Normally, Twitterstorms, those unhinged uprisings against a politician or celeb who has dared to make an outré utterance, are best treated like tantrum-throwing two-year-olds. Stand back, let them do their foot-stomping, and wait for them to exhaust themselves. But the storm over Boris’s ‘part-Kenyan’ remark in relation to Obama is different. This Twitterstorm has been so dumb, and so destructive, that it cannot simply be allowed to pass and take its place in the bulging book of Times People Went Unnecessarily Crazy About Something. No, we need a reckoning with this Twitterstorm. We need to take stock.
As a keen watcher of Twitterstorms, I’m struggling to remember any that have been as batty and as immune to factual information as the Boris one. Boris is being put through the wringer, slurred as racist, for writing a Sun column last week in which he wondered if Obama’s ‘part-Kenyan’ heritage may have been behind his decision in 2009 to move a bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office. In his little list of the various reasons people gave for Obama’s shifting of the Churchill bust, Boris includes this sentence: ‘Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’
For that one line, he is being called racist, a lowlife, a despoiler of Britain’s global reputation and he’s even been disinvited from speaking to students at King’s College London. But here’s the thing, the really important thing: everything in that sentence is true. Some people did say that Obama’s bust-moving was down to his Kenyan ancestry and possible disdain for the British Empire. Who said this? Well, let’s take a look. On 14 February 2009, the Telegraph wondered if Obama’s problem with the Churchill bust sprung from the fact that ‘Kenyans [were] tortured by the colonial regime’, including ‘one Hussein Onyango Obama, the President’s grandfather’. The Daily Mail wondered if the ‘apparent froideur of Barack Obama towards the British may stem from his Kenyan family’s history during colonial rule’.
Oh, and the Guardian said it, too. Yes, the newspaper that has been outraged by Boris’s comments, and whose hacks have been stirring up the defamatory mob on Twitter, said the same thing as Boris. In March 2009, the Guardian asked if Obama’s ‘colonial heritage’ might ‘spell the end of the special relationship’. In relation to Obama’s moving around of the Churchill bust, the Guardian suggested this demonstrated that Obama’s ‘Kenyan… ancestry’ is ‘helping to reshape America’s supposedly “special relationship” with Britain’. The ‘darker days of the UK’s relationship with Kenya’ could be coming back to haunt us, it said.
In short, Obama may have taken certain actions, including in relation to the Churchill bust, because of his Kenyan heritage. Racist Guardian! This is how mental the Boris-bashing Twitterstorm has been: he has been demonised and made into handwringing headline fodder at the Guardian for reporting what the Guardian itself said seven years ago. Please tell me I am not losing my mind and that this really is the oddest, most manipulative Twitterstorm yet?
Here’s why we need to take stock of this Twitterstorm, and have a serious word with ourselves:
First, because it exposes the extent to which defamation has taken the place of critical debate in our shallow, frenetic era. Boris, in his usual confrontational fashion, raised some interesting questions about Obama, his attitudes and his intervention in the EU referendum debate. But instead of addressing these, the Boris-bashers preferred to slur and insinuate, to suggest Boris has a problem with black people. Unwilling to engage in discussion, they instead issue libels.
Secondly, the Twitterstorm confirms that the accusation of ‘racism!’ has been utterly drained of substance. The word ‘racist’ now means nothing more than ‘someone I don’t like’, suggesting that for all the media’s recent mocking of stupid student politics it has actually imported the most infantile aspect of campus culture: the use of the ‘racist’ slur to shut down difficult discussion.
And thirdly, the Twitterstorm shows that those who pose as the nicest people on the web are often the most vicious. The Guardian has for the past two weeks been weeping over the nastiness of online debate and the scourge of trolling. And yet it has been at the forefront of whipping up the Twittermob that has written off Boris as racist scum on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. I’d say that’s pretty nasty, wouldn’t you? The very tweeters who are most likely to call the cops if someone calls them names have spent the past 48 hours branding Boris racist, mad, vile, unfit, etc. There’s no worse troll than an ostensibly anti-troll tweeter or newspaper hack.
Some probably think Boris should apologise – most Twitterstorms want an apology. But what would he apologise for? For faithfully reporting what the Guardian and others said about Obama in 2009? To apologise for stating a fact would be madness. If anyone needs to apologise it’s the Twitterstormers, and the media men and women who cajoled them, who manipulated facts, substituted defamation for discussion, and reminded us that in Britain in the 21st century it is virtually impossible to have a serious debate about anything.