Saturday 27 August 2022

Peas in a pod?


“Tone deaf” doesn’t begin to describe the message which Boris Johnson sent to the Edinburgh International Culture Summit yesterday. It was apparently intended, primarily, as a defence of Ukraine and a condemnation of Putin and Russia, and it started promisingly enough, with the words, “Throughout history, we’ve seen what happens when aggressors try to oppress and to eliminate culture. We saw it with the Nazis in the Second World War, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Taliban in Afghanistan”. There’s little there with which one could disagree, but the problem is with what it misses out. The list of miscreants over the last century or so is a reasonable starting point, but using the phrase “throughout history” surely invites, or even requires, a rather more comprehensive assessment of cultural genocide. And to a lot of people, in many countries of the world, there will be one obvious, glaring omission from the list of rogues. There is one state which, in its various previous guises, has invaded more of the world than anyone else, ever, and has committed extensive cultural genocide in the process. Systematic looting of cultural treasures and imposition of its own language was the norm for the empire in question, and still colours the attitudes of those (such as, er, Boris Johnson) who want to insist that English should be the first language of everyone in the UK. From the point of view of an English exceptionalist like the PM, there is of course, a huge difference. Whilst replacement of Ukrainian by Russian is an act of cultural vandalism, in the case of the British Empire, the English language was a ‘gift’ for which those who previously used other languages should be grateful, and not an imposition at all.

There was a second sentence in his address which also jumped out at me, when he referred to Putin’s “vile assertion that Ukraine is somehow not a real country”. It rang a very recent bell, because just a few days ago, Lord Frost made the 'vile assertion' that Wales and Scotland aren’t nations either. One can argue about the semantics of ‘country’ vs ‘nation’, but the message is essentially the same and the clear equivalence is that, in both cases, people are being told that they have no right to a different culture or a separate existence. Perhaps Johnson is judging people against a very special scale of vileness, where Putin scores highly because, well, because he’s not English, whereas Frost scores nul points precisely because he is. That’s just the way exceptionalism works – ‘we’ are always right and ‘they’ are always wrong. If you start from the utter certainty that your own language and culture are inherently superior to all others, alternative views are never going to count for much. Putin and Johnson aren’t really so different at all.


Spirit of BME said...

Excellent post.

dafis said...

Spot on, good stuff. "Putin and Johnson aren’t really so different at all." In a different context Boris would have been ecstatic at the prospect of hugging Putin as his new best friend, but that was diverted off history's path by the Russian invasion. But never mind with Boris soon out of the big job he may yet find a way to creep out to Moscow and suck up. Well within his range of flip flopping.