There’s almost as much talk about ‘virtue-signalling’ these days as there is about ‘fake news’. But one thing that doesn’t get said often enough is why virtue-signalling isn’t just irritating, but destructive. Like Brendan, Will and others here, I also take a slightly dim view of the anti-Trump protests that took place in Britain last night. I walked around the one in Westminster to come to a view, and found myself feeling unsympathetic to people carrying placards that said, for instance, ‘Fuck Fascism’. It’s a sentiment with which most of us can wholeheartedly agree, but I cannot see its applicability to the question of whether or not the US President should enjoy a state visit to the UK. Meanwhile, if I wanted to participate in a protest against fascism I can imagine few less suitable people to lead that protest from the stage than Naz Shah. Ms Shah has a more serious and evidence-based taste for anti-Semitic rhetoric than even Donald Trump’s wildest critics have ever been able to claim of him.
However, the problem with all this – the whipping up of fears of ‘fascism’ and, according to some banners at last night’s protest a ‘nuclear arms race’ (really, based on what?) – is that it distracts from bigger, real issues. Obviously the people organising protests like those last night are either campaigning sectarians or the Socialist Workers Party far-left, who are content (as was going on last night) with besmirching the ‘Trump revolution’ while praising and attempting to excuse the Russian revolution. Nobody can change the minds of such people. But they obviously have some success in persuading otherwise decent people that this is the sort of thing they too should spend their time denouncing and protesting against. In the process they not only distract the general public, but immunise them from addressing actual human rights catastrophes which are going on.
As it happens, I encountered last night’s anti-Trump protests because I was trying to get into Parliament to a screening of a film called ‘Our Last Stand’. The documentary, introduced by the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief shows one Assyrian woman’s journey from America back to Iraq and Syria to investigate the appalling persecution of Christians and other religious minorities there. Along the way she interviews children forced to flee their family’s home, women who have been taken by ISIS as sex slaves, people offered the choice of conversion or death and the routine massacres in and destructions of churches and other places of worship. This persecution – of Yazidis and Christians in particular – is something that the world knows about but seems unwilling to do anything much about. One reason is that there seems so little public pressure on the government. If the populations of the West demanded our governments took action then they might have to do so. But I have never seen more than a few dozen people protesting against these crimes. Certainly the ongoing genocide of the Middle East’s Christians has never received cross-over support from the sort of people perfectly happy to spend a Monday evening holding a lewd placard about the American President.
Of course it was good that thanks to some sustained effort ‘Our Last Stand’ eventually got its London premier in Parliament. And it was good that several MPs attended the screening and that around sixty or so people turned up for it. But the difference in the size of the crowds inside and outside and the comparative cause and demands of the two crowds was jarring. Outside the crowd of perhaps a couple of thousand people were hollering against an alleged fascism which has not claimed one victim. Inside people were wondering what if anything could be done to get the world to care about an actual genocide and ethnic cleansing which has been going on for years. The two are related. One reason why people seem to care so little about actual human rights atrocities in our day is that they are told that they are going on all the time. According to Naz Shah the invitation of Donald trump to the UK on a state visit means, ‘All those women who gave up their lives and gave up everything for votes, and every woman who’s had her hijab ripped off her head did it in vain.’ According to the former Respect candidate Salma Yaqoob what is happening with President Trump is what happened with Hitler. Apparently Theresa May is Neville Chamberlain, and so on. To which one might reply: ‘Oh yes, and what does the stolen teenage Yazidi girl, sold for cash and raped by a stranger mean? Or the Christian priest beheaded because he does not share the faith of ISIS?
I am sure some people find it enormously advantageous not to dwell on or even mention such atrocities. Still others will claim that there are so many bad things going on in the world that it is impossible to choose what to focus on. Whatever the reason, the priorities on popular display in our privileged Western societies today are truly astonishing. And far more revealing than the people who participate in them could possibly imagine.