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Histories of Hate: The Radical Right in Aotearoa New Zealand
ed. Michael Cunningham, Marinus La Rooij and Paul Spoonley

A new collection of essays uncovers New Zealand's history of radical right extremism and intolerance.

By March 22, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

Four years after the Christchurch terror attack of March 15, 2019, concerns have been raised – especially by the Muslim community – that the New Zealand public is already forgetting its victims. The pandemic disrupted the communal networks that might have cultivated a social remembrance around March 15 and itself presented a seismic crisis. In the cavalcade of recent local and world crises – lockdowns, the anti-mandate occupation of Parliament, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living, Hurricane Gabrielle, to name a few – New Zealanders might have understandably lost focus.

Histories of Hate is a timely reminder of the importance of remembering. Edited by public historians Matthew Cunningham and Marinus La Rooij, and eminent sociologist Paul Spoonley, the collection’s fifteen chapters bring together historians, sociologists, political scientists, as well as kaupapa Māori, religious and media studies scholars, to explore the ‘Kiwi inflection’ to global histories of the radical right since the nineteenth century. It re-centres the March 15 attacks in our public discourse and provides some much-needed critical reflection. Even as families and communities reeled from the 2019 attack, media commentary and political punditry presented the attack as explicable only in a linear history of white supremacy in our society. On the e-tangata site, the late Moana Jackson wrote:

[T]he massacres in Christchurch and the ideologies of racism and white supremacy which underpinned them did not come about in some non-contextual vacuum. They are instead a manifestation of the particular history of colonisation and its founding presumption that the so-called white people in Europe were inherently superior to everyone else.

Histories of Hate complicates this framing. The editors contend that rather than ‘a long history of white supremacy’ in which ‘an inevitable and relatively straight-line can be drawn from disparate aspects of the past to the 15 March terrorist attack’, New Zealand has a diverse history of radical right extremism and intolerance. Right-wing extremism is a ‘complex and multifaceted phenomenon stretching back to the late nineteenth century’, enacted by networks of groups and individuals animated by distinct causes. Historical trajectories are ‘rarely linear or unidirectional’: history ‘twists and turns; it branches, ruptures, funds unexpected dead ends, or reaches a certain outcome through design or change’.

Cunningham, La Rooij, and Spoonley offer a useful starting point in how to approach this ideological and historical morass by first identifying and defining the ‘radical right’ – a contested term that encompasses neo-fascist, ultra-conservative, extreme right, and, more recently, the alt-right. As with any political terminology, the radical right is a relative term, as ‘a description of views that are more radical than those held by the mainstream’. A discursive definition, however, allows us to grasp this activism as not simply a set of ideas about the world, but also as ways to organise and act politically, and, crucially, enact us/them binaries. Taking its cues from Spoonley’s body of work since 1987, Histories of Hate usefully widens the scholarly discussion from explicitly racist groups to other forms of extreme intolerance (e.g. sexism, religious prejudices, ‘anti-Treatyism’) and conspiracy (revolutionary socialism, corporate globalism).

Each section of chapters plot historical shifts in New Zealand-based right-wing extremist political thinking and acting. The first section flags the origins of key ideas, attitudes, and behaviours that we now associate with the twentieth-century radical right but which circulated in mainstream, or even principally left-wing, political circles at the turn of the century. The opening chapter, by Leonie Pihama and Cheryl Smith, offers a broad examination of nineteenth-century racism, eugenics, and imperialism, although the distinction between these distinct ideologies and systems are unhelpfully blurred. In contrast, Stevan Eldred-Grigg and Zeng Dazheng explore the radicalisation of anti-Chinese sentiment from the 1880s–1920s to discuss how racism evolves in relation to changing political and economic contexts, ‘in symbiosis or competition’ with other strategies of political power.

Their chapter, which offers a deeply nuanced account of the making of the ‘racial state’, is complemented by two biographical case studies: Le Rooij shows how the terrorist Lionel Terry – killer of Joe Kung Yum in Wellington in 1905 – emerged from a global soup of imperialism, labour activism, and militarism to see Asian communities as the puppets of a corrupted British capitalist class. Mark Derby highlights the only New Zealand citizen to influence international fascism, Arthur Desmond, whose hate-filled literary career included the probable authorship of a proto-fascist manifesto (Desmond sent a copy to Tolstoy, who was appalled.)

The second section plots how right-wing extremism in the early twentieth century worked to mobilise ideas, policies, and politics ‘rightward’ during the social and economic crises of interwar New Zealand. This led to different kinds of radicalisations with varying political and public currency. Elizabeth Ward traces associations in the anti-socialist and anti-Catholic milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the elitist Welfare League which flooded New Zealand newspapers with anti-socialist material in its bid to educate the nation against the threat of class warfare.

