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Paul Vallely: Dog whistles take us into unreason  

19 July 2019

Johnson and Trump’s rhetoric reinforces views, says Paul Vallely


President Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday

President Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday

THEY were clearly very pleased with their scoop at The Guardian: they put it on the front page. It was a story about how Boris Johnson had once written an essay saying that “Islam inherently inhibits the path to progress and freedom.” The newspaper then quoted the Muslim Council of Britain, and others, suggesting that Mr Johnson was not fit to be Prime Minister.

Tell us something new. The essay was elevated to controversy from the obscurity of its origin as an appendix to a book about the Roman Empire, written by Mr Johnson in 2006. Given that, in his campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party, Mr Johnson cannot remain consistent in his views from one week to the next, it doesn’t necessarily follow that what he wrote 12 years ago is what he thinks now. This is, after all, a man who once wrote two newspaper columns — on why we should leave the EU, and on why we should not — and then tossed up between them.

More to the point, like almost every new story about Mr Johnson, it will not change anyone’s mind about the kind of person he is, nor the kind of Prime Minister he would be. The same is true of President Trump’s racist tweets about the four firebrand young Democrat Congresswoman who have been making his life so uncomfortable with a leftist populism that clearly disconcerts a reactionary populist like him.

Such stories, both in the UK and the United States, merely reinforce the views of the public. Sceptics become even more sceptical; enthusiasts become even more enthusiastic. Dog-whistle rhetoric takes us into the territory of unreason, where politics does not have to be rational, only effective.

The other day, I went to see an extraordinary production at the 2019 Manchester International Festival. It was a four-hour-long extravaganza by the extraordinary director Ivo van Hove, renowned for his breathtaking coups de théâtre. Intriguingly, he had chosen to dramatise The Fountainhead, the 1943 novel by Ayn Rand, which has become the Bible of the American libertarian right. It is the story of a genius architect who refuses to compromise with popular taste or with the demands of the market. He would rather see his buildings dynamited — cue a truly spectacular theatrical moment — than compromise on the purity of his design.

Right-wingers like the book because it embodies Rand’s philosophy of selfish egotism: the idea that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose [and] that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself”.

Simplistic soliloquies on this theme are larded with heavy doses of romantic adolescent poetry, which contrast the granite of the man of integrity with the shifting sands in which the mediocre, the follower, and the parasite live. It is all very high-minded in a preposterous way, which takes no account of the reality of how a complex society works — and dismisses entirely the human instinct for empathy and compassion.

How odd, I thought as I left the theatre, that a philosophy that so lauds integrity should end up producing politicians like Trump and Johnson.

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