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Radiohead, Zimbabwe and the spirit of '68

Mark Urban | 16:56 UK time, Wednesday, 25 June 2008

yorke203.jpgThere was a chant of 'Free Tibet' during Radiohead's gig at London's Victoria Park on Tuesday night. Thom Yorke, the band's lead singer, joined in. Opinions differ on whether he started the mantra, or just joined in (when people spotted the Tibetan flag on his piano), but in any case it petered out pretty quickly, with a man near me shouting 'Free Beer!'

Radiohead are a thoughtful, concerned, group - a couple are even regular Newsnight watchers, I'm told. But is this the extent of protest these days ? The wag who wanted free beer got me thinking.

What connection do people feel with world events ? How far do they think they can influence them ? I ask because of the current debate about Zimbabwe, and Tibet in particular but it might equally apply to a host of other situations around the world where people feel outrages are being committed.

When I wrote about Zimbabwe last week, one reader said that the situation there made him feel complicit in murder. But even non-violent members of a democracy have several options: protest, lobbying, spending our money elsewhere, or indeed voting a particular way.

Talking to Bob Satchwell, one of the leading lights in the London School of Economics Students Union during the heady period of 1968-1969, on Monday night, he gleefully recounted how many times the students had stormed the Rhodesian High Commission. The Student's Union had been so close to the embassy, he explained, that the students could get there before the police had time to react.

What are the chances of the Zimbabwean High Commission facing a mass protest today, let alone being stormed?

Now before you throw up barricades or declare a commune in Trafalgar Square, please accept, for the record, that I am not advocating any breach of the law. I do though feel that many people who express outrage about various injustices around the world are being a little feeble in the exercise of their right to protest.

stopwar203.jpgNow some of you might argue that one or two million marching through London against the war in Iraq did not stop it happening, so what is the point in protest? But why should you only state your views or take action if you think you are going to win? It's not as if the student radicals of 1968 'won' in the broadest sense, although they did of course play a role in America's withdrawal from Vietnam. And if you want to go the whole hog - thousands went to fight for the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war, hundreds of them dying, but their side lost to the fascists.

Today, in the case of Tibet or Zimbabwe even sporting embargoes seem unlikely. The Dalai Lama hesitates to urge an Olympic boycott and the cricketing authorities risk a clash with the British government over President Mugabe's election plans. But if few people want to get in the way of 'fun', and many are fearful of surveillance or Terrorism Act convictions that might follow an embassy storming what about the simplest form of personal protest: not spending your money on a country's products.

Even this is not straightforward sometimes. Those who do not wish to buy a product 'Made in Israel' be advised that the fruit of many a Palestinian's labour is sold under this label. But even where the picture is clearer, do people really have the ideological commitment to follow through?

If supporting Tibet meant a China-free shopping experience, how many people could manage it? The Radiohead fan might ask where the components in his ipod come from, or mobile phone or whether his trainers are the product of Guangzhou Special Economic Zone. Would it be possible for Thom Yorke to warble to his fans via a China-free sound system?

Personally, I don't mind the guy who called out for 'Free Beer' in Victoria Park. AJP Taylor, that revered historian of the 20th Century, no less, remarked that all of the great characters in history were, "there for the beer", but which he meant motivated by self interest. But the people he was writing about were usually also masterful opportunists who turned the openings available to them to maximum advantage. The average British voter clearly has fewer levers of power than Lenin or Hitler night have done, but he still has some.

The current malaise in western societies is for too many people to assume they can make no difference, to be completely cynical about protest or lobbying and simply to assume that extreme opinions expressed in the pub or on the web are a substitute for action - even if that action may be as small as declining to buy trainers or wine from a certain country.

There are a few exceptions - direct action environmentalists for example. But I can think of another - the handful of British-born jihadists who have gone to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. These sons of Bradford or Croydon are surely though the exception that proves the rule. In their case this drastic step marks the final stage in a rejection of western values and, in their eyes, apathy.


