Demonstrations

Over at Au Currant, Jackie D approvingly quotes Salam Pax quoting his friend G, who talks about himself in the 3rd person:

[T]ell your friends in London that G in Baghdad would have appreciated them much more if they had demonstrated against the atrocities of saddam.

And over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram is asking and answering a similar question:

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.)

And, to take the third text for today, an early commenter, John S, wrote this in reply [scroll down]:

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.

Two extended comments directed at no-one in particular follow:

Comment One.

As far as I can tell (from a fairly quick glance at the 1988 volume of Hansard — sadly the online Hansard only goes back to November 1988), the two MPs who made a decent amount of noise about Halabja in the House of Commons in 1988 were Jeremy Corbyn and Ann Clwyd, as they hassled David Mellor, then the junior minister responsible for maintaining smooth relations with the Baathists. Fifteen years later, of course, Corbyn was ardently against the war, and Clwyd a key supporter. That suggests, in its obviously crude way, that there’s not a clear correlation between campaigning about Iraqi atrocities in the 1980s and either supporting or opposing the war today.

(My guess is that this absence of a correlation carries through to wider public protest: I don’t know who stood outside the Iraqi Embassy in protest, but my guess is that it was a mixture of Kurds and Trots, and that some of the former and none of the latter — except, perhaps, for those who became ex-Trots in the interim — supported the war. The only person I know personally — to drop into anecdotal mode — who ever helped to organise memorials for the victims of Halabja before the Americans began to talk about invading Iraq and lots of people rediscovered their outrage at Baathist atrocities is a Trotskyist friend and antiwar activist, who was involved with the commemorations in Liverpool and Manchester a few years ago.)

But if I’m right about the lack of a clear correlation between those who protested against Saddam’s atrocities at the time and their opinions about the legitimacy of the war in 2003, then that raises a question about whether it’s terribly sensible for liberal hawks in the US and the UK now to ask questions about who did what to protest against Saddam over the years — especially since I don’t think anyone has any record of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Blair, Straw, Hoon, and so on, doing much to either protest or memorialise Halabja and the other crimes of the regime before the invasion of Kuwait transformed elite attitudes to Iraq in 1990.

Comment Two.

Surely the key point about “outrage” and demonstrations is that big demonstrations are not (or, rather, almost never) spontaneous public displays of outrage at all, but the product of great investment of time and energy on the parts of event organisers.

Why were anti-apartheid demonstrations in the UK so big and so frequent? Lots of reasons: many ANC activists and exiles had spent time in the UK, the Anglican church (think Tutu and Huddleston) played a prominent role in the struggle, South Africa House provided a very visible central focus for protest in London, the “rebel tours” and sporting connections between England and South Africa kept the issue in the newspapers, as did periodic Commonwealth summits, egregious Tory wankers like John Carlisle would remind ordinary citizens that the enemy lived at home as well as in Pretoria, lots of people in the UK, whatever their citizenship, had personal ties to people in South Africa owing to a shared imperial past, another focal point was provided by the captivity of Nelson Mandela, and, also importantly, the protestors thought they had a realistic chance of achieving something through their protests, and as it turned out they were right to think so. (There are no doubt other reasons, I’m sure: these are just off the top of my head.)

Saddam Hussein’s atrocities didn’t spark mass mobilisations in large part because public levels of awareness (again, for all kinds of reasons) were much lower, and because there weren’t these various networks, political and cultural resources and pre-existing campaigns, for anti-Saddam campaigners to draw upon in order to mobilise mass protest. Nor would it have been clear what, if anything, mass protest at the Iraqi Embassy in 1988 might have achieved.

But to say these things isn’t to say that people in the UK thought that gassing Kurds was just fine whereas apartheid wasn’t — just to say that there’s a much more complicated passage from the fact of moral opposition or outrage to widespread public protest than some people seem to think.

UPDATES [23.11.2003]: This post is being discussed over at Harry’s Place, and on the Normblog. [24.11.2003] Marc Mulholland has joined in, too.

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