Many of us connected with the Australian music scene found ourselves stopping in dismay while scrolling social media last week, as we saw that Anty Horgan from punk band The Bennies had performed at the 28 November Freedom Rally on the Gold Coast. The frontman performed under his solo act Anty!, offering a reggae-inspired opening act for One Nation senator Pauline Hanson.
What followed was a familiar cycle of outcry, online abuse, and apology: news of his performance spread online, as Georgia Maq of Melbourne punk band Camp Cope shared a photo of Horgan performing at the rally, which in turn caught writer and activist Nadine Chemali’s attention. Chemali re-shared the picture with a statement that led to a tumult of hurt and abusive trolling.
Horgan’s initial public reaction to the outcry was shock and confusion. He offered an acknowledgement that he had attended the event but seemed unclear as to why this might align him with racist views. Meanwhile, the debate online escalated, with those who supported Horgan’s action openly abusing those who would point out the obvious: that Pauline Hanson is racist, that these events have strong undercurrents of white nationalism, that performing in front of flags and banners for Apartheid-era South Africa and Donald Trump is hardly ‘punk’.
Unlike similar debates that have recently occurred surrounding anti-vaccination and racism—for example, the social media response from Tarang Chawla critiquing Sam Frost’s use of the word segregation in relation to vaccination mandates on Instagram and elsewhere—this incident has had a positive outcome. Listening to Chemali and other activists helped Horgan understand the connection between anti-vaccination mandates, right-wing nationalism and racism, and he has since made a sincere apology denouncing violence, and expressing gratitude towards Chemali. In a further affirmation of his support for anti-abuse, Horgan took the extraordinary step of quitting his job at Miami restaurant The Henchman, as the owner of the establishment had allegedly been vocally abusive towards Horgan’s critics online.
For fans of progressive punk rock, this apology may represent a victory, albeit one born from exhausting work, as articulated by Chemali on Facebook:
Let’s all remember that it still took the work and labour of a woman and a woman of colour to make this happen. That they had to weather abuse and attacks to bring this about. As always.
Before this incident is lost to the tide of internet discourse, it is worthwhile pausing to examine what was left unsaid. Horgan’s initial statement on the controversy emphasised a lack of comprehension as to why people would connect the racism of Hanson or of other attendees open racism to their position on vaccine mandates. To Horgan—at least at the outset—this was a single-issue rally. In their reporting on the event, Blunt magazine also expressed confusion, stating that ‘there’s not a lot of connective tissue between the well-established ethos of punk-rock and the ideals of One Nation.’ Unfortunately, however, that simply isn’t true.
In fact, this event should be seen as entirely unsurprising, as it is symptomatic of both the ‘freedom’ rallies and punk music’s relationship to whiteness The resounding questioning of exactly why an apparently progressive punk performer could end up at a rally with Pauline Hanson has a complex but compelling answer. By looking at the racial politics at play in these events, we can also show how radical subcultures such as punk can inadvertently enable the perpetuation of an iniquitous status quo. Punk’s relationship to whiteness echoes these freedom rallies’ relationship to white supremacy, and so in looking at one, we can better understand the other.
Freedom rallies and the increase of right-wing activity
Australia’s ‘Freedom Rallies’ have grown momentum in the past few months. Demonstrations against pandemic public health measures began in 2020, with small, but vocal groups gathering in capital cities (Naarm/Melbourne and Eora/Sydney predominantly) to protest lockdowns. People are drawn to the rallies for a range of reasons, across a spectrum that ranges from vaccine hesitation to a belief that COVID-19 is a fake illness, part of a secret governance plot to control everyday people.
Research on the global movement (cf Josh Roose, Christopher Knaus and Michael McGowan, Jason Wilson, Jordan McSwiney) has highlighted the significant role of far right-wing political groups and affiliated influencers in orchestrating the rallies. The Australian rallies have been linked to international far-right groups including The Base, and organisation and security of the events carried out by white supremacist, neo-Nazi organisations such as the Proud Boys and Lads Society. Researchers specialising in anti-extremism and the rise of far-right networks illustrate that these organisations are deploying anti-vaccination sentiment to garner attention and followers on social media platforms, ‘consciously appropriating the language of anti-vaxxers, of the conspiracy movements, seeking to exploit their anger and distrust.’
