The conversation we need to have
“You will be exposed as a racist to your family, your friends, your work colleagues” is the warning of the premier of New South Wales Chris Minns to the small but apparently growing (or at least encouraged) group of neo -Nazis. The threat, designed to intimidate them, is to undress, name and shame.
For Victorian neo-Nazi leader Thomas Sewell, who traveled all the way to Sydney by bus with two dozen friends, this was no problem – he was well-known and proud of his convictions (of the same kind). Watching a large contingent of NSW Police corner the neo-Nazi horde at North Sydney Station, Sewell happily unmasked and declared “it’s not illegal to be racist” for the sake of the news at night.
Well, he was right – no. Even if we go the whole hog and bus every one of these good boys to the desert so they can play again Lord of the Flies before dying of terminal madness, we cannot accept them that they are not the master race. If spending 12 hours on a bus with each other didn’t convince them of that, nothing will.
But this latest outburst of black-clad professional impropriety, something new for Sydney (thanks, Melbourne, we really appreciate the export), points to what is still a minor problem. but shows every sign of becoming great: what to do about our Nazis?
Clearly, they are not going away and the growth in their numbers and self-confidence reflects global trends towards authoritarianism and racial nationalism. The Holocaust has passed the generations, its lessons fading as fast as the light of democracy fades.
The modern Australian Nazi has distinctive characteristics: young, white, male, dressed head-to-toe in black and – usually, at the moment – masked. Like all uniforms, theirs has two purposes: to give them the comfort of belonging to the tribe, and to send a simple message to everyone. The message of Nazism was simple: fear us.
We always remember that fascists are funny, until they aren’t. The same goes for the crew, they are obviously thick and deluded. They are in a deadly frenzy, and the only thing that prevents them from doing what they understand My fight is their cowardice. That gets lost in numbers and impact. If left alone, they will multiply and they will commit racist violence. That is reality, not possibility.
So far, governments have responded with the same rhetoric – this is intolerable, we will not tolerate it – and a ratcheting up of laws that specifically target the visible symbols of Nazism: first the swastika and SS insignia, then the stiff arm salute. None of this has any effect, as predicted (again, I predicted it). If anything, it played directly into their hands, as we know if we remember anything about the rise of Hitler.
So, what? We cannot criminalize racist beliefs, or the color black, or marching. And banning their flags – while helpful in that it means some of us don’t have to see these symbols of hate paraded around – won’t slow it down. What to do?
Minns’ theory is that public humiliation is the key to success, and he’s far from alone. In legal theory, pure vigilantism; the only reason to do this is because we know how the mob will respond. I will fire any employee who turns out to be a neo-Nazi, and fire anyone I know. The Nazis got the same benefit of the doubt that they gave the objects of their hatred: none.
However, we would be wise to hold our breath before taking such a radical step as Minns’ comments imply: the government-sponsored exposure and mutilation of individuals, simply for their beliefs. This is a major departure from modern concepts of privacy, freedom of expression and association, and the presumption of innocence.
To be clear, it goes beyond what is currently available. NSW Police can force a person to unmask to identify them, and anyone accused of a crime can be named (with some exceptions). We name these men because they appear.
This too, we must admit, creates a new slippery slope. Black-clad neo-Nazis are easy for us to identify and categorize; their lack of imagination makes it easy. However, we are having this conversation at the same time as some individuals at the extremes of the Zionist movement in Israel are openly declaring the attitudes and intentions of the Palestinians to be extremely racist and genocidal. If that sentiment is imported here, how will we feel about naming and shaming?
The Nazis had a way of finding uncomfortable points of intersection between rights and wrongs. This is their basic modus operandi, how they maneuver towards social acceptance and, ultimately, power, along the tightrope of tolerance. They weaponize our instincts and values - and consequently our laws – against us.
Controlling them requires a playbook that is sophisticated and adaptable. Our responses must be thoughtful and thoughtful. We must live with their unintended consequences, but equally recognize that the consequences of not taking the Nazis seriously – as serious as they were – were always far worse.
Who would have thought this would be a conversation, so soon? But here we are.