Are we missing the rise of the far right? Marc Daalder speaks to the angry middle-aged men who want to see nationalism rise in New Zealand.
Hundreds of Kiwis pledged to march on Saturday against an obscure UN migration pact today under the guise of a brand-new organisation calling itself NZ Sovereignty.
The central issue emphasised by the group, which ran advertisements in newspapers yesterday, concerns the New Zealand Government's support for the Global Compact on Migration. Opposition to the agreement first emerged on sites like the alt-right website Breitbart and neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer which warned it would "Bring 60 Million Brown People to Europe".
Can the furore over the UN pact, which explicitly draws misguided inspiration from the "yellow vest" demonstrations in France, be seen as a warning sign of a greater problem? A burgeoning far-right, or "alt-right", political movement in New Zealand?
Are we missing the rise of the far-right? What would the symptoms of such a movement be, and how could the media better cover them?
It can happen here
Paul Spoonley is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University. Spoonley has spent decades studying immigration and identity in New Zealand and extremist politics both here and in the United States. In July, he wrote a "beginner's guide to the Alt-Right" for the New Zealand Herald ahead of the visit by Canadian provocateurs and extremists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.
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Spoonley says he sees two possible constituencies for the far-right in New Zealand: disaffected people and the conspiratorial-minded.
While much of the far-right in the US and Europe is motivated by economic discontent, Spoonley believes "New Zealand has adjusted to the new way of doing business in the twenty-first century in a way that's quite different to that in the northern hemisphere".
Instead, New Zealand's far-right could be more motivated by social concerns about multiculturalism and the loss of traditional white male hegemony.
"There are people in New Zealand who feel very disempowered and disenfranchised", Spoonley explains. "They feel as though the new stress on contemporary, liberal multiculturalism is something that they're excluded from".
Thus, many nascent right-wing groups in New Zealand have latched onto a criticism of political correctness or "Social Justice Warriors" - the online right's term for liberal-minded individuals who they see as naïve crusaders against problems (like racism or sexism) that are exaggerated. The far-right takes full advantage of this rejection of political correctness by accompanying it with harsh Islamophobic rhetoric.
While the total numbers of those involved remain small, many of them have coalesced online in a number of inter-connected Facebook groups. Here, they share news articles from fringe sources and worry about the coming Muslim invasion, particularly after the UN migrant pact is signed. For example, in 'Yellow Vest New Zealand', a Facebook group run in part by NZ Sovereignty leader Jesse Anderson, a simple search reveals calls to "ban Islam in NZ".
Another post in the group enters some bizarre territory. "Porirua where i live is immigrant city including Newtown In wellington", a commenter writes. "Combine that with 9+ mosques in Auckland. Its partially here and 99 percent of our food are halal which by Islamic Shariah law is under their law".
It's unclear what the user means by "under their law". They finish by warning it's only a "Matter of time untill NZ has no go zones", referencing the popular conspiracy theory that Muslim immigration in Europe has turned some cities into "no-go zones".
Islamophobia is not the only fashionable prejudice in these right-wing groups, however. One user shared a post they had written about the UN's official agenda for 2030, in which they warned the United Nations sought to "Criminalize Christianity, marginalize heterosexuality, demonize males and promote the LGBT agenda everywhere. The real goal is never "equality" but rather the marginalization and shaming of anyone who expresses any male characteristics whatsoever".
In another thread, users debated the extents to which they would allow anti-Semitism. One member threatened to leave the group "if I see anymore posting [...] of this zionist programming".
A second retorted, "come out of the cave mate". A third: "What is the difference between Zionists and deep state? Imo it's same thing, very much current".
Although group administrators kicked the first user out, other anti-Semitic postings were ignored, including a rant about the UN being out to "destroy all western countries they are our natural enemies dominated by Jews, Catholics n muslims, after the eventual stock market crash and global meltdown and American army depleted they will show there true colours, there Muslim armies are well and truely positioned to cause maximum damage".
When I tried to join a group titled 'Kiwis United Against the Radical Islamification of New Zealand', a group moderator rejected my application. Seeing that I was Jewish, the moderator also kindly reached out to me to inform me that there was "no room for kikes in my neighbourhood. Tell ya mates to get their hook noses ready gor the lynching of the century. [...] The showers and ovens shall be fired up again". Clearly, the movement has yet to settle its internal anti-Semitism debate.
