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Two Female Authors Said They'll Resign From A Charity Where Boris Johnson Is A Patron

"That's one of the many disadvantages of having a dog-whistling racist and misogynist as a patron..."

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Hannah Mckay / Reuters

BBC broadcaster Natalie Haynes and the Guardian's chief culture writer Charlotte Higgins say they'll be resigning as patrons from the UK charity Classics for All, saying they can't stay on while the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson remains involved.

BuzzFeed News has obtained copies of the fiery exit letters from Haynes and Higgins addressed to Classics for All – a charity which advocates for young people to receive education in classical history and languages – where Johnson is also a patron.

Haynes called Johnson a "dog-whistling racist and misogynist" for his recent comparisons of Muslim women who wear the burqa and niqab to "letterboxes" and "bank robbers".

BBC broadcaster Natalie Haynes.
Miles Willis / Getty Images

BBC broadcaster Natalie Haynes.

"I'm sorry to have to be writing this, but I don't feel able to stay on as a patron of a charity which offers Boris Johnson the slightest veneer of respectability," Haynes wrote. "I appreciate that the Board members wish to discuss it, and I've no doubt August is a difficult time to bring everyone together.

"That's one of the many disadvantages of having a dog-whistling racist and misogynist as a patron: you never know when they'll next spew their hate-mongering remarks."

Haynes — who is currently hosting a BBC Radio 4 show called "Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics" — said she felt like she had no choice but to end her involvement with Classics for All.

"I would like to withdraw as a patron until after the Board meets in October discuss the issue," she wrote. "I hope very much that they will choose to shun a person who chooses to advance his own cause at any price with no regard for those who are caught in the crossfire.

In her letter to the charity, Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian's chief culture writer, said she'd be stepping down from the charity unless it ended its associate with Johnson.

"Let us not be confused about what is at stake here," Higgins wrote. "Boris Johnson has chosen – disguised under the guise of a liberal argument – to make cruel, derogatory and belittling remarks about a section of our community that is not powerful, that is not well represented at any political level, and that is under particular threat from racism, misogyny and Islamophobia at this time.

"What he is doing is cynical: stoking cultural and religious tensions, with the ultimate aim not of forwarding any liberal argument about the niqab or burqa, but of furthering his own political ambitions."

As well as Boris Johnson, the charity also lists professor Mary Beard, former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, and BBC broadcaster Martha Kearney as patrons.

Classics for All would not comment about the issue, while a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said the backbench MP declined to comment.

Johnson's continued involvement with the charity remains unclear, with the exits from Haynes and Higgins sure to put pressure on the trustees of the organisation.

Earlier this week, the charity sent a statement to supporters distancing itself from the former foreign secretary: “The team at Classics for All is committed to increasing access to classics and works with many Muslim pupils. We do not endorse or support Boris Johnson’s statement or comments."

We have alerted our Trustees to recent comments and the Trustees will be reviewing your concerns. https://t.co/Zsmp83O7JP

The charity announced the trustees would be reviewing Johnson's comments.

Johnson — who resigned as foreign secretary last month over his concerns about the government's stance on Brexit — has continued to draw intense criticism over his so-called jokes about Muslim women in his Daily Telegraph column written almost two weeks ago.

The charity Tell Mama, which tracks anti-Muslim hate crime, reported earlier this week that following Johnson's remarks there had been a fourfold increase in incidents against Muslims living in the UK.

Here's Natalie Haynes' letter in full.

"Hi [redacted],

I'm sorry to have to be writing this, but I don't feel able to stay on as a patron of a charity which offers Boris Johnson the slightest veneer of respectability. I appreciate that the Board members wish to discuss it, and I've no doubt August is a difficult time to bring everyone together. That's one of the many disadvantages of having a dog-whistling racist and misogynist as a patron: you never know when they'll next spew their hate-mongering remarks.

I would like to withdraw as a patron until after the Board meets in October discuss the issue. I hope very much that they will choose to shun a person who chooses to advance his own cause at any price with no regard for those who are caught in the crossfire. Those in his own party have accused him of, and I quote, "helping to create an environment in which hate crime is more likely". I'm obviously glad that the charity doesn't endorse his remarks, but I'm afraid I don't think that's enough: I don't believe the charity should have as its patron someone who makes these responses necessary.

The women he is targeting in his snide, foolish comments are part of our society, they are some of the parents and friends of the children we are trying to reach. Classics for All is a laudable title for a charity that works as hard as I know CfA does to reach as many children as it can. But I can't defend it if it chooses to stand behind a man whose every utterance conveys that only some people are worth being included under the banner of "all".

I hope you will decide to remove him from your patrons. I've been happy and proud to be one myself.

Please don't hesitate to ask me back once he's gone.

Best wishes, Natalie Haynes."

Here's Charlotte Higgins' letter in full:

"Dear [redacted]

Thank you for writing to me and for sharing the chairman’s letter to the trustees. It may be useful for me to expand on what I wrote in brief at the weekend, and to respond to some points raised by the chairman. The issue at hand does not turn in any way on freedom of speech, 'political correctness' or individuality of thought. Boris Johnson’s views on the apparel worn by certain Muslim women are entirely irrelevant, and so are mine.

Let us not be confused about what is at stake here. Boris Johnson has chosen – disguised under the guise of a liberal argument – to make cruel, derogatory and belittling remarks about a section of our community that is not powerful, that is not well represented at any political level, and that is under particular threat from racism, misogyny and Islamophobia at this time. Fellow conservatives have censured him; even the (hardly left wing) Anne McElvoy has described him as calculatedly using the tools of the alt-right as a kind of “unvirtue signalling”. What he is doing is cynical: stoking cultural and religious tensions, with the ultimate aim not of forwarding any liberal argument about the niqab or burqa, but of furthering his own political ambitions.

Classics for All has a simple and commendable purpose: to bring classics to anyone – whoever they are, and from whatever background – who wish to be stimulated, provoked and challenged by an extraordinarily enriching discipline. No one, as far as I know, is talking about censoring Lysistrata, or the Histories. It’s precisely Aristophanes and Herodotus who are the kind of writers I would like people to be able to access, and I’ve devoted quite a lot of energy trying to make that happen, one way or another. But Boris Johnson’s derogatory remarks about Muslim women make this work harder not easier, and that is why, ultimately, I don’t want to appear on the list of patrons with him, and nor do I think it’s helpful for the charity to associate itself with him at this time. That is notwithstanding his history of supporting and promoting the classics in the past.

… If Boris Johnson apologises for his remarks then all well and good. If he doesn’t, and if the trustees decide on October 9 that they would like to retain him as a patron, then I will regretfully withdraw.

Kind regards,

Charlotte"

Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Mark Di Stefano at mark.distefano@buzzfeed.com.

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