Thursday, April 17, 2008

Boris, the piccaninnies, and Her Majesty’s racism

I don’t like Boris Johnson. He’s perfectly entertaining as a media tart, but I think he’d be a rotten Mayor – due to his politics as much as his competence (although the buffoon persona encompassess a decent intellect).

But there’s one criticism of him that had struck me as a bit iffy. David T mentions it: “if Boris wins, you will end up with a mayor who uses the term ‘picaninny’ to attack other politicians for racism”.

This was in a Telegraph article in 2002, and I’ve always suspected that Johnson was using the word ironically. David links to the piece, and I think these three paragraphs will do for context:

For ages, it seems, Supertone has been orbiting in his taxpayer-funded jet, descending to bring his particular brand of humbug to the trouble spots of the world. He did the namaste in Bangalore, and lo, the warring faiths of the Indian subcontinent immediately rescheduled World War Three. For a full 120 minutes, he and Cherie shone the light of their countenances upon the people of Afghanistan, and, who knows, perhaps the place is now rife with feminism, habeas corpus and multi-party democracy.
What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair, twice victor abroad but enmired at home, is similarly seduced by foreign politeness.
They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird. Like Zeus, back there in the Iliad, he has turned his shining eyes away, far over the lands of the Hippemolgoi, the drinkers of mares' milk. He has forgotten domestic affairs, and here, as it happens, in this modest little country that elected him, hell has broken loose.

Certainly, there’s irony aplenty. We all know full well that Johnson doesn’t believe for an instant that Blair’s brief presence in India successfully brokered peace. And it’s obvious that he doesn’t even entertain the possibility that Afghanistan might be “rife with feminism, habeas corpus and multi-party democracy” due to the Blair visit. This is deep sarcasm.

The third paragraph, with its “watermelon smiles” and “big white chief”, is clearly ironic. Johnson is painting a satirical colonial-era racism metaphor for Blair’s attitude, and is using this language – which would be beneath contempt if uttered in earnest – to do so.

So what about the second paragraph, that of the piccaninnies? The Johnsonian defence, I presume, is that this, too, was ironic language to satirise Blair’s attitude.

But it isn’t: “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair… is similarly seduced”.

This isn’t Blair’s supposed attitude; it’s the Queen’s.

So: Boris Johnson used the pages of the Daily Telegraph to suggest that Her Majesty may be a neo-colonial racist.

(Aside: I think it was suggested on an episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue that ‘piccaninny’ could be redefined as ‘the process for selecting a Mayor of London’.)


Liam Murray said...

Nice to hear someone from the left prepared to acknowledge the reality of the 'piccaninnies, remark rather than use it to score cheap points. Even if it's done with a little mischief.

Policy aside I find the parallels between Ken & Boris more striking than the constrasts - untameable, independent, prone to gaffes and gloriously immune to anyone's opinion of them. For those reasons, whatever the merits of either man, I suspect most people would agree that they'd both make a better fist of being Mayor than most career politicians.

Kemi said...

Good to have some context to the story behind Johnson's comments, not seemed to be given elsewhere. Nice one!

skipper said...

Actually, whilst I agree his use of the word was probably ironic, I think the section about landing among the black inhabitants and the 'Pangas hacking human flesh' reeked of superior condescending, well, racism.

Tom Freeman said...

I’m not sure – that bit’s in a sentence beginning “No doubt” and what follows is a description of things he definitely thinks won’t happen. He writes this stuff in what I’m presuming is free indirect speech, which gives him a theoretical get-out clause for any views expressed.

That said, I’m sure that if he’d been writing about black people in London he would never have used the word ‘nigger’ in this sort of style, even though the same explanation could have been given.

I’ll give him superior and condescending, but I don’t think these are grounds for calling him a racist. What is true, though, is that I doubt he’d be at all interested in anti-racism if not for the external political pressures on him.