Sunday December 9, 2007
Brian Haw’s ‘anti-war’ protest in the middle of Parliament Square is still going, six years on from when he first planted his ragged banners on the grass in the traffic island. Politicians have tried to censor him, the police have forced him to shorten his once straggling display, but he survives and looks as if he will stay there until he drops.
I found the banners a bleak sight when I trudged by. Like so many others, Haw can’t ask who is killing whom in Iraq. There are no slogans expressing his disgust at the death squads of the Baathists and Iranian-backed Shia militias, nor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who explained that he would murder Iraq’s Shias indiscriminately so that they would retaliate and ‘show the Sunnis their rabies and bare the teeth… and drag them into the arena of sectarian war’. The placards about Afghanistan continue the theme and don’t manage a word of criticism of the Taliban’s crimes and ideology. Western governments are responsible for the woes of humanity; no one else is worth mentioning.
The best justification for Haw’s morality is that if British and American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot guarantee order, they are indirectly responsible for atrocities committed by their opponents. As the inevitable conclusion is that they should try harder to defeat their enemies, it is not a point that Haw would want to hear.
For all his double standards, I was not as shocked by his protest as I expected to be. Familiarity breeds indifference as much as contempt, and in any case the arguments around Haw were never about whether he was right or wrong, but whether the government had the right to silence him. As freedom includes the freedom to be purblind, it didn’t, and the efforts of New Labour to close down his demonstration were as great a sign as its laws against the incitement of religious hatred that it could not tolerate the robust debates of free societies.
Last week, however, Haw stopped being a lone protester you must defend regardless of his views. His ideology went mainstream and he became the darling of the art establishment.
The Turner judges gave Mark Wallinger the 2007 prize for his recreation of Haw’s original line of banners denouncing ‘baby killers’ and ‘B-liar’, displayed first at Tate Britain and now at Tate Liverpool. The judges praised Wallinger directly and Haw by implication for ‘the immediacy, visceral intensity and historic importance’ of a work that ‘combines a bold political statement with art’s ability to articulate fundamental human truths’.
Hyperbole at this intensity usually conceals insecurity. I wonder whether the Turner judges blustered because they knew in their hearts that in the current climate in liberal England Wallinger would have made a ‘bold political statement’ if he had put a piece defending the government in the Tate.
As it was, he produced lifeless propaganda that even the converted found preachy. His State Britain is merely a reproduction of Haw’s protest – the Tate’s equivalent of an Airfix model – and an aesthetically and politically inferior reproduction at that. Even after the police cut back their number, Haw’s tattered banners stained with mud and rain are far more powerful, not least because of their location opposite the Parliament whose politicians he despises. Wallinger’s clean-cut copy, by contrast, sits in a gallery where it runs no risks; a deodorised protest that will never worry the authorities.
Just to make sure gallery visitors get the message, a history of the demonstration accompanies the exhibit. No one, not Wallinger, not the staff of Tate Britain or Tate Liverpool, not the Turner judges found it odd that Haw the ‘peace campaigner’ began his protest in the summer of 2001 when the second Iraq war did not begin until the spring of 2003.
The chronology should have alerted them that they were celebrating a man happy to duck into the darkest corners of the left. Haw says he was moved to demonstrate by George Galloway’s Mariam Appeal, a charity meant to help Iraqis who were the victims of both United Nations sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime. If Haw knew in 2001 that Galloway had flown to Baghdad to salute Saddam’s ‘courage, strength and indefatigability’, after the tyrant had ordered the extermination of the Kurds, it didn’t bother him. He probably couldn’t have known at the time that Saddam had turned the UN’s oil-for-food programme from a relief operation to help starving Iraqis escape the worst effects of sanctions and his rule into a scam to enrich him, his sons and his supporters overseas. Among the beneficiaries was the Mariam Appeal, which was meant to be helping the hungry, but received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Jordanian businessman who was selling Iraqi oil.
Haw has no excuse for not knowing about the Mariam Appeal now. The Commons Standards and Privileges Committee reported in July that ‘there was strong circumstantial evidence that the oil-for-food programme was used by the Iraqi government, with Mr Galloway’s connivance, to fund the campaigning activities of the Mariam Appeal’. He also ought to know that al-Qaeda was responsible for the slaughter on 9/11 – it’s hardly a secret. But in a video for the ‘alternative’ news site rinf.com, Haw announces that ‘9/11 was an inside job, yes it was’, organised by the American government and Hollywood, apparently.
Like Holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracy theories are too much for the type of person who sits on the Turner prize jury, but anything else goes. They share with Haw the inability to walk and chew gum at the same time – to oppose George W Bush while supporting the victims of Baathism and Islamism.
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I don’t think the moral blindness of the intelligentsia can last much longer. Obviously, some who have lost their bearings after Iraq will never find them again and stagger around bellowing for the rest of their days, but the hysterical mood is lifting from others. When they regain their wits, I hope they will see the decision of art grandees to celebrate Haw and his hagiographer as the low point from which the only way was up.