February 17, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Boris & Dominic: A Modern Portrait of Dorian Gray?

Boris Johnson’s recent cabinet reshuffle, which prompted the resignation of Sajid Javid, should come as no surprise. Javid was dubbed a ‘chino’ – chancellor in name only – among Conservative inner circles and, although Johnson’s Special Adviser, “Dominic Cumming’s fingerprints may be all over Sajid Javid’s resignation, the former chancellor found himself on the receiving end of the Prime Minister’s iron fist.[1] The same article proceeds to highlight Johnson’s actions as being more attuned to his ambitions as opposed to petty rivalries.[2] This may well be the case; however, a question arises as to whether the Prime Minister is actually in control of the Conservative party’s current political direction or whether instead, he has bartered political dogma for an altogether more disturbing ideology that hearkens back to imperialist Britain of yesteryear. Brexit is no longer the issue; it is the pervasive influence facilitated in the upper echelons of power that advocate out-dated and false concepts, like eugenics, among other repugnant philosophies:

Downing Street has refused to say whether Boris Johnson agrees with an adviser who suggested black people were mentally inferior and advocated compulsory contraception to prevent a “permanent underclass.” [3]

Unsurprisingly, Cummings is behind the recruitment of Andrew Sabisky  (who has since tweeted his resignation as a contractor due to adverse media focus on his apparently ‘previous’ beliefs). Johnson’s silence over this issue is also unsurprising and as the spokesperson for Number 10 highlighted, “The prime minister’s views are well publicised and well documented.[4] Suffice it to refer to his deeply offensive comments in which he referred to black people as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles.’[5]  For those unaware of the racist offence caused by such statements, short historical overviews follow:

Piccaninny

It is a pidgin word form, derived from the Portuguese pequenino (“very small”, a diminutive version of the word pequeno, “small”, also used in Spanish, spelled pequeño) and subsequently used in North America as a racial slur referring to a dark-skinned child of African descent. In modern sensibility, the term implies an archaic depiction or caricature used in a derogatory and racist sense.[6]

Racial connotation regarding watermelons

“…the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure…Whites used the stereotype to denigrate black people—to take something they were using to further their own freedom, and make it an object of ridicule.[7]

The latest revelation surrounding the appointment of personnel possessing racist views does not help in the current climate. Emotions are understandably high across particular minority communities in view of political decisions that have resulted in the deportation of black people who were either born and/or raised in the UK.[8] Lessons from the Windrush debacle clearly have not been learned, further exacerbating tensions and reinforcing perceptions of anti-black racism among the existing government.[9] In view of government complacency around this extremely sensitive issue, it should come as no surprise that sections of wider society appear emboldened to broadcast xenophobic views, arguably mirroring official attitudes.

But this is all a distraction, isn’t it?

By focusing on and addressing the prime minister’s bigotry, Islamophobia and other prejudices against various minority groups, we inadvertently allow the obfuscation of equally serious, but more comprehensive concerns regarding those wielding legislative authority. It may appear to be Boris Johnson; however, evidence suggests the underlying influence of Cummings behind the prime minister’s executive policy making decisions, not to mention recruitment of personnel – both political and administrative:

Indeed, it would be striking if Cummings gave up power – he has spent his life preparing for it…He wants to command the ship of state. He wants to steer it into uncharted waters, the ones he believes he has long seen, but no captain has had the intelligence to spot. He has spent his life as a frustrated officer, pointing fruitlessly to glittering seas, while the state founders each year upon the rocks. He has now, finally, been handed command of the deck. The idea that he will readily relinquish control seems inconceivable.” [10]

Detractors of the above synopsis need only refer to his almost singlehanded strategy in which he was considered …by many as the evil genius who delivered Brexit…[11] His calculated ascension to the current position of influence over the prime minister invariably satiates personal and political aspirations. The question is; what does Johnson get in exchange for providing his chief of staff almost unfettered access to political power? In order to answer this question adequately, reference will be made to another historical but fictitious narrative that possibly bears some resemblance to the power sharing arrangement between these two political allies.

The Picture of Dorian Gary

This 19th century gothic and philosophical novel by Oscar Wilde caused controversy when first published due to its hedonistic content. The story highlighted Dorian Gray’s fascination with a particular aristocrat’s self-indulgent worldview, ‘that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life’:[12]

Newly understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. The wish is granted, and [he] pursues a libertine life of varied amoral experiences while staying young and beautiful; all the while, his portrait ages and records every sin.[13]

It is important to recognise the symbiotic nature between Dorian and the artist responsible for painting his portrait; ‘Basil Hallward, an artist impressed and infatuated by Dorian’s beauty; he believes that Dorian’s beauty is responsible for the new mood in his art as a painter.[14]

It should be relatively easy to discern Johnson resembling Dorian Gray in the latter’s pursuit of personal narcissistic ambitions while maintaining a somewhat impish and affable façade with colleagues and constituents:

Charm is politics’ deadliest weapon. It is not charisma, the authority to lead through an electrifying presence. It is a subtler, more intangible quality, possessed by Boris Johnson. He may be blatantly unqualified as Britain’s… prime minister…The basis for this lies in his disposition of charm.

