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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.

Eleanor Penny10 August 2018

The Martyrdom of Tommy Robinson: Free Speech and 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.

Making your power invisible.

The persecution narrative does more than galvanise the true believers. It allows the mainstream media–from right wing sympathisers to craven opportunists hungry for advertising click–to justify offering him platform after platform. The same people who will recall, misty-eyed, how noble British Tommies beat back Hitler in the second world war will break bread with his ideological heirs as a sign of their fealty to ‘British values of free speech and tolerance’. From the most deranged corners of 4chan to the pages of the Times, people hand wring over the morbid state of free speech in this country, and in response, urge us to raise the much maligned Far Right to public prominence. In the words of Rod Liddle: “Just let Tommy Robinson have his say. He might even be right, occasionally”. The difference isn’t so much ideological as it is institutional. They deliver up the same basic moral coda with varying degrees of respectability.

Censorship is a self-defence mechanism of the nation-state, where governments attempt to sweep away the possibility of opposition. Sometimes it’s banging up opposing journalists. Sometimes it’s creating registers of dissenting academics or rolling out programmes to police speech from people considered dangerous. But other times it’s much more subtle. Instead of loudly excluding contrarian ideas, you allow the most boilerplate bigotry to be served as rage-against the machine. Then, you loudly congratulate yourself on your accepting attitude to the cornucopia of difference in human thought. The effect is the same: different shades of race-baiting tripe dominate the headlines, blocking out any sliver of alternative. It does the same work of strong-state censorship: to expunge from the citizen’s consciousness of the notion of any alternative. In short, the cult of victimhood allows the far right to make their power invisible, whilst they claim ever greater segments of power and platform as compensation for the great injustices visited upon them.

Death and glory

Talk of these injustices is haunted by the spectres of death. The world is ruled by angels of chaos and destruction, decaying all around them. We are being invaded, not by something as lumbering and unconscionable as climate change or a slow-burn economic crisis, but by literal muslims at the literal gates of Europe. In a popular image circulated, Sadiq Khan watches as a noose is hung around Tommy Robinson’s neck, whilst one among the row of policeman clamps his hand over the mouth of a tearful white girl. The moon and star of Islam rise over a dark-skied London. From Douglas Murray’s Strange Death of Europe to the ‘death of democracy’ slogan favoured by far-right london flyposters and the ‘death of free speech’ hailed by the #FreeTommy brigade, theirs is a world where white life is a dwindling light, due at any moment snuffed out. This is the urgency in the ‘Fourteen Word’ slogan coined by white supremacist (and later suspected murdered) David Lane: ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.’

If you wanted to build a mandate for extraordinary violence, you could not do better than this; the need for self-defense against a craven, dehumanised threat. David Cameron’s ‘swarms’ of migrants, Enoch Powell’s predicted ‘Rivers of Blood’, the ‘Jewish vermin’ of Nazi propaganda. Belief in Tommy Robinson the freedom fighter isn’t just a creed: it’s a call to arms. Just as Tommy’s adulants thronging the streets and airwaves can count themselves part of his noble victimhood, they are each called to his aid as saviours of a dying political reality. I have seen it with my eyes. From the spittle-flecked skinheads of Britain first to the moustachioed hipster Nazis of Generation Identity to the polished billionaires who bankroll their operations–they count themselves the last defence against infidel decadence. It recalls the fallen soldiers of Nazi propaganda films such as Wunschkonzert, crafted to emphasise the glory of death .

Umberto Eco put it best:

“In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”). In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.”

