Making the click-through worthwhile: Boris Johnson takes the helm over in the United Kingdom, our friends across the pond are attempting to face a dangerous world with a much smaller military, Kevin Williamson’s The Smallest Minority hits bookstore shelves, and how a long-lost quartet of submarines played a role in discovering the wreckage of the Titanic.
Here Comes United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Good luck, Boris.
Those of us who want a strong and thriving United Kingdom — and a strong and thriving special relationship — wish you every success. But to be honest, we’re a little worried about you guys.
Recently, our Madeleine Kearns raised the uncomfortable point that as much as Johnson seems to be a reliable advocate for Brexit, he’s consistently avoided going into details about how the long-delayed separation from the European Union will work if the EU won’t play ball.
What will happen if Johnson becomes the next prime minister — which seems inevitable — and Brussels calls his bluff? Will he be able to deliver a no-deal Brexit? And if so, how?
Johnson has thus far failed to answer this question, on which his entire campaign rests. More remarkably still, his supporters don’t seem to care. In interviews and in media appearances, he is a masterful illusionist: asserting, distracting, then reasserting. In the same “do or die” interview, for instance, Johnson shifted the focus from his Brexit plan (or lack thereof) to a fantastical and implausible hobby of his . . .
In his book Intellectuals, another Johnson — Paul Johnson — explains that “most people are resistant to ideas, especially new ones. But they are fascinated by character. Extravagance of personality is one way in which the pill can be sugared, and the public induced to look at works dealing with ideas.” Boris knows this only too well. Britons, especially Conservative-party members, have endless appetite for eccentricity. And Boris brings his unique character to every area of his life. Arguably, it was the character of Boris’s prose as Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph in the 1990s that fanned the flame of conservative euro-skepticism. And again, his character, which helped to win the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum.
Our Kyle Smith echoes that assessment. Johnson’s spent his whole life covering or participating in British politics, so he no doubt knows the issues well enough. He just doesn’t seem all that inclined to talk about them in specifics. He just disarms people with this endless volley of witty, eccentric, self-deprecating charm:
Even those who set out to tear him apart (as in the 2013 BBC documentary Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise, which shamefully evoked the title of a 1941 Bertolt Brecht play about Hitlerism) can’t avoid including footage of Johnson, say, riding a motor scooter around the office or playing tennis in a wooly cap with a warped wooden racket. All attempts at warning the nation about this alleged Tory terror inevitably dissolve in laughter. The usual playbook about cruel Conservatives does not work. You just can’t convince people that this delightful chap from the telly is Babyface Adolf. Sitting around a metropolitan dinner party with Very Worried Progressives who would never vote for any other Conservative under any circumstances, one is likely to hear some vegan Save the Whales poetess in chunky jewelry exclaim something like, “Oh, but Boris is different. He does make me laugh.” Even the man’s name is a giggle: “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.”
A few weeks ago, I asked a prominent British figure, “Will Boris rise to the occasion? Will the job sober him up? Will the office make the man?” The answer: “Yes, I think so. For one thing, he has wanted to be PM his entire life, and he does not want to fail.” Rings true.
But the problems facing Johnson go well beyond Brexit . . .
The Size of the British Navy Leaves Us Shaken, Not Stirred
The Iranians are still holding a British-flagged tanker ship, the Stena Impero, and its crew. U.K. foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt called Iran’s seizure of the tanker an act “of state piracy” and said the U.K. would take part in a Europe-led maritime protection mission in the Strait of Hormuz.
This is the situation where “speak softly and carry a bit stick” might motivate the Iranians to be more conciliatory, but the Royal Navy is a shadow of its former self: “In the 1980s, the Royal Navy had a force of four aircraft carriers and 47 frigates; now the navy only has one aircraft carrier, yet to receive its aircraft, and 13 frigates. Around 20 British tankers a day pass through the Strait of Hormuz.”
U.K. defense minister Tobias Ellwood told The Times of London:
The threats we’re facing are changing in front of us, the world is getting more complex. If we are wanting to continue to play this influential role on the international stage it will require further funding for our armed forces, not least the Royal Navy. Our Royal Navy is too small to manage our interests across the globe.
