Reclaiming history from the angry white male

The Australian far right has seen a slight but unmistakeable revival in recent months. Groups like Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, for the farce that is their moderate posturing, have managed to win appeal beyond the swastika-adorned neo-Nazis at their rallies. Reclaim Australia boasts tens of thousands of supporters in online forums. Still more sinister indicators, such as popular support for Australia’s brutally racist immigration system, or statistics revealing that between a quarter and a half of all Australians have negative attitudes towards Muslims, suggest further that the ideas of Reclaim Australia are not entirely at the fringes. At the least, the far right should be watched closely.

While not divorced from historic Australian racisms, the special characteristics of Reclaim, the UPF and others emerged distinctly in the 1990s. While ambiguous in their attitudes toward other minorities, groups on the far right are unanimous in their hatred for Islam. Their attempts to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims fall flat, not least by statements condemning Halal and other Islamic cultural identifiers. Among other features, disdain for politicians, glorification of the military, a confused lexicon of class struggle and bitter animosity for the political left, particularly anarchists and socialists of all stripes, are common. In every case, big business, to whom problems of the Australian worker are mostly attributable, escapes criticism.

Some version of this neo-fascist politics is common to almost all Western countries. In the US, the UK and Western Europe, fascist movements lurk amid the social wreckages of the global financial crisis and have benefited from the universal decline in workers’ living standards since the late 1980s. Among the many horrifying externalities of so-called ‘neoliberalism’, the far right has gained a minor political foothold. Michael Kimmel, author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, identifies ‘several noticeable patterns’ in the rise of the American far right. Geographically, they come from ‘America’s heartland’, ‘the single-story working-class exurbs’, ‘the declining cities of the Rust Belt […] in the bars that remain in the shadows of the hulking deserted factories that once were America’s manufacturing centres.’ Huge numbers are located rurally; ‘the social and economic unraveling of rural communities – especially in the Midwest – has provided far-right groups with new audiences for their messages of hate,’ some of which ‘have enjoyed considerable success.’ Kimmel is emphatic about the origins of the phenomenon:

What binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed – all – fitted this class profile.

In the UK, the ranks of the extreme right are similarly swollen with the victims of Thatcherism and the deterioration of working-class life since. A recent study of the English Defence League suggests that ‘the EDL’s vocal opposition to what it calls “militant Islam” appears to have garnered considerable support from marginalized and disadvantaged white working-class communities.’ The EDL is not explicitly sexist – similar to Reclaim Australia, it has championed women’s and LGBT rights in attempts to prove its non-extremist credentials. It nevertheless remains dominated by white men who ‘construct a specific form and style of violent masculinity’ born from ‘acute feelings of marginalization and disadvantage […] which then manifest themselves through externalized hostility, resentment and fury directed at the scapegoat for their ills: the Islamic “other”.’ These men have united in a belief that the pandering of political elites to affirmative action policies, feminism, ‘political correctness’ and alleged mass immigration is responsible for the sinking ship on which they sit.

Contemporary Australian neo-fascism developed in similar circumstances. The destruction of trade unions in the 1980s and early 1990s opened the way for wholesale attacks on working conditions by employers. Wage rises slowed and stagnated, hours of work increased, injuries at work increased, joblessness and homelessness increased, benefits were slashed, while huge numbers of permanent jobs became casual. For young Australians, the introduction of university tuition fees and rising costs of housing were new obstacles. Isolated studies draw similar connections between racism and class location as elsewhere. One study concludes that ‘greater levels of racism among the working class are expected’ and ‘differentiation of the Australian people by occupation, affluence and education is […] likely to produce regional variations in racism.’ It notes that ‘the socio-economic status of an area and individual-level factors such as individuals’ sense of economic insecurity have also proven to be significant determinants of attitudes toward immigration.’ Likewise, research by Kevin Dunn and Amy McDonald suggests that ‘support for political parties with racially discriminatory policies was strongly linked to disenchantment born of social polarisation.’ Mass-based racist voting patterns were seen for the first time in the 1996 federal election; Pauline Hanson and Danny Nalliah graced the Australian political landscape shortly after.

