Gulliver Survived a Shipwreck, But Boris Fears Drowning

Sensing that neither his own Parliament nor the public in Europe have any patience with his policies, Boris Johnson soldiers on by deserting the stage in Luxembourg.
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Boris Johnson in Berlin, Germany on 8/21/2019 © Photocosmos1 / Shutterstock

The Brexit spectacle increasingly appears to have been conceived in the spirit of traditional British holiday pantomime. It has become the longest-running, comically-absurd cliffhanger in European political history, now starring a lone hyperreal hero, Boris Johnson, a man who has far more affinities with the world of entertainment than politics.

When the ever-earnest Theresa May was leading the troupe (but never the troops), she sought to share the stage with other actors, united in their respect of what they believed to be the text of the play. The fact that there were two rather contradictory texts made for some confusion but didn’t faze the actors.

Under Prime Minister Johnson, the play has become a comic monologue accompanied by a song and dance routine whose text could have been written by Gilbert and Sullivan, except that the music and the rhymes are simply not up to their standard. Neither tragedy nor comedy but rather a pitiful melodrama not quite as engaging in its substance as an afternoon TV soap opera and not as entertaining as pantomime itself, Johnson’s Brexit does have the capacity to provide some hilarious moments, mainly ones that were not scripted by the author.

The latest accident occurred in Luxembourg, where, scheduled to debate with Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel with the intention of clarifying the issues, Johnson bowed out at the last minute, allowing Bettel to put on a show of debating — in Clint Eastwood style — with an empty chair or podium. Business Insider explained that “Johnson later told the BBC that he pulled out because ‘there was clearly going to be a lot of noise, and I think our points might have been drowned out.’”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Drowned out:

Prevented from dominating the conversation by voices that have been systematically excluded from expressing themselves on public platforms

Contextual Note

Johnson has repeatedly made it clear that his political thinking is influenced more by popular fiction and entertainment than by any form of deep political reasoning. Following his victory in July’s restricted Conservative Party leadership election that elevated him to the position of prime minister, to express his vision of the significance of Brexit, Johnson evoked Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver stranded on the beach of Lilliput, held down by the tiny Lilliputians’ guy ropes, which for Gulliver were no more constraining than simple threads. Johnson has now replaced that far too literary allusion with a similar metaphor easier for his younger public to understand: Marvel comics and movie superhero the Incredible Hulk, breaking out of the “manacles” that constrain him.

To explain the success of what otherwise appeared to be a humiliating visit to Luxembourg, Johnson claimed that everything was progressing smoothly toward the fatal October 31 day of reckoning. CNN reports: “Johnson admitted Brexit negotiations would have to be accelerated, and that the EU must make ‘movement’ over the Irish backstop but added that there was ‘just the right amount of time’ to do a deal.”

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After Jonathan Swift (adult reading) to Marvel comics (teenage entertainment), Johnson reassures his nation with an implicit reference to the children’s fairy tale, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” “Just the right amount of time” is the Goldilocks solution to everything. Now we simply have to wait for the happy end. Some, of course, may be skeptical that there will be one. Despite Johnson’s sunny optimism, “the British proposals remain unclear and [European Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker said the EU was still waiting to hear of a workable alternative to the backstop.”

To borrow another allusion from European mythology and fiction, will Johnson show the strength of Alexander the Great that permitted him not to undo the Gordian knot, which no one was capable of doing, but by slicing through it with his sword. Does Johnson even have a sword?

The incident illustrates one of the rarely mentioned features of the current Brexit trauma. CNN points out that many in the audience whose decibel level of shouting discouraged Johnson from speaking in public “were British nationals living in Luxembourg.” The disenfranchisement of Britons living abroad (for 15 years or more) meant that the citizens who best understood the nature of the relationship of the nation with the continent and the rest of the world were excluded from the vote. Whether allowing them to vote would have given “remain” a victory in the 2016 Brexit referendum remains unknown, but the frustration of those citizens who have built a cultural and economic bridge with the rest of humanity is obviously real.

Multiple features of the Brexit referendum, including how the “leave” campaign was funded and how the campaign propaganda was designed, to say nothing of the Cambridge Analytica-style manipulations, have created doubt about the democratic legitimacy of the whole process. The entire experience raises a further question: How does democracy work in nations where the concentration of economic and technological power has reached an inhuman scale? When a controversial, arrogant and visibly unstable prime minister is raised to the highest office in a nation that didn’t even have the opportunity to vote for him, can we reasonably talk about the workings of democracy?

Historical Note

Even more than US President Donald Trump, Johnson represents the fulfillment — in a form of parody — of a what has become in the past two decades a political trend: the aggravation of non-democratic leadership. The trend has been developing discreetly in the background for the past six or seven decades as a largely invisible, oligarchic elite across the globe has effectively maneuvered to control the reins of the economy and the power structures of governments in nations that claim to be democracies. The publicity-shy elite has succeeded in its campaign to define the narrow framework for elected leaders — from all “legitimate” parties — to elaborate their policies and make decisions, all the while claiming to represent the interests of the public who elected them.

The first bold hint that representative democracy might be a mere façade came in the year 2000, with the non-election (i.e., the designation by the Republican majority of the US Supreme Court) of George W. Bush as president of the US. The Democratic candidate who won the popular vote, Albert Gore, would have been perfectly acceptable to the governing elite, but the political preferences of the justices gave the prize to Bush.

President Bush immediately promised to stimulate an otherwise healthy economy by offering tax breaks to the rich. Polls at the time showed that a clear majority of Americans preferred allocating the existing surpluses to the needs of repairing and improving public infrastructure, even to the point of accepting to pay higher taxes. As reported, a “poll conducted before the Tax Policy went into effect, in 2001, revealed that 67 percent of Americans favored domestic spending over tax cuts.” In other words, Bush, elected by a minority of the popular vote, imposed a fiscal policy in direct opposition to the will of the majority. 

That appeared to be the best illustration one could imagine of the undermining of representative democracy. The best, that is, until Bush launched his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were highly unpopular with a large percentage of the population, conducted under false pretenses, and predictably (for those who understood) would produce the opposite of their intended goal: i.e., making the world even more dangerous for Americans, while at the same time helping to undermine the economy, a fact that became real in the financial crisis of 2007-08.

Bush, Trump and Johnson stand out as the kinds of leaders (unlike Barack Obama) who seek to demonstrate — thanks to their embrace of ignorance or their outrageously narcissistic personalities — what was otherwise meant to be invisible: the flagrant abuse of democratic institutions with a sense of royal impunity. Their acts and discourse — from the “axis of evil” to the Hulk — reduce democratic processes to a parody, a simulation of popular entertainment, a game of unthinking slogans, platitudes and tendentiously crafted opinions. 

Their effort has been relentless, literally “drowning out” any kind of intelligible political discourse.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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