To demand that the strength of everyone’s emotional responses to the events that occasion them be proportional to their importance is to demand the impossible. It never has been so and never will be so, however much we might regret or feel guilty about it; the shameful fact is that the death of my dog affected me more deeply than did the tsunami that swept away so many people in 2004. Distant events may be important in the abstract, but it is ones local to us that we feel most deeply about.
There is a quid pro quo or price to pay for this, of course: I cannot expect anyone who knows nothing of me to care very much about my fate, however tragic it might be. And in fact, it is just as well that our passions and emotions cannot be made proportional according to some rational scale of importance, even if such a scale could exist. If everyone acted according to such a scale, civilisation itself would be impossible; it would never have developed in the first place, for there would always have been something morally more important to do than to develop any of the arts necessary to it. Modern utilitarians, who demand that we should devote the totality of our discretionary incomes to relieving as much suffering around the world as possible (and there are some modern philosophers who maintain this) are, in effect, barbarians, for there will always be enough suffering in the world to absorb the whole of the world’s discretionary income and make all else impossible. Because they are virtuous, they think that there shall be no more cakes and ale.
Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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But while we can never fashion our feelings and concerns to the importance of what occasions them, yet we believe that, at least in political affairs, that we should show some sense of proportion. We should not grow agitated over trivia. The fact that punishments can never be made exactly proportional to the seriousness of the crime is not a reason for them to have no relation whatever to that seriousness.
This is a complicated matter, because what appears at first sight unimportant might be the tip of an iceberg, or emblematic of some deeper malaise or evil. Besides, man is a symbolic animal; what is symbolic is important to him, ineradicably and unavoidably so. Spitting on something that someone considers sacred is often as bad as an actual assault on a person; and while the symbols of others may appear to us ridiculous, hateful or irrational, we have our sacred symbols that probably appear ridiculous, hateful or irrational to them. Wilfred Owen the war poet hoped that one day we might no longer fight for flags, but even if the world were ever to become post-national, we should soon attach flags to other entities and begin to fight over them.
I say all this preparatory to my reflections on the passion shown for the Palestinian cause (if there is such a thing as a single Palestinian cause) around the world, especially in the West. If the Chinese support the Palestinians as led by Hamas, it is not because they feel anything much—and by the Chinese I mean, of course, the Chinese government—but out of sheer political calculation. For them, the Palestinians are but a pawn on the world’s chessboard, and if for some reason the situation changed, they would drop the Palestinians with no more regret than that with which a cow relieves itself in a field.
But the crowds of demonstrators around the world are not like this. They think that they feel deeply. They think that they are angry. They think that they are being compassionate. They think that they are being, and doing, good. They are having a whale of a time.
The Daily Telegraph interviewed two young women in London during one of the monster demonstrations there in which they were participating. Of course, a sample of two is not representative of anything except of the two themselves (and as I know from being interviewed from time to time on radio and television, what anyone says can be edited in such a way as to make him appear to say the opposite of what he actually said, or to make him seem ridiculous); nevertheless, I could not help but feel that these brief interviews were significant.
The interviewer asked them what they thought of the massacres on October 7 in Israel in which 1300 people had been killed. The first young woman, who was black and seemed very nice, was surprised; she had not heard of them and knew nothing of them. She admitted that perhaps she ought to know something of them and said she would look them up.
The second young woman, white, did not really believe in them; she thought they might have been made up. Probably, she thought they were made up, but that if they were real, they were justified. After all, the Gazans had been oppressed for years, living in a miserable enclave etc. That much of the misery of Gaza was caused by the defalcations (and worse) of Hamas was a thought too confusing for her to have.
On an American campus, privileged young women (potential Mesdames Defarge all) stood behind a banner saying “Whatever it takes”. And the popular slogan, “Palestine shall be free from the river to the sea” was chanted in many countries. The kind of freedom that might be expected from a movement such as Hamas did not apparently trouble or even occur to them.
I surmise, though I cannot prove, that the prospect of an October 7 on a much larger scale excited their imagination. There are many people who think that the lengths to which people are prepared to go is evidence of the justice of their cause, and massacre in the name of justice—whatever it takes—is proof of how much they must have suffered. It is not that the slogan fails to consider exactly how Palestine will become free from the river to the sea; it is perfectly well understood. The imagined massacre of millions of Israelis is contemplated with pleasure.
As far as I can recall, there were no mass demonstrations against the massacres of October 7. In some quarters, there were even expressions of joy or satisfaction. When one considers also the disproportion of the reaction to the Israeli retaliation—surely expected and even desired by Hamas—to the concern expressed over the civil wars in Yemen or Syria that have been responsible for incomparably more deaths, one cannot resist the conclusion that the reaction was an expression of that oldest of all hatreds, plain and straightforward anti-Semitism. There have been no comparable widespread demonstrations about the proxy war in Yemen, for example, fought between the Sunni Saudis on the one hand and the Shia Iranians on the other, that so far has cost the life of 150,000 Yemenis and, according to the United Nations, caused a famine resulting in a further 250,000 deaths. It is only when the Israelis kill—and that in strictly military retaliation—that a distant death truly counts or moves large numbers to go out onto the streets and demonstrate in favour of future genocide—the real and literal kind, not the metaphorical kind bandied about by apologists for Hamas.
Ably bringing up the rear of this passion for imagined genocide—what fun, and how profitable it would be, at least for a time, as the Rwandan genocide proved!—is anti-Western feeling. Among Westerners, exhibitionist self-hatred is the sign or even proof of true moral enlightenment and generosity, albeit that no one wants really to pay the corollary of it in hard cash. Among Middle Easterners, such hatred is a symptom of the gnawing self-contempt of people who want everything Western without having to admit that their own region of the world has contributed so little of late centuries to what they themselves desire and cannot go without. That their own societies have charms and even virtues of their own is not enough for them. They know that they are backward and have been intellectually parasitic on the West for generations, and—unlike the Indians, Chinese and Japanese—cannot see a way out of this situation. Their one glory, a world-evangelising religion, that was supposed to arm them with conquering eternal truth, has left them firmly in the rear. They can neither accept nor reject the West; thus, self-contempt is their destiny, alas.