- The arrest and deportation of far-right activist Lauren Southern and her associates has provoked outcry
- It has allowed the trio to cast themselves as victims and given them a bigger platform for their views
- They are pseudo-intellectualising racist ideology and trying to turn their Generation Identity movement into a palatable brand
- Only rigorous challenges of their ideology through debate can stop this extremism
by Eleanor Beevor
The “alt-right” is getting smarter, and Britain needs to find far cleverer ways to fight it than with the blunt use of counter-terrorism laws.
Certainly it will have to do much better than its most recent own-goal. On the 9th of March, two far-right activists and YouTube personalities, Brittany Pettibone and Martin Sellner were detained at Luton Airport and then removed from the U.K. three days later. On the 12th, their friend and fellow far-right YouTuber Lauren Southern was detained in the port of Calais, and also later banned from the U.K..
Her detention sparked a sharper response given that it made use of Schedule 7, a controversial piece of anti-terrorism legislation. Schedule 7 allows a person to be detained for several hours, without the right to remain silent or access to a publically funded lawyer. Its inclusion in the Terrorism Act 2000 was justified on the grounds that it would only be used to determine if the person detained was involved in the “commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”.
It is self-evidently true that Schedule 7 is being used and abused far beyond its remit. It is also thoroughly disingenuous to suggest, as Southern’s supporters now are, that the legislation is being chiefly used to target conservatives. David Miranda (the partner of left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald), the left-wing activist Eleanor Jones, and a number of Muslim travelers have also been controversially detained and later released under Schedule 7.
This hasn’t stopped Southern and her supporters enjoying their moment as victims in the spotlight. Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League and a prominent far-right activist, tweeted that the U.K. police are “Abusing Their Power In Order To Prevent Criticism Of Islam”. Southern was then invited to speak to the European Parliament by far-right MEPs, and given a guest slot on Nigel Farage’s radio show.
Southern’s detention, she believes, was prompted by a “social experiment” she had taken part in in Luton a few days earlier, in which she handed out flyers saying “Allah is a Gay God”. She claimed that the stunt was a response to a Vice News article entitled “Was Jesus Gay?”, and that it aimed to observe public reaction to other religions being called “gay”. The police confiscated the flyers, and the reason given for her eventual expulsion was this “distribution of racist material”. Amidst the volley of criticism fired off on both sides of the debate, there arise a number of difficult questions.
Southern has dressed the stunt as an intellectual exercise, one that tests the commitment of liberals to the equal treatment of religions, and Muslims’ tolerance of sexual minorities. Critics of the police response have suggested that goading religious sentiments, whatever one may think of that, is not a racist act since a religion is not a race.
These are complex questions which raise legitimate points for both the left and the right. The pity is that it that the legal overreach directed on Southern and her far-right fellow travelers has effectively handed them a megaphone for addressing them, when their ultimate aim is more sinister than productive debate.
Defining, or not defining, the “alt-right”
The three have previously made YouTube videos together, and Southern participated in the “Defend Europe” movement that Sellner and Pettibone fronted. Defend Europe was the controversial movement aiming to prevent NGO ships transporting migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean.
Yet they have managed to retain somewhat different profiles and labels in the public eye. Southern is often referred to as a “conservative Christian activist”, while Sellner is known as an “identitarian”, and is one of the most prominent figures in the “Generation Identity” movement. There’s a certain media-savviness on display here. The trio have generally avoided the term “alt-right” in reference to themselves, instead self-styling as intellectual right-wing provocateurs with a spectrum of opinions.
As a result of this subtlety and its more careful attitude to the law, Generation Identity has so far avoided the legal troubles of other far-right movements such as Britain First, whose leaders were recently imprisoned. Indeed, it is a strange legal inconsistency to see Generation Identity’s leaders deported, but so far no further word on the group’s legal status in Britain.
Unfortunately, nothing serves Generation Identity’s intellectual pretensions better than having its leadership banned under anti-terror laws, as if we are unable to answer them with something better.
Whatever they call themselves, all three insist that they are not racist. Their marketing is cleverer than that. Their proclaimed stance is that all peoples have the right to celebrate and protect their identity and their culture, and that they are merely insisting Europeans and Americans have the same right. They are also careful to add, correctly, that an identity is not a fixed matter, and that it involves both generalisations and exceptions. And it’s easy for them to cast these demands as innocuous, particularly in a climate where there is much legitimate concern around immigration and globalization.
Packaging their brand
But the glaring problem is that, at least in public, they tend to keep very quiet about what that “ethno-cultural” identity is actually made up of. They avoid the terms “white separatist” or “white supremacist”. Indeed, they aren’t explicitly talking about whiteness at all, instead using “ethno-cultural identity” as a euphemism for it, and allowing their supporters to see in that whatever they wish. They sometimes refer to Christianity, although their activism seems to have little to say about the religion itself. And for all their talk of “culture”, there’s little detail on exactly what of this culture they want to protect.
Culture is not a mysterious substance that just slips away. Culture is what people practice. It is the things they do in their everyday lives which give them a sense of communal identity. Most of these things can perfectly well be celebrated without chauvinism or racism. But it is not practicing, or even identifying these things that occupies Generation Identity. Pride of place instead goes to anti-immigration rhetoric, called the “Great Replacement” in their materials, which is the supposed gradual usurpation of “ethnic Europeans” by immigrants.
The group have so far rejected prospective members with neo-Nazi ties. This sidestepping has helped them evade the bans faced by more explicitly neo-Nazi movements such as National Action. Yet they do not entirely refute the “white nationalists” label. They are just more careful about packaging it.
An undercover journalist for ITV’s Exposure, who asked whether the group were white nationalists, was told that they did indeed have an “ethnic basis”. Sellner himself featured in the program, again repeating that Generation Identity was not a racist movement, yet using a racial slur for British people of South Asian heritage in the same scene.
And for all their insistence that they are a non-violent movement, Generation Identity are very quiet about what their proposed solution is to this “replacement”. At the same time, they use the militant language of “defending Europe,” run anti-immigrant images on their social media feed, and organise camps for their supporters in Europe with military style training. This is pure dog-whistle politics – denying they are racist at all, yet they are setting up anyone with a different “ethno-cultural identity” as a problem and “defense” as the solution, dots that their supporters join as they see fit.
The legality of it all
Sellner, Southern and Pettibone do represent threats. But they are not the sort of threats that can be countered by anti-terror laws and repressive measures that make them martyrs. They need to be confronted in debate and forced to explain exactly what they mean, repeatedly, and publically. They must be made to follow their own rhetoric to its logical end, because that end is the same racist low that they claim to have risen above.
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