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The Martyrdom of Tommy Robinson: Free Speech and the Far-Right
The arrest and imprisonment of Tommy Robinson turned him into a cause célèbre for the rejuvenated global far-right. Following his release on bail, Eleanor Penny discusses the reaction to his arrest, free speech, and the death cult of the far-right.
“The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.” - Umberto Eco, Ur-Fascism.
‘You can sit down now, Mr Yaxley-Lennon’ - Justice Heather Norton, Stephen Yaxley Lennon sentencing hearing.
Tommy Robinson does not exist. Whilst Stephen Yaxley-Lennon the man was arrested and detained at her majesty’s pleasure, Tommy Robinson the myth went global. Far-right leaders and centrist media pundits alike clamour their outrage at the ‘victimisation’ of Tommy Robinson. They clambered over each other to bask in the reflected glory of this unlikely martyr for free speech: a man thrown in the clink by a censorious state determined to suppress the uncomfortable truth about creeping sharia law, the wave of immigrants and brown people determined to sweep away the british way of life–and the liberal elites which let them wreak havoc with the lives of ordinary (read: white) people. They are talking about a hero, David stepping up for a toe-to-toe match with a Goliath state. But, this man does not exist. And that does not seem to matter. Thousands have turned out to demonstrations in his name, seig-heiling their way through Whitehall and beating up counter demonstrators. Hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition demanding that the state #FreeTommy. In a picture which did the rounds of social media, a protester shows off a tattoo depicting Robinson wearing a crown of thorns. Imprisonment was the best thing that ever happened to him–delivering him to the status of political martyr, poster boy for a global cult of racial hatred.
A tale of two swindlers
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is a standard-issue dial-a-thug with an eye for PR; with enough canniness to flog his unreconstructed bigotry as earnest freedom-fighting. Originally the founder of the English Defense League, he got his start in the lofty world of british politics the way that many prominent racists do–by brawling in the streets. Whilst Boris Johnson and his cronies trashed high-end restaurants, Yaxley-Lennon borrowed a stage name from a famous football hooligan, and founded the English Defence League to torment local minorities in a more organised way. In a brief moment of contrived public penitence in 2013 (funded by the Quilliam Foundation), he quit the EDL–but didn’t stay ‘reformed’ for long. He continued to publicly lambast Islam, and helped to found the UK branch of Pegida in 2015. His criminal convictions range from domestic abuse to mortgage fraud.
His latest inglorious clash with the law landed him in jail again. this time, for contempt of court and for violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence. The sentence was initially handed down after he attempted to film four men accused of gang-raping a teenager, people who Robinson described as ‘Muslim paedophile rapists’. In broadcasting the details of the trial he risked contaminating the jury, thereby scuppering a carefully-constructed prosecution and potentially other other linked cases. He risked causing unaccountable pain for the sexual abuse victims about whom he claimed to care, and on whose suffering he built a media platform. He plead ignorance of this impact, an excuse which presiding Justice Norton found “really rather difficult to accept at face value” seeing as he had previously been warned. Though the first conviction was overthrown, he’s currently on bail awaiting a second trial which could land him in prison again.
This is not censorship; the word we are looking for here is ‘consequences’. Although if you’re used to spouting whatever racist tripe you fancy, largely unimpeded by concerted media opposition (or indeed by things like empathy or facts) it’s easy to see how the latter could feel like the former. Nonetheless, it begs the question: how and why is a man who regularly commands international press and national broadcast audiences considered a martyr to free speech? Why and how has the mundane truth about convicted fraud and racist hack Stephen Yaxley-Lennon been so easily and so totally eclipsed by the pomp and glory about Tommy Robinson, political prisoner, summoning thousands to his call?
The obvious disconnect between the publicly available facts (you can read the court transcripts, you can trawl back through his history of convictions) and PR spin doesn’t much bother those determined to deliver Tommy to Christlike status. When people plainly state the facts, when they publicly try to strip him of the embattled glamour of a freedom fighter, this isn’t so much a fatal blow to belief as it is a test of conviction. Proof that the liberal media is hounding for his blood, and for that of anyone who dares rally to his cause. The currency is not so much truth and falsehood, but loyalty and disloyalty; a giddying way which upends the logic of speech itself, and renders all discourse malleable by the right pair of propagandist hands. Arendt predicted as much. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end---is being destroyed.” The far right have decided their convenient untruth, and the facts must be marshalled into obedience - or else.
That the far right treats truth the way a pack of hyenas treats a dead buffalo is nothing new. Niccoli Giani, the founder of the school of fascist mysticism, leaned on the thinking of Louis Rougier: “Mysticism is a set of propositions which adheres to tradition or sentiment, even if these propositions cannot be justified rationally and very often forgetting the primary reasons that led to state them.” Mussollini, the intended object of this devotion, likened fascism to ‘a religious concept of life’. He too was a determined showman - using stunt doubles to give the appearance that he never slept, buoyed to super-humanity by the sheer force of his conviction. Lucy Brown, a former member of Lennon’s inner circle, reported that personal devotion was the lodestone of Team Tommy. “You can be around as long as you still worship him, but when you grow up, then you’re out.”
Indeed, Robinson’s mission is baldly religious in tone–setting the ‘Christian’ west in a holy war against the ‘Muslim’ east in a hack, ahistorical re-run of the Crusades. He’s not the only far-righter to lean heavily on this imagery; Britain First conducts ‘Christian patrols’ as part of their self-styled ‘crusades’.
