Boris Johnson And Godwin’s Law

Have you heard of the Mandela Effect? The phenomenon where you are convinced that something is a particular way only to discover you’ve remembered it all wrong. There are sites where people go and swear that they remember Nelson Mandela dying in the 1980s, the Monopoly man had a monocle and C-3PO was painted gold. All of these are wrong, but the fact that so many people collectively misremember them is notable.

I start with the Mandela Effect because Boris Johnson’s article yesterday where he attacked the burka had me convinced that I had already written about this attack. I trawled through my archives searching for a  story I was convinced I had written. I saw articles about whether Islamophobia was worse than anti-Semitism, the comments from Baroness Warsi that Islamophobia was endemic in the Conservative party and the general failures of governments, but no specific article on Johnson.

What Johnson says matters: he is a columnist for a national newspaper and a sitting MP for the governing party. He is regarded as one of the favourites to be the next leader of his party and played a leading role in the Vote Leave campaign. So when he says that women that wear Burkas “look like bank robbers” and describes them as looking “weird”, it carries weight. What he is doing is dangerous. He is normalising a discourse around Islam that has frightening historical precedents. Women are having burkas ripped off their faces and sitting MPs tweet Islamophobic content with no criticism from their party. When Johnson says “Islam is the problem” and Islamophobia is “a natural reaction“, he moves such views from the fringes to the centre. As James O’Brien said:

I’m about to break Godwin’s Law, the law that says “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches”, but a historical comparison is necessary. The holocaust didn’t just happen. There were pogroms throughout Europe and anti-Semitism in the period after World War 1 increased.

Germany’s defeat in World War I played a similar role [in lowering the threshold for violence against Jews]. Blamed on revolutionaries and pacifists (many of them Jewish), political anti-Semitism revived with a vengeance after 1918. During the 1920s, several parties adopted anti-Semitic platforms; student associations voted to ban Jewish members; cemeteries were attacked; entire Spa towns declared themselves off limits to Jews. [1]

It was in this environment that Hitler was elected as leader of Germany. I think one thing that is overlooked is that Hitler was chosen by the people to lead them. He wasn’t considered fringe or unelectable, but the hope for a nation. Read this and the parallels with today are easy to see.

For Hitler, the master speech maker, the long awaited opportunity to let loose his talents on the German people had arrived. He would find in this downtrodden people, an audience very willing to listen. In his speeches, Hitler offered the Germans what they needed most, encouragement. He gave them heaps of vague promises while avoiding the details. He used simple catchphrases, repeated over and over. [2]

What about this?

[He] offered something to everyone: work to the unemployed; prosperity to failed business people; profits to industry; expansion to the Army; social harmony and an end of class distinctions to idealistic young students; and restoration of [national] glory to those in despair. He promised to bring order amid chaos; a feeling of unity to all and the chance to belong. [2]

I forget if that quote is about Hitler’s 1930 election campaign or Johnson campaigning during the Brexit campaign. Hitler was a populist. As well as promising all of the above,  he also promised to “deal harshly with the Jews”. Replace “Jews” with “Islam”. Do you see the potential danger of Johnson yet?

[Hitler’s supporters] had no intention of cooperating with the democratic government, knowing it was to their advantage to let things get worse…thus increasing the appeal of Hitler to an ever more miserable people.

How about now?

Johnson campaigned for Brexit. He fought hard and, allegedly, he fought dirty. The result revealed fractures in his party and the country. In the aftermath of Cameron resigning, he attempted to become the Conservative party leader before being ambushed by Gove. If this humiliation was his Beer Hall Putsch, he rebounded quickly, becoming Foreign Secretary, briefing against the Prime Minister before resigning. It was to his advantage to let things get worse…

From Foreign Secretary to featured writer for The Telegraph, Johnson chose in his first article back to speak out about the Burka and Islam. Notice how it has come after campaigning for Brexit, where he spoke often about restoring national pride. It is unacceptable in polite society to link people to Nazis and Hitler specifically and, to be clear, I am not saying that Johnson is a Hitler. What I am saying is that he is using the same blueprint that Hitler did to get into power:

  • Nativism
  • Chest beating jingoism
  • positioning a group of people as the “other” that is worthy of suspicion
  • Ridiculous hair

Johnson for a long time was seen as a bit of a joke. Take him seriously because when you look at what he’s said and read history, it’s not remotely funny.





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