How not to fight the right – a case study in abject liberal-left politics

Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, two rightist political agitators from Canada, were due to speak in Auckland on August 3rd, as part of a tour of Australasia organised by an Australia-based promoter, David Pellowe. But in early July, Auckland’s Mayor, Phil Goff, cancelled the booking they held on an Auckland City Council venue.  Goff (who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Justice in the Labour Party governments of 1999 to 2008) tweeted, “Auckland Council venues shouldn’t be used to stir up ethnic or religious tensions. Views that divide rather than unite are repugnant and I have made my views on this very clear. Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux will not be speaking at any Council venues.”

Molyneux is a radio and YouTube broadcaster and writer, who is best known for his promotion of “race science.” He is reported as saying that “Different social outcomes were the result of different innate IQs among the races – as he put it, high-IQ Ashkenazi Jews and low-IQ black people.” He is also reported as saying that problems of war, drug abuse, addiction, promiscuity, and sexually transmitted diseases “all arise from dysfunctional early childhood experiences, which are all run by women.”

Lauren Southern. Photo: Lauren Southern, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54941187

Lauren Southern is a young rightist of the Milo Yiannopoulos type, known for headline-grabbing stunts and provocations such as handing out leaflets saying “Allah is a Gay God.” She scapegoats Muslims, immigrants, feminists, and older generations for the problems faced by her generation. Like Molyneux, she has assembled a following mainly through YouTube broadcasts. A former Libertarian Party candidate in the Canadian Federal Election, she is the author of Barbarians: How Baby Boomers, Immigrants, and Islam Screwed My Generation. In May 2017 Southern took part in a seaborne attempt by the European anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant group Generation Identity to blockade ships that were rescuing refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. During this stunt Southern was briefly detained by the Italian Coast Guard.

Lauren Southern at Vancouver Slutwalk

In March 2016 she had a bottle of urine tipped over her by protesters in Vancouver during an argument in which she was accused of being ‘hateful’ and ‘transphobic’ as she argued that there were only two genders, male and female. A year earlier, she had been jostled at the Vancouver Slutwalk, a protest demonstration against rape culture, while carrying a sign that read “There is no rape culture in the West.”

Cover of Southern’s book

Southern also campaigns on behalf of white South African farmers who she says are being persecuted on account of their race. On this question there are some in the Australian government who speak in very similar terms to Lauren Southern. Australian Minister for Immigration and Home Affairs Peter Dutton outraged South Africa’s government in March when he floated the idea of fast-tracked humanitarian visas for white South African farmers, saying they faced “horrific circumstances” and needed help from a “civilised country.”

Lauren Southern said the pair planned to speak on a range of issues, including “immigration, the preservation of western culture and the infectious liberal or far-left ideologies that are coming and working their way into our media.”

When the tour was announced, objections were raised by at least two organisations, the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand and Auckland Peace Action (APA).

“I don’t think insulting Muslims comes under free speech, that’s an abuse of freedom of speech,” said New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations president Hazim Arafeh.

In a press statement, Auckland Peace Action (APA) said that it “calls on the Minister of Immigration to refuse racist hatemongers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern entry to New Zealand. These prominent alt-right fascists are intending to travel to New Zealand to hold a public events in early August,” said APA member Valerie Morse.

Valerie Morse      Photo: Stuff

“We stand in solidarity with the Muslim Community in Aotearoa who are opposing these fascists. If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue …”

“We are concerned that right-wing extremism is reaching into our communities through sophisticated propaganda and subversive strategies creating and exploiting vulnerabilities that can ultimately lead to acts of violence. It is imperative that this type of racism is given no room to be promoted and encouraged in Aotearoa.”

“These people want to empower local racists and to encourage racist violence. They come to recruit people to their fascist ideology.”

“We are preparing to take action to stop their public event if the Minister fails to do so. We encourage people across Auckland to join us and say NO to hate.”

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff   Photo: Greater Auckland

The APA’s call on the Minister of Immigration to deny visas to the pair was pre-empted by Goff’s ban on using the Council venue, after which Southern and Molyneux cancelled the New Zealand leg of their tour.

Most liberal and left voices applauded Goff’s ban, taking their lead from Goff’s claim that “the right to free speech does not mean the right to be provided with an Auckland Council platform for that speech.” Among those supporting Goff’s ban were Green Party Co-Leader Marama Davidson and Herald columnist Simon Wilson. Wilson wrote, “Southern and Molyneux are haters. Their purpose is to stir up outrage and if that leads to violence, so be it. They’re proud of it… It’s not clear to me they pose such a threat they should be banned from entering New Zealand at this time. But I am pleased they can’t use council venues and I couldn’t help noticing no other group offered to host them.”

