Anti-Bush protests: the personal is not political
President Bush has become the symbol of one minority it is deemed politically correct to hate.
Mobile phone operators have refused official requests to create a signal-free ‘bubble’ around President George W Bush during his visit to London, which would block protest organisers from using mobiles.
A spokeswoman for Orange, the UK’s second-largest mobile phone provider, pointed out that they could only be obliged by law to turn off their transmitters during a national emergency. ‘The visit of a foreign dignitary is not a national emergency’, she concluded, ‘It’s Bush hysteria’.
The security furore surrounding Bush’s visit – reportedly including requests to replace the windows at Buckingham Palace with bullet-proof glass – does indeed smack of hysteria and paranoia in high places. Refusing to appear in public, being helicoptered into the Palace rather than risk the streets of London – anybody would think that the leader of the free world was frightened of his own shadow. It rather gives the lie to the notion of Bush as the swaggering self-confident leader of a superpower putting the world to rights.
But the phrase ‘Bush hysteria’ could equally well describe the protests against the president’s British visit. The campaign appears less like a political challenge to American policy than an unthinking, emotional outburst against Bush.
The slogan everywhere is Stop Bush. But stop him what, and why? Every issue from greenhouse gases in America to oil in Iraq has been thrown into the mix, creating the impression of an incoherent scream of rage. When a protest appears to be against everything, it can really be about nothing in particular. One of the specific demands protest groups have raised, for example, is for the ending of the US-UK occupation of Iraq. Fair enough; but if you asked those supporting the protests if they thought the West should really get out now and leave the Iraqis to sort it all out themselves, it is a pretty fair bet that most would say no. This is not an anti-imperialist demonstration.
Asked why they support the anti-Bush protests, many people have simply replied along the lines of ‘I just hate him!’ or ‘He’s so stupid!’. This sounds like the infantile politics of the playground, barely stopping short of telling Bush to ‘go away, you smell’. In the past I have been on demonstrations on all kinds of political issues, protesting against everything from a foreign war to a crackdown on immigrants at home. But I have never been on a protest aimed at nothing more elevated than telling an individual that he is unpleasant and unpopular.
The focus on Bush’s supposed personal shortcomings reflects what has happened to politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Any notion of a battle of ideas between political principles has been replaced by a sort of beauty contest, in which politicians compete to see who can best project their personal qualities of trustworthiness and ‘character’. In this context, when Bush is accused of being ‘right-wing’ it is usually understood as an allegation that he is a corrupt and dishonest ally of big business, rather than as a critique of his (scarce) ideological convictions.
The personal vitriol now being poured on Bush’s head also says something about the new etiquette of politics. Everybody understands that it is no longer acceptable to be rude to racial or ethnic minorities; see how Bush’s conservative Republicans go out of their way to avoid insulting Islam. The one group that is considered fair game, however, is the kind of ‘white trash’ who can be branded racist. White trash from, say, Essex are an easy target. White trash from backward Texas are easier. And rich white trash from Texas are the easiest of all. President Bush has thus become the symbol of one minority it is deemed politically correct to hate.
These protests focus on Bush the individual. But even more importantly, they are about the protestors as individuals. Despite the large numbers involved, protests today bear little comparison to the mass political movements of the past. They are a product of the mood of political disengagement in which, rather than a collective effort to change society, activism becomes, as Frank Furedi explained this week, ‘a form of lifestyle choice, a way of expressing preferences about the way one has chosen to live’:
‘This is an era when political ideals are conspicuously feeble and the anti-war protest in particular has an intensely individualistic character. Its slogan, “Not in my name”, is framed as a personal proclamation. This is not a statement designed to involve others and does not offer an alternative. It is a statement of individual preference, an opt-out clause.’ (2)
I was struck by this same phenomenon recently when listening to a leading protestor of the anti-globalisation movement declare that ‘for us, the revolution is the process’. This sounds very grand and principled. What he meant in practice, however, was that for them, revolution is not about seriously attempting to take political power and change society. Rather, it is about how they try to live now, in a non-hierarchical, non-judgemental lifestyle.
In this sense, those involved in the anti-Bush public protests this week are simply making a personal statement – that they don’t like him, they disapprove of his war, or they hate Nike, McDonalds, or something else. For many, it is a self-indulgent statement that says ‘I am a Better Person because I hate George Bush’.
Nobody expects their protests to change much – indeed they are self-consciously declaring their powerlessness in the face of the ‘dark forces’ that run and ruin the planet. This helps to explain the apparent contradiction of having such big demonstrations in an age when political principles or passions are so thin on the ground. They are demonstrating their disengagement from and disgust with politics.
Typically, the left-wing actress Vanessa Redgrave announced that she would put on a one-woman play in London this week, ‘without props or special effects’, in order to ‘express her anger over President Bush’s visit’ (3). Ms Redgrave’s outburst of luvvie anger is about as effective a political protest as that staged by the artist who protested against the Gulf War by living in a cage with a pig.
Of course, as we have often argued on spiked, the Bush regime and its foreign policy is a major problem. There is no need to go on about that here. But we do need to be alert to the problems presented by the depoliticised anti-Bush protests. These pose a serious barrier to offering some coherent alternative today.
‘At least we are going out there and doing something this week!’ the protestors will no doubt say. True, but what they are doing is to make the mood of anti-politics and public cynicism about everything even worse. Sometimes doing nothing really can be better than doing ‘something’. We would be better off staying at home than making mobile phone calls to one another while corralled by the police somewhere in central London.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
Bush-bashing in the UK, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) ‘Mobile operators refuse to bar called in Bush “bubble”‘, The Times, 19 November 2003
(2) ‘Protest movements’, The Times, 17 November 2002
(3) ‘Redgrave protest’, The Times, 19 November 2003
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