Pandaemonium

LESS A DEBATE THAN POLITICAL TROLLING

Time Meltdown cover

This is the full version of an article published in the Observer, 3 December2017, under the headline ‘When crude tweets set the global agenda we are surely in a new age of politics’.


The most powerful leader in the world tweets like a teenage Nazi on 4chan whose sole aim is to create outrage. Three retweets of anti-Muslim hatred first tweeted by the deputy leader of a British neo-Nazi group do indeed cause global outrage. British politics becomes consumed by the issue. Parliament even holds a special session to allow MPs to denounce the tweeter. And a tiny British far-right organisation, barely known even to most British people, but whose whole existence is rooted in generating outrage, achieves what it wants and on a global scale. ‘Donald Trump retweets hate messages from British First deputy leader’, it gleefully tweets.

Welcome to politics 2017-style.

It is certainly astonishing that the president of the United States should retweet obnoxious videos, the principal aim of which was to whip up hostility towards Muslims; equally so that he should blithely ignore not just their provenance but also that at least one was not what it purported to be. But if the video was fake, there was also something concocted about the controversy. One side wanted to provoke outrage. The other side duly obliged and expressed outrage. And on both sides, the signalling – ‘Look at me, I’m saying the right things’ – seemed to matter more than the content. From Trump’s original tweets to newspaper headlines that Trump was ‘not wanted’ in Britain, much of the controversy had the feel less of a political debate than of online trolling.

In her new book Kill All Normies, the writer Angela Nagle tracks the rise of the online ‘alt-right’. A new culture has developed, she argues, on internet forums such as 4chan and Reddit, which sees the transgression of mainstream liberal norms as a good in itself, irrespective of the content and consequences of such transgression. This helped forge a new anti-establishment politics, a kind of counter-culture rooted in the embrace of reactionary, bigoted, racist and misogynistic attitudes in which the ability to create outrage became the principal currency.

This reactionary counter-culture has spilled into the offline world and right into the White House. Donald Trump appropriated the essence, if not the tone, of the online alt-right transgressors, perfecting a mixture of narcissism, self-aggrandisement and the elicitation of liberal outrage that helped intoxicate many disaffected voters. It turned rage about the political elite into hostility against the supposed symbols of elite politics – Muslims, migrants, the marginalised.

Trumpism is the product of the evacuation of politics from the political sphere, the replacement of policies and ideas with symbols and signalling. Trump’s policies are, of course, deeply political and have grave real-life consequences for everyone from Muslims to poor Americans on Obamacare, from African Americans to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. Yet, from the Mexican wall to the visa restrictions on Muslim majority countries, from the targeting of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt, rather than stood, to the national anthem in protest at police killings of African Americans, to the ‘Rocket Man’ tweets about North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, Trump’s public pronouncements are less about practical policies than about expressing the right attitude and being contemptuous of liberal norms. Symbolism has always been part of politics. In the age of Trump, it is politics.

Even if Trump knew what kind of organization was Britain First, or understood the fakeness of the video, it is unlikely that he would have acted differently. When White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended Trump’s retweets on the grounds that the content may have been fake, but ‘the threat is real’, she was saying that the truth was irrelevant, and that all that mattered was being seen to be hostile to Muslims. The fact that the tweets caused global outrage only confirmed to Trump and his supporters that he had signaled well.

It was inevitable and right that there should be condemnation of Trump’s tweets. Theresa May’s response was restrained and to the point – a rare well-judged move in a season of terrible missteps. Yet, the fact that a single series of tweets should so dominate British politics suggests that, just as Trump and his supporters define themselves through eliciting outrage, so many of his critics do so by expressing it. In a special parliamentary session, MPs lined up to pour opprobrium over the US president. The press was equally self-righteous; Trump should be banned from visiting ‘Britain’s multicultural nation until he learns some manners’, as the Independent put it. This was as much signalling as were Trump’s tweets.

Economist Trump KKK cover

The one clear winner is Britain First. The thrusting of an odious fringe group into the global spotlight has led to a debate about how such a story should be reported. The media, many protest, should not be giving a hate group so much publicity. It is true that the media often make insignificant figures appear important because they fit a particular narrative. For years, Anjem Choudary, founder of the Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, which only ever possessed a handful of members, was forever to be found on our TV screens, as if he was an important voice within the ‘Muslim community’, rather than an obnoxious clown with good televisual skills.

