Tuesday, February 12, 2002


In the light of Tony Blair’s recent evangelising in the cause of Africa, I should like to derive from my opposition to Blair’s doctrines some principles of foreign policy whose adoption I would recommend. In order to do so, I need first to enunciate my personal response to Africa’s “plight”. That response is, briefly, THAT I COULDN’T GIVE A TINKER’S CUSS.

Many people would think that a morally-reprehensible view. Yet in other respects, though I say it myself, my personal standards of morality are if anything somewhat higher than what I take to be the norm amongst the denizens of Islington & Hampstead: I am honest, I have a reasonably clear idea of what is important in life, I do my best to use whatever talents I have, I empathise with others, I obey the law (except as it relates to “recreational drugs”), I am kind to children & animals & even old people, I am capable of gratitude & humility, I give to charity, I am always prepared to listen to people’s problems, I have great tolerance of others’ faults, I do not have a petty bone in my body, & I generally do as I would be done by. A lot of the time, I find myself submitting to the categorical imperative. So although my indifference to Africa’s problems may simply be one aspect of an evil & twisted nature, the evidence, such as it is, is against it. So how can an otherwise decent man be so callous?

I have to say I find it very easy. What I find impossible is to care about Africa. I have tried, but I just cannot do it. And I confess I am tempted to console myself by doubting the sincerity of others’ protestations of sympathy & care.

All I can do is to describe the feelings that Africa arouses in me, & to hope they strike a chord in others’ breasts. When I hear that people in Africa are suffering, I feel a kind of jejune sympathy, a sense that I should not like to be in their place, & a faint feeling of pity for them that they should be in the place they are in. I also feel, this more strongly, a certain annoyance at the mendacity & incompetence of the rulers of whichever country it happens to be, & a certain annoyance at what I take, no doubt unfairly, to be the population’s supine acceptance of their rulers & inability to come up with better ones. And often, depending on the style of reporting, I feel outrage that Africa’s problems are being used as an excuse to denigrate the West, which for all its faults nonetheless seems consistently to throw up leaders who are able to keep members of its population from dying prematurely in large numbers. And that’s it. That’s all I feel. I feel far more horror at the murder of Desdemona, far more sadness at the death of Hector, than I feel either horror or sadness at the fate of thousands of real people in Africa.

Why should this be? No doubt the Guardian man has his answer already: I am evidently a “racist” who regards Negroes as sub-human & therefore not worth worrying about. Those who make such allegations are rarely satisfied with denials, but that, fortunately, is their problem, not mine. I consider Negroes to be every bit as human as I am, and I believe that precisely the same moral consequences flow from their being human as flow from my being human. Were Africa inhabited entirely by Caucasians, my attitude to it would not be a whit different. No, the reason I do not care about Africa – & forgive me if this sounds tautological – is that it is not remotely important to me.

So what is important to me? Well, first off, my family & friends. If, by my actions, I could save the life, either of one of my friends & relations, or of a stranger, I should unquestionably choose the former. I love my family & friends. I challenge anyone to say he would do differently. Secondly, what is familiar: my home, my favourite haunts, my habits, my society’s traditions, cups of tea, the Queen, all that I could not imagine life without. Thirdly, what is pleasurable – principally sex & whisky. Fourthly, though not fourth in importance, what is interesting: which in my case includes literature (reading it & trying to write it), philosophy, music, history, & politics. And fifthly, my beliefs, political, philosophical, & otherwise.

I believe that to be a reasonable taxonomy of what is important, not just to me, but to anyone. And for people in Britain, I cannot see that Africa fits into any category for any but a small number of people. Few Britons have friends or relations in Africa, & most who have, have been sensible enough to choose from among those who are not starving to death. Africa itself, as opposed to televised reports of Africa, is not for most of us part of the landscape of our lives. Relatively few people are all that interested in it, & therefore not many have terribly strong beliefs about it; & very few derive any sensual pleasure from it. Africa, we may conclude, is unimportant not merely to me, but to the vast majority of people in Britain.

Yet we could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Africa SEEMS to be important to a lot of people, because a lot of people bang on about it. And no doubt some of the people who bang on about it have genuine reasons for doing so: they have friends or family there, or they have a villa there, or they like the food, or they are interested in African politics, or else they have strongly-held beliefs about how the place should be run. And that’s fine. I only find it hard to see how such people are morally superior to me. There are many others, however, among whom I hesitate to include our sainted leader, who have no such reasons for regarding Africa as important, but who nonetheless use it as the occasion of relieving a great deal of what I suppose we have to call “moral” feeling. And for those people, we reluctantly have to conclude that what is important is not Africa itself, but the moral relief it affords them. Africa is, in that respect, for such people equivalent to what is euphemistically known as a “glamour model”.

Perhaps we can say that Africa’s problems afford such people a certain amount of pleasure. And I think we can safely allow them that. But we should be careful to distinguish a contingent occasion of pleasurable activity from the activity itself: for we shall nearly always find that the person who relieves his moral feelings over Africa tends to relieve his moral feelings over nearly everything else he can get his hands on. And although most of the time this fellow is a pretty harmless, if slightly slimy & nauseating, fellow, problems arise when he gets his hands on foreign policy, & he insists on treating as though it were important something that is of hardly any importance to the vast majority of the people on whose behalf he is conducting the country’s foreign policy and of only accidental importance even to himself. Because then we have a foreign policy that is not in our interests.


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