  • Comment number 1.


    Mark has raised a fundamental issue. I suggest that in the cry: 'free beer' we are into 'human failing and the causes of human failing' - a hare I consummately fail to set running, repeatedly, on this blog.
    Confining myself to Britain: we have a country riddled with 'soft corruption' presided over by a very odd subset of humanity under a succession of quintessential oddities. Why?
    Unless we investigate (as Jaded Jean does from her special perspective) THE CAUSES OF INDIVIDUAL HUMAN FAILING (something Joseph Rowntree adjured us to attend to years back) we will get nowhere. Not in the UK, the UN, the world or THE FUTURE. Anyone giving a damn can find my two-penn'orth on the web.

  • Comment number 2.

    Why should anyone want to boycott "Made in Israel" goods and not even consider boycotting "Made in EU" or "Made in USA" goods? The problem we have is that, to a large extent, the information we receive about most situations is so limited and (often skewed) that it is impossible to come to a decision about the "correct" course of action. For example, I regard myself as being very well informed generally but I am not confident that I could explain all the rights and wrongs of Zimbabwe. I do of course know evil things are happening.
    As regards boycotting EU or USA goods, is it not the case that unfair terms of trade are, at least partly, causing the impoverishment of relatively poorer countries?
    See the problem, who can tell us the answer?

  • Comment number 3.

    Mark I always listen to what you say and that may not sound like a huge compliment - but it is given my views on the media.

    I never ever saw you as a rebel (for the right cause). Good on strategic issues. Not a rebel.

    I suppose its the Fred Halliday influence at the LSE?

    I sadly tend to agree with you that people today tend to judge the general situation on how much their cafe late costs. Sacrifice would be paying 5p extra.

    I sincerely hope that life allows people to adapt their ideas before "severe reality" makes them adapt them ..

    That said I support a free Tibet- but the Western media has underplayed the historic relationship with China.

    If we compared US actions in Central America - say Chile in the 70's or El Salvador in the 80's - the US is not occupying them now or then. But it would be slightly trite to say that the US was any less imperialistic or aggressive than China when they feel their sphere of influence is affected by another power or ideology. Look at the rhetoric against Chavez. What would we say if the Chinese said something similar about Vietnam?

    US free shopping days?

    Come on.

  • Comment number 4.

    yup, our individual failings indeed. but collective ones worth probing too ?

    you may indeed not wish to boycott 'Made in Israel' goods, I used it as an example only because there have been some moves in that direction in recent years by pro-Palestinian groups that have ultimately failed to get greater momentum because of the issue of the variety of goods sold under that label. As for not buying US goods because you disapprove of their trade or foreign policy it's an easier one to implement, I would guess.

    I'm grateful for the compliment :-) You are right, I am not instinctively a rebel, although I am a graduate of LSE ! That doesn't mean though that I don't feel very strongly about certain issues or that I don't sometimes wonder why people don't do more by way or protest or witholding their spending money.
    Naturally I try to disentangle personal views from reporting. Once I cam back from a conflict zone and was rung by a leading lobbyist for the side I had decided was in the wrong. She said "thank you for doing so much for the cause". For a second I was annoyed because I thought 'you've got me exactly the wrong way round', but as soon as I reflected upon it, I was proud because my private view had evidently not intruded on the reporting.
    Time perhaps to get back to the strategic analyses... !

  • Comment number 5.

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  • Comment number 7.

    "It's not as if the student radicals of 1968 'won' in the broadest sense, although they did of course play a role in America's withdrawal from Vietnam. And if you want to go the whole hog - thousands went to fight for the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war, hundreds of them dying, but their side lost to the fascists.

    Today, in the case of Tibet or Zimbabwe even sporting embargoes seem unlikely."

    The student radicals just ushered in the fre-market. They were useful to Trotskyites in that respect.

