PETER HITCHENS: What’s happening in Gaza is wrong and stupid. But did protesters really have to despoil a tranquil corner of Oxford to make their voices heard?

PETER HITCHENS: What’s happening in Gaza is wrong and stupid. But did protesters really have to despoil a tranquil corner of Oxford to make their voices heard?

The modern world has lots of ways of showing that you care, with maximum publicity. If you want to build a catwalk for your conscience to strut along, the cameras will quickly arrive to film you.

Almost none of these routes to public admiration, or to self-admiration, involve hard work, true sacrifice or real consideration for others. Rather the contrary.

The more that such people shout about their righteousness, the more I suspect that at home there is an unmade bed in a room like a landfill site and despairing housemates exasperated by the piles of unwashed plates and empty beer cans.

And I think there is proof of this in the nasty, slatternly mess that Gaza protesters have left behind them in Oxford this week.

Apparently they say they plan to transform it into a community garden, but someone needs to tell them that splintered timber, old bits of board, discarded tents and fading placards will never be any kind of garden.

Far from being green-fingered, these future leaders of our society have shown a great skill in turning smooth lawn into lumpy baked clay, bald patches and mini deserts of woodchip.

Does it not occur to them that their fellow citizens actually liked and enjoyed the place which they have so carelessly defiled? Or that, in a world increasingly made up of concrete ugliness and mess, an ordered place of tranquillity and beauty is precious?

Has Gaza so exhausted their caring powers that they couldn’t find the energy to tidy up when they had finished?

Is an exhibition of selfishness, pallets, planks, dumped tents, gouged and bald grass where a pleasing lawn once lay any sign of goodness?

This sort of thing is a major feature of our world. Give publicly to a famous charity. Glue yourself to the road to save the planet and who cares if poor people cannot get to work?

Wear a Left-wing T-shirt. Fly a Ukrainian and/or rainbow flag from your window. Or you can demonstrate against something that everyone thinks is bad (far easier than protesting against things everyone thinks are good, as I can attest).

Long ago, the satirist of genius, Tom Lehrer, lampooned such people in The Folk Song Army which begins: ‘We are the Folk Song Army. Every one of us cares. We all hate poverty, war and injustice. Unlike the rest of you squares.’

Even longer ago, the poet William Blake, who was no Tory, warned: ‘He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer.’

But neither Lehrer nor Blake seem to have made much impact on this latest generation of protesters. I suspect they are largely unknown.

For instance, compare and contrast the noisy, self-proclaimed nobility of the Gaza protesters in Oxford with the nasty, scruffy mess they have left at one of the places they first squatted on and have now quietly deserted.

Back in the spring, their consciences were so stricken by events in Gaza that they absolutely had to pitch their little tents all over a serene, newly turfed lawn outside the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

I pass it twice a day on my way to and from Oxford station on my bicycle. I recall the morning when I rejoiced to see the grass finally reappearing after years when the whole zone had been enclosed by a building site.

Among the litter left by the protest encampment was a mountainous pile of tarps and tents, despoiling the historic university building

At last, one of the finest Victorian buildings in England was once again in its proper setting. Then the protesters appeared, uninterested in the soft, moist newness of the turf, which squelched and turned to mud beneath their self-righteous feet.

There, in many cases wearing silly masks, they proclaimed their opposition to the killing of civilians, as if nobody else had ever felt that way. And there they published their so-called demands, directed at the Government and the university.

When they think about it, they must know that they have no more power over the authorities than a bedbug biting an elephant’s bottom has over that elephant. Perhaps less.

Benjamin Netanyahu never once ordered his guns to cease firing because he was so impressed by a student protest in Oxford that he could not bear to continue.

And some of them must know that others, apart from them, also oppose the bombardment of Gaza — even crusted reactionaries such as me. I recall when the camp was new, paying it a visit and being met by platoons of apprentice totalitarians.

These commissars tried to order me about, told each other not to talk to me, blocked my path and shouted slogans at me through a megaphone when I wouldn’t do as I was told.

I thought of the gardeners and how they must feel to have their work so carelessly wrecked.

I asked protesters in vain why they could not have camped in one of the many places in Oxford where they would have done far less damage. But they were just not interested.

I was reminded of the great passage in Places Where They Sing, Simon Raven’s novel about the 1960s student revolt, in which a brilliant young undergraduate uses acid to burn stupid slogans into a beautiful Cambridge lawn.

He only grasps what he has done (and begins what will become a lifelong journey of regret and remorse) when he learns later that one of the gardeners was found staring, weeping, at the damage done to his years of work.

Now, when I went on anti-social media to suggest that the protesters’ behaviour showed them up as hypocrites, the fashionable Left did not (of course) concede my point. Instead, they tweeted pictures of ruins in Gaza and sneered, as if I did not know, that ‘the grass will grow back’.

They added (also as if I did not know) that the dead of Gaza will remain dead. They chided me for allegedly caring more about a patch of lawn than about human lives. This would be a devastating criticism if it were so, but of course it is not.

Now, the bombardment of Gaza both grieves and infuriates me, because I think it wrong and stupid at the same time. But this does not stop me also worrying about smaller things. Nor does it excuse me from household chores or my daily duties.

Peter recalls that, soon after renovation, the protesters swiftly appeared, uninterested in the moist newness of the turf which turned to mud beneath their 'self-righteous feet'

It is not as if we let people off for driving through red traffic lights, or failing to take their turn at the shopping, because they are fretting about world affairs.

No more should we let the protesters off the basic rules of behaviour because they are distressed about Gaza.

The real point here is very simple, and I very much hope that those who are still encamped on the grass in the middle of Radcliffe Square, one of the most magnificent urban spaces in Europe, will take note.

Sooner or later, they will tire of what they are doing and need to leave. My advice is straightforward.

When that day comes (and may it be soon), they and all their friends should form work parties and pride themselves on leaving the place clean and swept, without a scrap of debris, trash or mess to be seen.

Some might even offer quietly to pay for any damage they have done. Then the rest of us might take them seriously and believe in their claims to care.

Peter Hitchens

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