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Karl du Fresne

More thoughts on the Christchurch massacres and their aftermath

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We met her on the walkway to Cathedral Cove, on the Coromandel Peninsula. My wife and I were on our way back to our vehicle and had stopped to admire the view. She was going the other way.

She was a well-spoken, smartly dressed woman whom I guessed to be in her 60s, or possibly a well-preserved 70-something.

She stopped and said she had seen us the previous day in Whitianga. She had wondered at the time whether she should say something about the T-shirt I was wearing.

Let me tell you about that T-shirt. I bought it in the US about three years ago. It has a historical photo on the front showing four Apache warriors holding Winchester rifles. Above the picture, in bold capitals, are the words “HOMELAND SECURITY” and below: “Fighting terrorism since 1492”.

I bought the T-shirt because I liked the way it uses ironic humour to make a point. Since 9/11 America has been understandably pre-occupied with repelling people who want to do it harm. But the message on the T-shirt was that the original invaders of America were white Europeans whose arrival in the late 15th century had catastrophic consequences for the indigenous inhabitants. In resisting the white man, the Apache warriors were doing what Homeland Security does now – protecting their domain.

It’s not a T-shirt I would wear through Customs and Immigration at LAX, but I’ve never had any qualms about wearing it in New Zealand and it certainly didn’t occur to me, or my wife, that it might be considered offensive after the events in Christchurch on March 15.

The woman on the walkway to Cathedral Cove, however, saw things differently. She questioned whether it was appropriate to be wearing it only a few days after the shootings.

It was one of those situations where you’re so taken aback that you don’t immediately think of a suitable response. She wasn’t rude or aggressive, but there was an unmistakeable tone of moral disapproval in her voice. 

It was a brief encounter and we politely went our separate ways. It was only after we had resumed our walk that I began to think of things I might have said to her. Probably just as well, because I wouldn’t have wanted to spoil a beautiful day by getting into a discussion that might have turned unpleasant.

If we were to re-run the conversation, I would be curious to know how she could possibly perceive any connection between my T-shirt and the Christchurch massacres. In what way was it, to use that ghastly weasel word, “inappropriate”? Did she even get the irony of the T-shirt’s message? Possibly not. Moralistic people aren’t noted for their sense of humour.

I mention this incident because it’s representative, in its own tiny way, of the strange mood that has swept over the country in the 12 days since the mosque massacres. There’s a lot to like about this mood, but it has produced some odd side-effects.

It’s a febrile, overheated mood; a rush to judgment that has generated perverse, irrational and even hysterical reactions.

The incident on the Cathedral Cove walkway was at the very benign end of the spectrum. Far more worrying is the grotesque witch-hunt for scapegoats – people who bear not even the faintest responsibility for the killings, but are somehow held to be contributing to a toxic, racist mindset that shelters and encourages haters.

The most lamentable example is the decision by Whitcoulls to withdraw from sale the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s best-selling book 12 Rules for Life because someone found a photo of Peterson posing with a fan wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “I’m a proud Islamophobe”.

Admittedly it was a dumb thing for Peterson to do, but he must pose for hundreds of photos with fans and it’s possible he didn’t even notice what the T-shirt said. In any case, the issue should be whether Peterson’s book promotes race hatred or disharmony – and as far as I can ascertain from reliable people who have read it, it does no such thing.

But Whitcoulls was panicked into over-reacting. The noisy neo-Marxist Left has learned that Western capitalism has a soft underbelly and can easily be bullied into submission by fear of boycotts and bad publicity.

That a major book chain should so cravenly capitulate shows a cowardly disregard for the very values it should be defending. If I were a customer of Whitcoulls, which I haven’t been for a very long time because I regarded it as a lousy company anyway, I would be taking my patronage elsewhere.

Ironically, Whitcoulls reportedly continues to stock Mein Kampf – a vivid demonstration of the absurd contradictions that can arise when people start censoring books.

Peterson, of course, is the current bête-noire of the neo-Marxists, probably because his message clearly resonates with so many people, as attested by the crowds he attracted on his recent New Zealand tour. (The Left hate Don Brash for much the same reason. Non-political people generally like Brash, or at least respect his opinions and unfailing civility.)

I haven’t read Peterson’s books and didn’t see him speak, but from everything I’ve read I get the impression he’s a mild conservative whose views would have been considered unexceptionable as recently as 10 years ago.

