I’m an optimist. I generally believe that most politicians enter their field with good intentions: decreasing income inequality, improving education in deprived areas, building more bird sanctuaries, whatever.
One man who’s definitely passed that stage is Boris Johnson, who’s article on burkas appeared in the Daily Telegraph last Sunday. The article was meandering, rude, inflammatory: basically, all we’ve come to expect from the former foreign secretary. Why then did the British press and public feel the need to react with such outrage? Moderates more pressing concerns than an insensitive article by a bored politician.
The article, titled ‘Denmark has got it wrong…’, was an attack on Denmark’s burka ban. On Wednesday, the country joined Austria, Switzerland, and a few others in banning the Muslim garb. Boris Johnson rightly took issue with that, and penned an article emphasizing Danish ‘freedom’ (waxing lyrical about skinny dipping for a conspicuously long time,) and eventually came to the point where he compared the look of a burka to a ‘bank robber’ or a ‘letterbox’ in a joke. Otherwise, the article is disappointingly bland: Johnson’s case for the burka stresses religious freedom and warns about counter-movements that follow bans for cultural reasons. In short, the thrust of the piece isn’t insensitive, and it’s an argument that should be pretty attractive to liberals.
Why us liberals still have the energy to be shocked anymore is beyond me. Boris’ comments are hardly out of character; it’s not even the worst thing the one-man gaffe machine has said, evidenced during his time as foreign secretary. What about that time he compared François Hollande to a PoW guard? Why have we forgotten the moment he recited a colonial-era poem whilst in a temple in Myanmar? We should at least maintain consistency: that means either reacting with a week of outraged news coverage every time he puts pen to paper, or it means ignoring him.
Outrage isn’t harmless, however. Each time a non-racist is called out for racism, much of the nation heave a collective sigh. Calling Johnson’s article xenophobic undermines the press’ ability to call out actual xenophobia when it happens, and it does happen.
In other words: outrage over the Johnson article has probably hurt critical moderates in the long term. An early Sky Data poll showed 60% of the nation did not believe the piece was racist. Conservative Brexiteers have obviously recognized this opportunity to seize the political narrative; Backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Friday opinion column made the case that the Conservative party were only investigating Johnson because they wanted him to discredit his leadership.
Every time we cry wolf on racism, conservatives like Rees-Mogg are able present their views as persecuted: common-sense Brexiteering Conservatives against the rest of the world. Johnson’s piece was insensitive and rude, but it doesn’t justify its reception. Moderates need to learn to pick their political fights: this one just isn’t worth it.