Freedom rallies as ‘ironic deployments’ by white Australia
Given the entanglement of far-right activity and the anti-vaccination movement, the folding of racist discourse into anti-vaccination discourse comes as little surprise. Indigenous Studies scholars Madi Day and Bronwyn Carlson give a clear account of how white supremacist terminology and semantics echo throughout the anti-vax movement, mirroring sentiments—overtly or discreetly—by white Christian extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and more Australian-specific white anxieties about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Adding gravity to the racist rhetoric are political groups such as One Nation and United Australia Party which are active in the Freedom movement, including the rallies. Such parties are linking public health mandates such as vaccinations and lockdowns to an imagined loss of liberty for the ‘white Aussie battler’.
Speaking at the Gold Coast Freedom rally on 28 November, Hanson vowed to fight for the end of state vaccine mandates in parliament, a declaration that was encouraged by rally goers who began applauding and chanting her name. The deep irony of this moment cannot be overstated, nor can it be easily believed. Just a few short years ago, Hanson provoked deserved backlash from migrant communities and multicultural advocates when she stated in an interview: ‘Let me put it in this analogy—we have a disease, we vaccinate ourselves against it. Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.’ This comment encapsulates what has been consistently described by race scholars and activists including Can Yalcinkaya and Safdar Ahmed: in neo-colonial Australia, non-white bodies are ‘perceived sources of contagion, fear and anxiety.’
But her comment also illustrates the flagrancy with which Hanson and ilk will reposition their tactics to ensure the maintenance of white supremacy. In her heinous 2017 analogy, Hanson did not have any concerns about the notion of a vaccine being used for disease—her concern then, as it is now, was on maintaining the white body as the dominant body of the nation.
This tactic of inversion by right-aligned groups is pronounced in the contemporary moment: language and discursive symbols used historically by the left are being co-opted by the right to shut down genuine human rights’ work—to try and back this work into a corner. Attempts to change wording in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in recent years exemplify this tactic: right-wing parties including One Nation argue that the current wording restricts (implicitly Anglo-Celtic) people’s ability to engage in ‘free speech’ without someone getting offended, insulted, or humiliated. The Act was, of course, implemented in the first place as a way to ensure Australia’s growing non-Anglo-Celtic communities could live in a safer, more equitable (read: free) manner. This strategy of flipping terms designed by non-white communities back against them is rampant in the anti-vaccination movement, as seen by its use of words ‘segregation’ and ‘oppression’, and comparisons of vaccination mandates to fascist regimes and Nazi Germany (despite infiltration of both fascists and Nazis within the Freedom movement). Michael Leunig’s recent cartoon comparing vaccination measures to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre encapsulates this transposition alarmingly well.
While it is true that many of the main players are cognisant of their intentions to reify white Australia through such inversions, it is also true that many participating in the rallies and associated rhetoric have little understanding of the force of these notions and the violent implications of their usage. Indeed, it is likely, as Madi Day and Brownyn Carlson argue, that ‘[m]any involved in these movements probably do not realise they are aligning with people whose values and ideas are steeped in white supremacy’, a point supported by Roose, among others. The social media interaction between actress Sam Frost and Victorian MC Commissioner Tarang Chawla about Frost’s use of the term ‘segregation’ in relation to vaccination mandates in one of her social media posts certainly seems to demonstrate a lack of awareness of racialised connotations by white anti-vaxxers. The appearance of Anty Horgan at the 28 November Freedom Rally, and the subsequent response by many fans of The Bennies, reasserts this.
Keeping whiteness in its place
It is one thing for an Anglo actress to be caught off-guard about the racist force of her use of anti-vaccination language, but it seems another thing entirely for a member of a punk band to perform at a Freedom Rally alongside One Nation’s Pauline Hanson—and then be staggered by the racist connotations of such an act.
The lack of awareness raises several questions. In the first instance, one has to wonder how it is that a movement based on the premise ‘do your own research’ has seemingly involved little to no research into the racist organisation of the rallies? One answer to this question was given by Horgan himself in his second apology and public statement, in which he admits:
I performed at a rally that was strongly associated with racists and the right wing and I was ignorant to that fact. My privilege meant I didn’t bother to check …
The thing about white privilege is that it does not need to be aware of itself in order to maintain itself—in fact, the ‘unaware’ characteristic of whiteness is precisely what maintains it.
Whiteness can be understood as that which enables white people to become racialised as the invisible but dominant centre of social life. It is not a biological fact but a racial position, accumulated—as Ghassan Hage puts it in White Nation—through the fantasy of white superiority ‘borne out of the history of colonial expansion.’
