May 16, 2023 - 7:00am

In certain sections of social media — mainly Twitter and Telegram — the Online Right has been turning Daniel Penny into a hero. That’s the same Daniel Penny who put Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was bothering passengers on a Manhattan subway car, in a fatal chokehold at the beginning of this month.

Over the last few days, Penny has been compared by the Right to Gallic chieftains, Roman emperors and works of art created to honour them. While the Left has painted him as a wanton killer, to the Right he is representative of exactly the type of person we should all strive to be — someone who is willing to protect others where the state won’t (or can’t). In other words, if the police won’t act, brave vigilantes will. Neely wasn’t the effete, harmless Michael Jackson impersonator portrayed by the mainstream media: he was a threat that an ineffective policing system should have either locked behind bars or, ideally, placed in a mental health institute.

It would be easy to write off the Right’s use of heroic imagery as fandomisation. But there may also be another, more deep-seated reason for this response, too. The Online Right’s pattern of comparing the men they see to mythic and historical heroes is undoubtedly reflective of a desire for greatness. It seems as though any person who might embody this greatness, whether warranted or not, becomes quickly deified. Kyle Rittenhouse and Blake Masters also come to mind, but one could argue that the dozens of people who found audiences after high-profile cancellations are also placed in this position. 

This speaks to a yearning for a strong leader who embodies the group’s values. From that perspective, the cycle of comparing these characters to Great Men past isn’t so silly or irreverent. The meme-making isn’t making light of murder, as some have implied, or at least that isn’t the case for everyone.

Putting aside the fundamental difference in understanding for what unfolded in the Rittenhouse and Penny trials, the Right, even more than the Left, sees a gap in society. For them, America sorely lacks people who are willing to live and die for their values: people who are worth believing in. Penny isn’t just a man who instilled order in a Manhattan subway car: he’s symbolic of the promise that someone, somewhere, might help instil order in a chaotic country. 

Where the Left is constantly looking for demons and martyrs to those demons, the Right is frequently looking for heroes to lead them to greatness. It is worth understanding — or at least considering — this fact before jumping to criticism.

Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit