Imagine looking at Aleppo and thinking primarily of yourself. Imagine reading about the violence and deprivation in this city and wondering what it all reveals about you. Imagine treating Aleppo, less as a wartorn city brought to ruin by a lethal combination of Western and regional meddling followed by a brutal air campaign by Russia and Assad, and more as a litmus test of your own decency; a theatre in which to act out your own moral psychodramas and re-enact your own petty political battles. Incredibly, this is happening. The Western political and media elites’ response to the tragedy of Aleppo has not been to work out how this horror came to pass, far less what role they might have played in it; it has been to turn Aleppo into a stage upon which they might say something about themselves, prove themselves, absolve themselves.
Virtue-signalling has gone global. Where once war was ‘the continuation of politics by other means’, in Clausewitz’s famous words, the Syrian disaster suggests it is now the continuation of tweeting by other means. Many in the West, especially in so-called liberal circles, have transported their moral self-advertising from the virtual world of Twitter into the real, bloody world of war. They hope to discover in Aleppo not a reason for all this, or some solution to it, but a framework for their own morality, and for their lives fundamentally. One columnist wonders what we see ‘when we turn off the pictures from Aleppo and look in the mirror’. A narcissist, perhaps? Someone so vain he thinks other people’s war is about him? Aleppo has become an ‘exemplar of something else’, says a writer for the Atlantic. Of what? You guessed it: of us, and our attitudes, and our need to do better; to jettison our ‘indifference’ and ‘fecklessness’ and become more moral and assertive in the world. Aleppo is a calling.
The speed with which the tragedy of Aleppo has been bent to our political needs, made into our moral struggle, not their bloody one, is staggering. It’s especially pronounced in Britain, where a lost, exhausted Labour left is using Aleppo as a backdrop to its own petty infighting. They’ve marshalled Aleppo to the shallow clash between Corbynistas and Corbyn haters, the former insisting Jeremy Corbyn is doing a good job of condemning all sides in Syria, the latter insisting Aleppo has exposed Corbyn’s uselessness, or, worse, his sympathies for Russia. ‘Are we all Jeremy Corbyn now?’, worries one anti-Corbyn Labourite in a piece on our attitudes to Aleppo. We must be louder and braver if we ‘do not want to see Corbyn’s face in the mirror’, he says. To bind up Aleppo in the internecine dinner-party squabbles between the rumps of a flagging Labour Party, in the question of what kind of lefty we see when we look in the mirror, requires extraordinary levels of self-obsession. Corbyn-critical Labourites have held protests calling on their party leader to ‘do more’ on Aleppo. Of course there’s nothing Corbyn can do – this is a man bereft of good policy ideas for Britain, never mind for horrifically complicated warzones. No, these protesters merely use Aleppo to the end of questioning Corbyn’s fitness to lead. They refashion a foreign disaster into a domestic weapon.
When the Morning Star this week published its infantile front page referring to Assad’s and Russia’s assault on rebel strongholds in Aleppo as a ‘liberation’, the extent to which British Labourites have made Aleppo all about their own political and personal travails became brutally clear. If you ‘associate with this traitorous scum’, said Labour MP John Woodcock of the Morning Star, then ‘you’ve no place in our politics’. Aleppo is little more than fuel for purging, a means of cleaning out Labour, for redefining, or rediscovering, its purpose. Corbyn’s inner circle responded by saying Corbyn has ‘repeatedly condemned’ Russia’s and Assad’s actions. Others in Labour chastised former leader Ed Miliband for organising the vote against British intervention in Syria in 2013. ‘I still feel sick [over that]’, said Woodcock. ‘The greatest regret of my life’, said another. Me. Feelings. Emotion. Sickness. As Freddy Gray of the Spectator says, the question of foreign policy is now intimately bound up with ‘politicians’ feelings’.
Elsewhere, Aleppo has become all about restoring Western prestige, or at least finding some meaning for the West. It ‘shames us all’, says Boris Johnson. It’s a ‘symbol of American weakness’, says one columnist. Aleppo is always a symbol, an exemplar, a mirror, a test. Aleppo calls on us to re-energise the ‘ideas we have cherished since the Second World War’, says another columnist. This transformation of Aleppo into a pool in which we might behold our own reflection echoes the Western discussion of Syria over the past five years. Continually, Syria has been treated less as a nightmarishly complicated conflict than as a question mark over our heads. The talk has been of moral obligations, generational tests, reviving Western ideals, with Syria ‘hold[ing] up a mirror to Britain’ and asking ‘what sort of country are we?’, in the words of one observer. Enough with the mirrors, please.