In a pungent article in today's Independent, Adrian Hamilton lambasts the empty rhetoric spouted by Western leaders at the recent Berlin Wall (demolition) celebrations. Sarkozy, Clinton, and –needless to say – Gordon Brown uttered meaningless platitudes about 'freedom' and the West's role in promoting it. Brown's "you know that while force has temporary power to dominate, it can never ultimately decide" takes the biscuit for sheer nonsense – the hastiest glance at history tells us it simply isn't true.
Our purblind Prime Minister loftily proclaimed that "an Africa in poverty, Darfur in agony, Zimbabwe in tears, Burma in chains, individuals, even when in pain, need not suffer for ever without hope". As Hamilton points out, all this Pollyanna-ish flim-flam churned out by his Whitehall speech writers flies in the face of reality. It wilfully denies the inescapable fact that, far from exerting themselves effectively to right these undoubted wrongs, Western leaders are tumbling over backwards not to rock the boats of petty tyrants, dictators and mini-Hitlers all over the world instead of putting pressure on them to reform.
Unfortunately, little of all this is the result of conscious hypocrisy or of deliberate lying. The reality is even worse – that our leaders sincerely believe most of the hifalutin nonsense they spout about 'democracy' and 'freedom', whilst blithely ignoring the damage they are doing to these concepts both at home and abroad. For most of the past decade – ever since the '9/11' Twin Towers atrocity – they, and much of their electorates and the media, have lived in a paranoid state of false consciousness, misconstruing much of the actual state of world affairs and chasing will-o'-the-wisps such as a shadowy 'Al Qaeda' alleged to have the power as well as the will to launch murderous terrorist attacks on the American and European civilian populations. So, ostensibly to prevent this, the West has launched murderous attacks upon the civilian populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rationale of which are now being increasingly questioned. Whether it is already too late to retrieve a firmer contact with reality and tackle the outstanding issues which are making the world such a dangerous place remains to be seen. But judging from the flowery phrases uttered at the Brandenburg Gate, the chances are not very bright.
In these uneasy days, I am increasingly drawn back to Matthew Arnold's superb poem Dover Beach (1867), in which he laments the ebbing Sea of Faith, hearing "its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/retreating, to the breath/of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear/and naked shingles of the world/….And we are here as on a darkling plain/swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/where ignorant armies clash by night."
The dwindling faith of which Arnold wrote was religious faith. Now, it is our previously taken for granted faith in democratic values, principles, and practices which is visibly shrivelling when confronted with our leaders' self-deluded posturings and verbal acrobatics which defy a very different truth.