Image source: Huffington Post
Friday, November 15, 2013
Weighing into the Tommy Robinson debate
It doesn’t have a central argument, but is instead a series of provisional assertions.
1. Anti-Muslim racism is a serious danger for Britain and for Europe. As I wrote in my post which set the scene for this one, anti-Muslim racism is a stark reality of Britain today, spiking in the months since the brutal slaughter by Islamists of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. The existence of the EDL was never responsible for pandemic anti-Muslim racism. But their provocative marches increased the fear for British Muslims. The EDL’s articulate leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known by one of his pseudonyms, Tommy Robinson) gave voice to and disseminated a particularly vicious strain of anti-Muslim racism. The tag #EDL, like the daubed slogans PJ (Perish Judah) in Mosley’s day, KBW (Keep Britain White) in Powell’s day, or NF in my youth, served as watchwords for racists, giving them confidence while spreading fear among Muslims. Any discussion of the EDL and its founder that ignores this reality is worthless.
2. Any blow to the EDL is a good thing. Given the poisonous role of the EDL in Britain’s body politic, anything which does it harm should be celebrated. Its rejection as spoiled goods by its own founder will hopefully be the first nail in its coffin, and we should be grateful to Yaxley-Lennon if he ends up helping to kill the beast he birthed.
3. The EDL were never fascist, but that’s not saying much. Since it emerged, I argued that the EDL should not be seen as fascists. At most, I said, they should be seen as proto-fascists. But Yaxley-Lennon had passed through the BNP on his way to founding the EDL, and lots of openly Nazi activists were at large in the movement, including in local leadership positions, helping to intensify its poisonousness. Many anti-fascists, forever replaying the Battleof Cable Street, dearly wanted the EDL to be fascist. Any picture of an EDL member raising his arm looked like a Nazi salute to them – when only some of them were. But the fact the EDL wasn’t fascist doesn’t make it alright. Whether it was fascist or not, it was poisonous.
4. Tommy Robinson was never stupid. As Jacobin points out, many liberals who now claim Yaxley-Lennon is cleverly re-branding himself were not so long ago happy to claim he was an ignorant redneck. Anyone who thought he was “an ignorant, racist ex-con and brainless neo-fascist ideologue” is an idiot (although he was an ex-con, but then so are lots of good people). Yaxley-Lennon might not have known much about Islamic theology or Muslim cultures, but he was a slick orator and a brilliant political operator.
5. The EDL is a toxic brand. Ex-BNP member Yaxley-Lennon shaped the EDL in his image. Because of all the stuff I’ve outlined above – the Nazi salutes, the street violence, the coke-headed thugs posting racist stuff on Facebook EDL pages – the EDL he created is seen as toxic by many people who might share its views. Matthew Goodwin’s YouGov polling data confirms this: there is a sizeable constituency of people who like its beliefs but not its violent methods. It could never grow beyond its hooligan support base, and even lots of its supporters were embarrassed at some of their comrades’ antics.
6. Tommy Robinson is a better brand. Most of the prestige of the EDL brand among its supporters was bound up in the charisma and rhetoric of its leader. The Tommy Robinson brand became more powerful than the EDL brand. Most of its supporters would follow its leader whether in the EDL or not. So it made a lot of sense for Yaxley-Lennon to dump the toxicity and polish off his own brand. Quilliam’s endorsement worked brilliantly to that effect.
We know fascists try to re-brand. Marine Le Pen is working hard to give the FN a better image. For a while, the BNP tried to present itself as a respectable besuited UKIP-style party – although constant incidents of financial dodgyness, criminality and thuggery, and the sheer incompetence of its would-be politicians stymied that plan. And for a while the BNP tried to fish in the EDL’s counter-Jihadi waters by publicly presenting itself as philosemitic and pro-Israel, although in private it called the EDL a Zionist plot. (The only people fooled were a few gullible anti-Zionists, so deranged by their Israel-hatred that they were prepared to believe anything that reflected badly on it.)
But, people do change. As Paul Stott notes, liberal anti-fascist organisations like Searchlight/HnH make considerable capital out of their turned assets such as Ray Hill and Matthew Collins. And some of the most impressive genuine, militant anti-fascists I have known had been fascists when younger. Today, many people I trust are willing to give Yaxley-Lennon the benefit of the doubt about his conversion. He’s made some positive gestures. Quilliam have a good track record helping people exit the jihadi death cult, so perhaps they can help Yaxley-Lennon make a genuine recovery.
Personally, though, I don’t see much evidence of any actual change in Yaxley-Lennon’s views yet. He was (incompetently) stalking and threatening anti-fascists weeks before his U-turn; he continues to fraternise with and compliment out-and-out fascists on his social media pages; he carries on linking to YouTube videos of his most racist speeches. At the very least, we should be very sceptical of him.
7. The real question is, what is Tommy going to do with his re-branding. If Yaxley-Lennon has read Matthew Goodwin’s polling analysis (and I’m sure he has), he’ll know there is a sizeable constituency in the UK for an organisation which shares the views of the EDL but not its violence. Yaxley-Lennon has a big ego, big ambition, charisma and political nous. If the mainstream media rehabilitates him, what can he do with his fame?
With Farage and UKIP given disproportionate access to the public by the BBC and the print media, Yaxley-Lennon knows he will get a hearing. (The media class has been taken in by private school bankster Farage’s self-presentation as Ordinary Bloke; how much better former football hooligan tanning machine businessman “Tommy Robinson” can play that role.) So, when we say good luck to Yaxley-Lennon, well, yes, good luck in his private life and journey of self-discovery – but, no, not good luck in his political ambitions.
Those are the main points I wanted to get out. The following are more specific, in response to particular claims made in the Tommy Robinson debate.
8. There is no such thing as the white working class, and neither the EDL nor Tommy Robinson is its legitimate voice. Yaxley-Lennon’s apologists, including the more thoughtful Jacobin and Graeme Archer, as well as the likes of Spiked, Damian Thompson and Charles Moore, all seem to accept that he somehow speaks for something they call “the white working class”. The most obvious question is how these people know that. Jacobin presumably excepted, these are mostly people that went to private schools and elite universities, own homes in leafy neighbourhoods, and probably only encounter real white working class people when they call an electrician.
The stereotype of the (homogeneous, chauvinistic, ignorant) white working class promoted by the Spectator and Telegraph bloggers mirrors exactly the contemptuous stereotype of its propagated by the Hampstead liberals. That the Spectatoriat imagines “Tommy Robinson” speaks for this mythical constituency tells us mostly about their own ignorance. The fake respect they accord him exactly mirrors the deference multiculturalists pay to the plastic imams presumed to similarly represent the similarly homogenous “Muslim community”.
9. The anti-fascist industry is only one small part of the anti-fascist movement. Dan Hannan and others have used the term “anti-fascist industry” to deride those, such as Matthew Goodwin, who are sceptical of Yaxley-Lennon’s conversion. Jacobin makes a big deal of Goodwin and Dr Chris Allen being academics. Of course, there probably is such a thing as the “anti-fascist industry”, but it’s quite small. A handful of academic and a handful of employees of thinktanks and campaigning organisations do get paid to keep tabs on the far right. Yes, this might make them inclined to emphasise threats and to bolster their own “expert” credentials by seeing more clearly than the rest of us.
But most other “industries” pay a lot better than this one, and it’s surely not that reprehensible to want to get paid to do something both interesting and socially useful – and probably marginally less reprehensible than paying Dan Hannan or Brendan O’Neill to do their day jobs. There’s a pharmaceutical industry, a garden supply a newspaper industry too, but that doesn’t mean pharmaceuticals, garden supplies and newspapers are bad things. Should we leave all these activities to unpaid amateurs? But of course, though, behind the two dozen paid ones, there are thousands of unpaid amateur anti-fascists, and their cynicism about the EDL and its aftermath can’t be dismissed by the Hannan logic.
10. The concept of extremism is bullshit. The word “extremism” is heavily used in the Tommy Robinson debate, by academics like Goodwin and for that matter by Yaxley-Lennon and Quilliam. There’s something compelling in the mirroring of the Islamist “extremism” from which Maajid Nawaz escaped with the far right “extremism” from which Yaxley-Lennon is said to be escaping. Mainstream politicians seek out “moderate” imams to dialogue with, while the entrepreneurs of fear in the Counter-Jihad seem to think all Muslims are extremists. And some liberal anti-fascists seek to extend their remit by claiming UKIP is “extremist” too.
I think the whole logic of that term is fraudulent. All it does is reinforce the conformist mainstream and cast any divergence of views as somehow deviant. And it contributes to the glamour of movements which claim to be somehow dissident.
I don’t see fascism or Islamism as bad because they’re “extremist”. We shouldn’t be judging Yaxley-Lennon on whether he is extremist or not, but whether he’s right or wrong about the things he says, whether he has anything useful to say, whether there’s any positive reason to give him space in the public sphere. Whether his reformation is genuine or not, personally I don’t see him making any useful contribution to our debate. I don’t see abetting his rehabilitation and feeding his publicity machine as having any positive pay-off.
11. The concept of multiculturalism is too confused to be useful. A large part of the Jacobin’s post is taken up by a sharp critique of (a version of) multiculturalism. I broadly share this critique, which has been made by leftists in the last two decades (from the Independent Working Class Association to Southall Black Sisters to Kenan Malik). Jacobin is right that this version of multiculturalism helped give birth to the EDL, which asserts a politics of difference and recognition for its imaginary indigenous “white working class”.
While some self-described anti-fascists (Lee Jasper, Ken Livingstone, Unite Against Fascism) keep on pushing that zombie version of state multiculturalism, most anti-fascists don’t. Militant anti-fascists were never multiculturalists (in fact, it was the anarchist-led Antifa that led the first demonstration against Islamists in Britain); the secular Bengalis who protested both the EDL and IFE in Tower Hamlets were never multiculturalists; nor was Peter Tatchell. And even many of the liberal anti-fascists who’ve been most cynical about Robinson’s conversion – people like The Hope not Hate leadership, Sunny Hundal, Fiyaz Mughal and Matthew Goodwin – are active critics of that sort of state multiculturalism. So, the idea that scorn for his conversion is simply “the wrath of the multiculturalists” doesn’t stand up at all.
12. We need to be careful in choosing our friends. Even before the re-brand, some liberal anti-Islamists who should know better were already cosying up to the most illiberal Counter-Jihadis. I’m thinking of Anne-Marie Waters, who Jacobin mentions, who indulged in social media love-ins with EDL activists and who chose a far right Scandinavian website to publish her Labour Party resignation letter. (Her resignation, bizarrely, blamed has-been Ken Livingstone, who had been at his peak when she joined the party.) But, as any fool should know, not all of our enemies’ enemies are our friends.
Whether Yaxley-Lennon remains an enemy or not, I see no reason to think he’s our friend. I hope I’m wrong, and that Quilliam (who I’ve always respected) don’t end up regretting their actions. But I’m not optimistic. It discredits the struggle against Islamism to promote racists.