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1st January 2020

© British Museum Wikimedia Commons

When you buy a new television or mobile phone you will find that there is a thin, transparent, protective film over the screen. I have known some people to leave it there because they fail to notice it. What distinguishes humans from other animals is the fact that, uniquely, we have a similar and easily overlooked veneer of conscious self-awareness over our animal nature. It is this layer that permits us an intelligent detachment from our condition and in this slender region that irony, wit, and humour, therefore, operate. It allows observation and comment on our condition and is the basis of the critical perspective which arises from the comparison of reality with a better conception of how it could be. Being able to negotiate and understand this region adeptly is one definition of intelligence. Indeed, it can easily be argued that not to understand irony and humour is a particular way of being unintelligent. Hyenas may appear to laugh but GK Chesterton was right in suggesting that humans alone are shaken with 'the beautiful madness called laughter' or really understand a joke.

One of the most glorious flowers to bloom from the region I'm talking about was the western European tradition of satire, comedy, parody and the joke. The tradition began with Aristophanes and moved gloriously through Juvenal, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Molière, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Goldoni, Beaumarchais, Byron, Dickens, Twain, Orwell and so on, via Waugh, ad infinitum down to Charlie Brooker and Andrew Doyle. George Orwell recognised that each joke is a ‘tiny revolution’ as it implies criticism of reality from another, presumed better, perspective and that inciting laughter is, thus, a liberal political act in itself. Such 'revolutions,' originating in the perspective of these gifted individuals, helped bring about the eventual triumph of liberalism in European political culture and, as a result, continued to be encouraged by it.

In the 19th century a new account of history and society came on the scene. The perspectives of talented individuals were replaced by one which saw only mass movements and class struggles and substituted the old liberalism with a grim, divisive and paranoid vision that is essentially pessimistic about the present. This account was serious, pedestrian and humourless. It re-configured everything that happens in the facile and childish terms of power dynamics, exploitations and oppressions. It imposed a simpleton’s Robber Barons and Peasants or Underdog versus Bogeyman-authority narrative on history and current reality that removed moral complexity and nuance. It was, of course, the account given by Karl Marx.

Placed alongside the tradition I described above it soon became apparent that the two could not co-exist. It was a zero-sum game because each tradition means death to the other. The flat-footed Marxist tradition thrived on a literalist lack of irony and, by merely opening its eyes and countenancing it, the satirical tradition of sophisticated wit could not help but see and spontaneously ridicule such doltish literalism. This form of consciousness represents to the Marxist an inconvenient and lethal artillery, then, which will, given its head, always effect a cognitive displacement of his doctrine. Thus, in Martin Bormann’s words: "Every educated person is a future enemy” and must, if by “educated” one means trained in the Western tradition of wit, therefore, be eliminated.

In its insidious “long march through the institutions” the Marxist tradition has sought, in its turn, to disallow, and displace sophisticated irony and critical perspective, by means of delegitimization and even criminalisation, and, thus, reverse their achievements. The last 90 years or so have been a struggle between the two traditions which can be studied by examining the treatment meted out in individual cases.

Boris Johnson is a topical case in point. I like Boris and am hoping for a lot of him but I don't intend a party political broadcast on his behalf. I choose him because, he personifies, feels located and at home in, and is a product of, the western satirical tradition. He even has the requisite Byronic attributes to boot. This must, in part at least, derive from the fact that he is the beneficiary, via Eton and Oxford, of the best literary and classical education the British Isles can offer (a 'privilege' the Marxists hate even more of course). He is a very 'educated person.' Combined with the obvious modicum of talent that propelled him to be President of the Oxford Union and editor of one of the most esteemed political and arts magazines in the world, The Spectator (while also holding down a British parliamentary seat), he must seem a formidable foe to the Marxist tradition.

This explains why his rise to power has been so fiercely opposed. In his person and the long-brewed sophistication of his way of thinking he represents a dangerous rear-guard action and the return to ascendancy of an old tradition inimical to the  more recent Marxist one. As a result we have witnessed a life and death dogfight between two traditions. Hence the take- no-prisoners attempt to criminalise him and his way of thinking.

In practice, at first, this was done by crass, literalist readings of his writings and his conduct in ways that deliberately refuse the terms of the satirical tradition in order to find nothing in them but attempts to offend or stir up hatred. A calculatedly cynical and self-serving obtuseness on the part of the more intelligent on the left and a real obtuseness on the part of others finds almost the opposite to what was intended. In doing this the liberal critical perspective provided by human self-awareness is dishonoured by pretending, to all intents and purposes, it doesn't exist at all. Thus the Marxist mindset finds the only things that its  self-imposed limitations make it capable of finding.

