In the days after the night before a senator used nazi rhetoric in the Australian parliament, I watched with interest to see who would say what about possibly the most straightforward question in public discourse: is nazi rhetoric bad? Is it wrong?
The answer is yes. This is both objective moral fact and global consensus.
Yet there are places in the world where nazi rhetoric is acceptable public discourse. One of those places is the micro-party headed by long-time Australian politician Bob Katter. On Monday week (27 August 2018), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) will provide Bob with a panel show timeslot to explain away how his colleague used nazi rhetoric in the Australian Parliament is really nothing and also magnificent.
This claim is both false and dangerous. Before I say why from my perspective, I want to point to Put Away Your Ball, This is not a Game by Karen Wyld at IndigenousX and Australia is Racist, But not in the Way You Think by Natalie Cromb at NITV-SBS. That Karen is a Martu woman and Natalie a Gamilaraay woman is not a coincidence. The moral authority of Aboriginal women in this country is deeply grounded in the ontology of cosmos, kin and country. This does not only apply to racism, but it especially applies to racism.
A Platform for Racists on the National Broadcaster
The QandA tweet above features George Cristensen, a Nationals party MP who in July 2015 told a neo-nazi rally in Mackay that we are ‘at war with radical Islam’. It also features Pauline Hanson, a former Liberal Party and later eponymous One Nation candidate, who told a neo-nazi rally in Rockhampton that she is ‘against Islam’ because there are ‘places in Sydney, the streets that the police will not go into. We do not want sharia law in Australia’.
None of this has any basis in fact. The hate speech is freely available online.
Then there is Bob Katter, who sat as a Nationals MP for 23 years, and ten years as an independent, before establishing his eponymous ‘Australia Party’. When a One Nation defector signed up his party’s parliamentary presence doubled. On debut, the new recruit called for a christian european migration policy to which ‘the final solution is a popular vote’ to ban Muslim immigration. Bob then called a press conference to say the speech was ‘gold’ and ‘magnificent’ and he stands by it ‘one thousand per cent’.
All this nazi talk is, yep, freely available online.
News organisations across the country reported Bob’s endorsement. Half the breakfast television programs invited the newly notorious senator on to deny and deflect and dismiss, to minimise and justify and build his brand. When ‘the final solution’ was placed in its historically accurate, objectively true context, which is that he used nazi rhetoric, the senator claimed he was taken out of context and being silenced.
The parliament and the polity
Now I do not give a fuck what Bob Katter and his fair weather friend have to say, on migration or any other policy. I am, however, deeply invested in whether the Australian polity, the electorate, the political class, the government leadership and journalists and reporters and commentators, know what to do when faced with real live nazis.
The correct response is unambiguous condemnation and no further correspondence will be entered into. The correct response is to announce immediate policy, process, and regulatory changes that do not require extended debate or legislation. Some examples would be standing orders to limit hate speech and parliamentary privilege; and commitments to not accept nazi-sympathiser votes on any bill, to not give them a pair on any vote, and to place them last in every preference deal in every seat across the country.
Any number of similar and perfectly straightforward measures could be announced with bipartisan support while a more substantive response is developed. All it would take is and capacity to read the political wind and mobilise the political will. But politicians are power-seekers like corporations are profit-seekers. Neither major party will put the national interest ahead of political ambition or political agenda, even though shutting down nazi rhetoric is in the national interest.
There is nothing unusual about the parliament being entirely unrepresentative of the majority. This is because, like all our institutions, the parliament is dominated by able-bodied and married white males from comfortable backgrounds. This demographic are the last people on earth to understand what life is like for everybody else, because our society is shaped by them and for them, in their image and for their interests.
To bring together these two strands, of real-time events and the response, this last point is crucial. Like corporations and political parties and governments (and bureaucracies and religion and universities), media organisations are, collectively, an institution dominated by the same demographic, with the same vested interests. I have written elsewhere about the democratic obligations of the fourth estate in the Westminster ideal. Briefly, the first estate is the church, the second the landed gentry and the third is the commoners. These institutional power arrangements are the House of Lords (knights temporal and spiritual, ie dukes and archbishops etc) and House of Commons (property-owning men without aristocratic titles).
On Gadigal lands, for instance, Phillip handed a glebe (now Glebe) to the church of england within months of his fleet landing at Warrane (now circular quay). Wherever the invading military (governor and marines/redcoats) murdered First Peoples and seized their lands, the church was there like a faithful dog to get its piece (with apologies to dogs).
The task of the fourth estate is to report the actions of the government and policies of her majesty’s loyal opposition. This obligation is at the heart of democratic principle because if the people are not informed of government action and alternative policies, the system of government becomes in effect a one-party state, which is undemocratic.
Everybody operating in this domain is acutely aware of incumbent power, which is founded in the tory norms outlined above, above all other considerations. This is because the central organising principles of white patriarchy are domination and control, up to and including pursuit and maintenance of domination and control for its own sake.
I am alert to how basic are these explanatory statements. The reasons for going over all this are many. One is my own pedagogy, which is based on first principles. When students (I teach future lawyers and police officers in western Sydney) lose sight of something as fundamental as equality before the law, or presumption of innocence, it is harder for them to comprehend the structure and function and direction of the law and legal system.
