In the days after the night before a senator used nazi rhetoric in the Australian parliament, I watched carefully 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 Australian politician Bob Katter.
On Monday week (27 August 2018), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), our national broadcaster, will provide Bob with a panel show timeslot to explain away how his colleague using nazi rhetoric in the Australian Parliament is really no big deal and also ‘magnificent’.
This decision is wrong, 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 collective moral authority of Aboriginal women in this country is grounded in the ontology of cosmos, kin and country, and also applies to racist discourse.
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 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. Their 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, the BKAP 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.
For this effort, party leader (of two) Bob Katter called a press conference and said the speech was ‘gold’ and ‘magnificent’ and he stands by it ‘one thousand per cent’. News organisations across the country, of course, reported the ‘final solution’ speech and the endorsement. Half the breakfast television programs also invited the newly notorious senator on, to deny and deflect and dismiss, to minimise and justify his nazi phraseology, and to build his brand. When ‘the final solution’ was placed in its historically accurate, objectively true context, which is literally Hitler, the senator complained that 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 nazi talk.
The correct response is unambiguous condemnation and no further correspondence will be entered into. The correct response is to immediately announce policy, process, and regulatory changes that do not require extended debate or legislation. Some examples are: standing orders to limit hate speech and parliamentary privilege; commitments to not accept nazi-sympathiser votes on any bill and to not give them a pair on any vote; announcing that BKAP will be put last in every preference deal in every single seat across the country.
Such measures could be announced with bipartisan support while a more substantive response is developed. All it would take is 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 operating contrary to the social good, or even what we might assume is consensus morality (before the apologists go to work). 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 in their own image and to further their own 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 dominated by the same demographic, with the same vested interests. The media also has public interest obligations as the fourth estate in Westminster systems.
I have written about this in more detail elsewhere, but briefly, the first estate is the church, the second the landed gentry and the third is the commoners. These institutional power arrangements are manifest in the House of Lords (knights temporal and spiritual, dukes and archbishops etc) and the House of Commons which, up until the twentieth century, was comprised solely of 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 – captain/governor and marines/redcoats – massacred 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 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. This is why most political media scrutinise opposition policy as though they are in power, and report government announcements as though meaningful action has already achieved the [stated] policy goals.
I am alert to how basic these explanatory statements sound. One reason for going over all this is my own pedagogy, which is based on first principles. When students (I teach future lawyers and police officers) 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 nazi rhetoric as though it does not pose a serious threat to 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 that has been 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 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 public debate.
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. Clearly not everyone assumes they would join the resistance if the time came, but I always did, and I still do. There is no mistaking ‘the final solution’ speech in the senate, so the mistake is assuming that incumbent power can, and will, stand up to nazi speech for what it is.
First principles come in handy here. 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 whatever has brought us to this point, this current state of affairs, this reality of nazi speech in the parliament in 2018. 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 wall of stubborn ignorance, complicity, equivocation, and 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 unambiguously condemned.
MP Bob Katter: this speech was solid gold, magnificent, I agree one thousand per cent.
All of commercial television: Mr Anning/Katter, welcome to the program.
ABC television: Bob Katter ‘has a right to be heard’. Here he is on our next panel
[Narrator: there is no ‘right’ to be heard under any Australian law].
Malcolm Turnbull: most successful multicultural nation freedom democracy rule of law.
Political journalism: 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 Jewish MP did hugs Australia is truly great.
Punters: *eye roll* wow like a Muslim and Jewish man both of whom happen to be white in the 21st century you say? Amazing. So. Tolerant.
Professor of politics and ABC host and panellist Peter Van Onselen on twitter: Nazism 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 except 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 are 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. Here is a black woman whose lived experience of vicious and violent racism validates the white man who is sad and wrong.
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.
Our culture 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. Add 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 thing. If 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 definition of nazism, or telling the public we should have a conversation on the ‘merits’ of hate speech, it is malfunctioning.
The right thing to do here is stop talking.