Fears of a global revolution – variously credited to the Bolsheviks, Jews, and Roman Catholics – leaked into Reform-Labour policy debates. Cunningham’s exploration of the Protestant Political Association and the New Zealand League shows these were not fringe attitudes, but reflected ‘political fluidity’ as conservative groups reacted to laissez-faire and Keynesian economics. La Rooiji offers a sober reading on how the victory of Labour and Michael Joseph Savage in 1935 – a much loved progressive milestone in New Zealand – and its rhetoric about institutions corrupted by corporate interests helped to normalise antisemitism.

The third part of Histories of Hate covers mid-century radicals and how previously mainstream ideas – race science, eugenics, antisemitism, – became untouchable in post-World War II politics. Steven Loveridge ‘charts a journey to the fringe’, as Pākehā New Zealand’s anguished identity crisis following the end of the British Empire produced the nation’s first explicitly neo-Nazi organisation, evoking the symbols of fascism in a kind of counter-cultural political theatre. Sebastian Potgieter and Tyler West analyse how right-wing radicals linked New Zealand with South Africa, as a bastion of white domination, through the countries’ sporting relationship. Addressing regional differences, Jarrod Gilbert argues that skinheads modelled a notional neo-Nazism but operated, essentially, as street gangs for poor, urban Pākehā men in the South Island. This section, in particular, pierces cherished myths and reveals how the loss (real or perceived) of traditional patrimonies had the potential to be infected by extremism.

The book’s final section pivots on twenty-first century trends shaped by the rise of identity politics. Smart phones, social media, and video gaming have produced online subcultures and hybridised conspiracy theories in which being male and of Pākehā New Zealand descent appears to be a common factor. Mark Dunick shows how the ‘information age’ increases the capacity of fringe figures, such as serial racist Kyle Chapman, to mobilise small groups of supporters, but also exposes their instability and lack of serious political organisation.

Conversely, as Spoonley and Paul Morris argue, radicals increasingly exist in ‘an alternative universe with a different set of explanations’ for today’s social and political issues. This chapter by Spoonley and Morris is one of the most useful for a general reader, as it summarises the bewildering web of conspiracies which define many online interactions. Despite this transition from street activism to memefied ‘shitposting’, they are hopeful that ‘the horrors of the 15 March terrorist attacks made New Zealanders more wary of such views and the potential and actual consequences’. Less optimistically, Michael Daubs shows that the digital networks have super-charged the transnational linkages which have historically shaped the radical right in New Zealand and have, subsequently, enabled a new kind of homogenised global white identity.

As a panorama, Histories of Hate suggests that New Zealand’s radical right tradition is, in many ways, a history of failures and losers. Yet, the book finishes, rightfully, on a challenge offered by Muslim educator Hamimah Ahmat on the need for greater competency and capacity in identifying and dealing with right-wing radicalism as it continues to metastasise.

As part of that response, the strength of this edited collection lies in its cross-disciplinarity as well as its historical perspective, examining the way racism, for example, emerges in particular times and places. Inevitably, there is some unevenness between some of the quality of the contributions, but each provokes important and searching questions about our pluralist politics and how we might sustain healthy political debate.

The powerful emotions of hate and fear that seem to motivate right-wing radicals lead to complex interactions with democracy – a system that may be seen as a threat, a useful tool, or in need of protection. This ‘distrust of democracy’, the editors suggest, ‘lies in [right-wing radicals’] inability to acknowledge the validity of these layers, many of which [they] see as anti-democratic’.

Histories of Hate is a timely reminder that the converse is also true: our remembrance of March 15 should include a rejection of complacency and a renewed commitment to our democratic institutions, as well as a productive demonstration of how they can work for all communities, across the left-right political divide.

Histories of Hate: The Radical Right in Aotearoa New Zealand

ed. Matthew Cunningham, Marinus La Rooij and Paul Spoonley

Otago University Press

ISBN: 9781990048401

Published: March 2023

Format: Paperback, 444 pages

Rowan Light

Dr Rowan Light is a Pākehā historian and lecturer at the University of Auckland Waipapa Taumata Rau and project curator (New Zealand Wars) at the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. His research focuses on histories of commemoration and remembrance, especially the role of individuals, groups, and institutions in shaping political and cultural uses of the past. His first book Anzac Nations, published with Otago University Press in 2022, interrogates national mythologies of Gallipoli in New Zealand and Australia.