Gary Lineker and the dangers of the ‘Nazi’ slur
No, he shouldn’t be cancelled – but he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.
We need to talk about that tweet. The one that prompted the BBC to suspend sports presenter Gary Lineker in the first place, plunging it first into a row over its impartiality guidelines and then into a full-blown crisis this weekend as fellow BBC pundits downed mics in solidarity with Lineker. Because there’s a big problem with that tweet. And no one among Lineker’s supporters really seems to be acknowledging it.
Now, Gary probably didn’t give the tweet too much thought at the time. It was Tuesday lunchtime, the crisps were flowing, and he had just watched a video of home secretary Suella Braverman promoting the government’s Illegal Migration Bill. No doubt his entirely predictable view of the bill, a view shared by virtually every other member of the right-thinking classes, came all too easily. ‘This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people’, he tapped out, before adding the flourish, ‘in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s’. In that casual allusion to Nazi Germany, Lineker trivialised the darkest moment in human history.
Of course, Lineker didn’t explicitly mention the Holocaust, or the Nazis. But he didn’t have to – his near nine million followers knew exactly what to infer from ‘Germany in the ’30s’. He means that the Tories’ hamfisted attempt to tackle the small-boats crisis has something of the whiff of Nazi Germany about it. That home secretary Suella Braverman’s proposals to ban those who enter the country illegally from ever settling in Britain are on a par with Hitler’s barbaric persecution of Jewry – stripping them of all rights, attacking their businesses and property, segregating them, and ultimately attempting their complete elimination.
In short, with that tweet, Lineker was doing what people always do when they chuck about the Nazi slur – he was relativising the Holocaust. He was equating the greatest evil ever perpetrated by one part of humanity on another with contemporary centre-right immigration policy. As if the attempt to annihilate an entire people was on a similar scale to tightening up the asylum system. As if the industrial-scale slaughter of six million Jews was just a few steps removed from a less-than-liberal border policy.
No wonder sections of the Jewish community have since spoken out against Lineker. Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, wrote that comparing the Tories’ migration bill, no matter its clear flaws, ‘to the almost unimaginable horrors of the Nazi period is wrong’. Agnes Grunwald-Spier, a Holocaust survivor and a founding trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, was more blunt. ‘You should be ashamed’, she told Lineker.
And you can understand her rage. His tweet effectively empties the Nazis’ systematic attempt to exterminate Jews of its unique horror. It drains the Holocaust of its distinct significance. The ’30s’, as Lineker has it, therefore ceases to be a specific political, social and historical moment, a dread prelude to the man-made catastrophe that was to come, and instead becomes a mere footnote to slamming the Tories’ immigration policies. He makes the Holocaust look less evil by trying to make the Tories look more evil.
Now, you would think that these criticisms of Lineker’s tweet might have given some of those now rallying to his side pause for thought. That Holocaust memorial charities and even actual Holocaust survivors are saying that the tweet trivialises the Holocaust should surely have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the #IStandWithGaryLineker regatta.
But it hasn’t. Our cultural and media elites, intent on turning Lineker into their Rosa Parks, haven’t reflected on the obvious dodginess of the tweet at all. No, right from the off, they have praised Lineker for it, patting him on the back for having the bravery to say what they were already thinking. The New Statesman quickly knocked out a defence of him. And the loathsome James O’Brien proclaimed the tweet to be ‘perfectly accurate’.
Indeed, those rallying behind Lineker have actually been doubling down on the Nazi analogy. Former New Labour man Alastair Campbell began the week by saying the analogy was ‘too bloody right’, before spending the rest of it looking for any other Tory policy with a ‘resonance with 30s Germany’. (Apparently, the decision to disband BBC Singers, a chamber choir, is akin to Hitler’s war on ‘degenerate’ culture.) Another star of centrist Twitter claimed that the BBC’s suspension of Gary showed that it is ‘an enabler of fascism’. And, by the end of the week, one prominent anti-Brexit campaigner reckoned the government had met 12 out of the 14 criteria to be categorised as Nazi.
Do they not realise what they’re doing? Do they not know how morally objectionable it is to reduce the Nazi regime to something almost run-of-the-mill? Do they not grasp that this is exactly what actual far-rightists do – they try to reduce the significance of the Holocaust?
This is arguably the most troubling aspect of this whole strange affair. In their determination to use Lineker as a stick with which to beat the Tories, our cultural elites have shown that they have no problem at all with relativising and trivialising the Holocaust – even when a Holocaust survivor points it out to them. They have shown that they have no problem with turning the Nazi era into a mere motif for criticism of contemporary government policies, even when the former editor of the Jewish Chronicle says that it is an insult to ‘the millions who died in the Holocaust’.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Since the vote for Brexit in 2016, the cultural and media establishment has continually drawn parallels between today’s populist revolt and the rise of the Nazis. Remoaner Twitter can’t seem to stop itself from bringing up ‘fascism’ or ‘Hitler’ when anything vaguely Brexity appears in the news. It’s like a form of Remainer Tourette’s. And when these people aren’t explicitly likening a Tory home secretary to Joseph Goebbels, we have endless op-eds, TV dramas and books portraying Brexit Britain as some sort of neo-fascist dystopia.
It really has got to stop. The demonisation of working-class Brexit voters as the useful idiots of Tory fascism has been insulting enough. Far worse is the violence being done by all of this to the historical memory and public understanding of the Holocaust. These virtue-signallers are relativising the horrors of Nazism. They are unwittingly feeding into a poisonous, genuinely far-right narrative that the Holocaust wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – that it was just another unpleasant thing that happened in history. And for what? Having a pop at the Tories? It’s grotesque.
Lineker and Co shouldn’t be cancelled or sacked – but, as Agnes Grunwald-Spier says, they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
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