While the decline in white working-class living standards coupled with immigration of visibly identifiable ‘others’ was enough to engender racism, Dunn and McDonald note that hatred for minorities was ‘linked to the dominant representations of these groups that circulate in the media and other forums.’ Western media have vilified Arabs for over a century, as illustrated by Jack Shaheen and others. Yet the 1990s represented a sea change for negative media portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. A leading study designates the period from the first Gulf War through to 11 September 2001 as ‘the pivotal period framing the rise of Islamophobia’ in Australia and the UK. Australian involvement in the Gulf War was supported by mass anti-Arab racism stirred up by corporate media. During this conflict, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) for the first time reported that ‘media portrayals were seen as demonstrating fundamental ignorance of Islam and as perpetuating negative and destructive stereotypes’. These were ‘having the effect of raising the tensions in the community and may have been contributing to an increase in acts of racial hostility against Muslims and Arabs.’ News stories were carefully framed to invoke panic. In one instance, a Sydney Arabic newspaper Al-Bairak criticised Australian involvement in the war, to be reported by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Australia is now the enemy in the eyes of the majority of its 300,000 Middle Eastern migrants, according to Sydney’s leading Lebanese and Arab newspaper.’ Familiar anti-Arab media tropes have their genesis in this period. For example, ‘popular media, particularly commercial radio and television, were persistent with demands for ethnic and religious leaders from Arab and Muslim leaders to demonstrate their allegiance to the Australian nation, its laws and its values’ during the war. In subsequent years, Australia experienced ‘a series of moral panics about “crime gangs”’ during which ‘“Middle Eastern” and “Asian” […] gangs were focused upon in these media driven cycles of fear.’ These frames are now cornerstones of anti-Arab propaganda in Australia.

A number of factors motivated the corporate media turn to Islamophobia in the 1990s. Consciously or otherwise, new immigrants (along with Aboriginal people, beneficiaries and other vulnerable social groups) were a convenient scapegoat for the ongoing degradation of work by the employing class as a whole. At the same, circumstances surrounding the Gulf War signaled broader changes in US and Australian foreign policy. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait convinced US planners that soft power strategies had failed to secure Western interests in the region and that military force would be the new order. A strategy report in 1991 observed that:

Washington’s diplomacy in the 1980s had failed to shape a regional environment in which its perceived interests were secure […] Since the days of the Iranian Revolution, the United States had been preparing the combat forces necessary to project power into the region […] Washington was able to rescue its friends in Kuwait with the overwhelming application of this military force.

At the same time, Western governments had lost their conventional enemy, the Soviet Union, to internal collapse. In the absence of the Communist menace as a pretext for otherwise unpopular military excursions, the Arab ‘other’ quickly became an enduring substitute. While Anti-Arab racism has long been a tool of Western imperialism, it was accelerated by the need to replace popular fears of creeping Communism with something else in the 1990s and beyond.

The racism of Australian corporate media remains pervasive, at times defying belief. A 2013 visit to Australia by Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders, who has been compared to Hitler, was applauded by News Corporation papers. When Wilders’ talks provoked street protests, Andrew Bolt responded with a column entitled ‘Cowardly critics of Geert Wilders shame our country’, while the Herald Sun ran the headline ‘Protesters call Dutch MP Geert Wilders a racist as he calls for end to mass migration from Islamic countries’, reporting that ‘the serene environment inside [Wilders’ talk] contrasted with the violent clashes of the protesters outside, with the 500 guests sitting quietly to hear the speeches.’ The ‘mass Muslim immigration’ trope is so familiar that it’s little wonder Australians believe the number of Muslims in their country is nine times greater than it actually it is. The overt racism of the Murdoch media is matched by the more subtle racism of respectable liberal papers, evidenced, to take one example, by their overwhelming failure to question the legitimacy of sweeping police raids on suspected Islamic terrorists last year after such raids recovered only a plastic sword.

