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Iraq War March Was About Narcissism, Not Anti-Imperialism



'Not In My Name': The 2003 Iraq War March Was About Narcissism, Not Anti-Imperialism

By Brendan O'Neill

February 15th, 2013

Today is the 10th anniversary of that much-mythologised million-strong march against war on Iraq. Through their rose-tinted, possibly booze-stained nostalgia goggles, radicals look back at the protest as a major turning point in progressive activism. It was indeed a turning point, but not in the way they understand it. The real significance of the march was not it’s unleashing of a new generation of Blair-hating, anti-government agitators, but rather its reduction of radicalism to a narcissistic pose. That big but weirdly flat demo captured the extent to which being a radical is now less about changing the world than about expressing a haughty, self-regarding disdain for it.

Even though there were an estimated million souls in Hyde Park on that cold February day in 2003, it didn't feel like a mass protest; it didn't feel like an expression of collective anger, designed to achieve a specific or progressive goal. It felt more like a gathering of isolated individuals, a lonely crowd, where each person was interested only in expressing their personal revulsion at the proposed attack on Iraq. This was summed in the main slogan of the demo, splashed across tens of thousands of bobbing placards: "Not in my name." That is, you go to war if you want to, but count me – moral, right-thinking me – out of your plans.

That has to be one of the most fatalistic and narcissistic slogans of the modern political era. It captured both a powerful sense of resignation about the coming war, a feeling that it was definitely going to happen and therefore all that we as individuals could do was say: "Well, it's nothing to do with me. It's not in my name." Attending this demo wasn't about stopping the war so much as it was about making a public advert of one's own moral discomfort with it. And the slogan also spoke to a growing narcissistic streak in the radical set, where the aim wasn't to save the people of Iraq from being bombed by Blair but rather to salve Westerners' tortured moral consciences, to save us from being associated with an ill-thought-through military venture. So instead of saying to Blair "Don't bomb Iraq, you have no right to do so", the protesters effectively said: "Don't do it in my name." It was our names, our reputations, our ability to sleep at night, that we were seeking to protect, not the people of Iraq or the principle of sovereign independence.

It wasn't a mass protest so much as it was a mass opting out, a mass switching off, a mass scrubbing of one's own name from a preordained course of bloody action. And this same attitude, this transformation of radical protest into a means of narcissistically demonstrating a very personalised angst, has infused all demos since 2003. You can see it in anti-Israel boycotting, where refusing to buy figs from Tel Aviv is far more about showing what a civilised, caring person you are than it is about effecting change in the Middle East. You can see it most clearly in the Occupy movement (I say movement), whose supporters are way more interested in saying "I haven't fallen for the con of capitalism" than they are in saying "Let's overthrow capitalism and make the world anew". Like that 2003 demo, Occupiers are really saying that capitalism is "not in my name", making an ostentatious display of the fact that they, unlike the unthinking herd, are capable of withstanding the lure and pressures of advertising, the rat race, The Man, and so on. Their aim is not to change the world but to stop the world so that they can get off.

"Not in my name" – so much modern-day protesting is informed by that navel-gazing, reputation-protecting outlook. It's time, perhaps, that the new radicals switched from listing the things that are not in their names and instead told us what is in their name, what they do believe in and are willing to fight and take risks for.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of the online magazine spiked and is a columnist for the Big Issue in London and The Australian in, er, Australia. His satire on environmentalism, Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas, is published by Hodder & Stoughton. He doesn't tweet.