Boris Johnson knocked off a column for the Sun on Friday morning in which he repeated the trope beloved of the US radical right that Barack Obama’s Kenyan origins mean somehow that he is not a “real” American. We should not trust part-Kenyan Obama and his urging Britain to stay in the EU. It was partisan, unforgivable nonsense, with uneasy tones, at best, of crude identity politics, at worst, of sinking to a semi-racist smear. Johnson was badly caught out.
For, ultimately, truth-seeking and truth-telling matter, as does the language in which they are framed. An article in the Financial Times is more credible than one in the Daily Express because the reader knows that its writer and the paper are more committed to objectivity than is a Eurosceptic propaganda sheet.
But Johnson has built a career out of extravagant use of language with only a tenuous relationship to the truth – and until now it has made many of us smile. He became the pantomime buffoon of British politics, a different politician because of his good one-liners even if they served a very rightwing cause. Now it has become more serious. The referendum is about Britain’s place in the world, real jobs and real economic prospects. It deserves better than smears based on falsehoods.
My Hertford college office in Oxford’s Catte Street is just across the road from the Bodleian, one of the world’s great libraries. The fellows at my college want to impart an appetite for truth and their students diligently acquire and marshall facts, accessing this great library and its millions of books; they are then challenged on both their acquired knowledge and how they interpret it.
Yet increasingly I wonder, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, how much our society values their efforts. If and when as graduates they try to enter the public square, they will find it inhabited by hundreds of Boris Johnsons who regard truth-seeking as secondary to the principal task of smearing opponents, ideas and propositions they don’t like, supported by half-truths or no truths at all. All that scholarly effort is devalued. Just join Leave and make it up. Be sure nobody will challenge you – unless an American president is in town.
The postmodernist claim that there is no such thing as truth, only interpretations; that evidence is not to be trusted and all there can be are pluralist “conversations”, in which anything can be asserted, is the culture in which a Johnson can flourish. Elide it with the politics of identity where blood, culture, race and ethnicity trump argument and rationality – think Nigel Farage darkly muttering about Obama’s family background: “There is clearly something going on there” – and there is a toxic fusion that permits the speaker to say more or less anything he or she wants.
The problem for the Remain camp is that, perforce, it can’t fight with fire. It has to hope that there is still sufficient British attachment to fact, evidence and argument – and hard-headed appreciation of economics – that it can win. I think building the European Union is a noble cause and that Europeanness is part of my identity. But I fear that emotion will always be bettered by worship at the ancestral shrine of Britishness, an identity I believe I can pursue along with my Europeanness. Sadly that doesn’t cut much mustard on many doorsteps.
What still does is fact. The British do respect different points of view, but not to the point where authors are away with the fairies. Postmodernism is now widely recognised as transient nonsense: it has few fresh adherents even if it has left a cultural legacy. Universities have recommitted to be firm custodians of academic freedom in the quest for understanding, backed by evidence. The BBC, a public broadcaster born of the best Enlightenment tradition of reason, should rejoin their ranks. Its new understanding of objectivity – to treat everything as equal claim and counterclaim – is to surrender. It is not good enough in reporting, say, Treasury analysis on the economic impact of leaving the EU to then “balance” it with a one-liner from Boris Johnson or an interview with John Redwood who have plainly not had time to read the 200-page document.
If the BBC is terrified that John Whittingdale will take his revenge, after 23 June, if it sticks to Reithian rigour then so be it. Better go down fighting than turn into a glorified clearing house for rival press releases.
Are we so keen to assert an idea of Britishness and so careless about evidence-based argument that we will damage ourselves economically by leaving the EU? Is politics to be framed by unfounded prejudice, funny one-liners and untruths? Do the majority of us want to live in a country constructed by the Eurosceptics and their press? Johnson’s article, I feel, was a watershed moment. I hope others see it that way too.
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