The classic ’70s horror film When A Stranger Calls begins with a babysitter getting what she thinks is a wrong number call from a stranger only for him to chillingly ask, “Have you checked on the children?” She brushes it off as a practical joke but he calls back again. And again. Every call gets more sinister, so she rings the police and they agree to trace the call if he rings again. He does. The police ring back to let her know they traced his call and say it’s “coming from inside the house”.
Over the past few years Australia has seen a procession of far-right grifters arrive on our shores for national tours. Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux are a few of the names that sneaked through. Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, was refused a visa on character grounds after a successful national petition declaring there was no room for people like him in Australia.
This attempt to safeguard ourselves from external voices of white supremacy, while well-intentioned, unfortunately missed the point. Positioning white ethno-nationalist violence as something that can be stopped from infiltrating us only masked the truth: these grifters weren’t seeking to import their white nationalism to Australia, they were coming to cash in on what they knew was already abundantly here.
At the same time as the McInnes saga was dominating our discourse, much of our media and political class was busy legitimising white supremacy. Those of us who tried to draw attention to this were largely sidelined from the conversation, regarded as too radical and too angry, as our media class decided on a faux-centrist approach and a bizarre fixation on avoiding “silos” as if free speech would actually be killed if our journalists didn’t interview Steve Bannon.
In the aftermath of Christchurch, we have been treated to a by now familiar scenario. Senior politicians took photo ops with grieving Muslims to show their support, as if demonising Muslims hasn’t long been an election strategy. The usual condemnations were issued; of the massacre and of statements made by Senator Fraser Anning who assured us that, although nominal victims in this particular instance, Muslims are usually the perpetrators of terrorist violence and so must shoulder some of the blame for their own murders.
Their killer, you see, was simply afraid of them. So afraid, he took the time to kit himself out in full camo gear, attach a webcam to his head, and livestream the final moments of dozens of people who’d never done him any harm.
What was he scared of? White people being “replaced” by brown and black people. Why was he scared of them? Because white supremacy cannot countenance a world in which it does not live with its boot on the neck of everyone else. Who encouraged him to be afraid? Everyone who made light of the white supremacist threat, who referred to brown and black people as “invaders” (Andrew Bolt), as “mistakes” (Peter Dutton), or as “a disease” (Pauline Hanson). None of these names is considered too extreme to be denied a place in our mainstream discourse. We asked for something to be done about them. Nothing was.
While we were bolting our national doors against the influence McInnes would have on us, we didn’t stop to think of the effect that we could have on others. Or that our own brand of violent white supremacy, honed over the past 230 years of colonisation and dispossession right within our fortress, was in itself deadly.
Our focus on the most famous and unsavoury international voices allowed their mainstream enablers to continue the work of casually legitimising white supremacist rhetoric. This was couched in “concern” over the effects immigration would have on everything from job opportunities to peak-hour traffic, or “concern” for the welfare of Aboriginal children which meant they should be taken away from their families in a new Stolen Generation, or “concern” for the study of Western civilisation, or “concern” for free speech.
We objected to this. We always object. And we always pay the price.
And now, so has New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made a point to state that “an Australian man has been charged [with] murder. He was not a resident of Christchurch”. The levels of irony and coloniser denial involved in a white Australian man ranting about invaders replacing whites in their own lands not only living on this stolen land but going to another country, also with a colonial foundation, to murder innocent people that had been welcomed there is too much to process at this time.
Not that New Zealand doesn’t have its own legacy of white supremacy to reckon with. Seven years ago, journalist Charles Anderson reported on the largest ever white nationalist rally to hit New Zealand:
Men adorned in black t-shirts, camouflage pants and with their heads shaved took to the streets. Alongside them were women pushing baby strollers, and displaying signs that declared, among other things, that it was all right to be white.
The rally took place in Christchurch.
Christchurch, Armstrong warned, was drawing white nationalists from across the country as groups like Right Wing Resistance called for a fight back against what they called “that politically-correct crap”. Sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley has been studying New Zealand’s white supremacist groups since the 1980s, finding at least 70 groups that fit the description. He told Armstrong:
Christchurch continues to have the dubious honour of being the home to the largest number of extremist and white supremacist individuals and groups in New Zealand, a tradition that is now more than 30 years old.
Originally focusing on Jewish and Asian targets, in more recent years, the groups have seen a sharp rise in anti-Muslim sentiments as they assert their “right to be white.” Likewise, Muslim groups like the Islamic Women’s Council have been warning authorities of the rise of white supremacy only to be largely ignored.
Brenton Tarrant was attracted to Christchurch for the same reason that McInnes and co are attracted to Australia: not to start a fire, but to add to the one already raging. White supremacy is a global project that is not so much embedded in the fabric of western society as it is the fabric. Tarrant’s “manifesto”, in which he conducts an interview with himself, makes it clear that as an “ordinary White man” he sees no difference between any “European” country: “Europa arises,” he wrote.
Scream, Wes Craven’s ’90s paean to slasher films, pays homage to When A Stranger Calls. As Drew Barrymore coquettishly flirts with the — unbeknown to her — killer, she walks around casually locking her doors from the inside. He gets progressively more threatening and finally, realising this is no joke, she cries out, terrified, “What do you want?”. He snarls: “To see what your insides look like”.
Australia, we flirted with the white supremacist killer and he has again shown us the violent hatred that lurks inside us. Don’t turn away without acknowledging it. This is who we are. This is what we have to fix.