Hate and prejudice hold no place in our community and we will not tolerate any offensive and abhorrent anti-social behaviour.
This statement by a Victoria Police spokeswoman could not have been clearer. Hate and prejudice are most certainly not welcome in one of the world’s most diverse and successful multicultural communities.
She was referring to a small group of neo-Nazis who performed the Sieg Heil Nazi salute on the steps of the Victorian parliament last weekend. Just two months earlier, the same act was performed by a group attending a rally by visiting UK anti-transgender activist Posie Parker.
Thankfully, Australian police are not in the business of prosecuting bad ideas. Hate is not illegal, no matter how abhorrent. But offensive antisocial behaviour is a different matter. Hate speech, and other actions inciting hate, are rightly subject to policing and prosecution.
Arrests were made but none for the act of performing the Nazi salute – it might be outrageous but it is not yet clearly illegal. But that will likely soon change with the performance of the Seig Heil joining the use of the Nazi swastika as proscribed hate speech.
No easy fix
But is this the best way of dealing with the neo-Nazi problem?
Two outrageous protests in two months would suggest something has to change. Not everyone agrees, even among the most well-informed analysts and practitioners.
Perhaps the greatest risk of banning Nazi symbols is that it will only serve to amplify the groups’ message and draw attention to their hateful cause. After all, by opportunistically bandwagoning onto the moral panic against the transgender community, and against migration, the National Socialist Network, a tiny community with scant support, is desperately seeking to amplify the message and their appeal. Prosecuting them for symbolic action risks giving them the very thing they so desperately want: attention.
The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) argues neo-Nazis should be deprived of using extremist symbols to “raise their profile and to recruit new members”. The organisation believes banning the Nazi salute and other Nazi symbols “would assist law enforcement in early intervention”. The agency explains:
Extremist insignia [are] an effective propaganda tool because they are easy to remember and understand. They also can transcend language, cultural and ethnic divides; creating, distributing and understanding them is not limited to a select few or one cultural or language group.
Prosecuting bad behaviour, however necessary, does not automatically diminish the virulence of bad ideas. More importantly, it will not diminish the appeal and vitality of malign social networks built around hateful narratives of white supremacy.
If banning Nazi symbols were in itself efficacious, Germany would not be facing a rapidly growing problem of neo-Nazi activism, including within its uniformed services.
A global problem
The problem of what to do about neo-Nazis is far more difficult than it first appears. The neo-Nazi groups in Australia might be small in absolute numbers but they are well integrated into global networks. Not only do they draw on this international support, they leverage their disproportionate profile in Australia to generate content.
Every act of angry provocation and confrontation is recorded, packaged and framed, for outsized impact within North American networks. Consequently, what appears to be a pathetic and ineffectual protest in Australia results in applause and recognition for those involved.
This international feedback loop means neo-Nazi networks in Australia are resilient and energised.
More importantly, though, the explicit neo-Nazi element is just one small part of a much larger problem. Rather than viewing groups like the National Socialist Network in isolation, it is better to understand it as just one component, albeit a particularly provocative and visible one, of a much larger problem.
For while relatively few Australians are prepared to identify themselves as being neo-Nazi, or even to see themselves as being connected in any way to National Socialist ideas, there are many more for whom the central narrative of “white Christian Australians” being replaced by outsiders and “others” – Asians, Muslims, Jews and even First Nations Australians – holds strong emotional and intuitive appeal.
Not only does this dominate the public statements of renegade senators and independent members of parliament, it seeps into the broader body politic. When Opposition Leader Peter Dutton doubled down on stirring panic about creeping change such as the Voice to Parliament referendum and high levels of migration, he was channelling the “great replacement” ideas that were first deployed by Pauline Hanson and John Howard in the 2001 election campaign.
Consequently, there is a leakage between hard-line white supremacists and mainstream politicians seeking the support of anxious citizens who fear the ground beneath their feet is giving way.
This was a rising problem long before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. But the recent spread of conspiracy theories, including curious recent American imports like QAnon that repackage old narratives of fear and loathing, have brought it to the fore.
Neo-Nazis exist in an ecosystem of hate. They are separate from, but interact with, religious fundamentalists, Christian Nationalists, Sovereign Citizens, ardent believers in conspiracy theories and grand narratives of victimhood.
Not all are consumed by hate, nor do all belong to the extreme right. But most are anxious and desperately searching for something to hang on to, and a community to belong to. In marching in the streets, or gatecrashing local government meetings, they find a sense of purpose and camaraderie.
In Europe, the problem of the extreme right began to accelerate in the wake of German reunification. And in America, it picked up speed during the Trump presidency. The pandemic experience and current economic hardships linked to inflation and the price of housing are serving to further amplify these developments.
At the same time, social media provide the means to link people around the world and across social strata with an ease and efficiency not seen before.
If the challenge was merely one of dealing with self-declared neo-Nazis, it would be difficult but remain a discrete and isolated problem. But this is not a discrete and isolated problem. It is linked to age-old problems of racism and structural inequality, and more recent problems with the rise of authoritarian populism. All this is then amplified and accelerated by technology to the point where democracy itself is threatened.
Fortunately, Australia is well behind the problems faced in Hungary or Turkey, where authoritarian populism is an existential threat to democracy and open society. Or even the problems faced in Italy, Germany, France and across Europe.
Nor is Australian democracy facing the immediate structural and cultural problems threatening American democracy.
US President Joe Biden said:
I don’t have to tell you that fearless progress towards every act of justice often meets ferocious pushback from the oldest and most sinister of forces.
That’s because hate never goes away. But on the best days, enough of us have the guts and the hearts to stand up for the best in us […] to choose love over hate, unity over disunion, progress over retreat. To stand up against the poison of white supremacy.
The immediate danger in responding to neo-Nazis in Australia is that we inadvertently give them a stage and amplify their message.
But the bigger danger is that we fail to see the wood for the trees. It is tempting to dismiss the pathetic, clownish protests as an ugly aberration, and to fail to see the broader appeal of hateful, supremacist ideas.
The neo-Nazi protests are a wake-up call. In an age in which fear turns all too quickly to loathing, we can’t afford to take the values of liberal democracy for granted.