On July 4, British special forces seized a supertanker off Gibraltar carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of European and U.S. sanctions against the war-torn country. Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero is seen as retaliation. Bloomberg describes the seizure of the ship violating sanctions as “a provocation.” (If you’re not going to enforce sanctions, what’s the point of them?)
Meanwhile, British Airways canceled all flights to Cairo, Egypt for a week, “as a precaution for a security assessment.” The U.K. government cited “a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation.”
Big Insights and Laughs from The Smallest Minority
Funny thing about my new book: I had begun shopping around the proposal for writing it long before my brief period of employment with that other magazine and the subsequent witless chimp-brained media freakout and Caffeine-Free Diet Maoist struggle session that followed and climaxed with my being fired by Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg on my third day of employment there and after a good deal of stink eye from some seething young woman with an unfortunate All-Lesbian World Bowling Champion haircut loitering glumly in the coffee room. I was, for a few days, a writer who was much more read about than read. After the ninth (or so) New York Times denunciation of my soul and my work, my professional dance card began to fill up with pleasing speed.
That’s the upside of being in the controversy business: I always get paid. Hooray for me.
But why was I flogging this book way back before I got involved in what I must with some genuine disappointment characterize as only the second-most-infamous episode involving a shady right-winger and the Watergate complex? There were good reasons. A number of disturbing sociopolitical meltdowns combining deep stupidity with casual authoritarianism already had taken place: the firing of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for his views on marriage, and the IRS’s criminal leak of the National Organization for Marriage’s confidential tax documents in the service of a campaign to harass and attack its donors; the firing of James Damore for the crime of being stupid enough to believe that his po-faced ham-souled Caitlyn-haunted superiors at Google were being anything like halfway serious when they asked for dialogue about diversity in the firm; the campaigns against Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss at the New York Times; the “deplatforming” of conservatives and other nonconforming voices on social media; the violence and firebombings targeting unpopular speakers at Berkeley and other college campuses; and much more. The blackshirts and the American Association of Outrage Professionals were as creepily tumescent as Anthony Weiner cruising a Hello Kitty boutique, and there was outrage-porn aplenty, rampant, unapologetic, depraved — but my little book proposal was met with almost no excitement until I became, for a couple of weeks, the headline in the story.
ADDENDA: Over on John J. Miller’s Bookmonger podcast, I discuss Between Two Scorpions. Over on my work Facebook page, I’ve started revealing some of the “Easter Eggs” — the inside jokes, subtle references, and actual truths in the book. For example, the smug, underestimating-threats CIA Director William Peck was named after the smug, underestimating-threats EPA inspector Walter Peck from Ghostbusters.
. . . Remember that mysterious cancellation of Vice President Pence’s trip to New Hampshire? It turns out one of the people Pence was scheduled to meet, a recovering addict and employee of an opioid-addiction treatment center in southern New Hampshire, was under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Jeff Hatch, a former NFL player, pleaded guilty on Friday in federal court to drug trafficking charges.
. . . A Norwegian research vessel has found the wreckage of the Minerve, a French submarine that sank in 1968. The Minerve was one of four submarines that mysteriously disappeared that year, along with the Israeli Dakar, the Soviet K-129, and the U.S.S. Scorpion. (If four submarines from four navies were all lost at sea in a short period of time today, could you imagine all the conspiracy theories it would set off?)
The loss of U.S.S. Scorpion inadvertently played a role in the discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic. In 1985, the Navy asked oceanographer Robert Ballard to see if he could find the wreckage of the Scorpion and another lost submarine, the U.S.S. Thresher. The Navy needed a cover story, so Ballard asked if he could say he was looking for the Titanic — and to maintain the cover, he would search in the area the Titanic was suspected of sinking. Fine, the Navy said, just remember your job is to find those submarines.
Ballard found the two U.S. submarines, studied the ocean currents, debris, and drift patterns . . . and then found the Titanic.