In the case of Britain First, however, it was the president who put it in the public eye. The question the media need to ask themselves is not if they should give publicity to a fringe group, but why they became obsessed with Trump’s tweets. At the same time, it is important that the media do not censor debates or refuse to cover hate groups simply because their views are unsavoury. In Kill All Normies, Nagle argues that restrictions of ‘political correctness’ and of liberal ‘call-out culture’ helped create a backlash that turned into the transgressive alt-right. Some make a similar argument about Britain First. ‘Britain first [sic] is what you get when you reject legitimate concerns about Islam and uncontrolled immigration,’ tweeted former UKIP and Leave EU funder Arron Banks.

It is true that in recent years there has developed a culture of censorship in discussion of Islam; from art to social policy, the fear of giving offence, or of appearing racist, has often curtailed debate. I have long pushed back against this censorious culture. Last month, I wrote a chapter in the new Runnymede Trust report on Islamophobia, questioning the very use of the term because it conflates bigotry against Muslims with criticisms of Islam. Too often, I argued in the report, criticism of Islam is deemed illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’. Nothing should be unsayable simply because someone finds it offensive or because it is culturally or religiously sensitive.

At the same time, I observed, those who promote hatred against Muslims often dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. For this is the other side of contemporary culture: a hostility to Muslims that leads many to rail against Muslim immigration and to regard Islam as an existential threat to the west. Not just the far-right but many liberals, too, have helped stoke such fears.

Britain First is not the creation of constraints on speech. It is a product of a bigoted view of Muslims. It is a violent group that ‘considers all Muslim elected officials as ‘occupiers’ and will start to oppose their strategy of entryism and take-over of our political system’. It promised ‘direct action’ against all politicians of Muslim background, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Tory Cabinet minister Sajid Javid. It has invaded mosques and halal factories. These are the views and actions of racists, not of those frustrated with restrictions on free speech.

It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech and for an open debate on sensitive issues to challenge such bigotry wherever it may manifest itself. In today’s polarised culture, in which signalling one’s virtue or vice is regarded as more important than thinking deeply about an issue, the willingness both to defend free speech and challenge bigotry is too often in short supply.

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The cover images are from Time magazine, 13 October 2016 and the Economist, 19 August 2017.

6 comments

  1. More worthy idealism which nevertheless leaves unspoken the real tragedy facing the West. Islam is doctrinally committed to the hegemonic conquest of the non-Muslim world, in which it is manifestly successful in advocacy, action and achievement as both recent and distant history show. How does an intelligent and literate person, wise to the wiles and the will of Islam and the existential threat it poses to dar al-harb, exercise their efforts to be heard when mindless and vociferous opposition unites with moderate public voices to deny any sort of platform for a debate on the deeper issues that Islam’s conquest raises?

    At a broader level, how do ordinary non-political people, not gifted with deeper insights, knowledge or literacy, express their concerns when political parties that try to represent them are vilified as far-right, neo-Nazi, extremist, racist, bigoted and xenophobic? That major parties will not adopt conciliatory policies for fear of these epithets means that only fringe groups, not afraid of (or even willing to embrace) such stigmata, step up to the plate. This represents a failing of liberal democracy, when an ideological collective can dominate public discourse to the exclusion of majority opposition. By marginalising a widely-held world view then subjecting it to a popular vote is certain to shift the democratic centre in its direction, as recent elections show. This in turn deepens societal divisions and misses the chances to ameliorate them. Trump and his tweets are a symptom not of an emergent alt- or extreme Right but of an extreme Left-wing ideology which is powerful, destructive, and contemptuously dismissive of opposition.

    I read your entry in the Runnymede report with interest and will read the balance in due course. While it hits low points with straw men, a libellous and dated comment on Tommy Robinson, and the frequent use of the word ‘bigot’ and its derivatives to encompass anything a bien pensant interlocutor might disagree with, it left me with one overwhelming impression. It illustrated the inelegant pas de deux needed to establish the limits of discourse between autochthonous and allochthonous cultures.

    But the host culture, in its innocence, is blind to Islam’s weasel war dance.

    • Tony Buck

      I agree with much of what you say. As things stand, the West is doomed to inevitable defeat – partly because (having discarded Christianity) it’s wretchedly weak and perched on foundations of thin air, not to mention the debilitating effects of the unparalleled affluence it has enjoyed since about 1950 (1940, in the USA).

      But partly because of the wilful blindness of Western liberal intellectuals to the West’s imminent death at the hands of Islam (or sheer Chaos, or both). Is this PC on their part – or are they simply unable to face the painful reality ?

      Though to win, Islam doesn’t need to do a “weasel war dance” or use brutal methods – their sincere motivation, and an unequalled birth-rate, will ensure them of victory.