Whiteness works in many ways. Often, these ways are overt and obvious. But, just as often, they are discreet and slippery. Using the work of postcolonial scholar Sara Ahmed, who asks ‘how does whiteness hold its place?’, we can see it is the latter, less obvious movement of whiteness that is at the core of this public encounter involving Horgan.
In Ahmed’s typology, both Horgan and the Freedom Rally are ‘orientated ‘around’ whiteness, insofar as whiteness is not seen. We do not face whiteness; it ‘trails behind’ bodies, as what is assumed to be given.’ Horgan agreed to perform at the rally, apparently unaware that the programme included white supremacists, including Pauline Hanson as the headliner. When he did realise, he did not see it as an issue:
The Freedom Rally thus becomes a space of whiteness that subjectively positions white Australians as what Hage calls ‘natural national managers.’ The normative force of Horgan’s whiteness is not overt nor is it in-your-face in this public space—in fact, it belongs here. It can go with the flow.
The following Monday, after he was called out by Maq and Chemali online, Horgan apologised. But the apology also lags or ‘trails behind’, as whiteness does. The first iteration of the apology is still somewhat dismissive of the racist ties of his action. In Horgan’s mind, the racism of the Rally is separate to his performance. He feels as if he is being ‘bullied’ by being called out because it feels strange, abrupt, and uncomfortable to have your usually unnoticed whiteness articulated and called into question.
The fact of Horgan’s whiteness and the inherent privilege it carries is thus only registered after the damage has occurred—indeed, only after it has re-occurred: after people from non-Anglo migrant communities and people of colour not only called this behaviour out but consequently became the target of vitriolic online abuse with racist and sexist undertones. Aspects of the online abuse Maq and Chemali received was focussed on their gender and markers of ethnicity—Maq’s visible moustache, for example, while Chemali subsequently announced: ‘I’m gonna grow out my big Arab moustache in solidarity.’
Punk in practice
Horgan’s first response thus reflects a characteristic that exists according to Catherine Hoad in many Australian metal and punk bands, namely: ‘a ‘garden variety’ of nationalism and racism’, or ‘banal nationalism.’ Indeed, it is not that many of these bands are actively racist, but rather that they exhibit a lack of thoughtfulness about race that can be easily weaponised into discrete racism.
There is a deficit of anti-racist thinking and positionality in many aspects of the Freedom movement and punk culture in this form, in part because it seems to be assumed that one’s internal ethics are legible to an outside audience. If your ideals are considered equivalent with your actions, then it may well be surprising or confusing to be accused of racism, simply for attending a rally organised by racists. If ambivalence towards racial politics is seen as the ‘norm’, then it is those who complain or cause a fuss that are being disruptive, a killjoy, a bully, or too focused on the wrong thing, as both Maq and Chemali are accused of by Horgan’s fans following his statements.
Horgan’s initial behaviour is not actively racist, but nor is it anti-racist, and the difference is crucial. He positions himself against racism and fascism, but his performance becomes a sneakier version of the deliberate inversion tactics used by the right-wing.
By performing at the Freedom Rally, Horgan reinstated the very thing he claimed to be against. His performance as a white man thereby operates, in philosopher Michel Foucault’s terms, as ‘an ironic deployment’ of discursive power, a problem seen in many punk communities.
Going with the flow
The phrase ‘went with the flow’ in Horgan’s second apology is a productive one to zoom in to understand the issues at play in terms of punk subcultures. While it may be surprising to some to hear of a punk musician taking such an ambivalent stance when faced with bigotry, this ideological apathy is a historical and consistent facet of many punk scenes.
The drift from cultures that value masculinist ideals of aggression and physical power to white nationalism is well-documented: the radicalisation of 1970s skinheads, neo-Nazi heavy metal and white power rock all show that musical cultures was a breeding ground for extreme racism. This is not a new phenomenon at all, but rather a well-established tactic of the far-right, who have long understood the radical potential of youthful dissatisfaction. As noted by Maxwell Tremblay and Stephen Duncombe, punk blossoms under neo-liberal governance models like Reaganism or Thatcherism and (in the case of the genres mentioned above) redirects class tensions along racial lines.
This is not to say that punk rock is inherently racist—in fact, it is usually loudly anti-racist, anti-fascist and broadly progressive. However, it is also a genre dominated by whiteness, which has left its own indelible mark on the subculture’s politics. While punk performers may demand a less oppressive world, most do not have daily lived experience of oppression. As noted by Gerfried Ambrosch,
[t]he crux of the matter is that white punks’ Otherness can be undone—they are free to rejoin normal society—whereas that of marginalized ethnic groups cannot.
