrick.

If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck and marches like a goose…

“But, but… how dare those communist child-molesting traitors call our fearless leaders fascists! That’s not fair! They’re being big meanies! Wahhh!”

14

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.21.03 at 5:30 pm

I don’t actually for a moment think that Chris Bertram considers the protesters “traitors” or any of the rest of that.

What I do think is that trying to oppose the Bush regime with mild, carefully-nuanced, on-the-other-hand rhetoric has gotten nobody anywhere, and that it’s a delusion of particular social and professional classes to suppose that this already-failed strategy will start working if everyone just tries harder.

15

Chris Bertram 11.21.03 at 5:39 pm

Patrick,

There’s a lot more to political campaigning than just careful words – and I know that. And often it is right to say simple – though strictly false – things rather than complex and nuanced truths. But to say “Sensible truth hasn’t worked so lets replace it with insane hyperbole and falsehood” doesn’t suggest itself as a sensible move. But, of course, that’s just a caricature of what you wrote … :)

16

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.21.03 at 5:56 pm

Give me a break, Chris; I just now defended you from an unfair caricature of what you wrote. See immediately above.

But I can’t help but think that you’re wringing your hands over trivia while the house is burning down.

What will it take for putting a swastika into Bush’s name on a protest sign to stop being “insane hyperbole and falsehood” in the Bertramverse? They came to power illegitimately, they’ve repealed large chunks of the Bill of Rights, they’re imprisoning Americans and foreign nationals without trial, and their allies in the voting-machine industry are transparently undermining the integrity of our elections. Their entire domestic policy consists of a gigantic project to turn America into a one-party state backed by an invulnerable patronage machine reaching into all corners of civil society. They’ve spent millions to finance media empires that broadcast calls to violence against liberals on every band of the radio dial. No, they haven’t started dragging off American citizens by the thousand to the glue factory. We can still, in fact, say rude things on protest signs. Do we really have to wait until the situation is hopeless before we’re allowed to be rude?

Who is going to reward us for being as polite as you want us to be?

17

a different chris 11.21.03 at 6:02 pm

>is that their rhetoric has always been far too broad, simplistic, and over-charged to make such effectively

Yeah they look really bad in contrast to say the narrow, detailed, and dispassionate plans of PNAC and the rest of the far right wackos that the US is currently so plagued with. Rolling democracy, anybody?

Seriously, I’m still in the fix it camp, I still think civil war is a definite without outside presence,but every MaxSpeak post yanks me another notch over to his position. Somewhere out in the blogosphere is a clip quoting a (no doubt pointy headed leftist American-hating) professor who was over there and had decided that presence of the US military was the single most destabilizing factor in Iraq.

I’m not sure he isn’t right. He also didn’t claim it was the *only* factor, nor could anybody and be considered serious.

In any case, Reagan didn’t put it very well, but it is true: the answers are sometimes simple, just painful.

Calling it “simplistic” may be just an attempt to dodge reality.

Again, I’m not on that side yet (but as a liberal I’m compelled to argue against myself regularly to keep my credentials, so this should keep me topped up for awhile ;>).

18

a different chris 11.21.03 at 6:07 pm

Oh, and we need to just start laughing off these recurring “nobody on the left protested blah, blah…” posts.

The left has, not entirely to its credit, protested just about everything under the sun at least twice, so the wingnuts can drop it already. Anything that wasn’t protested in Berkeley or London, was probably taken up for a day in Paris or Berlin.

For god’s sake find a new canard to troll with, the only sting left to this one is tiresome overuse.

19

John S 11.21.03 at 6:31 pm

No drapetomaniac, I can’t agree. People demonstrated against the SA govt, criticism of the UK govt was incidental. The demos would have gone on without a decent opposition. You demonstrate in order to influence, not the other way round. I don’t think anyone seriously thought Mrs Thatcher’s views on SA were unsettled and therefore likely to be swayed by a big demo. That wasn’t like her.

Yes there were critiques in the 1980s of US complicity with Iraq. Now there are demos against US non-complicity with Iraq. What does that tell you? 1) getting rid of Saddam is more reprehensible than propping him up; 2) whatever the US does is wrong. Prop him up, tear him down, leave him alone… they’re all wrong because it’s the US that’s doing it. Danny’s right, the driver here is what the US is doing, the Iraqis are incidental.

