Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones…
Whenever people on the left criticise ‘the West,’ a customary response on social media and from Britain’s inky flock is to demand damnation of some other sinner. Condemn British connivance with Saudi atrocities in Yemen and it’s ‘whatabout Iran?’ Castigate Israel for grinding Palestinians to sand and it’s ‘whatabout about Assad?’ Demand the US closes its trespassing torture chamber at Guantanamo and it’s ‘whatabout about IS?’ The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) have borne these ‘yeah, buts’ for years, latterly from Peter Tatchell. Back in 2002-03, ‘Stoppers’ were routinely badgered to condemn Saddam Hussein’s well-documented and uncontroversial atrocities as part of a grimy ploy to daub anyone who opposed dropping explosives on children as a friend to tyranny. This scuttling rhetoric shrivels under the light of reason, of course. Indeed, I’m confident that seasoned practitioners of this swindle understand quite clearly the ruse they’re perpetrating. But I’ll sum up my objections, presuming Noam Chomsky’s maxim, that the duty of the intellectual (or blogger) is to tell the truth, about things that matter, to the right audience.
My first objection is ethical: that the individual’s first concern should always be with their own misdeeds and those done by others with their help or acquiescence. Applying this to affairs between nations, their scrutiny should fall chiefly on the behaviour of their own government and of its allies. They can of course decry (and should not defend) the outrages of other states but if they support them with neither vote nor tax, they share no responsibility for them. Applied to the world today, this means my most pressing concern should always be with the actions of the UK government and its imperial master. Vassals and allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are also my concern because their litany of crimes is committed with British arms, aid and advice. Indeed, as Prof. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute said recently, ‘if the United States of America and the United Kingdom — tonight — told King Salman that this war [on Yemen] has to end, it would end tomorrow because the Royal Saudi Air force cannot operate without American and British Support.’ Israel is not nearly so dependent but has still benefited from arms, including sniper rifles, worth £320m since 2014. Passing over these crimes to rail at others in which we have no part is cossetted posturing; ‘virtue signalling,’ to use a vogue expression. When our government is not terrorising the world, directly or indirectly, when we can plausibly claim to be ‘intervening’ out of something other than venal calculation, then we may concern ourselves with the crimes of other nations and hope for a spark of legitimacy.
My second objection concerns the practical responsibility to use one’s energy and opportunities to the greatest effect. Where can the British anti-war movement, a progressive journalist or an angry tweeter hope to leave even the most fleeting mark? Not on foreign governments, certainly. The thump of feet marching on British streets is barely heard in Whitehall, so why imagine it will rattle the walls of the Kremlin? I certainly don’t write in the expectation of being read by members the British Government, let alone those of North Korea. In any case, as Chomsky put it, ‘speaking truth to power’ is an overrated pursuit when power knows the truth. The most recent exception to this I can think of was the great anti-war march in February 2003. But even millions freezing in Hyde Park didn’t shake the Blair camarilla from their murderous fealty to the Bush Regime (though we perhaps came closer to averting that war than with any other).
No, the greatest effect the dissident can have is on her own community and, through that, the state. I write hoping to be read by my fellow citizens and hoping to affect, if only in some microscopic way, their thinking, their voting, and their organising. STWC march and hold street stalls to educate and inform the British people about our government’s crimes because they are something we share responsibility for and have the ability to affect. That should always be our priority, even were ‘their’ crimes to be large and ‘ours’ small (instead of the reverse). If we can do something about our crimes but can only shout about theirs, then our smaller crimes should still be our foremost occupation. Journalists would do better to keep this principle but, since they do not, it is up to citizens to shine light where it is needed and not waste time doing work that, honest or not, is already being done. Why should STWC run stalls denouncing Putin for the villain he undoubtedly is when the media does that daily with vastly greater volume? It’s like working one’s way to the front at a gig and humming the baseline for benefit of the crowd. What’s more, when it’s an official enemy and not an ally, it’s indulgent. My condemnation of Russian human rights abuses would have no material effect on that country’s leaders, would not educate a British public who are told of them weekly, and could not bring about any beneficial change in a British government that already considers Russia an enemy (though it might persuade the Tories to return their donations). Contrast that with the Chagos Islands scandal, where the media are usually silent, the public know little, and our government’s behaviour over fifty years has been contemptible.
Nor does the demand for balance go both ways: the domesticated journalist who spends his career reviling whichever of Eurasia or Eastasia is being liberated this year will never be asked to reserve any ink for Oceania. Well trained journalists care, cry, and condemn only when it is convenient to their governments; hearts bleed but eyes remain closed. They absorb this conditioning unconsciously through years of socialisation until they know instinctively when they ‘cannot stand idly by’ and when they must. Our ‘responsibility to protect’ the Kurds, for example, depended on who was attacking them (e. g. Saddam Hussein or the Turkish government). The real measure of the dishonesty of these calls for even-handedness is that they are never made of the dissidents who live in enemy states. The people who demand that STWC condemn Putin never demanded Pussy Riot call out Obama’s drone terror. Even if legitimate grounds for criticism were admitted, the idea that they should make those criticisms would rightly be seen as an absurd waste of their limited resources.
Everyone instinctively understands all of this when matters are confined to every day personal relationships. To borrow from Wilde, we know to respect the person who never says a moral thing and never does a wrong thing more than we do the whisky priest. Campaigning groups like Amnesty International aside, most who rail at the misdeeds of other nations are using their freedom merely to say moral things, knowing they’ll pay no price and the victim will gain no benefit. The trade of journalism needs this lesson most of all. The press bears the greatest responsibility for informing the public and theirs is the greatest failure. Until they learn this lesson, or rather carry it from their personal lives and put in on the page, newspapers will continue to be whited sepulchres: now gilded with print but still full of dead men’s bones.
Image: Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (James Tissot French, 1836-1902 )
 Senior fellow for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Video of his remarks is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W55QaV8bWw For a report on British arms sales to Israel, see Jamie Merrill ‘Exclusive: UK sells $445m of arms to Israel, including sniper rifles,’ Middle East Eye, 24 April 2018, available at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-uk-sells-more-500m-arms-israel-including-sniper-rifles-718473139 (accessed 11/09/18).