‘Tommy Robinson’ slips neatly into this long history of the noble fallen in fascist iconography. UKIP Daily declared Tommy Robinson’s conviction ‘A Death Sentence’. Paul Joseph Watson reported on that due to [wildly exaggerated] proportions of Muslim prisoners “shouting death threats […] Tommy now fears for his life” the Tommy. Christ imagery abounds. Even those parts of the internet who consider him insufficiently rabid in his racism (‘a zionist alt-light softy’ or just plain ‘dim’ to quote 4chan users) will also admit he’s a ‘hero’. Much has been made of Yaxley-Lennon’s gaunt appearance as he sloped out of prison on bail. He reports that, with Bhudda-like aestheticism and Bobby Sands-like defiance, he ate only a can of tuna and a piece of fruit a day in a stint he compared to ‘Guantanamo bay’ and ‘mental torture’. It transpires that his hunger strike was the result not of protest, but of paranoia: imprisoned in a facility he bemoaned was ‘1 in 3 muslim’, he did not trust the food provided to him. To hear Breitbart’s Raheem Kassam talk of it, this is simply confirmation of the strength of forces out to get him. And nevertheless, he persisted.

Only you can save mankind

Doom and heroism; parts of the same dreadful ouroboros of far-right self-pity and self-congratulation. The world is floundering in its own decay, and only they can save mankind. Make no mistake: this is what cults do. Provide a spurious, mystical doctrine of suffering, an existential wound which can only be salved by terminal devotion to the Cause and the Way. There are chosen ones–the fated strongmen burdened with the task of global salvation–and there are the unenlightened masses. It may, from the outside, seem absurd but it is not supposed to provide a rigorous, factual structure by which its followers may understand reality. As George Mosse observed in ‘Genesis of Fascism’, it is supposed to provide dignity. To tell a story where a chosen people have been stripped of their power, before returning it to them more golden and righteous than ever before. This is what cults do. We are witnessing the rise of a global cult.

At the end of the world, the only future is one wrought by heroes with violencethose with enough daring to slice the necrotic flesh from a dying body politic so the rest may live. No wonder the cult has gained such traction with a particular brand of thwarted white masculinity. Everyone wants to be the only one to save mankind, especially if you were bottle-fed with stories of your own exceptionalism before graduating into a life of terminal economic mediocrity. The withered, partial ‘Free Speech’ for which Tommy Robinson is supposed to have martyred himself is not an expansive, universal right to freedom from violence. It is the the duty of a chosen clique of people to play-act their power on the bodies of other, lesser people in the herculean effort of global salvation. In this way they are totally free: untroubled by the rights or bodily boundaries of other people. The Nietzschian Ubermensch lives.

“For what is freedom? That one has the will to self-responsibility. Freedom means that the manly instincts…dominate over over instincts. The free man is the warrior” (Twilight of the Idols)

That’s why calling the far right ‘hypocritical’ on their stance on Free Speech feels sometimes so milquetoast. Of course they are hypocrites. They hound women, queers and people of colour into silence with studied campaigns of psychological warfare. They threaten journalists, they invade bookshops, they beat up protesters, they murder people. Eventually they start imprisoning and killing their political opponents en masse. But why should their hypocrisy matter? Why should these “abject” people, these unbelievers and saboteurs, be included in the freedom of the chosen ubermensch? They are merely the playthings for the chosen few, the disposable bodies on which their power is made evident. Jorge Luis Borges traces this attitude back to Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory of history: “heroes were intractable semi-gods that, not without military frankness and bad words, ruled over a subaltern humanity”.

In the face of a rabid death cult many like to blithely misquote Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It’s a promise that I don’t want to see fulfilled. This is not politics as we’d like to imagine. We are not trading in the chummy boisterousness of the Commons debate chamber, the mandarin op-ed or the considered panel discussion. Not in the earnest doorstop conversation or the average protest bust-up. We are not arguing with a man and a movement reliant on people’s rational convictions or enlightened self-interest. We are combatting a blood-hungry quasi-religious propaganda machine funded by big money donors and fuelled by global outrage over the unfulfilled promises of white supremacy. If we are serious about the fight against fascism, smug aphorisms aren’t enough. We must first know our enemy.

Eleanor Penny is a writer and journalist. She's a senior editor at Novara Media and the online editor of Red Pepper Magazine.

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