In his post-murder manifesto, Anders Breivik claimed to be a Justiciar Knight Commander for Knights Templar Europe. Like many other alt-right commentators, Milo Yiannopolis has set himself as the heir to the politico-religious mission of the 8th century Frankish king Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, “If he hadn’t succeeded, the Muslims could well have dominated all of Europe.” Increasingly popular in far-right meme culture is the Catholic battle cry associated with the first Crusade: “Deus vult” - God wills it. Speaking to Christian Today, former BNP councillor Paul Golding justified violent attacks on Mosques with distinctly ecumenical flair:
“Jesus Christ did use physical violence according to the Gospels in the temple in Jerusalem, and he met a very violent end. He preached love and forgiveness etc, but he also said he didn’t come to bring peace; he came to bring division and a sword, he came to bring fire upon the world to sort the world out.”
The cult of victimhood
In the effort of flogging this extraordinary untruth, nothing is more useful than a good death. Someone prepared to fling themselves in front of stray bullets to prove that people were, after all, out to get them. Any movement needs its martyrs, and the far right need them more than most. The fascists, and trolls and tooth-gnashers of the far-right trade heavily on the idea that white people - or, if you have a more refined sensibility, ‘European identity’ - face an existential threat from muslims, jews and immigrants: a threat enabled by their allies in a bloated, sclerotic state run by decadent liberals.
In any sensible world, this would be a pretty hard sell. The government rolling out a clinical apparatus of deportation which the hard-right ‘send em home’ crowd could only dream of, pandering to islamophobia and strong-state nationalism in Westminster and beyond. Islamophobia and nostalgic imperialism is the ruling logic of the current administration, with its powerful ideologues in the halls of Westminster, pandering to the far-right street momvement in an effort ot veil their personal prejudice as commitment to representation of the ‘authentic’ working class.
But still their success relies on a continued mythos of their marginalisation. So no wonder that the billionaires bankrolling Rebel Media are going ham on the mythology of #FreeTommy, pouring countless thousands into his media profile and astroturfing his martyrdom to sell the basic mythos of far-righters and fascists everywhere: that ‘we’–native Britons, white Europeans’–are under attack. To perpetuate a sense of persecution, you need people to step forward to be persecuted. If you want to fake a firing squad, you first need a man stood with his back against the wall pleading his innocence. In the video broadcast outside the courthouse, Yaxley-Lennon says that he may well be prosecuted for his actions.
The right martyr at the right moment
Interviewing him just after Yaxley-Lennon’s release, Tucker Carlson said “The United Kingdom has become a mere shadow of the nation that gave us freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a host of other rights that we take for granted, but probably should not take for granted. Nobody knows that better than Tommy Robinson.” Yaxley-Lennon has has long been peddling the idea of ‘Tommy Robinson: counter-cultural freedom fighter’, whining about his ‘persecution’ ever since his days as a fresh-faced race-baiter in the EDL. He named his biography ‘Enemy of the State’, and railed against censorious journalists and repressive policemen alike. He opened his 2013 address to the Oxford Union with the words ‘this is a great day for Free Speech’. In a recent interview with alt-right journalist Brittany Pettibone, he innocently protests that he has ‘never mentioned race’–and yet still was labelled an extremist. In short, this has been gathering for years. But every idea-in-waiting needs its moment. Every grinning arsonist needs a dry house of leaves.
In May, Lennon and other popular far right ‘freeze peach’ pundits were joined by thousands of followers in Whitehall for a ‘Day of Freedom’, where they complained about their censorship, about how they couldn’t talk about white genocide and the sexual menace of brown men. It felt like some live-action Zen kōan–what’s the sound of saying what you’re not allowed to say these days? (Answer: it sounds like thousands of people screaming their reactionary catechisms at the gates of downing street, their voices broadcast across the world).
Lift up any odd rock in 4chan, you’ll find the undersides crawling with trilobite conspirators and vengeful practitioners of casual racial and sexual cruelty. People–usually white, usually young, overwhelmingly men–who will swear that ‘white genocide’ is just around the corner. That hordes of islamists are slavering over the prospect of assaulting white women, an instinct barely held in check by the noble actions of street fighters tormenting muslims on public transport and putting bricks through the windows of mosques and shuls. That the mainstream media is silencing the truth. His believers were hungry for something miraculous–something which gave voice and flesh to their swivel-eyed conspiracies.
Religious studies 101: Martyrdom is a great galvaniser. A lightning rod for loose tensions and inchoate paranoia. This cult of persecution catalyses a schlerotic alt-right composed of countless constellations of subgroups–an unholy alliance of teenage pepe-heads, paleocons and outright neo-nazis–under a single flag. It is by no coincidence that one of Tommy’s loudest and most powerful is none other than Steve Bannon, a man determined to draw together a ‘New European’ far right as a monolithic, unstoppable force in global politics. He may look like he crawled his way out of some sulphurous neolithic swamp, but if he was ever born, he was born an opportunist. So, he has petitions the UK government to release Tommy Robinson. He has pressed his connections with far right all over the world, using this as a clarion call to strengthen a nebulous but growing far right internationale. And he’s only one of many.
The #FreeTommy brigade has assembled a rogue’s gallery of famous race-baiters and white nationalists across the world: Katie Hopkins, Raheem Kassan, Tucker Carlson, Anne-Marie Waters, Mike Cernovich, Geert Wilders, the pan-European network Generation Identity. Even Donald Trump Jr joined in, as did countless thousands of others. #WeAreTommy hashtags spread across continents. They have drawn thousands onto the streets of UK cities, with a strange hysterical conviction that in Tommy’s plight is their personal plight, and in their plight resides the plight of white folk. According to Deleuze and Guattari’s diagnosis, the strong leader gives form and voice to a dissolute, megalomaniacal mass. "The paranoid position of the mass subject [collapses] all the identifications of the individual with the group, the group with the leader, and the leader with the group”. A notoriously fractious far right coalesces into a single shambling beast, slouching towards Broadcasting House to be born.
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