Thursday, 30 June 2011

Brian Haw: Did We Kill Him With Kindness?

Before the death of Brian Haw is entirely forgotten, and with it the man and his campaign, we would do well to include in our brief respectful acknowledgment of the merits of his cause and the courage of his methods a moment of regret, not just for the manner in which we sometimes handled him too roughly but also for the manner in which we generally treated him so well. It is said that a man can be killed by kindness; certainly, a man’s protest can be silenced by tolerance.

On 16 January 2007, The Guardian reported Tony Blair as saying: “When I pass protestors every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.” In this short statement, B.liar, as Haw liked to call him, enacted the mode of oppression characteristic of the political system of which he was a very fitting leader, a system that makes capital out of criticism by its performance of tolerance towards efforts at resistance. The more explicit the resistance, the more political advantage to be gained because the more “liberal” the regime is proved to be that allows the resistance to proceed. In this way, the implicit display of political tolerance will always trump the explicit display of political resistance, as the content of particular protests is neutralized by the political effect of their form as protests. “You name it, they protest against it,” is about as near as a good liberal democracy will come to paying any attention to the particular grievances of discontented citizens. As Robert Shrimsley (, 21 June 2011) observed of Haw: “Ironically, he may be remembered less for his protests against the British government than for the way Britain ultimately protected his right to protest.”

One moment during Haw’s decade-long campaign crystallized this oppression-by-tolerance of our political system: the moment in 2007, when Mark Wallinger won the Turner Prize for an artwork comprised of a faithful reconstruction of Haw’s Parliament Square protest, much of which had recently been dismantled under the new Serious Organized Crime and Police Act. The difference between art objects and other kinds of object is a question that continues to exercise many in the artworld – it is a question that arises most pressingly around the justification of “indiscernible” art objects, that is, objects like Wallinger’s that look just like an object that is not considered art. One influential answer comes from Plato: art objects, unlike all other objects, are those whose appearance alone is of interest. And here lies the solution to the killing-by-kindness of Brian Haw, for the so-called “tolerance” of liberal democracy amounts to the transformation of life into art, of ways of life into appearances of ways of life, of points of view into representations of points of view, of beliefs into performances of beliefs, of principles into forms of principles, of relationships into hallmarks of relationships, of achievements into certifications of achievements, of thoughts into the documentation of thoughts. In this way, no matter how oppositional one’s beliefs and actions, they are not only tolerable but crucial to the appearance of tolerance of the regime in which they can, apparently, flourish. The official Turner Prize pages on Tate Britain’s website report that the jury recommended Wallinger’s artwork as a “bold political statement.” What nonsense. It is, rather, the appearance of a bold political statement, whose only real merit is its making explicit the extent to which bold political statements, in our British liberal democracy, are only ever allowed to be appearances of bold political statements anyway.

While Brian Haw must be honoured for his commitment to resisting the wrong-headed and immoral foreign policy of Britain, he must also be honoured for unintentionally showing up its very objectionable domestic policy; that moment when his protest against the state of Britain was transformed into an artwork called State Britain revealed something startling about the conditions of our time and place: the fact that protest against our liberal democratic government is not actually – at least not straightforwardly – possible, given that any protest, whatever its content, unwittingly lends support to the apparent liberality of the polity that non only permits it to happen but “thanks God” that it can. And that’s what we call freedom.

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