When I spoke with NZ Sovereignty's Jesse Anderson about the planned march and his broader movement, however, he insisted it was neither racist nor right-wing. "We have no tolerance for racism, for sexism, for any of that. If we see anyone who is expressing awful views, we will ask them to move along," he vowed. Anderson later added, in response to questions about NZ Sovereignty's political leanings, "I don't see patriotism as right-wing, I don't see nationalism as right-wing".
But everything the movement stands for is straight out of the far-right playbook. The conspiratorial assertions that the UN pact will result in censorship of the press or an influx of migrants originated on alt-right forums and news sites. The naked Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other despicable views are characteristic of the modern far-right. Protestations to the contrary are worth little in the face of self-evident facts.
There is, however, a section of New Zealand society that is vulnerable to the far-right but is not yet inherently left- or right-wing. This is the second potential constituency that Spoonley sees. He calls them adherents of "new wave conservative conspiracy politics. For example, the opposition to 1080, the opposition to fluoridation, the scepticism about vaccinations. These communities are not inevitably part of the constituency [of the far-right] but they offer up some activists who are capable of translating their opposition to the modern state into far-right politics."
The dangers here are two-fold. First, as Spoonley indicates, these groups are already predisposed towards anti-state behaviour. Second, their mentality extends beyond that into a refusal to acknowledge almost any traditional authority. The media, health professionals, and academic scholars are all summarily ignored by anti-vaxxers and their brethren. The combination of these factors make them easy pickings for the far-right.
Indeed, there is considerable crossover between the two groups. Conspiracy theorist David Icke, who believes a race of lizard people secretly governs the world and that vaccines are dangerous, is a popular source in the anti-UN Facebook groups. A poll in 'Yellow Vest New Zealand' about whether vaccines should be mandatory prompted a number of outraged comments. "No vaccination fascism!" cried one. "No fluoride in the water where I live, I can still use my pineal gland", promised another.
The anti-1080 crowd has similar elements. While the overall view is more mainstream, that has only encouraged some to take more militant stances. In New Plymouth last week a man pleaded guilty to blackmail for threatening to poison milk and meat processing plants if DOC didn't stop using 1080. In December 2017, protesters even threatened to shoot down DOC helicopters over the use of the poison. This should be a broader warning sign for observers of the far-right and conspiracy-minded: as their views become more palatable to the broader populace, their methods may become more dangerous.
What both of these potential constituencies have in common is a knack for presenting dangerous ideas innocuously. Far-righters believe they can ignore commonly-accepted facts because they are promulgated by "globalists" and the "mainstream media", while conspiracy theorists blame "Big Pharma" and the like for inconvenient truths. At the same time, these groups are ace recruiters, presenting their crusades as issues of free speech or "just asking questions".
Paul Spoonley observed Kiwis falling for this strategy when the far-right Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux visited New Zealand. People "reduced what those two activists had to say to an issue of free speech without ever considering the politics of the Alt-Right," he says. This was taking the two extremists at their word. When Southern and Molyneux were dropped by their Auckland venue, they cried censorship.
"What they were seeking to do was be martyrs", Spoonley explains. "To portray it as simply a free speech issue is misleading."
"If there is gay pride and black pride, why can't there be straight pride or white pride?" seems an innocuous question but enquiries of its ilk can quickly lure unsuspecting individuals down a right-wing rabbit hole (this is, by the way, the same strategy used by Holocaust deniers, who argue the social taboo against interrogating the truth of the Holocaust is actually just convenient cover for something that never happened).
Will the far-right rise in New Zealand?
There is clearly potential for a homegrown far-right movement. It might not exactly resemble those of Europe or the United States, but it would espouse the same fundamental beliefs: white supremacy, patriarchy and xenophobia, all enabled by a healthy helping of alternative facts and an immunity to truth.
Moreover, there are a number of larger groups serving as effective gateways to the seedier and more conspiratorial factions that I discussed earlier. Hobson's Pledge perfectly exemplifies the disaffected attitude of people who feel their privilege is being stripped away by the onset of multiculturalism - and it's easy to see how one might make the jump from the party of Brash to that of Anderson. The New Conservatives - an attempt at resurrecting the Conservative Party from the ashes of Colin Craig's legal battles - have taken to posting memes lambasting political correctness. A New Conservative leader will speak at today's march.