    As I see it (and as I keep pointing out in case anyone still doesn't) 'we' appear to be used to undermine big government wherever it appears and I suspect the primary agenda from Hayek's, and von Mises magum opus onward has been to keep the home fires of anarcho-capitalism burning, and that all the sniping at Middle Eastern, Chinese, Burmese, Zimbabwean, Uzbekistanian, N Korean, and Russian (at times given many there seem to long for its more structured past) human rights violations is primarily just a tool to keep statism and market regulation at bay back at home.

    Looking at where we seem to be headed demographically (and socio-economically), I can't help but fear that we've got it all fundamentally wrong, or that there are those abroad (and here at home), who have engineered matters very cleverly over a very long period to most of our long term disadvantage.

  • Comment number 8.

    Such outpouring is encouraging.

    There are cycles in the mood of the times, and perhaps selfish hedonism is now yielding to some concerns of idealism?

    Were the anarchists so motivated?

    Is Obama an exemplar of this trend?

    Keep it up, Mr. Urban, but try to be more concise!

  • Comment number 9.

    Free Tibet Yes Please. Free Beer why? MAKE IT YOURSELF and it just about is, Same with Whiskey or any other spirit. Its H.M. crap govt that makes it expensive. I can just about understand the apathy with uk muslims but throwing the toys out of the pram and bombing innocents/innocence to bits is a little Nasty and Wrong dont you think. On the other hand UK Taxpayers fund uk and international terrorists and their lawyers. Now then, just what is that? No one who pays UK Tax can complain if they or theirs gets blown to bits they have paid for it. (bring it up with a human rights lawyer)You reap what you sow dont you? ( That kind of seed I try not to sow) Mind you how many uk taxpayers bullets have killed/wounded uk Jihadists among others in Iraq/Afghanistan? The butchers bill is higher for them than it is for the uk soldier..... perhaps? You cannot/will not beat Good sKILLS eh.
    will try in future not to buy anything from china. FREE TIBET and R Biggs

  • Comment number 10.

    I remember well the Reading Festival in the early 90's jumping along with many people my age to Rage Against The Machine. I admit that I was getting into it because how great they sounded but if I had asked anyone nearby (mostly middle class kids like me) what it was they were shouting along with the band about, I reckon most would have said "well it's about something to do with unfairness isn't it?". I always had the sense that if you make any cause fashionable enough and any big band endorse it, people will really just go along with it without really thinking about it properly. How many people singing along to Radiohead really know what they were singing about? Saying they like the Dali Llama doesn't count.

  • Comment number 11.

    While the ethical questions raised in this column are very interesting, they tend to deflect attention from the hard realities.

    For example, the declining influence of the Soviet Union in the eighties opened up the possibility of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the establishment of democracies in eastern Europe. From then on, the collapse of the USSR itself became pretty much inevitable and, with it the end of the unlawful occupation of the Baltic States. Similarly, the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights cannot be ongoing because, without agreement, there will be no overarching regional stability program. Some political ambitions have an historical inevitability about them which make them realisable.

    Others, however, do not. What nation in it's right collective mind can afford to risk confrontation with China given it's influence in the global economy. It may very well be that, mid term, the economic liberalisation in that country will lead to increasing political freedom and eventually some degree of autonomy for Tibet but simply mouthing platitudes about 'freedom for Tibet', however well meaning, is simply whistling in the wind.

    A Palestinian state now seems inevitable but does anybody seriously believe that there will be, say, an independent Basque region or an autonomous Kurdish state in Turkey? Of couse not.

    My point is not that people should stay silent on any issue which concerns them - perish the thought - but to counsel that there are things which can be brought about by public pressure and others which are best left to history.

    I write this post from Hungary and I can't help wondering whether this would have been possible if the interventionists had had their way. Some things are best left to the march of time.

  • Comment number 12.

    Interesting post. Your 'hard realities' undoubtedly condition the way that countries deal with China. In addition to their growing economic might China's permanent membership of the UN Security Council allows them a key blocking role in crises from Zimbabwe, to Iran, or the Balkans. The North Korean nuclear talks, on the other hand, show what can be achieved with Chinese engagement.
    People may protest at different situations they disagree with, but different countries or non-state groups undoubtedly vary in their susceptibility to pressure. You dont necessarily have to 'leave it to history' though, if you have a vote, a voice and some cash.

  • Comment number 13.

    One seeks to distinguish between the mob-like lemmings responding to the "cause of the week" and the potentially effective pressure of other groups.

    An unexpressed premise among our pundits seems to be that "China is bad", "Iran is worse" etc., and what the pundits see, hear and say is processed through these predisposing filters.

    Some contrarian investigative reporting might change these biases.

  • Comment number 14.

    Xie_Ming (#13) I agree - but, sadly, given Newsnight's recent track record, I'd be extremely (pleasantly) surprised if anything like that will be commissioned.

    One would have thought that a neutral presentation of the case both for and against (say Zanu-PF's, the Uzbek or Burmese government's) policies would be what unbiased producers would wish to provide their audience.

  • Comment number 15.

    "One would have thought that a neutral presentation of the case both for and against (say Zanu-PF's, the Uzbek or Burmese government's) policies would be what unbiased producers would wish to provide their audience."

    How about a fair and balanced case for Hitlers final solution? (and thats a not a serious suggestion mods!). Its merely to highlight the fact that some policies are so ludicrous that 'neutral' presentations would in effect be statements of support. The BBC would be saying O.K some bits might be wrong, but......

    I have a big problem with the BBC's idea of balance in general. Their idea of a balanced report on the risk of MRSA was to give Andrew Wakefields single paper 50% of the time and the collected works of every single other researcher in the world (2500 papers at last count) the other 50%.

  • Comment number 16.

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  • Comment number 17.

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  • Comment number 18.

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  • Comment number 19.

    #17. The holocaust isn't a debatable issue... my granddad liberated Belsen. It happened. Whether 6 million or 4 million Jews were gassed its still horrific beyond words.

    I don't know why evidence about Katyn was fabricated to discredit the nazi's- the germans found the bodies and it was done by the Russians.

    if you seriously think that the Red army stopped its advance to fabricate Auschwitz however you're sorely dilusioned. Stalin was as a big an anti-semite as hitler and having lost 20 million russians in the war he didn't need to fabricate any evidence to make the Germans look any worse.

  • Comment number 20.

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  • Comment number 21.

    #20. I dread to think what your definition of 'death camp' was.... the bodies were stacked 10 feet high in places and needed bulldozers to get rid of them. You could smell the place from miles away. Indeed my grandads company knew something was very wrong around belsen because of the smell.

    Typhus spread (by fleas) because of the grotesque overcrowding in the camps. It was compounded by zero laundry facilities. To blame allied bombing is ridiculous, unless you suggest we were dropping bio-weapons. Frankly carpet bombing the camp would have been a humanitarian act.

    Delousing with Zyclon B makes about as much sense as delousing someone with burning petrol. There are plenty of delousing agents that don't cause death in humans. They'd been around since WW1. Zyclon B is Prussic acid which is rather more effective on humans than insects. Indeed the Germans developed Sarin etc FROM insecticides. germany had a monopoly on anti-insect organo-phosphates.

    Rations were at sub-starvation level. This is shown by the camp records and by the accounts of many British POW's (SOE, Commados etc) who were sent to concentration camps. Start with Wing Commander Yeo Thomas (who incidentally stopped Otto Scorzeny being hung at Nuremberg). I presume you're not going to claim he was a soviet agent?

    rebuilding the german economy was a direct consequence of what we foolishly did in 1918 onward... bankrupting and humiliating Germany post ww1 caused WW2. At least we learnt from our mistakes.

