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Graeme Archer: Our hearts are moved by Syria. But not, yet, our consciences

Graeme ArcherGraeme works as a statistician, and won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011.  He writes a column in Saturday's Daily Telegraph.  Follow him on Twitter.

We all like to think we’re good neighbours. Who likes to acknowledge their own short-comings, for one thing, and for another, if you do displease the folk who live next door, you have to live with the consequences. The frosty “good morning”. And for the worst crimes, the note through the door. It makes you swear with rage, because you know you’ve done wrong, and your neighbour is your witness.

Your witness and your conscience. Play your music too loud, even if no-one bangs on the wall in protest, and you know you’ve chosen to act in a way that could cause upset; that you’ve put your desires ahead of another’s needs.

Unless you’re a sociopath, this empathetic imagining of another’s pain will modulate your behaviour, or at least your volume dial. They live next door to you, these people. It doesn’t require the imagination of a Charles Dickens to see or feel the damage you’ve done.

I believe that “we” (that is, the cultural boss-class) have for decades been attempting to breed this conscience out (the fuck you of modern life grows ever louder) but it’s still there, just, in most people. It’s why Britons are polite: it’s a small island and we mostly live close to each other. You read about those stories of twenty-year feuds over the positioning of a privet hedge or a car-port and tut, and shake your head, and think “Thank God that isn’t us.”

Conscience breeds concern, too. How’s that old bloke next door? We’ve not seen him this week, and he’s usually out on Thursdays, fussing over the recycle bin lids. Go and ring his bell. See if he’s OK. Doing good because you can, and because you know you will feel shame if you don’t. 

From these (I’d say) uncontroversial statements about the social utility of neighbours - conscience, focus for care - socialists and Christians both have fashioned a principle which my head knows to be sound. Those who believe in a universal goodness tell us: act in this world as though every man within it is your neighbour. All are equal in the eyes of social justice/God. 

I don’t disagree, as I say, with this instruction. But I also know I don’t live up to it. I care more about my neighbours than I do about the people who live on the other side of the planet, both because I fear the judgement of the former more, and also because I’m able to help them: do something small, something local (feed her cat, fetch her shopping). 

But injustices in countries far away? What can you do? I mean you, reading this piece, now, not the impersonal “one”. “Someone” must do “something”, of course. But not me. Not you and I. There is nothing to be done by us. 

Or is the truth more chilling, that we just don’t care so much about people in Syria, because... well, it’s been expressed so well before. Why should we risk being sucked into a war “because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” 

Chamberlain’s words are used to accuse him: his sinful folly of appeasement. But I don’t read in them just a casual dismissal of overseas strife. The quotation begins: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here...” War is horrible, and just as Chamberlain’s generation was so scarred by 1914-1918 that its politicians defied rationality, in the end, in the hope of avoiding another: perhaps voters in 2013 feel a minor echo of the same. 

I don’t know if it’s true that the idea of using British force against Assad is unpopular because we don’t care enough about far-away places. But I think I know why politicians have been unsuccessful in the campaign to exhort us into supporting action. Indeed: the harder they've tried ... the less ... palatable their arguments feel. 

You know why, don’t you?

Blair; of course Blair; always the god-forsaken image of Tony Blair. The stain of Blair and Alistair Campbell’s approach to governance in the run-up to the Iraq war has not been washed clean by the passing of the years. Yes, it’s a different conflict. But thanks to Blair, we’re a different people. 

Pre-Blair, I’d have bet good money on the proposition “A Prime Minister would never deceive, in order to take us to war.” Post-Blair? 

Once, I believed the distrust engendered by that man would pass with his term in office. That belief was wrong, with hindsight obviously so. All Prime Ministers must now work against his lasting gift, his poisonous legacy: scepticism over motive. 

It’s not the antics of the foot-stamping teenager, the one who appears to be leading the Labour Party, which blocks the PM’s path, but the fact that since Blair we are wary of anyone who promises a quick route to righteousness. So much so, I think, that the locus of our concern stays closer to home than it otherwise might. 

Our hearts are moved by the images from Syria. But not, yet, our consciences. If you doubt my feeling about this, consult your own: ask your neighbour. 


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