Does it occur to critics of Jeremy Corbyn that he might, in some ways, be right? One might suppose that it doesn’t, any more than it occurs to his supporters that he might, in other ways, be wrong. The same is true of Boris Johnson, a clown making difficult points badly and a sometimes intelligent man making stupid points well.
The two men are symptoms of this strange political reality where control of one of the world’s largest economies is being contested by two parties made dysfunctional by their internal factional conflicts. This is, you know, “The Age of Trump” where so much of the world’s politics has descended into tribal feuds that eclipse the old notions of “good” and “bad”. It was perhaps summed up best by a photograph that emerged last week of two Republicans wearing t-shirts that read “I’d Rather Be a Russian Than a Democrat”. Even a decade ago, such a confession would have been indistinguishable from treason but it proves, yet again, that when politicians speak to their demographics, their messages resonate in ways that are strong, provocative, but sometimes utterly bizarre.
Politics in the UK are no less riven by this descent into factionalism. The people who responded positively to Johnson’s burqa comments do so because they are able to rationalise accusations of “racism” in the very same way that Corbyn’s supporters believe that accusations of anti-Semitism are generated by the media. Their arguments are familiar and, despite what critics of both men would say, not without a little grounding in the real world.
In the case of Johnson and the burqa, had he phrased it differently and aimed it less towards his base, he might have engaged in an entirely reasonable mainstream debate. How, after all, does a liberal society contain a broad plurality of views including those that would seek to curtail that liberal society? How can it be an expression of a woman’s freedom if she wears a veil which represents a patriarchal worldview that would make her a second-class citizen? If dress is a form of expression, how do we defend free speech whilst accepting that some forms of speech are unacceptable?
If that was the context of Johnson’s comments, they might not have provoked such anger. As it was, Johnson was glib about a particularly sharp subject, making a joke that was veined with a different kind of fundamentalism: that toxic “just saying it as I see it”-ism of the hard right. It was as provocative as any act he committed when he was Bullingdon Bojo; an outrage to prove that Boris is a member of the club and a reminder to a certain segment of the Conservative grassroots that there’d be none of those inverted pyramids of politically correct piffle should he become leader.
The rationalisations on the Corbyn side are no less apparent and no less founded in some justifiable points. The argument, they say, isn’t about anti-Semitism but, rather, about the policies of an Israeli government whose hardline policies are producing a death toll among Palestinians that is simply abhorrent. And, again, one might concede these points as far as they go, except Corbyn is no innocent. Corbyn has spent a career playing linguistic games that have, for too long, characterised the political Left. They range from the worst kind of identity politics to a form of politics that would make one man’s freedom fighter out of another man’s terrorist. Corbyn supporters defend him because, they say, he’s simply a man who has spent his entire career seeking peace. They might well be right but Corbyn too often commits the fault which, in the broader context of our contemporary history, will be seen as the failing of leftish thought. He attempts to stake out some objective position from which all sides are posited as equal. He holds that Marxist worldview that sees power as a limited commodity to be redistributed among groups. This is the naive rationale that comes straight from the liberal arts, where, as a response to phallo, ethno, and every other form of “centrism”, every interpretation of a text is seen as a correct one and where there are no wrong answers to the question “is it art?” This is the narrative of the impartial fool who would invite flat-earthers to debate climate change with meteorologists and that gave rise to Charlottesville.
This makes both Johnson and Corbyn exponents of a form of politics in which there is no truth, merely centres of meaning or loyalty. Boris Johnson sometimes appears like a man with no values beyond those that will further his career in the moment he expresses them. He famously penned his two Telegraph columns for and against Brexit, deciding at the last moment which he would “believe” on the basis of which would put him in the best standing with his party. Corbyn’s relativism, on the other hand, is more global in outlook. He claims to take no side except the side of peace yet, repeatedly, over decades in the public eye, he has proved how impossible it is to take no side. Even as he claims objectivity, his subjectivity is glaringly obvious. He chooses to stand with the oppressed (no bad thing in itself) yet repeatedly finds himself standing beside militants.
This is the problem for Corbyn. Even when he is innocent of the charges of anti-Semitism, his innocence is too often expressed in ways that make him look guilty. His chief flaw is that he is incapable of doing anything other than play his habitual game which involves the coy use of language. This goes to the heart of the problem of Labour’s unwillingness to incorporate the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of anti-Semitism because they fear that certain uses of language will limit their ability to debate Israel. It’s typical of Labour under Corbyn that they simply couldn’t accept the definition. They had to get clever about it. In the words of Denis MacShane writing in The Independent, the Labour proposal “accepts some of the IHRA definition points but then adds its own tendentious, rambling and historically inaccurate arguments about Israel and Zionism.”
It’s a characteristic of anti-Semitism that its exponents enjoy this slippage of language but it should come as no surprise. Anti-Semitism should be no harder to describe than any form of racism. Race may define who we are but it never defines what we believe. The moment someone begins to conflate the “what” with the “who” then they have resorted to racism. They then simply disguise it by playing around with the semiology of language, quoting hackneyed phrases as “Islam isn’t a race” or “Zionism is a political movement” that are strictly true in one sense but hugely problematic in another.
The problem for British politics is that both Boris and Corbyn each inhabit closed ecologies that exist in a state of permanent dissent with the other. We’ve reached such a pitiful place that we’re not far from t-shirts proclaiming that “I’d rather be a Racist than support the Labour Party” or “I’d rather be an Anti-Semite than A Tory”. That, of course, is not how it is meant to be. Politics has always been about expediency and catching the right political wind yet politicians would traditionally come back to their individual beliefs rooted in moral codes that would never be compromised. Conscience still, thankfully, counts for something today but perhaps not as much as it once did. Increasingly, conscience seems like something that can be day traded in exchange for immediate profit. It might well be the case that both Johnson and Corbyn have key moral or political precepts that they would never compromise. The problem is that they are now steeped in so much political dogma and beholden to their deeply entrenched supporters that it’s hard to see what those beliefs look like. Consummate performers inside their chosen domains, their performances seem flat to the wider audience who will ultimately decide their fates.