“Is this the silliest slogan ever?” asks columnist Catherine Bennett in Thursday’s Guardian (23/01/03).
You might be excused for thinking that Bennett was about to launch into a humourous hatchet job on the more ridiculous advertising and marketing excesses that punctuate much of today’s media. But no. The target/subject of Bennett’s ire is the phrase which has come to dominate opposition to the now seemingly inevitable war in Iraq. Not In My Name.
Not for Bennett questions of the rights or wrongs of Tony Blair’s dogged insistence on following Bush down the blind alley of Iraqi “regime change”. Instead, the truly pressing question of the day is the validity of the slogan used by the anti-war lobby and the alleged pomposity and sanctimony that underpins it. Not in my name indeed. Who do they think they are?
“Compared to the anti-war slogans of the past, NIMN sends out a piqued, self-regarding sort of message that seems more suited to use by picky consumers who define themselves, say, by their disapproval of GM foods, or boycotting of Starbucks rather than by a mass movement aiming to change the views of a legitimate government in whose actions everyone, assuming they have a vote, is implicated whether they like it or not. “Not in My Name” is just a more fatuously self-important version of ‘I’m against it’. So what? Loads of us are against it. We’ve all got names.”
Fatuously self important? It’s hard to know whether Bennett is proposing that all prospective opponents to Blair’s imminent political folly take a crash course in ego sublimation or retire to the relatively more sedate pastures of Gap and Starbucks where they can bash away till their merry little hearts are content. Where are the focus groups when you need them? Doubtless the same criticisms apply to Not In My Name, the American based Jewish peace group formed in 2000 who call for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Nice sentiment, shame about the slogan (though the American Not In Our Name campaign which is supported By Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Edward Said amongst others might prove more palatable).
Not only is the slogan stupidly self aggrandising, it relies on the sort of dumb emotional levers and pulleys that draw disparate and diametrically opposite strands together under the pretence of an umbrella movement:
“Still, putting feelings before arguments is one way of uniting the unpersuaded with the fanatics, of snuggling the views of Major General Cordingley alongside those of George Galloway, Tony Benn and all the other speakers whose presence on an anti-war platform make marching such an ordeal for the unpractised protester.”
The phrase, much to Bennett’s chagrin, has been adopted by a diverse number of groups and individuals in their respective attempts at derailing the Bush/Blair war train before it reaches its potentially calamitous destination. The Daily Mirror put it on its front page to draw readers attention to an anti-war petition it intends to send to Downing Street.
Bennett very thoughtfully provides what she imagines Blair’s response to any such petition would be: “It’s not in your name, you conceited twerp. It’s in the whole country’s.” That, as the thousands of Britons who intend to stage mass anti-war demonstrations in Belfast, Glasgow and London on 15 February might argue, is debatable. She goes on to facetiously suggest that “if dissasociation rather than downright disapproval of the war is their motive, his [Blair’s] critics probably ought to write directly to Saddam Hussein, making it clear that whatever missiles might shortly be coming his way, they most certainly do not hail from the blameless environs of No 10 Acacia Avenue.” Mr and Mrs Jones at The Beechings might be moved to consider penning something in a similar vein.
Lest we forget, Bennett writes for the selfsame newspaper that only a few short weeks ago decided to emblazon the front page of its daily G2 supplement (07/01/03) with the legend “Fuck Cilla Black” as part of its week of front covers designed by artists including David Hockney (former Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing was responsible for the offending “fuck”). Cilla Black, for the uninitiated amongst you, is a former sixties songstress and stalwart of British light entertainment television programming.
Guardian Features Editor Ian Katz defended Wearing’s cover thus:
“It was obviously shocking, but it also seemed to synthesise, in three short words, the point we were trying to make. This wasn’t Wearing saying fuck Cilla or the Guardian saying fuck Cilla, but the voice of Mean TV passing judgment on a cuddly matriarch from another age of television.”
Come again? You can take the boy out of Hoxton but you can’t take Hoxton out of the boy. Better instead to say that a big boy did it and ran away. Or better still, call Jean Baudrillard.
Bennett’s column and the offending Wearing G2 cover are in no way related, nor can Bennett be held responsible for commissioning Wearing’s rather tired G2 front page, but the old adage about people living in glass houses not throwing stones hardly seems more apposite.
The sentiment expressed by the “Not In My Name” slogan may appear trite to some eyes, even hopelessly and outdatedly idealistic to others, but a legitimate and timely sentiment nonetheless. Bennett’s carping might only be the latest example of a journalist tilting at windmills, but it says plenty that today’s journalists are more interested in mocking the all too earnest entreaties of a group trying to avert a bloody war than in questioning the motives of a prime minister who is prepared to fiddle while Baghdad burns.
Perhaps the duffel-coated hordes who have expressed their disquiet at the bare-faced political casuitry currently being played out in London and Washington would be better served employing the semantic armoury of The Guardian and Gillian Wearing. FUCK WAR anybody?
Writing in The New Rulers of the World, veteran Australian journalist John Pilger (“one of journalism’s best known polemicists”, The Guardian, 13/01/03) contrasts the scriveners who populate today’s paper tigers with one of the lions of British journalism, forrmer Observer editor David Astor. Astor was vehemently opposed to Anthony Eden’s ultimately ill-fated Suez adventure of 1956. In a now legendary editorial, Astor famously wrote:
“It is no longer possible to bomb countries because you fear that your trading interests will be harmed. Nowadays, a drowning man on a raft is the occasion for all shipping to be diverted to try to save him; this new feeling for the sanctity of human life is the best element in the modern world. It is the true distinction of the West. Our other distinction is our right of personal independence and responsibility in politics – a right that must be exercised. Nations are said to have the governments they deserve. Let us show that we deserve better.”
The same might be said about newspapers whose columnists gleefully poke sticks in the eyes of their readers. Paying tribute to Astor who died during the bombing of Afghanistan, The Observer sought to compare the paper’s current editorial strengths with those of The Observer under his stewardship, “the richness of the language and relevance of the sentiments resonate today.”
As Pilger notes, The Observer supported Blair’s “endeavour” in Afghanistan. If Not In My Name really is the Baby on Board of political slogans, as Bennett argues, better instead to forgot all of this anti-war protesting rubbish. Mum’s the word has a certain ring to it.
WILLIAM MacDOUGALL can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org