The careful framing of news media stories continues. In 2010, the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes conducted an extended interview with a leader of the EDL, portraying the organisation warmly. The EDL perspective is balanced appropriately with a Muslim voice – that of convert Ibrahim Siddiq-Conlon (once Shannon Conlon), who begins his interview with: ‘I hate democracy. With my heart, my speech and my hands. As much as I can […] Every Muslim has been commanded to hate any other system except Islam.’ As recently as last month, the Greater Dandenong Council ran a social experiment in which non-Muslims were encouraged to wear hijabs to promote cultural empathy and awareness. The Herald Sun ran the headline ‘Debate over Council’s non-Muslim hijab move’, pitching the Council against comments fed directly to the reporter by the Institute of Public Affairs: ‘What the council should be encouraging is allowing people from any walk of life and any religion to integrate […] This [social experiment] doesn’t encourage integration, this encourages separateness. This is not what multicultural Australia is all about.’ The lunacy of these remarks would be laughable if their wide readership did not make them so dangerous. Andrew Bolt’s columns, for example, reach four million Australians every day.

Similar conditions exist in the US. Noam Chomsky, who has written on fascism and American society since the 1930s, compares anti-Arab racism in American media with the Nazi mouthpiece Der Sturmer. Indeed, comparisons between Julius Streicher and Andrew Bolt would not go entirely amiss. Chomsky’s views on contemporary American society are further instructive. Take his remarks from a 2010 interview:

I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labour and civil rights organizing. […] There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.

‘Islamisation’ is one such self-destructive (though primarily, of course, outwardly destructive) fantasy of the Australian working-class. It is notable that the left has responded impressively to the renewed presence of the far right; counter-rallies have dwarfed Reclaim Australia and UPF events. Yet few if any left organisations have a broad base of support among Australian workers. Meanwhile, trade unionism remains in a state of drastic decline, in large part due to the same corporate propagandists that peddle Islamophobia. A study of the Herald Sun would surely reveal that its bashing of Muslims is rivalled only by its bashing of unions.

The conditions breathing life into neo-fascism in Australia and abroad may well worsen. The possibility of another global financial crisis, as predicted by several leading economists, suggests there is much to be worried about. It is dangerous for the left to assume that popular disillusionment with parliamentary democracy is necessarily in its favour. If we look elsewhere, let alone to the lessons of history, we learn that such sentiments can go two ways. The roots of contemporary far right ideology are not organic to the organisations that promote it. Instead, they have developed in confused reaction to the plundering of the society and the economy by corporate interests on the one hand, and the quiet and insidious manipulation of public opinion by these same interests on the other. The angry white man is detestable; his frustration, however, is real and understandable. Recognition of this is important.

Sam Oldham

Sam Oldham is a postgraduate student of history at Monash University. He lives in Melbourne.

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  1. Thanks for this article, Sam. Your argument that contemporary racism in Australia should be conceived as being bound up in the ongoing process of neoliberal structural reform is a really important one. I feel that mainstream progressives too often get caught up in rejecting racism as aberrant pathology, rather than doing the work of articulating the structural conditions that make such expressions of racism possible.

  2. australia has always been a hot bed of racism, xenophobia and violence. not to mention the utterly one sided media and alcohol+sport=recreation.. I lived there for 10 years, in adelaide, melbourne and darwin and I never felt that australia was headed on an upwards trajectory either socially, morally or ‘spiritually’. I’m glad I’m gone.

  3. More supercilious leftist waffle.If Islam remains unchallenged this country is heading for trouble.Almost all global conflict is of Islamic origin.The majority of crime in Australia is committed by those of non Anglo heritage.The rise of right wing extremism is in response to to the undermining of western and let live.

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