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March 21, 2005

David Hirsh looks at cleavages on the left on democracy, reform and anti-imperialism

He writes that “I am for democracy movements, trade union movements, women’s and lesbian and gay movements, wherever they are and even if George Bush says that he is in favour of them too.”

Gary Younge’s column in today’s Guardian begins by saying that there was an anti-American demonstration in Iraq in April 2003 and that the coalition forces have still not left Iraq. He ridicules George Bush’s response, which was to say, ‘In Iraq, there's discussion, debate, protest - all the hallmarks of liberty’. How does he ridicule it? Well, he doesn’t, actually. He just quotes it. That is enough. But it is not ridiculous, is it? It is true, that in April 2003 it was possible to organise demonstrations against the government of Iraq whereas under Saddam, this would have ended in certain death. There are people in Iraq organising free trade unions, there are people in Iraq fighting for democracy, and there are people in Iraq fighting for women’s rights. But the anti-war leadership do not feel, any longer, that they have to argue their case. They just rely on a set of ‘commonsense’ truths and they think that all they have to do is to show how other people contradict this anti-imperialist commonsense.

Younge turns to events in Lebanon. He downplays the series of demonstrations that called for Syria to withdraw its troops. Younge slips in an accusation of racism and sexism against magazine editors who showed pictures of pretty young Lebanese women carrying flags on that demo: ‘at least some Arabs editors could fancy’. I thought that the point of these pictures was to show that some women in the Lebanon chose to demonstrate their empowerment by showing a bit of cleavage, wearing a vest top, smiling, and demonstrating for the sovereignty of Lebanon’s parliament over Syrian troops. The editors showed these pictures in order to challenge the Islamist contention that all Arab women think that it is necessary to hide not only their cleavage but also their faces and their wrists and their arms. In such a world, showing a bit of cleavage is a feminist act. It is a manifestation of freedom, Gary. That is why those pictures were worth showing.

Younge then says that the anti-American demonstration organised by Hizbollah was bigger than the ones calling for democracy in Lebanon. The US, says Younge, has ‘branded’ Hizobllah a terrorist organisation. People carried banners, he tells us, saying ‘Death to America’. ‘But editors didn’t find them pretty’ he says. You can be sure that on the Hizbollah demonstration women were forced to dress modestly, apparently in line with Gary Younge’s conception of feminist propriety.

There is already a pattern emerging in this piece. Gary Younge is not really interested in Iraq or Lebanon – he is centrally interested in attacking the US, Britain and western magazine editors. The possibility of protest in Iraq is less important than the hypocrisy of George Bush. The protest movement in Lebanon is only important because it demonstrates the sexist and racist attitudes of American magazine editors and their readerships. What does Younge think of the pro-Syrian demonstration? Does he think that Hizbollah is a terrorist organisaiton? What does he think of the banner ‘Death to America’? What does he think of the religious enforcement of ‘modesty’ onto demonstrators? He doesn’t say. He is not interested. He is only interested in showing the hypocrisy of the West. As though hypocrisy was the greatest crime. Things that happen in the Middle East are only interesting insofar as they constitute a battle in the global and universal war against America. You are on the same side as those who say ‘Death to America’, Gary, but what are you for?

Now Younge quotes George Orwell. ‘The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.’ What does he mean? I think what he means is that the western media and Bush and Blair thought that a series of huge demonstrations in favour of the Lebanese parliament and Lebanese self-determination was more interesting and significant than a mobilisation by Hizbollah of its ‘Death to America’ forces. Well didn’t we all? Younge feels a duty to deny that the American defeat of the Saddam regime in Iraq might have had something to do with a new mood across the Middle East. He thinks we must deny that trade unions and elections in Iraq could have anything to do with movements for such things in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Lebanon. We must deny this because those who were in favour of the war are asserting it. Not, you understand, because it isn’t true. Younge prefers the ‘Death to America’ mobilisation.

But Gary Younge should be more careful if he intends to rely on George Orwell as an authority for his global ‘anti-imperialist’ war. George Orwell worked for the BBC world service during the Second World War because he thought that people in India had something to be more afraid of than the British Empire – and that was totalitarianism. Orwell had experienced totalitarian movements at close quarters in Spain during the civil war – both the fascist-religious movement that had organised a military coup against a socialist government and the Stalinist machine that killed the revolutionary spirit of the anti-fascists (it killed a good number of anti-fascists too) and allowed the Generalissimo to remain in power.

But it’s true, isn’t it, that the nationalist does not disapprove of the atrocities committed by his own side? Gary Younge’s side is the ‘anti-imperialist’ side. He writes as though the world is divided into two camps – the imperialist camp and the anti-imperialist camp. The only important struggle in the world, according to this bizarre framework, is the universal struggle of masses everywhere against imperialism. Anyone who claims to be against imperialism, anyone who says ‘Death to America’ is on Gary Younge’s side. Anyone who opposes these ‘anti-imperialists’, for whatever reason, is not on Gary Younge’s side.

Some forces that oppose American imperialism: Saddam Hussein; Hizbollah; Hamas; the government of the People’s Republic of North Korea; the Iraqi ‘resistance’; the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.'

Some forces that Younge thinks are on the same side as American imperialism: pro democracy campaigners in Iraq, in Iran, in North Korea, anywhere, in fact, where the government is ‘anti-imperialist’; trade unionists where the government is ‘anti-imperialist’; feminists where the government is ‘anti-imperialist’; lesbian and gay activists where the government is ‘anti-imperialist’; Kurdish nationalists in Iraq and in Iran but not in Turkey;demonstrators for democracy and independence in Lebanon (particularly if they show too much cleavage).

Well, I can hear Gary Younge saying, which side are you on? I do not think that we can understand every struggle in the world, Gary, in the framework of some global struggle against America. I do not think that the defeat of America is the most important thing in every place and in every struggle. I am for democracy movements, trade union movements, women’s and lesbian and gay movements, wherever they are and even if George Bush says that he is in favour of them too.

And the ‘anti-imperialists’ are as guilty as any of George Orwell’s nationalists of closing their eyes to the atrocities committed by those on their own side. If Gary Younge gets his way in Iraq and in Lebanon it would be a huge disaster for those countries and also, secondarily, a setback for American foreign policy. Iraq and Lebanon, Younge hopes, will sacrifice themselves in the struggle against imperialism. And those pretty young women who exposed their shoulders to the Beirut sunshine had better get used to covering up when Hizbollah comes to power to the sound of Gary Younge’s anti-imperialist cheering.

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