(In an annex below, I attempt a detailed rebuttal of these attempts by using a kind of literary and cultural forensics)

The attempted destruction of Boris Johnson's right to moral authority and the  delegitimisation of him by means of compromising accusations of racism was not, however, enough. The very existence of western wit is an offence, a scandal and an outrage to the mind of the modern Marxist left. A man who made the fatal mistake of presuming unapologetically that it is acceptable merely to be an exponent of the western tradition deserved worse. Animated by the spite and vindictive hatred usually reserved for those who have safely been branded as scapegoats they moved next to the kind of humiliation and punishment seen in the Roman tradition of parading enemies of the Empire in a triumph to underline the power of the Roman state. This was amply demonstrated in the spell between his election as party leader and the 2019 General Election when he was politically powerless and vulnerable. It was at this moment that the forces of spite emerged into the open and went beyond the attempted lobotomisation of the satirical spirit.

Their actions were epitomised in the letter-writing episode occasioned by the Benn Act. A grown adult in the highest office in the land was required to write and send a letter he had no desire to write. His free will and agency were overridden and possessed leaving a kind of hollowed-out zombie or deterministic robot Prime Minister (of the kind foreshadowed, perhaps, by the more compliant Mrs May who was referred to as the Maybot). This body-snatching trick achieved, we witnessed an unsettling form of automatic writing in which the will of one set of people was dictated via that of another rather in the way an unearthly spirit operates through the host of a medium. It was an unprecedented offence against the legal and cultural idea of personhood.

We have grown accustomed in our times to seeing this manner of punishment for the sin of being. Unrepentant maleness of the kind that is found to be useful in the Police Service or professional football is now forced to sport queer livery. In the same way there were attempts to dictate to Boris that he should become someone else's idea of what a good person is supposed to be. This meant that there were attempts to reduce him to a man who can exude empathy to order and to emote on cue or suffer the most abject condemnation as witnessed during the recent election campaign. This was beyond the abolition of intelligence and its punishment and humiliation. This was an attempt to abolish and replace the will, personal moral responsibility and even the movements of the heart. All that was intended to be left was a chastised and soulless marionette dancing to the modern leftist liberal tune. Those opposed to Boris were unable to rest until the comprehensive process of displacement was complete and no trace of the offence of his person was left. This was implacable anti-liberal (in the old sense) enmity and intolerance in action.

Annex :  Forensic, Literary and  Cultural Deconstruction of the Claims that Boris Johnson's writings and conduct prove that he is a Racist

1) Piccaninnies and Watermelon smiles – Daily Telegraph -10th Jan 2002
This comes from a hugely entertaining article (largely about British railway chaos) written at the expense of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Here is the offending text:

“What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair, twice victor abroad but enmired at home, is similarly seduced by foreign politeness.

They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”

Gustave Flaubert, especially in his masterpiece, ‘Madame Bovary’ was famous for his use of Free Indirect Speech. This is a sophisticated literary technique where the narrator, instead of repeatedly using “He said”, “She said” to acquaint us with characters’ thoughts and feelings projects the voice of the character partly mediated by his own authorial voice. The two voices are effectively merged and the character speaks through the voice of the author. It is foolish, therefore, to attribute the sentiments of the character voiced in this way to the author. Boris uses this technique in the passage above.

Let’s look first at those AK47s, hacking pangas and watermelon smiles. One has to say that the DRC is not unknown for the use of AK47s or machetes (the article was written 8 years after the Rwandan genocide when the Hutu aggressors fled into the DRC) so this is hardly controversial. Boris then makes a comparison between the imperialist Queen supposedly visiting adoring piccaninnies and the big white (centre-left) chief, Tony Blair, aping her royalty in enjoying the adulation of Africans as she is supposed to. Boris projects himself into Blair’s mind and imagines that he thinks the same things as her Majesty is supposed to think. Thus it’s not the racist thoughts of Boris but the comically imagined imperialist thoughts which he attributes to Tony Blair and which he voices using free indirect speech. The confusion arises because a literalist would say that Boris the narrator is speaking in the third person so these must be his thoughts of course. This mistake stems from a simple lack of literary sophistication.

Then, when he writes that “It is said that the Queen…(loves the) cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” who says it? The anti-imperialist, leftist, republican enemies of the Queen of course, imagined by Boris, not Boris in his own persona. And when they talk of “flag-waving piccaninnies” those republican anti-imperialists are projecting themselves into the mind of the Queen and saying what they think she thinks. She probably doesn’t think in such terms but her caricaturing enemies insist that she does.

