Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Politics of Hate

The Sun newspaper decided on Friday that the killer of Jo Cox was a "crazed loner". While both adjective and noun were not inappropriate, this hardly sufficed as an explanation of the man's motives. The fact that at his arraignment today, Tom Mair responded to the request to confirm his name with "death to traitors, freedom for Britain", while the prosecution alleged that he claimed on arrest to be a "political activist", suggests his act was political and the timing was influenced by the EU referendum next week. Whether he was influenced by the recent tone of the leave campaign - not just its fear-mongering over immigration and dismissal of expertise, but its depiction of a shadowy and malign "establishment" that doesn't include Boris Johnson and Michael Gove - is another matter, though I suspect there is a higher probability of this than that the killing was a false flag operation by the Remain camp. Today, The Sun led with "Nazi mania of Jo killer", suggesting (along with the Daily Mail) that the root cause of this tragedy was a twisted mind rather than twisted politics.

Had the killer been a Muslim, you can imagine the op-ed onslaught about the culpability of Islam and the responsibility of the killer's "community". This appetite for simplicity was illustrated by the way the killer in the Orlando mass-shooting flipped from a self-radicalised Jihadi to a self-hating closet homosexual inside 24 hours, though more sober judgement was that this was another example of insane gun laws as much as an insane perpetrator. The anxiety of the Leave camp at the suggestion that Mair was politically motivated (and therefore complex) is understandable. Janet Daley insists "It must be made absolutely clear by everyone of good conscience that acts of violence by unstable individuals have nothing to do with political discourse and cannot rewrite its rules". This is patently false: nutters are just as entitled to a political opinion, and likely to act upon it, as the rest of us. You cannot dismiss Nazism as a political phenomenon by reference to Hitler's psychopathy. Daley's anxiety doesn't just betray a fear that the public reaction to the killing may prove pivotal to next Thursday's result, but a desire to put distance between the rhetoric and the act, in other words, to absolve the press.

This is a view shared even by the pro-Remain newspapers, where liberal commentators like Jonathan Freedland and Polly Toynbee have been decrying the growing contempt for politicians but insist on attributing it to a general coarsening of society driven by social media (one amusing exception is Martin Kettle, who is too Olympian to care about Twitter but nostalgic for the historic power of the press). In other words, the problem is the common herd, with their lack of civility and respect for their betters (to this end, Jo Cox has been promptly beatified, with the focus on her acts of charity and personal perfection showing the continuing influence of religious tropes), not the paid propagandists of the national media. But this stance requires the mental division of society into two parts: the decent and the indecent. For both conservatives like Daley and liberals like Freedland and Toynbee, this means emphasising a core social personality that is "calm, rational, tolerant, grown up, undaunted, and quietly brave". In other words, middle-class.

In Britain, Fascism has always been a product of newspapers. Oswald Mosley could not have thrived without the support of the Daily Mail, and that paper's adulation of Mussolini played a significant role in determining the style of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Similarly, the press coverage of race relations and immigration in the 1970s (e.g. the prominence of "black muggers" and the race-inflected reporting of drugs and prostitution) helped define the tone of the National Front. In the 1990s the BNP deliberately adapted its message to fit the wider media narrative about "bogus asylum-seekers", before going large on the "threat" of Islam after 2001. Since 2010, the EDL and Britain First have been only too happy to indulge Islamophobia and xenophobia, amplifying media tropes about crazed Jihadis and "migrant invasions". While these marginal groups are dismissed as lumpen thugs, the racist message they are responding to is contextualised by mainstream xenophobic propaganda.

In respect of immigration, Jo Cox's husband has said that mainstream politicians "are clueless on how to deal with the public debate. Petrified by the rise of the populists they try to neuter them by taking their ground and aping their rhetoric. Far from closing down the debates, these steps legitimise their views, reinforce their frames and pull the debate further to the extremes". This is true, but the idea that politicians are "clueless" excuses them of responsibility through a charge of stupidity. Just as the far right have parasitised media narratives on migration and multiculturalism, so political parties have willingly signed a Mephistophelian pact that requires them to indulge soft xenophobia in support of a media-defined nationalism. This has become toxic precisely because the referendum campaign has been cast as an issue of  national integrity, both in terms of the presumed existential threat of immigration (Farage's "breaking point" poster) and the erosion of a nebulous sovereignty.

The Institute for Economics and Peace publishes a Global Terrorism Index. While this is a typical neoliberal artifact of national classification, the raw facts are still startling: "Seventy per cent of all deaths from terrorism in the West since 2006 were by lone wolf terrorists ... Eighty per cent of deaths by lone wolf terrorists in the West were driven by right wing extremism, nationalism, antigovernment sentiment and political extremism and other forms of supremacy". The point is not that there is more right wing terrorism than left wing terrorism (or Islamic terrorism or Irish Nationalist terrorism etc), though there is, but that lone wolf terrorism tends to be right wing. The reason for this is not that neo-Nazis or militant racists are particularly antisocial ("somebody who sat alone in front of a computer all day", as Janet Daley puts it - I don't imagine she crafts her journalistic pearls in an open-plan office, though I may be wrong) but that an individual can more easily develop their belief system if it can be rationalised as a logical extension of received wisdom. The dominance of right wing terrorism reflects the dominance of a right wing press.

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