    Equally regarding stalin's anti-semitism, its worth pointing out that he described all victims of the liberated camps as 'Soviet citizens', not 'jews'. Frankly after what happened in the seige of Leningrad and Stalingrad he didn't need any more anti-nazi propaganda. If I'd lost 20 million Russians I'd have been pretty keen on some vengance at Nuremberg too.

    In actual fact we sacrified a handful of very guilt people to Stalin and kept a lot more equally guilty (starting with Werner von Braun who decided 1000 calories a day was plenty for his workers at Nordhausen) and gave them jobs at Nasa. Trotskyism must have been very prevalent... Stalin bumped off about 30,000,000 of them.

  • Comment number 22.

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  • Comment number 23.

    Sorry, for "in the 1930s is not that much less than it is today" please read "in the 1930s was not that much more than it is today".

    That is, it rather suggests that they may just have moved about a bit (see links elsewhere to fertility rates, exacerbated perhaps by the highest carrier (1/3) and expression (1/27) rate of the CYP21 polymorphism and resultant NCAH in this group which may slightly feminise males and masculinze females cognitively, and also slightly increase sensitivity to stress?).

  • Comment number 24.


    "Isaac Deutscher may well have been a second conduit by which the ideas of Trotsky reached EP Thompson. A veteran of the early years of the Trotskyist movement, Deutscher emigrated to Britain in 1939, where he wrote his famous three volume biography of Trotsky. Deutscher became a sort of godfather to the first New Left, and published frequently in its journals. He was a close friend of Ralph Miliband, one of the most active figures in the circle that published the New Reasoner. "

    They don't seem all that keen on (big) government, so watch out NHS, the Civil Service, and anything else national and regulatory (anything to do with proper government in fact). Instead, we should expect lots more 'freedom' (aka anarchism) - e.g. lots more London stabbings etc....

  • Comment number 25.

    Perhaps some will notice that the BBC has begun to recognize (again) that Iran exists apart from the Iraeli propaganda version.

    Strangely, it appears that Justin Webb has begun this process.

    Perhaps others may join in and provide us with facts and views not supplied by the Israeli Foreign Ministry or its sympathizers here?

  • Comment number 26.


    Hoodwinked by clever PR?

    They're SI (Socialist International), the lot - New Labour here and the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe.

    Is it really any surprise that the opposition to Stalinist/Maoist parties in Africa turn out to be essentially Trotskyite/Neocon/Miliband types eager to establish a 'Workers' Democracy (i.e. removal/replacement of one 'elitist' ruling class by/for another?

    Worth pondering in the context of some of my recent (and older) posts on endogamous groups, the protection of discrimination law yet statistical over-representation and hegemony?:

  • Comment number 27.


    "Mr L. resigned from the Berlin police after being assigned to quell a May Day demonstration of left-wing anarchists – “I realised I belonged on the other side,” he said. Since then he has been active in the punk and squatter scene; since February he has been a care worker. His girlfriend Yvonne said: “I’m really proud of him. I’ve been furious about Hitler for days.”"

    Hitler, like Stalin, was a left-wing socialist (as Von Mises and others reminded us after WWII) He just wasn't an extreme 'left-wing' anarchist/free-marketeer. I guess he wouldn't have liked anarchists like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair who played to a generation steeped in such nonsense all in pursuit of deregulation and general destruction of the state/family life?

    And speaking of Axes of Evil, how about a piece on the evil 'vivisectors/germ-warfare' mongers in Iran?

    We haven't heard much about the 'evil-ones' recently (although N. Korea got a mention by proxy - Mugabe and his Fifth Brigade).

    Weary subliminal message: "Don't vote/fund Old Labour: Private/third sector good/free - public sector bad/nazi - keep voting for less and less government, you know it makes sense".

  • Comment number 28.

    Interestingly, the Supreme Leader of Iran has, some time ago, issued a religious order (fatwah) forbidding the development or use of nuclear weapons and gave his reasons.

    Why do you suppose that this has not been more widely reported by the BBC?



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