Johnson is the darling of the polls. He mesmerises punch-drunk Tories and disillusioned Labour voters alike. He emerges from his biographical record as incompetent, lazy, dissolute and a liar, yet the public’s response is that he is ‘our kind of liar’[15]

Cummings, on the other hand, encapsulates both the artist – who believes his own success emanates from Dorian Gray’s attractiveness – and the actual painting itself. Cummings continues to endure the political fallouts, backlash and adverse media directed against him and the prime minister.  Indeed, Johnson remains the most viable avenue to fulfil Cumming’s career ambitions, so long as the current status quo continues.

Conclusion

There is a stark lesson these two political bedfellows should be alert to insofar as it relates to the final outcome of the main character in the above story. Dorian realises the destruction he has wrought in other’s lives. He therefore embarks upon reforming himself:

[He] wonders if his newfound goodness has reverted the corruption in the picture, but when he looks at it, he sees only an even uglier image of himself…

Deciding that only full confession will absolve him of wrongdoing, Dorian decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience and the only piece of evidence remaining of his crimes—the picture. In a rage, he takes the knife…and stabs the picture. The servants of the house awaken on hearing a cry from the locked room; on the street, a passerby who also heard the cry, calls the police. On entering the locked room, the servants find an unknown old man stabbed in the heart, his figure withered and decrepit. The servants identify the disfigured corpse by the rings on its fingers, which belonged to Dorian Gray.[16]

Brexit contributed to the political demise of two former Conservative prime ministers before Johnson; David Cameron and Theresa May. It also contributed to the worst electoral loss for Labour in a generation. Johnson is traversing unchartered waters post-Brexit so he would be wise to steer carefully and avoid advocating or tacitly endorsing the type of xenophobic sentiments currently touted by himself and his backroom staff. This rhetoric, alongside the inevitable challenges that lie ahead with the EU, could contribute to a far more painful downfall than his predecessors. This somewhat fairy tale period post election should not be romanticised and mistaken to resemble Beauty and the Beast; there are certainly no beauties at this juncture – only beasts.

 

 

 

[1] Tominey, C: ‘Cabinet Reshuffle: How Sajid Javid lost the power battle between Number 10 and 11,’ The Telegraph, 13th February 2020: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/02/13/cabinet-reshuffle-sajid-javid-lost-battle-power-number-10-11/

[2] Ibid

[3] Woodcock, A: ‘Downing St refuses to say if Boris Johnson agrees with adviser who suggested black people are mentally inferior and backed compulsory contraception,’ The Independent, 17th February 2020: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-andrew-sabisky-eugenics-contraception-dominic-cummings-downing-street-a9339296.html

[4] Ibid

[5] Bienkov, A: ‘Boris Johnson says his articles calling black people ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ and gay men ‘bumboys’ were ‘wholly satirical,’ Business Insider, 30th June 2019: https://www.businessinsider.com/boris-johnson-defends-his-offensive-articles-about-black-and-gay-people-2019-6

[6] Wikipedia: ‘Pickaninny,’ Last accessed 17th February 2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pickaninny

[7] Black, W.R: ‘How watermelons became a racist trope,’ The Atlantic, 8th December 2014: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/how-watermelons-became-a-racist-trope/383529/

[8] Bulman, M: ‘Government defends mass deportation flight to Jamaica amid backlash from MPs,’ The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/jamaica-deportation-flight-uk-charter-home-office-immigration-windrush-a9326461.html

[9] Gentleman, A: ‘Chased into ‘self-deportation’: the most disturbing Windrush case so far,’ The Guardian, 14th September 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/sep/14/scale-misery-devastating-inside-story-reporting-windrush-scandal

[10] Lambert, H: ‘Dominic Cummings: The Machiavel in Downing Street,’ NewStatesman, 25th September 2019: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/09/dominic-cummings-machiavel-downing-street

[11] Merrick, R & Kentish, B: ‘Who is Dominic Cummings and was he really responsible for Brexit,’ The Independent, 24th July 2019: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/dominic-cummings-brexit-the-uncivil-war-channel-4-vote-leave-eu-benedict-cumberbatch-a8716346.html

[12] Wikipedia: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Last accessed on 18th February 2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Jenkins, S: ‘Boris Johnson may be an incompetent liar but charm is his secret weapon,’ The Guardian, 13th June 2019: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/06/01/donald-trump-backs-boris-johnson-next-prime-minister-nigel-farage/

[16] Wikipedia: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Last accessed on 18th February 2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray

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