So, nothing to see here, move on, unless you are not sophisticated enough to appreciate such devices of course…….

2) Cannibalism in Papua New Guinea. In his Telegraph column in 2006 Boris spoke of the metaphorical blood-letting in the Labour Party thus:
“For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party,..”

In response “The High Commissioner of Papua, New Guinea, Jean Kekedo said that cannibalism had ceased to be an everyday occurrence with the introduction of Christianity some two centuries ago. Chief-killing was similarly frowned upon in what was now a fully signed-up member of the Commonwealth.” (BBC)

a quick look at Wikipedia reveals this: ‘Although by the late 20th century headhunting and cannibalism had been practically eradicated, in the past they were practised in many parts of the country as part of rituals related to warfare and taking in enemy spirits or powers. In 1901, on Goaribari Island in the Gulf of Papua, missionary Harry Dauncey found 10,000 skulls in the island's long houses, a demonstration of past practices. According to Marianna Torgovnick, writing in 1991, "The most fully documented instances of cannibalism as a social institution come from New Guinea, where head-hunting and ritual cannibalism survived, in certain isolated areas, into the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and still leave traces within certain social groups."’

This suggests that Boris, as well as ridiculing the Labour Party and his own party, was referring to a well-documented and recently historical phenomenon. He just wasn’t allowed to mention it.

3) Myanmar 2017 as Foreign Secretary. On a visit to a Buddhist Temple in Yangon Boris was invited to strike a 42 ton bell. Being extremely well read and having a highly developed literary sensibility the cultural resonances irresistibly brought to mind these lines from the Nobel-prize-winning poet Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘Mandalay’:

“For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say;                  Come back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Boris muttered them under his breath perhaps rejoicing in the felicity of the coincidence. However, the excruciated and uptight British Ambassador, was terrified that this would offend the Myanma hosts’ supposedly wafer-thin sensitivities. Boris will have known, as perhaps the ambassador did not, that the speaker in the poem was not a callous imperialist mandarin but a cockney squaddie; a poor bloody infantryman perhaps (for his sympathy with whom Kipling was famous). Now stranded in rainy London he recalls his time with a Burmese girl in Mandalay and the romance and exoticism associated with it with intense affection for the country. The squaddie goes on to say:

“If you’ve ‘eard the East a callin’ you won’t never ‘eed nought else.”

Boris the Englishman was there on the ground continuing the British- Myanma relationship which is surely not helped by pretending the past never happened or that everything about it was relentlessly evil or exploitative. But some people want to view things in such a way……..

4) Boris and the Erdogan limerick. President Erdogan is not known for his sense of humour or love of the free press. Boris Johnson, who has Turkish ancestry, won a Spectator competition which invited people to write offensive poetry about him with this limerick:

“There was a young fellow from Ankara                                     

Who was a terrific wankerer

Till he sowed his wild oats

With the help of a goat

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.”

Why would one assume this amusing effort by a pressman wedded to the idea of a free press was impelled by racism rather than, say, simple dislike for a proto-tyrant? Perhaps because being hellbent on finding the accused guilty of racism as a first cause is what leads one to finding him racist as an inevitable effect………..?

5) Letter-boxes and Bankrobbers. In a 2018 article Boris championed, in full JS Mill liberal manner, the right of Muslim women, in contrast to a recently passed law in Denmark, to wear the niqab and the burqa in the UK if they wished to. In passing he also commented that he found the practice ridiculous (and hence used the terms letterbox and bank robber) - “human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we (the British or Western Europeans in general) work”. The letterboxes and bank robbers was an expression of his personal opinion, deliberately couched in naïve terms, and it issued from the perspective of western European culture. It, perhaps, suggested that a western European child, seeing a woman wearing one of these exotic garments for the first time might well see a resemblance to a letterbox or a bank robber as they are completely alien to our distinctive culture. In this way it prioritised a British-European perspective, suggested that such a thing actually exists and existed before Britain began to welcome other cultures and that it might have intrinsic value. This, of course, was to sin against the doctrine of multi-culturalism that demotes British culture in Britain to be just another culture alongside more recently arrived ones. It was also to suggest that respectful saws like “When in Rome do as the Romans do” have a value.

Those multi-culturalists militating against Boris and this view seek to impose an alternative view. This is valid and can certainly be the matter of debate. What is not valid is their attempt to simply cancel Boris’s perspective and that of his notional British child in Britain, in advance and instead of that debate, by criminalising him for racism. That is to prejudge the outcome of that particular, very important debate.

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