Both Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters and Opposition National Party leader Simon Bridges opposed the ban. (Peters has engaged in scapegoating of immigrants himself in the past. )

Conservative and rightist forces quickly made use of the opportunity handed to them by Goff to pose as the defenders of free speech. Within days a Free Speech Coalition raised $50,000 to mount a legal challenge to the Auckland Mayor’s ruling.  The Coalition involves prominent conservative academics including Auckland University of Technology Professor Paul Moon, Auckland University Senior Lecturer David Cumin, as well as former National Party leader Don Brash, former Labour Party minister Michael Bassett, former ACT Party Member of Parliament Stephen Franks, Libertarian broadcaster Lindsay Perigo, and liberal-left political commentator Chris Trotter.

Part of the modus operandi of rightist forces such as Molyneux and Southern (and Milo Yiannopoulos, with whom they have much in common) is precisely to bring on such bans by means of their objectionable stunts, insults, and provocations. Then, when banned, they can win support by presenting themselves as the stalwart defenders of democratic rights, in contrast to what the event organiser called the “extreme fundamentalist and organised left.”  Meeting or no meeting, they make gains.

Lauren Southern arrives in Brisbane July 2018

In this case, the controversy surrounding the Auckland ban has served to spice up the Australian leg of the tour. “There are so many people that are offended by debate and free speech that sometimes governments cower, it’s just way easier to play into the hands of people who are totalitarian,” Southern said on arrival in Australia July 13. She arrived wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “It’s OK to be white.”

False and hypocritical as the Free Speech Coalition may be, they win support nonetheless, despite the chorus of bleating about their lack of genuine concern for free speech. Every time the liberal wing of bourgeois politics reaches for the weapon of censorship, ‘venue cancellation,’ or ‘visa denial’ against the right, the ultraright scores a point. Goff and all those who support the ban are playing into their hands.

That is their problem. I have as little interest in defending liberal politics as I have in the free speech of rightists. My concern is for the free speech rights of the working class and its allies, which are vital if we are to be able to defend our class interests in face of the deepening capitalist crisis. Goff’s ban was in the first instance an attack on our rights.

Goff’s claim that he is not violating their free speech rights, but only denying them a venue, is a subterfuge. Every meeting venue in the land is under the ownership and control of the capitalist class, either directly through their ownership rights in the case of theatres, clubs, bars and the like, or through control by a capitalist government in the case of universities and school halls, municipal halls and libraries, and so on. Likewise every street and every public park is under the control of a capitalist government at state or municipal level. If working class is to surrender to the capitalist class the decision about who is entitled to use these venues, we thereby surrender our right of freedom of assembly.

Nor should we grant to the bourgeoisie the prerogative to determine what constitutes ‘hate speech,’ ‘advocating terrorism,’ ‘sedition,’ ‘inciting racial disharmony,’ nor any other of the myriad categories of forbidden expression that clutter the law books. It is not for the ruling class to judge whether the speaker is motivated by sincere faith or hatred (as Wilson does in comparing Southern and Molyneux with the anti-gay bigotry of Israel Folau). The simple unqualified defence of freedom of expression such as that laid out in the First Amendment to the United States constitution should be our starting point.

By using the ruse of ‘only denying them a venue’ Goff has in fact greatly widened the definition of ‘unacceptable views’ to include any “views that divide rather than unite.” All laws against ‘hate speech’ are reactionary obstacles to freedom of expression for workers. Whatever ‘progressive’ justifications put forward for them, all are aimed in the first instance against those fighting the injustice and oppression of capitalism, and ultimately, against the working class.

Malcolm X was slandered as a racist and a hate-monger in his lifetime.

The greatest revolutionary fighter in the twentieth-century United States, Malcolm X, was constantly vilified during his lifetime as ‘divisive,’ a racist and a ‘hate-monger’ on account of his advocating the right of self-defence against racist attacks.  The great South African fighter Nelson Mandela was slandered and jailed as a ‘terrorist.’ These instances are the rule, not the exception.

Valerie Morse, who signed the APA press release, should know this better than most. Morse herself has been targeted by such repressive state actions against freedom of speech more than once in the past. In 2007 she was convicted of “offensive behaviour” when she burned a New Zealand flag in the vicinity of pro-militarist ANZAC Day commemorations. The judge interpreted ‘offensive behaviour’ as “behaviour that arouses real anger, resentment, disgust or outrage in the mind of a “reasonable person,”” a definition that was upheld by the High Court and Court of Appeal, and only overturned by the Supreme Court in 2011.

