The Observer JANUARY 5, 2003 - by Vanessa Thorpe & Ed Helmore


The American anti-war movement has been slow to gain traction. Despite left-wing actors, writers and artists lending their names and influence in an attempt to question both the morality and wisdom of attacking Iraq, the peace movement has been hobbled by its own adherence to political correctness.

Now that may be changing. Last week, one prominent anti-war group, Not In Our Name, took out advertisements in national newspapers decrying not only a war in Iraq, but the creep of US imperialism, the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive assault and the erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security.

High-profile signatories, now numbering 40,000, include singers and artists such as Steve Earle, Bonnie Raitt, Yoko Ono and James Rosenquist and Hollywood figures such as Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, Martin Sheen, Marisa Tomei, Oliver Stone and Robert Altman.

Although many of the figures are already affiliated with the liberal Left, they signed a petition critical not only of US foreign policy but its support of Israel in crushing Palestinian resistance to occupation and the US government's treatment of Arab-Americans.

A busy schedule of protests is planned in major cities across the US. So far, marches have been carefully orchestrated by authorities but another mass march is planned for 18 January in New York, and anti-war organisations are bringing their message to town squares and shopping centres.

Many US stars are still reluctant to voice their opinions, however, fearing they will be labelled 'anti-American'. When actor Sean Penn visited Baghdad last month, he was careful to say he was there 'to learn, not to teach', yet he was compared to Jane Fonda who famously went to North Vietnam in 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, and has been known as Hanoi Jane ever since. Last October, Barbra Streisand was excoriated for a speech at a Democratic party fund-raiser for incorrectly attributing a quote - 'Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war' - to Shakespeare.

Balancing showbusiness and activism in the foreign policy realm carries dangers that few are willing to take. A poll by the Hollywood Reporter last year found that Fonda, Alec Baldwin and Streisand were the celebrities least admired for their political views.

The danger of being misrepresented is too great to risk speaking out, many Hollywood publicists advise their clients. At the Italian premiere of Minority Report, director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Cruise said they could not support Saddam Hussein if Bush's reasons for attacking were accurate. But after some newspapers said that they were Bush-backers, Spielberg quickly sent out a news release: 'It was never my intention to give an endorsement.'

In Britain stars trying to mobilise celebrity interest in publicising the anti-war moment are meeting reluctance. Among those actors who have put their heads above the parapet to call for peace are Mark Rylance, Julia Sawalha, Stephen Fry, Roger Allum and Saffron Burrows. The artist Sam Taylor-Wood and the writers Harold Pinter and Will Self have also taken part in anti-war events. From the world of film, directors Ken Loach, Antonia Bird, Terry Gilliam and Michael Winterbottom have spoken out, as have business figures Richard Branson and Anita Roddick. But stars of the music scene have proved wary - with the notable exceptions of Nitin Sawhney and Brian Eno - despite the fact that Damon Albarn from Blur and Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack are key players in the movement on this side of the Atlantic.

'We are frustrated that we can't get musicians to support us,' said Del Naja this weekend. 'Although no one believes this is really about regime change. When we ask people to take part they ask us crazy questions, like, Do you support Saddam?'

Albarn and Del Naja have been careful to keep their personalities and bands away from their anti-war campaigning, fearful that it will be seen as an attempt at 'branding'.

'We didn't want it to become a vanity project, so rather than trying to present our own case we just wanted to create a debate. It has been good to see a lot of American artists coming forward, because no one is really backing us in creating a space here to get this information across.'

Both musicians have been attacked on their websites and received critical emails, but they plan to take out two more full-page advertisements in NME this month.

'We will be directing people towards the petition and the march on 15 February,' said Del Naja.