I was looking out over a Normandy beach when I became aware of Boris Johnson’s now infamous comments on the burqa that have reportedly led to his Facebook page serving as a hunk of dead meat to this country’s racist maggots.
Apple News alerted me to the comments. I really should learn to leave my iPhone at home when I go away. On the other hand, the instant news notification did serve to drive home the lesson from visiting that part of the world.
Normandy remembers its history. As my family and I drove along its coastal roads, we were regularly confronted by signs pointing to memorials, museums, cemeteries and battle sites. The towns and villages we passed through were festooned with the flags of the allied nations, the British and American ones prominent among them – which is appropriate given the role they played in turning the tide against Nazism and fascism in the Second World War.
The region’s effort to remember the past, for me, was juxtaposed with Johnson’s cynically ugly comments, which followed a reported dalliance with the alt-right’s American kingpin Steve Bannon. His remarks served to underline a sad and bitterly ironic fact: Britain and America are now among the most prominent in the revival of the political ideas that ultimately led to the bloody conflict from which they had emerged victorious more than 70 years ago.
A short distance from Omaha beach, where the American forces engaged in some of the hardest fighting of the Allied invasion of Europe (Hollywood did a decent job of depicting it in Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan), is the Overlord Museum. There is a sign there that explains how a certain former army corporal made the Nazi Party electable in 1930s Germany by portraying it as “siding with the underdog, the embittered and the put-upon”.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising as I read it because the same message is at the core of the alt-right’s playbook today. The current rhetoric is never quite as blatant as what came before – it has learned how to play the game in the modern media age, so it typically denies overt racism, and its attacks on the immigrant “other” are carefully worded so as not to lose a veneer of bogus respectability.
Where once BNP leader Nick Griffin was pilloried by all sides during a lone and disastrous BBC Question Time appearance during the party’s mercifully brief renaissance, his successors are welcomed with open arms, with seats on the panel reserved for them whenever they want them. Bannon is able to portray himself as a legitimate political actor who receives invitations to Financial Times conferences shortly after appearing at rallies held by France’s Front National. He’s part of the “alt-right” rather than the “extreme right” and they’re ok. Didn’t you realise?
When Johnson, the latter’s new BFF, likened those who wear the burqa to bank robbers and letter boxes and was asked to apologise amid a rise in Islamophobic attacks on Muslim women, it was characterised as a clampdown on his free speech.
“A show trial,” declared Jacob Rees-Mogg, as the Tory Party launched an investigation into his conduct that no one (including him if he’s honest) expects to be anything other than a whitewash. His relatives; reality TV star father Stanley and sister Rachel, lined up to say he hadn’t gone far enough.
If, like me, you’ve ever lived on a council estate, you’ll know there’s always at least one family whose kids your mum tells you not to play with because she fears they might get you into trouble. The Johnsons have become their equivalent on a national stage.
Let’s get real. This was never about the burqa and it was never about fighting for free speech and against “political correctness”.
The Johnson clan’s leader knew exactly what he was doing. He blew his dog whistle with the aim of mobilising his hounds and reminding the rest of us that he’s still around and intent on doing whatever it takes to achieve power. So it could just as easily have been the Sikh’s turban or the Orthodox Jew’s shtreimel. The garment in question was simply a tool.
We know where the use made of it by Johnson leads, however. What the The Sunday Times found on his Facebook page rams home the point.
The hounds heard, just as they did when Donald Trump began his march to power in the US.
In the US military cemetery at Omaha beach, the cross stands vigil next to the Star of David. Should you visit a Commonwealth equivalent, you’ll likely see the Islamic crescent too. We too easily forget that Overlord was both a multinational and a multi-faith undertaking.
It is a damning indictment of the politics of some of the children and grandchildren of those who took part, and died for doing so, that they can no longer rest in peace.
Many of those children have enjoyed lifestyles beyond anything those who lived through the grey age of rationing, and died before its end, could have dreamed of. One or two generations down the line, they are engaging in a project that brutally betrays what our families fought for and against. Their wrapping themselves in their nations’ flags only serves to add insult to the injury.
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