The greatest generation are all dead. We, their children and grandchildren, all too often tell variations of a similar story: sorting through their possessions and finding at the bottom of some drawer a medal, or many medals, or a citation for valour, or an account of heroic acts, or some other sign that there were giants upon the earth in those days. They never talked about it, we reflect. That generation saved the free world, the history books record as much, but they never told us so themselves.
It was not that they never complained. They told us that we live an easy, feather-bed life in comparison with theirs. They complained about materialism, and the decline of good manners, and immigration, and the government, and all manner of things. It was boasting that they did not do.
All my grandparents were dead by the time the concept of “virtue-signalling” gained currency, but I know very well what they would have thought of it. Their reaction would have been instinctive and visceral, as it was to any display of bad taste and bad manners. They might not have articulated what was wrong with virtue-signalling. They might not have quoted Emerson’s jibe: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” They would simply have seen that there was something wrong in boasting about one’s own virtue, something not merely graceless and churlish, but sinister. The fascists against whom they had fought were similarly addicted to self-congratulation.
This point relates, in a curious way, to the rise of Donald Trump, a braggart if ever there was one. Trump is constantly pointing out that he is richer than you, more powerful than you, and has slept with more women than you. He even claims to be cleverer than you, though he probably says “smarter” in order to avoid the extra syllable. The one thing he does not and cannot claim is to be more virtuous than you, largely because he has no concept of virtue. Trump is self-evidently a fraud, a huckster, and a scoundrel. Even when he poses with a Bible, he holds it upside down. He has never claimed the moral high ground, since this territory is not marked on any map he knows.
Look across the aisle at Trump’s opponents, however, and all you see is endless, cloying sanctimony. “I am such a good person. So kind and generous and wise and thoughtful. I buy fair trade coffee. I use eco-friendly dishwasher tablets. I pay our undocumented Mexican maid 20% more than the neighbours do, and let her take home the leftover tamales. I hate racism. I post cutting remarks about racists all the time on my Twitter feed. I really am quite wonderful, and each time I pass a mirror, I fall in love.” The events of 2020 only intensified this orgy of virtue-signalling: “I wear my mask to protect you. I follow the science. I have elderly relatives and love them so much that I shall be leaving them alone to die in isolation. I care so profoundly about my fellow human beings that I am willing, even eager, to sacrifice their lives and livelihoods.”
When you see the Bandar-log of the illiberal Left, a pack of selfish, whining monkeys constantly squabbling about their precious virtue like a lot of bald men fighting over a comb, even the great orange orang-utan showing off the size of his penis is a comparatively edifying sight. Both sides are despicable, but only one is continually shrieking about how admirable it is.
The beginning of 2021 has seen a marked increase in both shrill protestations of virtue and practical demonstrations of vice from those who have chosen a garden-variety pandemic as their new religion. In America, this includes most of the media and the Democrats, in Britain, all of the media and both political parties, with the exception of a small number of Conservative rebels. Mainstream political journalists such as (in Britain) Emily Maitlis, Laura Kuenssberg, Piers Morgan and Kay Burley are obviously complicit, but so too are the so-called independent commentators of Novara Media and Double-Down News: Owen Jones, George Monbiot, and James O’Brien. All these people, whose careers are thriving on calamity, have a few tropes which they trot out with increasing regularity and vehemence against those who oppose government coercion. “How can they sleep at night?” “They have blood on their hands.” “They’re killing people.” These slogans are increasingly accompanied by slurs such as “Covid denier” (clearly intended to suggest a parallel with Holocaust denier) and even the nonsensical “Lockdown denier” (as though anyone denied the obvious fact that lockdowns are occurring), along with demands that these deniers and their denials should be silenced by force.
The fanatics are right about one thing only: this is not a matter on which one can agree to disagree. In the first place, their religious certitude will not allow civilised discussion, but more importantly, even as they claim the moral high ground, they are crying out for fascism and mass murder. The lockdowns to which they are so addicted cannot be shown to have saved a single life, but there is no possible doubt that they have cost a great many. The founding principle of medicine, which pervades the Hippocratic Oath even if the precise formulation comes later, is primum non nocere: first, do no harm.
These claimants to the moral high ground have done and continue to do terrible harm. They have devastated the rule of law, and demolished the institutions of civil society which have taken centuries to build up. They have poisoned social discourse, tearing families apart and encouraging us to see others primarily as plague rats, carriers of deadly pathogens, vectors of disease. They have driven the most vulnerable people in society to suicide and madness. They have condemned many thousands to painful, lonely, and easily preventable deaths. They have destroyed countless lives and livelihoods, smashing to pieces the life’s work of some of the most enterprising and creative members of society. They have decimated the arts. They have ruined the education of children, and placed unprecedented stress on families. In short, the insane and immoral policies they have imposed on entire populations have caused death, misery, chaos, destruction, and the breakdown of civil society. I make no claims to sainthood myself, nor am I a hero, as my grandfather was, but I do not think I shall be listening to any moralising from the Covid fanatics, who add grave insult to fatal injury when they batter our ears with their contemptible drivel.