Protest against Urewera frame-up arrests Aotea Square, Auckland, 20 October 2007: Photo: Postbagboy, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2945966

Six months after the flag-burning, she was one of 17 arrested on frame-up charges under the Suppression of Terrorism Act as part of the notorious Urewera police raids. Under pressure of a public campaign against police spying and in defence of the defendants’ rights of freedom of expression – which included a demonstration of 150 outside a Labour Party conference in which protestors wore gags in their mouths – the Terrorism Act frame-up fell apart, and all charges were dropped against all but four of those arrested. (The four were eventually framed on firearms charges.) Morse fought these frame-ups with courage and tenacity.

Now, ironically, she is calling upon this very same state for protection against ‘fascists,’ by wielding their anti-worker powers of control over immigration and visas. To be sure, this abject stance is dressed up in swaggering and truculent fighting talk –  “If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue” etc – but in essence this is just another form of appeal to the capitalist state for protection: Deploy your cops, or there will be trouble.

When I read in the APA press release “We are concerned that right-wing extremism is reaching into our communities through sophisticated propaganda and subversive strategies” I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the calls for excluding and banning the rightists conceal a deep fear of the political questions they raise – a fear that there is no answer to their sophisticated propaganda. And therefore our communities need to be cocooned and shielded from these evil external influences.

No, “right-wing extremism” does not “reach into our communities” from the outside, nor are our communities being torn apart by the “subversive strategies” of “right-wing extremists.” Rightist political ideas are alive and well already in our class-divided communities, generated from within and constantly reproduced by the social relations of capitalism in decay. What we are witnessing is not a harmonious society being subverted from outside, but rather, the capacity of capitalist society to sustain the institutions of bourgeois democracy withering away.

It is true that bourgeois liberalism is bereft of arguments with which to combat the rightist scourge. There will be some in liberal-left circles who might even find themselves uncomfortably close to agreement with some of Southern’s ideas. To be sure, the baiting of Muslims is unpopular in liberal-left circles, but Southern also engages in scapegoating “baby-boomers,” which is quite popular in some ‘left’ circles. As are forms of identity politics not so far removed from those of Generation Identity.

And what would they say in response to Southern’s comments on white farmers and  the land reform in South Africa – would they defend or oppose the political course of the multi-millionaire President Ramaphosa on this burning question of South African politics? Would they support or oppose Peter Dutton’s proposal to open Australia’s borders to white farmers fleeing rural violence in South Africa? These questions cannot be answered by screaming ‘fascist’ and shutting down the discussion. Nor by tipping a bottle of urine on their heads. Nor by blockading the entrances to their meetings.

We encourage people across Auckland to join us and say NO to hate.”  With this appeal, Auckland Peace Action reveals the utter impotence of liberalism in a period of sharpening political class polarisation. Hate is the inescapable counterpart to oppression. The justified hatred of the oppressed towards their oppressors is an absolutely necessary weapon in the fight against oppression. The task of the moment is not to ‘say No to hate’ but to turn the hatred of the oppressed in the appropriate direction – against the ruling class, their governments (state and municipal), and their political parties. The rightists understand this well – hence their unending efforts to get us to turn our hatred inwards, at ourselves and each other. What is needed is to arm our class politically, so that the rightists’ appeals to turn our hatred against ourselves fall on barren ground.

A great opportunity has been lost to organise and mobilise our forces in this way. The Southern-Molyneux meeting could have become an opportunity to mobilise a broad demonstration of public indignation at their scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims, to expose their phoney ‘race science,’  to unmask and repudiate their hatred and fear of women. An opportunity to demonstrate just how relatively weak and isolated these rightist currents really are outside the hothouse atmosphere of YouTube and Twitter, where spectacle, stunts and monologue carry more weight.  Who knows? – we might have even got a chance to put forward some sophisticated propaganda of our own in this battle of ideas, some ideas on how to unite ourselves as a class and to divide ourselves from the ruling class and its agents of influence.

That possibility, the potential counter-mobilisation, is what Mayor Phil Goff feared – not the rightists themselves, who pose no threat to capitalist law and order, and certainly not the ridiculous threats of disruption from tiny left groups – and that is what he moved to pre-empt. Of all the liberal commentators, the one who came closest to understanding the situation was Simon Wilson, who ends his article, “If they do come, maybe they present an opportunity: we can whack these horrible people with some free speech of our own.”  That is precisely the opportunity that has been lost.

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