So Jack, Saddam did his public worst over 15 years ago? That’s ok then? And if Thatcher, Major and Bush I failed to do anything about Saddam back then, why does that make it illegitimate for Bush II and Blair to do anything now? It’s not like Tony had Margaret’s ear in the early 1990s. You’ll forgive me a little irritation when I say that, had your worldview prevailed this year, Saddam would still be leader in Iraq today. What’s going on may not be good enough, but nothing else was realistic. And what’s going is better than what was going on under Saddam. At least there’s hope.

Patrick and Harry, that was almost witty. Would you be able to turn to a Nazi concentration camp victim and in all honesty say, “don’t tell us how bad Hitler was, we’ve got Bush”?

20

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.21.03 at 6:47 pm

John S.: Nice try, but it’s harder to make the big lie stick when people can just scroll back and look at the actual posts.

21

John S 11.21.03 at 7:18 pm

Yes they can, plus your post in the next blog on “yesterday’s bombings” talking about nascent brownshirtism in the USA. I’m not lying Patrick. I apologise if I’ve misunderstood you but, if I have, it’s because what you write is not expressing clearly what you think.

22

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.21.03 at 7:28 pm

Oh, I don’t think you’ve “misunderstood” me at all.

I think you understand quite clearly what you’re trying to do.

23

Henry 11.21.03 at 7:32 pm

Patrick – I’m with Chris here for two reasons. First, I don’t buy into the argument that the US should withdraw – it shouldn’t be there in the first place, but it shouldn’t pull out and leave a shambles now that it has gone in. Second – and this addresses your criticism more directly – I reckon that calling Bush a Nazi, or a Saddam equivalent is politically counterproductive. Bush isn’t Adolf Hitler. Nor is he Hussein. And people know that. I suspect (though I’ve no evidence to back this up, and I could be wrong) that rhetorical overreach isn’t doing anything to sell the anti-war anti-Bush case to the general public, and that if anything, it’s turning people off.

I accept your argument that on-the-one-hand type arguments aren’t any good. But I think that it’s possible to harshly criticize Bush without lapsing into Michael Moore-isms. We should be going after him on precisely the grounds that you lay out – invasions of civil liberty, efforts to screw around with the voting system etc – but trying to sell this to the majority of the voting public, including those on the center-right. And this means losing some of the US=Nazi Germany rhetoric, which has been a staple of the left for the last forty years, and which, bluntly, allows people on the right to typecast us as irrelevant losers, who are outside the mainstream, and will never be part of the mainstream. I’m all for a bit of rabble-rousing now and then. I also agree that the reduction of complex political ideas into stylized slogans and images is an important part of mobilizing the public. But I don’t think that the slogans that Chris is talking about are appropriate, or even very useful, for the task at hand. We need to be getting more than the usual suspects out on the streets, and, even more importantly, into the polling stations.

24

John S 11.21.03 at 7:52 pm

Patrick: you see? It’s not just me who thinks you’re saying what you say you’re not saying! Henry thinks so too. You are comparing Bush to Hitler. And yes, I do understand clearly what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to get you to see it’s ridiculous to say the US is a incipient fascist state. Guantanamo is not Auschwitz. Please!

25

David Sucher 11.21.03 at 8:21 pm

The idea that GW Bush is some sort of equivalent to Hitler is a politically unpersuasive idea. And I don’t think the issue is a matter of being “rude” — as someone seemed to have said — but of being accurate and politically astute.

Bush is not a good President; his well-intentioned but impetuous Iraq war was far too “radical” and I fear is not being carried to a successful conclusion; I very much look forward to a different president in 2005.

But why does the left insist on demonizing him? (Just as the right did to Clinton?) One may intensely dislike his policies on almost any issue one can name — I do. But why not simply leave it at that?. He’s not a good President and should be removed. Is there some sort of psychological need to create a monster in order to mobilize the political base? Is it as simple as that?

26

Henry 11.21.03 at 8:35 pm

Sorry John – you’re wrong. Patrick does _not_ say that Bush is like Hitler. As I understand him (and I could be mistaken), he’s saying that rhetorical comparisons of Bush to Hitler can serve a useful purpose, given the extremist goals of the Republican administration. And that’s a completely different claim. One which I disagree with – but which is perfectly intellectually respectable.

27

John S 11.21.03 at 9:14 pm

Thanks Henry, but now you’ve just made me even more confused! No, Bush isn’t like Hitler but yes, rhetorical comparisons of Bush to Hitler can serve a useful purpose? Isn’t saying “rhetorical comparison” just using two multi-syllabic words to say “like”? If not, then can I make a rhetorical comparison of Bush to … er, how about John Lennon? So I think, for the purposes of destroying the argument of anti-warites, that Bush can be rhetorically compared to John Lennon. I know Bush isn’t like Lennon, but for the purposes of rhetorical comparison because Lennon loved peace, so must Bush.