First principles are also an entry point for distinguishing ontology from epistemology, or deontic ethics from moral relativism. It is not difficult to accept that equality before the law is good, or that nazis are bad. What could be more straightforward? Yet the predictable rearguard action from mediocre white males with positional power bestowed by patriarchal institutions – universities, media organisations, conservative incumbency – are out here right now minimsing and trivialising and downplaying nazi rhetoric as though it does not pose a serious threat to our society because it does not pose a threat to them.
Get real, mate
The sheer volume of nazi apologia, and equally repulsive praise for weak rebukes of nazi hate speech, disseminated by Australian media this week is quite overwhelming. On the one hand, it is business as usual. The Commonwealth of Australia, in contrast to the 65,000 years of human histories and connection to country on which our nation state is built, is constitutively racist. By this I mean that racism is woven into our social fabric, racism is a central organising principle of Australian hegemony, racism can not be disaggregated from the Constitution which federated the then-colonies, nor from the invasion which preceded and enabled the colonial project.
These are not contested claims, or disputed facts, or up for slippery usage by dominant voices who revel in imposing category errors on the less powerful. Anybody can read ss. 25 and 51(xxvi) of the Constitution and see that race is constitutive of the Australian nation state by the authority of its founding document. There is no need for revisionism or reactionary nonsense or not-fair whining about anachronistic arguments. It is all right there in black and white, in the English language, in the meaning of the word constitutive and in the provisions of the constitution itself.
On the other hand, that the dominant response is an enabling of nazi rhetoric, by treating it as a legitimate topic of debate, is to some extent quite shocking. Maybe not everyone assumes they would join the resistance when the time came, but I always did, and I still do. There is no mistaking ‘the final solution’ in the senate, so the mistake is in assuming that incumbent power can, and will, stand up to what it is.
This is why first principles are so important. If you know in your bones that nazi talk is bad, there is no compulsion to entertain nazi apologia. In contrast, those who are deeply invested in positional power and the status quo are hugely frightened by the possibility that the masses will mobilise against what has brought us these to this brink, this state of affairs, this reality of nazi speech in the parliament. Are they somehow complicit? Should they admit it? How did this happen on their watch?
The answers are yes, yes, and because they have no fucking idea.
From Malcolm Turnbull to Peter van Onselen, from Richard Glover to Peter Hartcher and Katharine Murphy and Cathy Wilcox, the collective and aggressive denial from the political class – the leadership and the media – the reporting and the commentary – has been a despicable wall of stubborn ignorance, petty complicity, and wilful denial.
A potted timeline of the nazi discourse
Senator Fraser Anning: the final solution… is a ban on Muslim migration.
Punters: this is nazi speech. He should be unequivocally condemned.
MP Bob Katter: his speech was solid gold, magnificent, I agree one thousand per cent.
ABC television: Bob Katter ‘has a right to be heard’. Here he is on our next panel (there is no right to be heard under any law in Australia).
Malcolm Turnbull: most successful multicultural nation freedom democracy rule of law.
Media: great rebuke! Well done, Malcolm.
Parliament: racism is bad.
Media: Yay political leadership! Australia is good for saying racism is bad!
Richard Glover, ABC host: *sniff* it was so moving how [the first ever] Labor Party Muslim MP and the [first ever] Liberal Party Jew MP did hugs Australia is truly great.
Punters: *eye roll* wow how diverse like right now in the 21st century you say? So. Tolerant.
Professor of politics and ABC host and panellist Peter Van Onselen on twitter: Nazism is national socialism which is considered a branch of socialism.
Twitter: You are wrong. Nazis are bad and your tweet is bad.
Van Onselen: the vile abuse I have received on twitter is bad. I will not reply further other than to journalists from major news outlets here is my op-ed in a national broadsheet on national socialism.
Punters: Stop doubling down on your defence of nazis.
Paid employees of major news outlets: I hate how twitter piles on to good people because they purportedly (sic) got something wrong [like saying nazis were socialists].
Twitter: oh for fucks sake. Nazis are bad, nazi rhetoric is bad, defending nazi speech is bad.
Legacy media: twitter is bad. There are trolls on there.
I am not trying to be funny. Some things are not funny, like rape, and racism. I know this, because there is no way to do rape or racism without causing harm to other people. This is one of the great efficacies of first principles: setting your moral compass to true north. Applied morality is ethics, and ethics is about other people.
We live in a culture which insists that having a conversation produces solutions for a more just society. This can be true, but it is false when the conversation is exclusive, hierarchical, and wedded to the central organising principles of domination and control. Code in the assumptions that selfishness (‘self-interest’) is rational and universal, and that aggression (‘competition’) is success, and the conversation is quickly derailed by the most dominant and controlling participants.
So here is the tip. If the application of your morality causes harm to others, the trick is to keep it to yourself. Whether professor or edgelord or political journalist, some conversations (and personal opinions, and proclaimed expertise) are not only devoid of value but also cause harm to other people. If your moral compass points to defending nazi speech, or debating the finer points of nazi definitions, it is malfunctioning. The right thing to do is stop talking.