    • Kit Slater, I suppose it’s also ‘worthy idealism’ to insist on the distinction between Islam and Islamism. Of course, it suits you not to make that distinction, but that does not make the conflation any more valid.

      I have long argued that the concerns of what you acidly call ‘ordinary non-political people, not gifted with deeper insights, knowledge or literacy’ should be taken seriously, and that the mainstream parties, particularly of the left, have abandoned their traditional constituencies. I don’t know whether you have not read my many articles on this, or whether you have read them and decided to ignore them because they don’t fit into your picture of the world. But here are a few for starters: Immigration and populism; Populism: What, why, how?; Beyond the Brexit debate ; Britain, Europe and the real crisis; A crisis of democracy or of liberalism?; From the end of history to 2016.

      And as for vilifying their views, I have, again, long challenged that: ’I want my country back’; The faultlines of the imagination; Democracy was never intended for degenerates.

      But anyone who can’t see that Britain First is ideed ‘far-right, neo-Nazi, extremist, racist, bigoted and xenophobic’ is, not to put too fine a point on it, either blind or bigoted themselves.

      • “…it suits you not to make that distinction [between Islam and Islamism], but that does not make the conflation any more valid.”

        There’s a very long essay I could write on the distinction between Islam and Islamism, but like all good commenters I work under tl;dr constraints. Here, too, so please remember this before making assumptions about my thinking.

        I first took an interest in Islam in when I learnt that the Saudis were paying for building the Regent’s Park Mosque in the late 70s, and realised Islam was making a bid for Western influence. Evidence grew exponentially and I began recording it in the late nineties. I called the file ‘Islamism’ because it represented the political activism, fundamentalism and extremism associated with Islam. But the more I learned about Islam, especially about its processes used in conquest, the more I realised the distinction is quite false. The problem is Islam, specifically, resurgent Islam. Everything that Islamists do is sanctioned by its scriptures and in many cases mandated. The true distinction lies not between Islam and Islamism but between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims, and the spectrum thereof. The distinction between the moderate and the fundamentalist Muslim lies not in the goal, but in the process used to achieve it. Islam is conquering dar al-harb and does not need Islamists. It should be noted that while actions of Islamists can be counterproductive, they nonetheless serve very useful purposes on behalf of Islam which include inspiring fear and demonstration of consequences.

        It’s important to realise that moderate Islam does not and cannot exist, notwithstanding the efforts and opinions of Dr Zuhdi Jasser, Raheel Raza, Waleed Al-Husseini, London PC Javaria Saeed, Dr Daniel Pipes and many others. The reason is, of course, that Allah has given the world the perfect religion and the perfect man, worthy of emulation. No-one can improve on perfection and disputing this can be fatal. Having said that, one of my solutions to European disruption caused by Islam is to isolate ‘Euro-Islam’ from ‘Asian-Islam’; for national governments to have total control over mosques, imams and their teachings, and those solely in the vernacular. This will require ideological correction and training centres, and expulsion or incarcerated training, to eliminate Islam’s three major defects, essentialism, supremacism and supersessionism. This requires a major change in Western moral precepts, but since Islam is doing that anyway, one or other has to take control. I’m not under any illusion that governments will take this option, or that it would work if they did. So it’s back to my much earlier solution, that of Islamic microstates in host countries. That, we can see, is coming true.

        Regarding your second point, your various imputations on my comments are decidedly misplaced and look rather defensive. You seem to have missed my point by interpreting it personally, yet it did not in any way contradict your concerns about ‘ordinary’ people. Indeed, I think your assessment is unarguably correct.

        The point I am making is much bigger, which is that media representations of opposition to immigration and Islamic conquest, frequently conflated, are categorised not as opinions of a resentful, powerless and manipulated majority who deserve to be heard, but as an obnoxious and obstructive bloc in need of control by vilification. That the loudest supporters of this bloc tend towards the extreme right allows media to tar more moderate parties such as France’s Front National and the Netherland’s PVV etc. with the same brush, and deprive the bloc from effective representation.

        It is the extreme Left wing’s control of the Weltanschauung shared by the media, academia, government and public voices in the West that is responsible for “this reactionary counter-culture” and the attention given to Britain First. It is the motives of the extreme Left that need examining, for it is they who are the most destructive of all.

        • Excellent statement, couldn´t have said it better myself.

          The problem isn´t islamism versus islam, it´s radical muslims angainst less radical muslims. The latter don´t want to kill us, but they reject us and our culture just the same way.

  2. Tony Buck

    Trump is an angry president for an Age of Anger. It’s doubtful whether he’s any worse than the Emperors of the dying Roman Empire.

    Though armed with more destructive power, of course.

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