I mean, come on, if you’re going to use rhetorical comparisons, you’ve got to believe in them if they’re going to work.

28

satan krishna 11.22.03 at 12:56 am

Shorter Chris: academic niceties prevent me exercising my democratic rights.

29

Copeland 11.22.03 at 7:16 am

For all the reasons Patrick mentions, George W. is something worse than just a bad President. The lines of demarcation between his kind of corporate assault on the democratic process and the One-Party-State despotism are growing more blurred as time goes on.

To say quaintly that “Guantanamo is not Auschwitz” is no reason not to be scared shitless by the political climate that is being generated by America’s neocon faction.This is the time to recognize the explicit danger. Some of Bush’s strategists are already testing the water, with respect to allegations of disloyalty against their democratic opponents.

George W. Bush continues to say “I love free speech” but it’s no secret that he doesn’t like to see it, in person.

30

John S 11.22.03 at 9:36 am

Copeland, I’m curious. Have you actually ever lived in a one party despotic state? If you think the US is one, what do you call Myanmar? And why can’t the neocons allege their democratic opponents are disloyal? Isn’t it their right of free speech to say what they think, the right of free speech that you’re anxious to protect?

31

Copeland 11.22.03 at 8:16 pm

First of all, John S, only right-wing wackos like Ann Coulter, think it’s cool to accuse their partisan adversaries of treason.

Asking me if I’ve personally lived in a one-party State is a rather silly rhetorical gambit.

Free speech still exists in the US, but the Bush Administration is comfortable with marginalizing it, when possible. An example would be detention of protesters in so-called Free-Speech-Zones. I’m sure you’ve heard of this Orwellian practice.

32

John S 11.22.03 at 10:20 pm

Copeland: hmm… I agree with you that saying someone is disloyal is a smear tactic. But, hey, that’s free speech. And meanwhile, on the other side, quite a few people are not shy of making comparisons between Bush and Hitler – which is also a smear tactic. You can’t criticize someone else’s tepid support for free speech if you don’t think the neocons should be allowed to question their opponents’ loyalties. Pot, kettle, black…

Whether you have lived in a one party despotism is important to know for the same reason that Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle that he had known John Kennedy, and Quayle wasn’t another John Kennedy. It’s easy to say you’re living in an incipient one party despotism (say you’re similar to John Kennedy) if you’ve never lived in one (if you never actually met the guy). But, if you have lived in a one party despotic state, your experience is valuable. If you haven’t, then you risk degrading the experiences of people who have.

For example, no I haven’t heard of the Free Speech Zones, and they do sound Orwellian, but a state that doesn’t allow free speech everywhere is not the same as a state that doesn’t allow it anywhere. In any case, as I understand it, demonstrating in a US shopping mall is not allowed, and that was true not only under Clinton but before him too.

33

Seth Edenbaum 11.23.03 at 4:37 pm

If everyone were as mature as I, the world would not be in such a sorry state; but since one can not speak out without being touched by the immature and vulgar, I’ll think I’ll stay at home.

34

Seth Edenbaum 11.24.03 at 2:05 am

“Friends, the Republic is in real danger. It is not the UN black helicopters that threaten it, but elements of the United States officer corps. That is, if their thinking is in any way exemplified by Tommy Franks. Franks has speculated that in the wake of a major WMD attack, the US will scrap its constitution and adopt a military government. I can’t imagine a more fascist, irresponsible thing for him to say.”
…I was talking to a former high government official recently, who told me that for the first time in his life he was alarmed about the survival of American democracy. I think we all should be.”
Juan Cole

35

dsquared 11.24.03 at 9:15 am

In re: Bush and swastikas, I can only suggest to all concerned that you must have been a barrel of laughs during the days of punk rock. Calling someone a “Nazi” because you don’t like them or think they have been a bit extreme is a fine rhetorical device with a pedigree that now goes back fifty years and I’m all in favour of it.

I believe that my parents were aware in the lated 1980s that no serious moral equivalance could be drawn between their stance on the issue of cleaning my room and the Holocaust, for example, but introducing Hitler to the debate galvanised things admirably.

36

Murray Ralph 12.10.03 at 10:00 pm

If you’re going through hell, keep going.Everybody is a star with the potentiality to shine in the infinite sky of eternity.

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