In an age of moral vanity, it is necessary only to advertise how much you care - in a passive, hand-wringing, long-distance kind of way. Half a decade ago - April 2014 - hundreds of young Nigerian girls were captured from a school in Chibok. And, although half of them are still missing or presumed dead, the good news is their seizure led to one of the great breakthroughs in virtue-signaling moral narcissism: the birth of the cardboard hashtag. With just a tilt of your head, a furrow of your brows and a cardboard hashtag held up for the camera, you too can demonstrate how much more you care than anybody else ...and all without leaving the comfort of your armchair! As I wrote back then, in a column with the striking headline "#BringBackOurBalls":
It is hard not to have total contempt for a political culture that thinks the picture at right is a useful contribution to rescuing 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by jihadist savages in Nigeria. Yet some pajama boy at the White House evidently felt getting the First Lady to pose with this week's Hashtag of Western Impotence would reflect well upon the Administration. The horrible thing is they may be right: Michelle showed she cared - on social media! - and that's all that matters, isn't it?
Just as the last floppo hashtag, #WeStandWithUkraine, didn't actually involve standing with Ukraine, so #BringBackOurGirls doesn't require bringing back our girls. There are only a half-dozen special forces around the planet capable of doing that without getting most or all of the hostages killed: the British, the French, the Americans, Israelis, Germans, Aussies, maybe a couple of others. So, unless something of that nature is being lined up, those schoolgirls are headed into slavery, and the wretched pleading passivity of Mrs Obama's hashtag is just a form of moral preening.
But then what isn't? The blogger Daniel Payne wrote this week that "modern liberalism, at its core, is an ideology of talking, not doing". He was musing on a press release for some or other "Day of Action" that is, as usual, a day of inaction:
Diverse grassroots groups are organizing and participating in events such as walks, rallies and concerts and calling on government to reduce climate pollution, transition off fossil fuels and commit to a clean energy future.
It's that easy! You go to a concert and someone "calls on government" to do something, and the world gets fixed.
There's something slightly weird about taking a hashtag - which on the Internet at least has a functional purpose - and getting a big black felt marker and writing it on a piece of cardboard and holding it up, as if somehow the comforting props of social media can be extended beyond the computer and out into the real world. Maybe the talismanic hashtag never required a computer in the first place. Maybe way back during the Don Pacifico showdown all Lord Palmerston had to do was tell the Greeks #BringBackOurJew.
As Mr Payne notes, these days progressive "action" just requires "calling on government" to act. But it's sobering to reflect that the urge to call on someone else to do something is now so reflexive and ingrained that even "the government" - or in this case the wife of "the government" - is now calling on someone else to do something.
Boko Haram, the girls' kidnappers, don't strike me as social media types. As I wrote last year:
The other day, members of Boko Haram, a group of (surprise!) Muslim "extremists," broke into an agricultural college in Nigeria and killed some four dozen students. The dead were themselves mainly Muslim, but had made the fatal mistake of attending a non-Islamic school. "Boko Haram" means more or less "Learning is sinful," this particular wing of the jihad reveling more than most in the moronic myopia of Islamic imperialism.
But moronic myopia goes both ways, doesn't it? If the hashtag doesn't work, maybe we could persuade Boko Haram to trade the girls for these guys: "White guys: We suck and we're sorry."
Arguments about why Hillary Clinton refused to put Boko Haram on the State Department terror list are about as useful as an Obama hashtag right now. But it is worth remembering that the group's first terrorism attack was a recent as 2011. They are, therefore, part of the same metastasization of jihadist violence throughout the northern half of the African continent as the Benghazi assault and the Kenyan shopping-mall attack. This growth of al-Qaeda affiliates went on throughout almost the entirety of Obama's first term, but because Joe Biden had a cute line ("bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive") nobody paid any attention to it. #NothingToSeeHere.
While we're marking great moments in moral preening, a quarter-century ago this month the Rwandan genocide began. The cardboard hashtag had not yet been invented, so Bill Clinton had to wait awhile to advertise how bad he felt about the whole business. Four years later, as a much needed distraction from a certain black dress being analyzed at the FBI forensics lab, he embarked on a Grand Apology Tour of Africa, mostly apologizing (as is the wont of contemporary western politicians) for the sins of his predecessors - slavery, the Cold War, etc. Nevertheless, one apology cut a little closer to home. As I wrote in my Sunday Telegraph column of March 29th 1998:
He then glided on to Rwanda to apologise for the Rwandan genocide... "All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices," he emoted, "who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." Au contraire, he appreciated it all too fully: that's why, during the bloodbath, Clinton Administration officials were specifically instructed not to use the word "genocide" lest it provoke public pressure to do something.
When General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN peace-keepers, asked for authorisation to stop the massacres, the Americans blocked him and had them pulled out. The UN has to learn, said Mr Clinton, "when to say no". There weren't people like him all over the world sitting in offices. There was only him, sitting in his office, the Pain-Feeler-In-Chief kissing off half-a-million nobodies: Toot-Toot, Tutsis, Goo'bye! It's a reasonable position to feel America has no interest in preventing one bunch of Africans hacking up another bunch of Africans. But it requires especial reserves of cynicism and contempt to seek applause for feeling bad about it four years later.
For all the talk of multiculturalism, so much of modern liberalism is about striking attitudes, in which the poor and afflicted are merely the crowd-scene extras in the great show of compassion: the awesome cardboard hashtag is perfect for such an age.
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