This doesn't mean that the rise of a far-right movement is inevitable. It helps that relatively few major politicians are echoing the far-right in New Zealand. Judith Collins occasionally shares fake news and the National Party have made similar points to those held by the alt-right in opposing the UN Migration Pact. Those could be seen as dangerous precedents, but there isn't a figure like Donald Trump unabashedly championing the far-right cause.
Truth, then, has a chance. Donald Trump in the United States has effectively created an entire independent apparatus for disseminating disinformation through right-wing media and his own Twitter account, without serious backlash from half of the political establishment. In New Zealand, meanwhile, the traditional sources of authority - media, politicians, the judiciary, etc - are largely speaking with one voice against the far-right.
Trust in conventional media remains high. A 2017 survey by Colmar Brunton found that seven in eight Kiwis trust newspapers and radio, while only 38 percent trust Facebook as a news source. If the media effectively combat far-right propaganda and fake news - something American outlets initially tripped up on - trust can remain high.
This requires abandoning 'he-said-she-said' journalism which allows habitual liars to spread falsehoods virtually unchallenged. A great example of how to do it better is Andrea Vance's article for Stuff on the New Conservatives' latest consultant, former NZ Rugby head David Moffett.
Vance notes that "To back up his opinions, Moffett reaches for conspiracy theories he's read on the internet. He struggles to articulate them, or convincingly defend them." She fact-checks each claim he makes throughout the article, such as in this exchange:
"Recently, Australia had an agreement with the United States to take some of the people on Manus Island - unfortunately, when they got to America they found out that there weren't all these free hand outs and they wanted to go back," he says. "They've got their foot into America and they don't want to be there because it is too tough. These people - in a lot of the cases - are not genuine refugees."
Moffett is unsure where he sourced this example. In fact, it has been reported that almost three quarters of the refugees were rejected by the US, apparently because they were born in Muslim countries.
"Well, it's been in the news," he says. "Perhaps, if the mainstream media was to report some of this stuff, they would see ... you'll find it in an Australian newspaper somewhere."
Journalism is another of Moffett's bugbears. He says the 'mainstream' media aren't reporting on the migration pact, or any of the other issues he's worried about. "You have to understand that there is something called the global mass media. It is basically run by nine companies around the world and they have made decisions about what they want the world to look like."
Who are these nine companies? "I don't know what their names are, but you know who they are - the Murdoch empire."
Earlier, Moffett had told me he first learned of the migration pact on Sky News Australia.
It's important, too, to understand the way coded language is deployed. References to "globalism", for example, are often not merely directed at the idea of open borders or free trade. Instead, according to Spoonley and numerous civil rights organisations, "globalists" is frequently a dog whistle for Jews, who are thought to be controlling finances, media, and other major parts of society. The far-right believe it is Jews who encourage mass migration, supposedly in an attempt to destroy Western society from the inside.
Likewise, Pepe the Frog isn't just a harmless green meme - it's been co-opted by white supremacists according to the Anti-Defamation League. The number 1488 references the 14 words, a well-known white supremacist slogan and "Heil Hitler" (where the 8s represent the 8th letter of the alphabet). Knowing these and other obscure codes are important to accurately covering the far-right.
In the long-term, New Zealand media outlets should dedicate reporters to covering political extremism, as Forbes has done with journalist J.J. MacNab, The Huffington Post with Luke O'Brien, and Buzzfeed with Charlie Warzel. People who understand the ways in which right-wing extremists communicate, how they think, and what they want can produce clearer and more accurate reporting than general assignment reporters who have little to no experience with the more arcane aspects of far-right movements.
After adopting new methods of covering Trump in the age of fake news, American outlets have enjoyed a veritable trust renaissance. In mid-2018, a poll found a majority of Americans had "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in media, for the first time since Trump burst onto the scene.
Whether the far-right comes about in New Zealand is not yet a foregone conclusion, but it is certainly possible. Vigilance is sorely needed to prevent that movement from prevailing - and Saturday's march will prove the first test for New Zealand's media and the country at large.
Marc Daalder is a guest writer for The Spinoff