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Faraway countries of which we know nothing

June 28, 2020

I’ve just read a long and interesting article by Tom McTague in the Atlantic magazine. In it, he explores what some see as the decline of America – a decline brought into focus and accelerated by the excesses of the Trump era. This, for a European, is an idea frequently explored, not only because of our relationship with the US is often fraught, but because we are so bound up in American culture, and dependent on its military and economic power.

If that power is ebbing away, whither we weak and decadent Europeans? This is something I’ve written about a few times in this blog, though not as impressively as McTague.

One of the points he makes is the way in which our obsession with America and its internal struggles is reflected in what you could describe as our harmonic protesting. If black lives matter in the US, so they do in Europe. Often enough, only when America lights the fire do we in our turn ignite. Over Vietnam, Iraq, globalisation for example.

He asks a question that I ask too:

“As the world watches the United States, is it the tone or the music that is causing such a visceral response? Is it an aesthetic thing, in other words, an instinctive reaction to all that Trump represents, rather than the content of his foreign policy or the scale of the injustice? Why, if it is the latter, have there not been marches in Europe over the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in China, the steady stifling of democracy in Hong Kong, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or against murderous regimes across the Middle East, such as Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Is it not the case, as many of those I spoke to said, that George Floyd’s killing and Trump’s response to it have become metaphors for all that is wrong and unfair in the world—for American power itself?”

He may be right. But he doesn’t really answer the question of why all those righteous, high-principled protesters with a concern over human rights and the plight of the oppressed have not taken to the streets in support of Uygurs, Rohingya, the people of Hong Kong, Palestine, Syria and the imprisoned dissidents of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf.

Why is it that protests against the regimes responsible for abuses of human rights only play out in the words of a few campaigners on Twitter who continue to prick our consciences?

A few theories, then.

A faraway country of which we know little.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing

These words were used by Neville Chamberlain in 1938 to justify the appeasement of the Nazis in the run-up to World War 2. Why should we care about the fate of the Sudetanland? Is intervention worth the cost of another war?

Nowadays there aren’t many faraway countries. But the fate of the Rohingya in Burma, or the Uygurs in China is about as faraway as you can get. Is that why their struggles haven’t caught the public imagination in the same way, say, as the suffering of the Yazidi in Iraq at the hands of ISIS?

Skin in the game

When thousands are moved to take to the streets, it’s usually in a cause that affects significant numbers of us directly. People protested against the Iraq War of 2003 partly because British troops were going to war, and would likely die. The Brexit protests were over a decision that affected everyone. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations have also gone to the heart of what kind of country we are. We protest on issues in which we have a personal investment.

What you see is what you believe

You could also argue that our reaction to acts of persecution and oppression is in direct proportion to the extent that those acts are captured by the media, on TV or on video clips shared in the social media. The more we see, the more we react.

Hence videos of Palestinians being treated harshly by Israelis do more to put pressure on the Israeli government than, say, the occasional after-the-fact footage of Rohingya villages burnt to the ground by Burmese forces. And when Egypt erupted in 2011, videos of protests in Tahrir Square undoubtedly influenced the US government to pull the plug on on its support for Hosni Mubarak.

Most recently, would we have reacted as we did if there was no video showing George Floyd slowly dying under the weight of a policeman’s knee?

These days it’s not enough to read narrative descriptions of atrocities and cruelty. Since the Vietnam War, we’ve become conditioned to have to see them as well.

Protests need organisers, and organisers have agendas

Look at any major protest, and you’ll see lots of handmade placards. But you’ll also see placards that are well-designed, professionally printed and on display in places where they’re likely to be photographed by watching media. That’s because behind every major protest you will find an organiser, or a coalition of organisers. Think back to protests backed by trade unions. The union banners would be everywhere.

Organisers often latch on to small, spontaneous protests, and make them big. Where would the Iraq war protests have been without Stop The War? The Brexit demos without the People’s Vote campaign? And the recent protests without the Black Lives Matter movement?

And organisers have agendas, some hidden, some overt. Take the Stop the War Coalition. Formed in 2001, it has been one of the most effective protest groups since then. Its supporters have been a mish-mash of veteran peace campaigners, far-left activists, celebrities and politicians who have jumped on and off the bus at various times.

Its ostensible purpose is to oppose the use of war to settle political issues, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. But the consistent thread of its activities has been opposition to America as an imperial power. That’s a position that Jeremy Corbyn, who was chair of Stop the War before he became Labour Leader, has held for his entire political career.

I’m not passing judgement on Stop the War, only pointing out that there has been an ideological spine running through its chosen targets for protest.

In contrast, if you’re ever visiting the British Museum in central London, take a look outside the main gate, and it’s highly likely that you will find a small table with a few pictures, and quite possibly someone handing out small leaflets.

The people manning the table belong to a Chinese religious group known as the Falun Gong. They were considered so threatening by the Chinese government that in 1999 they were declared illegal, and ruthlessly suppressed. The story came to light in the Western press, and there have been many allegations since then. Estimates of 70 million followers, imprisonment in labour camps, torture and organ harvesting.

Very similar, in fact, to the alleged treatment of another group: China’s minority Uygur population.

Yet have there ever been large protests in support of Falun Gong or Uygurs in the West? Not to my knowledge. The efforts of a few people around a table in Bloomsbury were never going to be sufficient to arouse vocal condemnation of the treatment by China of minority group – a suppression, if reports from China are to be believed, far more severe than anything meted out in the West against a minority since the Nazis began to persecute the Jews of Germany.

And has reaction against the persecution of the Uygurs been any stronger? Yes, you’ll find plenty of outraged articles and tweets in the social media, but none of that outrage reflected in public protest. Is that because the Uygurs lack advocates who can organise eye-catching demonstrations? Possibly. It could also be because people might be afraid of associating with Muslim groups motivated by other aims than simply an end to the persecution of China’s Muslims. In other words, the activities of extremists on the streets of London and Paris lessen our sympathy for Uygurs and cause us to mistrust those who are standing up for them. Again possibly.

What is undoubtedly true is that the West’s politicians are reluctant to let the fate of a million or two Chinese citizens get in the way of trade deals and other bilateral ties. And countries in Asia and Africa that have benefited from Chinese investment are unlikely to make waves either.

So through a combination of the “faraway country” mentality, lack of organised protest and political timidity, China, it seems, is able to get away with murder. Literally.

All with with Donald Trump’s blessing, according to John Bolton, who has claimed in his book that Trump encouraged Xi Jinping to imprison the Uygurs in camps.

So I guess my point is that however righteous are the causes that lead us on to the streets, there are millions of people around the world who would give anything for the freedoms that allow us to to stand up and say “no, that’s wrong”.

Perhaps we should say “no, that’s wrong” on their behalf more often. Otherwise, just as Chamberlain was advocating in 1937, we are turning a blind eye to the fate of faraway people of whom we know nothing.

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