Every morning I walk past the Beehive, the heart of the New Zealand government. For the past ten days, the flag at the top of the building has been flying at half-mast as a tribute to the victims of the Christchurch terror attacks. Each morning a small part of me has been tempted to rag on this practice as nothing more than national hypocrisy – this is a tragedy that could only happen because of the failings of the state. Yet the bigger part of me is dreading this morning’s walk and the flag’s return to full mast. Does it mark the end of national mourning? Is it a return to business as usual? I know it’s inconsequential – is there anything more grotesque than a national symbol at a time of global tragedy? – but that flag does seem at times like one of the few things we share.
I’ll take that. If we share anything it must be a commitment to living together in this land. ‘They are us,’ the prime minister’s said, and we are them. Quite right. But I worry the language of national unity is beginning to reinforce some of our worst delusions, like how the attack is somehow ‘out of place’ in New Zealand. Stuff, the country’s largest news website, ran an otherwise sensitive and important story with the headline ‘The end of our innocence‘. But whose innocence is lost? Peter Dunne, a long-serving and now former member of parliament, wrote in a sensible call for an end to complacency that ‘we [thought] extremist outbursts could never happen here’ because they weren’t ‘the New Zealand way’.
It’s all rote, yeah? New Zealand is a country built on a shared understanding, not conquest and slaughter. Nearly everyone can cite the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi to prove it. Our history is less than ideal, sure, but it’s as good an account as any of different peoples doing their best to make it work. In this woolly telling, of course it’s the end of our innocence and of course no-one thought it could ever happen here. There really is no explanation for such an atrocity in the national mythology. But for Māori, migrants, and others the attack in Christchurch reaffirms the very worst things we know. That New Zealand is built on top of the bones of our people, and it’s maintained at the expense of the mostly brown and often foreign.
This might come across as if I’m trying to exonerate myself: ‘You weren’t paying attention, but I was.’ But I’m as culpable as anyone – and especially culpable as a trade unionist, an activist, and a writer – for laughing off the local white supremacists as nothing more than a rabble. As Anjum Rahman wrote last week: we were warned. But did we organise? Only at the edges. With few exceptions, such as the Maritime Union’s support for the march against the National Front in Wellington in 2004, Muslims, Jews, and antifa have often been left without the institutional support – that is, trade union support – they are owed as our comrades. In the 1990s, it was left to mostly Māori criminal gangs like the Black Power to drive Unit 88 – a South Island-based neo-Nazi gang – off North Island streets. This is an indictment on the left and the state.
It’s fashionable, both here in New Zealand and in Australia, to make fun of our own insecurities. We’re small – New Zealand more so, obviously – and we’re entirely devoid of culture, preferring the mall to the museum. This attitude is mostly one of gentle self-mockery, but sometimes it hides a superiority complex. It conceals that we think we are better – in morals if not necessarily in manners – than Europe and North America. This is especially true in New Zealand, where nothing is more unifying than a shrug and a muttered ‘at least we’re not as bad as Australia’. It took an Australian, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, back when he worked at the New Zealand Office of Tourism and Sport, to acknowledge that arrogance and come up with the wildly successful ‘100% Pure’ slogan.
It’s no wonder people think that the Christchurch terror attack is ‘out of place’. Violence – especially white supremacist violence, and even more so gun violence – happens to other people in other places. Charlottesville, Virginia. Not Christchurch, New Zealand. In a very small way, however, the people who think it out of place are right. The attack is strangely placeless. The gunman is Australian, and Extremely Online. He published an effort post before the attacks and then livestreamed his murders as an in real life meme (‘Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie’). His lads, all as utterly placeless and just as online as he was, responded in kind in the hours and days that followed, with the ‘absolute madman’ meme lighting up every far-right message board and internet swamp.
How do we organise against that? In the 1990s, old-fashioned organising – counter-rallies, disruptions, and yes, eggings – helped put stop to alt-right queen Pauline Hanson and One Nation from establishing branches outside of their Queensland strongholds, as Vashti Kenway explained in Overland. But how do we stop online organising? ISPs in New Zealand have come up with one answer: shut off access to 4chan, 8chan, and every other edgelord pigsty. Shutting off the ‘gateway’ message boards and making it harder to red-pill the kids is a very good start. But the internet abhors a vacuum and, sooner or later, the local neo-Nazis will find ways around the block or migrate to new platforms.
Place seems entirely irrelevant, yet I think it is everything. White supremacy, even the online kind, thrives in permissive societies. The only difference between an Andrew Bolt column and, say, a /r/MensRights shitpost, is that one is paid and the other isn’t. In New Zealand, it has become something of a rite of passage for members of the respectable Right to ‘own’ Golriz Ghahraman, a native of Iran who became in 2017 the first New Zealand MP from a refugee background. Some ostensibly moderate commentators have gone as far as to imply that she is a ‘fake’ refugee. To say nothing of our deputy prime minister – the conservative Winston Peters – a scaremonger from way back who warned an audience in 2005 about the militant underbelly of the Muslim community, and later stood by as one of his MPs engaged in a prolonged Islamophobic campaign.
Our media too, far from leading, have followed. In 2017 there were 14,349 stories in the New Zealand media mentioning Islam, and nearly 13,000 of those also mentioned ‘terrorism’ or ‘Islamic Jihad’. Our free society is especially permissive when it comes to Islamophobia. Last year, when travelling fascists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneaux visited the country, they were somehow presented not as certified Islamophobes but rather ‘free speech champions.’
No matter how out of place or placeless the Christchurch attack might seem, it still happened here. And it happened in our context, where Islamophobia is an everyday part of public life that serves the purpose – as Lamia Imam put it last week – of ‘empowering the beliefs of white nationalists’. For ‘never again’ to really mean never again, we must reckon with this.
It’s easy to blame Australia for shaping the gunman’s life. It’s easier to blame 8chan for forcing his hand. But it’s not so easy to acknowledge that this atrocity, in the most perverse and vile way, is part of New Zealand. White supremacy can trace its roots – Māori would call it its whakapapa – to the 19th century and colonisation. Only by acknowledging this, and committing to reversing the course, can we let the flag over the Beehive fly at full mast with its mana earned.
Image: Wikimedia commons