It was King Solomon who wrote that there was nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and that all was vanity. Certainly we have enough vanity in our own age to satisfy all but the most dedicated narcissists. But I am always struck by how the myths, legends, and stories of the past resonate now—not only resonate, but also cast a fresh interpretation on what is happening and why.
Take, for example, identity politics and two of its most significant features: being “woke” and virtue-signaling. I cited in a previous article Professor Norman Doidge’s comment that virtue-signaling may be considered the most common vice of our age.
What is “woke” and what is virtue-signaling?
Well, woke seems to be the self-congratulatory idea that one, as a person, has awoken to all the injustices of the world: sexism, racism, ageism, religion-ism, you-name-it-ism and add the obligatory word “inequality.” Somehow this awareness—this “wokeness”—this knowledge makes for morally good people who by virtue of their understanding somehow contribute to the fight against these injustices or, at times, perceived injustices.
Virtue-signaling is the outward expression of this wokeness, whereby we let everyone know that we are aware and as a result we accumulate moral medals, badges, and “brownie” points.
Collecting Virtue Badges and Medals
When we are woke, we end up feeling really good about ourselves because we tell our own self-concept that “I am a good person because I am against inequality, homelessness, and poverty; the government should do something about all this and billionaires shouldn’t have so much money; it’s not fair, it’s not equal …” And so on. “Wokers” always assume they are on the moral high ground.
Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon of moral self-righteousness has occurred many times before, and since the ancients were so wise, it’s also been noted: I believe that I can identify the patron saint of all such woke and virtue-signaling addicts.
Incredibly, it is in one line of scripture only that the whole pattern unfolds: The patron saint of woke and virtue-signaling is, of course, Judas Iscariot.
What About the Poor?
We see that Judas is woke in that one dramatic moment (John 12:5) when he sees Mary massaging an expensive perfume into Jesus’s feet and he asks: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?”
Judas doesn’t say this as a neutral inquiry—a matter of objective concern—but with anger, bitterness, and self-righteous indignation. How do we know this? Because of Jesus’s reply:
“Let her alone … for the poor you always have with you, … but you do not always have Me.” Jesus defends the woman, whom Judas is emotionally, morally attacking.
The attack is woke all over.
So we begin to see deeper into the nature of the virtue-signaling and the woke: Why does Judas say what he says? Ostensibly, to show that he is committed to the poor, that he hates waste, that he abhors luxury and pleasure, that he is wholly committed to the cause, more so perhaps than even his master. But what are his real motives?
One motive is given: that he is actually a thief. Of Judas, the writer of the gospel observes that “Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.”
Thus, greed was a besetting vice for him. It is quite interesting in the UK how many of the socialist leaders are millionaires or multimillionaires, quietly squirreling away small fortunes for themselves while constantly and self-righteously criticizing capitalism and the system from which they are major beneficiaries.
A secondary vice following from this is profound hypocrisy: using the cover of his work to accumulate for himself. But note too, along with the hypocrisy, the concomitant treachery—Judas later accepts 30 pieces of silver to betray Christ. The former vice demonstrates the inability to be true to one’s own self or one’s own words, and the latter the inability to be true to one’s master or leader or boss. It seems as if hypocrisy will lead to treachery.
The Depths of Envy
But there is, perhaps, an even more startling and revealing motive: envy. Judas envied Christ, envied his importance, and how others responded to Christ’s goodness.
I am reminded of that wonderful moment in Milton’s “Paradise Lost” when Satan first espies Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and reflects on how he will corrupt them. In doing so, he projects onto God his own motives when he says: “All is not theirs … Why should their Lord Envy them that … hence I will excite their minds / With more desire to know, and to reject Envious commands, invented with design / To keep them low.”
“All is not theirs” refers to Satan overhearing the couple discussing the condition of remaining in paradise: not eating the fruit. Their possession of Eden, therefore, is not absolute but conditional. Satan reasons that God withholds giving Adam and Eve the freehold (as it were) of Eden and instead provides a lease, because he is envious and wants to “keep them low”—they are merely renters not owners of paradise. This is a preposterous observation, except for a mind totally preoccupied with, and projecting, its own envy.
In John’s gospel about Judas, the fragrance of the perfume is filling the whole house and all can enjoy it, but Judas doesn’t; nor is Satan capable of appreciating the beauty of the world or of Adam and Eve in paradise. Instead, they both envy.
As Samuel Johnson observed, “Almost every other crime is practiced by the help of some quality which might have produced esteem or love, if it had been well employed; but envy is mere unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means, and desires not so much its own happiness as another’s misery.”
Always Examine the Real Motives
If Satan and Judas are any indication, it would appear that real virtue always triggers resentment, envy, and resistance from the woke and virtue-signalers.
On top of all this, of course, they are invariably killjoys. They labor under the burden of their own self-seriousness, which means—as they project this on the world—they must be important. One cannot know this of Judas for certain, since the records do not inform us (although his inability to enjoy the perfume is a clue), but when we consider contemporary woke people, can one think of any with a sense of humor? I can’t: They are invariably humorless and usually deficient in any sense of either joy or fun.
I conclude, therefore, with the observation that in dealing with the woke people and virtue-signalers, we are often on the back foot or at a disadvantage: They have claimed the moral high ground by proclaiming their virtue. Who could argue, for example, about helping the poor? Or any of those other virtues they loudly support?
But we must remember two things: first, that their patron saint is Judas, and we are best advised to consider their motives. Rather than accept at face value their virtue, we might want to inquire as to its exact connection with them.
Second, and much more importantly in a way, we need to make a distinction, as I have in this article, between the nicey-nicey do-gooding sentiment of what they are saying and the ramifications of the real motive: envy.
Treachery is the word I have used, and backstabbing is the simple image I would use for it. If we go to a literary example, Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello” immediately springs to mind: “Honest Iago” as Othello thought him, an Iago who was persistently virtue-signaling. Othello learned too late how deep Iago’s envy was and what it was capable of doing.
A moment’s reflection on all the communist and socialist regimes that have ever been since 1917 shows not just the virtue-signaling of “for the people,” but the deepest levels of treachery. One great example is the “cultural revolutionaries” creating environments in which children report on their parents and teachers, and so the great and only building block of society from the beginning of time, the family, is profoundly undermined.
Of course, this is beginning to happen now in the West where students are reporting on their professors because of their views or because the professors make them feel “uncomfortable”! Or young children report on their parents because the children want a gender-change operation, which their parents may think unwise.
Woke and virtue-signaling are not simply threats, but real and present dangers to our culture now. Saint Judas Iscariot is, sadly, still alive and well in the West.
All quotes are from the New American Standard version of the Bible.
James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.