The Guardian
Tuesday October 16, 2001

In a war, art is not a luxury
In a world that makes no sense, artists, writers and actors have a right to speak out against war

Jeanette Winterson

Strange world where AA Gill - journalist without portfolio - feels able to savage men and women angry about this phoney war.

Those savaged were, of course, writers such as Harold Pinter, journalists like Suzanne Moore, or anyone branded by a Hampstead postcode. Gill would have been happy in the first world war; he could have made a fortune out of a White Feather factory.

Is conscience something to be mocked? Are those who find themselves morally opposed to bombs a fit target for media bombast?

I'm lucky - Gill's a real guy and doesn't read Guardian Women, so I am not included in the "sob mob". Perhaps I should tell him that my last two columns, urging peace, collected hundreds of emails from ordinary people saying: "We don't want this war - speak out for us."

I was in a taxi last night with a Pakistani driver. He shouted at me for 30 minutes about western imperialism bombing the hell out of the world. I got out, paid him double, and said: "I don't know what to do either, but I don't want you to be so hurt." I touched his shoulder and he burst into tears.

The Taliban doesn't care about such ordinary human contact. I don't want to save them, but I have no evidence that the Northern Alliance will be any better. If there is no human contact - if I don't care about you and you don't care about me - then no politics, no diplomacy, no rhetoric, no high ideals, will change a thing.

Change begins with compassion. There can be no compassion without feeling another's pain. Which is why the luvvies and literary types, so easy to mock, so difficult to replace, have a role and a voice.

Actors, writers and artists work at the interface between the real and the imagined. They coax us out of the numbness of the everyday - where life passes in a blur - and into a heightened space where we can inhabit other lives and find ourselves in other circumstances. The mind opens, stretches, takes in more than it knows, and returns again to the ordinary world, richer. This is not just relief - it is revelation. If art has not that purpose - it is not art.

I don't want to be moral and high minded; well, actually, I do. This is a time for deciding where we stand, a time to decide what matters. I want to live in a world that is liberal, tolerant and open to question. I don't feel easy in a world where bombs are a suitable response.

My friend Ruth Rendell was in conversation at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last weekend. Her sell-out audience was conservative and over-50. Someone asked a question about pure evil, citing the terrorist attacks on America as an example. With great presence, Rendell replied that we could not categorise such attacks as evil, since they were carried out from the highest motives and in the name of freedom.

The audience hated this reply - there was a collective and audible shudder. Yet who reading Bin Laden's speeches can doubt it? There is no cynicism in the man - he has never heard of a spin doctor - and, unlike Jo Moore, he is not hoping to use world events to camouflage government bad news. We need not sympathise with him to recognise a gulf between the pragmatic concerns of the west and the fervent feelings of the east. How to bridge east and west is the question - and bombs are not the answer.

There is great pain among us. My generation and younger, has no experience of transpersonal pain. When we feel bad, we ask questions about ourselves and our lives. We are not used to feeling terrible because we are in a war.

Friends here and in New York are depressed all the time. They want to understand a world that is making no sense. They don't trust their leaders or their media. They don't want bulletins or soundbites, they want to know exactly where they stand and just what they should do. Marches, protests, letters to the editor, are all part of reclaiming this nightmare. It is too important a time to leave to governments and pundits. Bush and Blair were not elected to bomb Afghanistan. "Overwhelming support for military action" seems to be leaving a lot of people out.

What do we do? I'm still going to the theatre, to the opera, and reading books. This is not escapism - this is confrontation. I want clarity, and art can give me that.

In a war, art is not a luxury.

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