Historically, there exists an ideological tug-of-war between Punk’s idealist, radical roots and its commercial expression, a tension exacerbated by the lack of political impetus that stems from white privilege. The Sex Pistol’s manager Malcolm McClaren described his own job as ‘making cash from the chaos’—a epithet that belies how counter-culture often falls prey of a sort of capitalist ouroburous. Yet what changes in punk as it crosses from the margins to the mainstream is its ethos. In order to be broadly relatable (in particular, to a white audience), many famous punk bands forgo revolutionary ideals in favour of a more palatable mild dissatisfaction with the status quo. The answer most offer is a form of libertarian lifestyle politics, a demand to be allowed to do whatever they want without consequence in the name of destabilising society.
Albert Cohen wrote of various music subcultures:
When a subculture attempts to address the problematics of their experience, they often do so in ways which reproduce the gaps and discrepancies between real negotiations and symbolically displaced ‘resolutions’. They ‘solve’, but in an imaginary way, problems which at the concrete material level remain unresolved.
We can see this happening across music cultures, where radical politics abound yet achieve scant outcomes. Instead of real, meaningful change within these spaces, the same hierarchies that dominate outside of the scene operate within. Critically, we can see these imaginary solutions used as a shield against a criticism of personal politics. Having ideals is often seen as the same as taking active actions. Why wouldn’t they, when the white people espousing these ideals have little to gain from a more equitable world?
And so, the aesthetic of rebellion overtakes unpleasant conversations about accountability and material change. In lieu of the vast and sweeping efforts needed to satisfy an anarchist utopia, we are offered lads and larks and playful disobedience. There are punk bands that want to eat the rich, and there are punk bands that want to eat ‘shrooms. What is often misunderstood is that the former is a false equivalent of the latter– additional personal freedoms is a far cry from equal rights for all. That Horgan attended a ‘Freedom Rally’ aligns neatly with the ambivalent politics of a great deal of commercial punk music. A libertarian ethos underwrites many of our country’s most successful punk acts, where the biggest form of oppression railed against is that drugs are illegal. Looking at the lyrics from The Chats, Skeggs, Dune Rats, and indeed The Bennies, you see not a desire to burn down the ivory tower, but rather to smash as many cones as you can on a Sunday afternoon.
Punk as going against the flow
This apathy, though apparently benign, is dangerous. Political ambivalence is an invitation to tacit acceptance. It is easy to think and ask for ‘freedom’ when your own existence is persistently centred and unquestioned. It is another thing to consistently deconstruct the position of privilege you occupy. All settler-Australians have a responsibility to do this latter work, especially those of us whose whiteness can carry a complicit violence in human rights campaigns and public spaces. The cultural studies scholar Lawrence Grossberg talks about this work as moving utopian ideals from the virtual to the actual.
Progressive punk communities have known for a long time that the only way to protect against incursions from the far right is through constant vigilance and zero tolerance. Those of us who proclaim leftist ideals must take up the same project at a micro-scale. Horgan, to his credit, committed himself to that project last week:
In the last 48 hours I have spent a lot of time thinking about my actions and the mistakes I have made. I have spoken with some of the people that called me out and I appreciate their time and energy. I performed at a rally that was strongly associated with racists and the right wing and I was ignorant to that fact. My privilege meant I didn’t bother to check and when I did realise I just went with the flow rather than cause a scene. Given a chance I would do things differently. I have learned that I have a responsibility to my community to look into what I’m doing and stand up for what is right and I’m saddened at myself for needing something like this to happen to be able to do so. I am sorry. I don’t expect forgiveness but I am asking for patience while I learn and make amends. The comments that came after were really hurtful to others in our community so I disabled the comments (and will on this post) … I don’t condone abuse or violence in any way. This morning I have quit my job at The Henchman, because I know I have a responsibility to take a stand on abuse. I can’t take back what I have done but I can say, thank you to Nadine Chemali who has given me lots of her time to chat with me about my actions in a clear, calm and patient manner. I don’t need sympathy and words like “you don’t need to apologise”, I do. As such I am turning off comments again as I spend more time learning and taking the steps to make things right.
We can only hope his commitment acts as a siren song to punk bands, and people of the Freedom movement more generally, to stop going with the flow of whiteness.