King Leopold II of Belgium founded a slave colony in the Congo and tried to cover his tracks by telling anyone who asked that he was sending people to Central Africa for scientific and philanthropic reasons. He set up a series of organisations with names like the "Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo", supposedly academic research groups with humanitarian goals. Leopold talked nobly of setting up "hospitable, scientific and pacification bases to be set up as a means of abolishing the slave trade", and insisted that, "Belgium may be a small country, but she is happy and satisfied with her fate; I have no other ambition than to serve her well."
In fact, Leopold's organisations were a front for the exploitation and domination of the Congo Basin. They were made up of a group of businessmen – including a banker who held shares for Leopold – who had shares in the Congo, destroying its natural resources and killing over 10 million people through forced labour.
Throughout history, powerful people have tried to hide what they are doing. PR is nothing new. Political spin is nothing new, and the ruling elites of Western nations have long been particularly guilty of preaching freedom while practicing oppression. But in today's world, PR is king. Politicians post selfies on Instagram accounts. CEOs make jokes on Twitter. Everywhere you look, a powerful person is engaged in a nice bit of what we've recently started calling "virtue signalling".
And it often works. If we like Justin Trudeau's socks, or love the way he smirked and said, "Because it's 2015" when he was asked about his gender-balanced cabinet, then we're more likely to cut him some slack if we find out he's championing government policy that will wreck the environment or that his feminism doesn't go beyond mere words .
Today, neoliberal politicians and business leaders know it's important to look woke. In our free market economy, you can enact policies and make business decisions that increase inequality, harm workers from all backgrounds and continue to destroy the environment, but if you put in an appearance at a Pride rally or speak about the need for ethnic diversity in the workplace then you're all good.
You don't have to stand for anything other than a good photo-op and you don't have to be committed to anything other than the free flow of capital and the appearance of tolerance.
While the politicians below certainly don't outdo the men like Donald Trump when it comes to implementing policies that make our world worse, they're far less woke than their well-manicured images suggest.
Is it a Disney Prince? Is it Clark Kent? No, it's the prime minister of Canada! He jogs, does yoga and is partial to a hilarious (carefully co-ordinated by his press office) photo bomb. Also, he wears fun socks! BuzzFeed has a post entitled, "Literally Just 27 Really Hot Photos of Justin Trudeau" and another called, "People Are Shook Over How Hot Young Justin Trudeau Was".
But the prince of being handsome is also the prince of being a hypocrite, the Platonic ideal of how neoliberal politicians operate in a world in which they have to appear to be good guys. He's out there telling the world that Canada really, really cares about climate change, while at the same time telling oil company executives in Houston, Texas that, "No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there." He's talking about Canada's Alberta tar sands and, if that oil is sold and burnt, as Trudeau intends, it will use up a third of the global carbon limit that Trudeau himself helped set (with much fanfare, naturally). No amount of Instagram photos of him hugging a seal will undo the damage caused.
When he's not tweeting gags at Chandler from Friends, he's pushing through secretive trade deals like CETA, a deal between Canada and the European Union. Trudeau calls it "progressive", but in reality it allows corporations to sue governments, opens up public services to conglomerates, pushes down safety regulations and makes it easier for your job to be moved elsewhere.
His government has made it easier to sell arms to countries like Saudi Arabia, and the prime minister even tried to put a noble gloss on massive Canadian deals with the Saudis, saying his nation was duty bound to honour its word, as if he was talking about defending a damsel in distress, not $15 billion worth of armoured vehicles to a repressive regime carrying out an illegal war in a neighbouring country.
On electoral reform, a key issue in Canada, the former "chill snowboarding instructor" has proved just as hypocritical. Here's a two-minute long compilation of him committing to change Canada's First Past the Post system. And then, earlier this year, those promises were broken and electoral reform was abandoned.
Even his much trumpeted feminism and concern for Canada's First Nations people is a con, with – among other things – Trudeau's government opting for tax rebates over a national childcare policy, taking no action on Canada's stark gender pay gap, suing the Canadian Human Rights tribunal because it dared to link suicide deaths with government inaction on implementing equality in healthcare delivery for Indigenous children and, according to the lawyer Pamela Palmater, "failing on literally every promise to Indigenous peoples generally and Indigenous women and girls specifically".
Trudeau is the ultimate soft boy; he helps entrench power for the wealthy few while his PR team make sure you're gawping at a picture of him looking fit in a canoe.
Heralded as a saviour by European liberals for beating Marine Le Pen, Macron is a presentable guy who enjoys hosting celebrities like Rihanna and Bono, wearing a good suit while out for a stroll with fellow wearer of a good suit, Justin Trudeau, and appearing to talk tough to arch meanie Vladimir Putin.
He's also fond of comparing himself to the Roman God Jupiter, holding Donald Trump's hand and reducing taxes for the ultra-rich. A former investment banker, member of Francois Hollande's government and the product of some of France's most exclusive educational institutions, Macron somehow managed to run for president as an "outsider", which is a bit like an American billionaire who lives in a gold-clad tower calling himself a champion of the people.
Macron, like Trudeau – and like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton before them – is a man who says that he is neither left nor right wing. Rather, he is dreaming of a perpetual gig economy for all by empowering his millionaire labour minister to cut protections for workers and promoting legislation that will move France into something like a permanent state of emergency, in which the freedoms Macron is purporting to protect will be gravely threatened, all in the name of imprisoning a few Muslims.
At the end of it all, he's a man who thinks a nation state is basically Facebook or Google, and that every citizen has tens of thousands of Euros in seed money just knocking about to fund some entrepreneurial dream or other (guess there really is a reason he loves holding Trump's hand), with his greatest tweet reading: "I want France to be a start-up nation. A nation that thinks and moves like a start-up. #VivaTech."
In one of its many gushing pieces on Arizona senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, the Washington Post declared that "all over this world, Mr McCain is associated with freedom and democracy". Perhaps they presume that teenagers across the world have posters of McCain on their wall and his famous love of freedom has inspired songwriters from Baghdad to Buenos Aires.
McCain has recently earned some woke points by voting against his party's Obamacare repeal bill, but while he and the American media love nothing more than to wax lyrical about the "maverick" McCain, and his fearless, independent spirit, reality shows a man who, among other things, agitated for the Iraq War, chose Sarah Palin as a running mate, called anti-war protesters "low life scum", still refers to Vietnamese people as "gooks", tried to block the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. day, supports the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and has voted with Trump on 85 percent of occasions, including on legislation that makes it easier to drug test employees and that scraps educational reforms and protections brought in under Obama.
But sure, he's a noble maverick like Alan Alda on the West Wing or the eagle from the American flag.
The German chancellor is much more honest about what she really stands for than any of the men above, but this hasn't stopped those who believe the European Union is a bastion for all that is good and true in the world from trying to turn her into a champion of progressive politics, particularly after she ensured that Germany took in a large number of Syrian refugees.
Merkel voted against equal marriage in Germany (she believes marriage is "between a man and a woman"), supported a burqa ban and tries to pass off the austerity policies ruining Europe as "balancing the books". Her government significantly watered down language on climate change prevention in order to appease Donald Trump, while at the same time presenting itself as a grand defender of the environment. And then there's her famous stance on refugees, which started so progressively but has twisted and turned to the point where, last week, it was reported that she'd told Donald Trump she "regretted" opening the doors of her nation to the victims of the war in Syria.