It’s a measure of how sharply the political and ideological ground has shifted under our feet that Peterson is now widely portrayed in the media as a right-wing ogre. The tone of the public conversation is such that anyone to the right of the centre risks being stigmatised as right wing, “alt-right” (whatever that means), extremist or fascist.

Moreover, the media have almost succeeded in redefining the political ground by shifting that perceived centre sharply to the left, at least in terms of the public conversation. It doesn’t seem to matter that this doesn’t remotely reflect the reality of New Zealand, where the majority of voters at the last election supported nominally conservative parties – as they have done in most elections during my lifetime.

Some of the most hysterical invective against Peterson has come from young(ish) female commentators, and I wonder whether it’s because they have gone through school and university without ever being exposed to even moderately conservative opinions. When they encounter them for the first time, they react with fear and loathing. (I’ll pause here until the inevitable accusations of sexism and misogyny subside.)

The witch-hunters have claimed other scalps too. An Auckland doctor, Jim McVeagh, has been stood down by the Westgate Medical Centre pending an investigation after a fellow doctor complained about “inappropriate” posts (that word again) on the Whale Oil blog.

McVeagh posts under the pseudonym MacDoctor. I’ve seen some of his posts – I think he’s commented on this site in the past – and would describe them as being in the ACT/libertarian mould. On health matters, his posts are often moderate, thoughtful and authoritative.

Nothing I’ve seen by him could be construed as hateful, inflammatory or even exceptionable in a free and open society, although McVeagh himself concedes they could be offensive to some. He has criticised “ordinary” Muslims, for example, for not condemning Islamic extremism, and he has argued that Muslim immigration should be suspended until non-threatening members of the Muslim faith can be distinguished from potential extremists.

But context is everything. It would have been provocative in the extreme if McVeagh had expressed those views during the past week when nerves are raw, but in the context of a long-standing debate about immigration and extremism, they were legitimate. Crucially, they fell far short of inciting hatred or violence against Muslims.

What I find significant is that the comments complained about were made a couple of years ago, but the complainant has waited until now to make his or her objections known. Clearly he or she judged (correctly) that the search for scapegoats following the Christchurch terror made the time ripe for retribution.

The once solidly respectable Otago Daily Times, incidentally, reported: “A senior Auckland doctor has been immediately stood down pending an investigation by his employer into vile, anti-Islamic rants posted on the right-wing blog Whale Oil.”

There you have it, right there. When even the once respected ODT can pepper a news story with subjective and incendiary labels such as “vile” and “rants”, you sense that the rot in journalism may be irreversible.

But it’s important to record that journalists can be on the receiving end too. In a commentary on the Noted website a few days ago, Graham Adams recalled that North&South magazine was accused of racism in 2016 for running an article that asked whether New Zealanders had anything to fear from radical Islam. It made no difference to the critics that the Muslims interviewed for the story had welcomed the opportunity to talk about their faith.

There have been other recent examples of what might be termed mild hysteria. Twitter users responded with outrage (as Twitter users do, their dials being permanently set on furious) to an advertisement by the venerable and staid Auckland department store Smith and Caughey for a fashion garment described as a “lynch mob coat” – a name reportedly inspired by the cult-like following enjoyed by film director David Lynch. (No, I don’t understand it either.)

Judging by the New Zealand Herald’s report, the store changed the name several weeks ago – in other words, well before March 15 – to “lynch coat” and more recently to the spectacularly cautious “check wool coat”. But that didn’t stop an explosion on Twitter.

OK, so “lynch mob coat” may seem a bit silly, as is the fashion industry’s way. But the name had already been changed – and in any case, as with my Homeland Security T-shirt, it’s hard to see any direct connection with the events in Christchurch. It’s just that in the hyper-sensitive emotional climate and retributive mood brought about by the shootings, people are casting about for things to be offended by.

It’s also been reported that husband-and-wife real estate agents from Auckland had their contracts terminated by their employer, Ray White, after someone complained about their Facebook posts relating to Africans and Muslims. Same pattern: the comments were posted in April and August last year but evidently came to Ray White’s attention only last week.

How offensive were they? I don’t know. What’s significant is that the complainant clearly decided now was the time to act, presumably in the expectation that the complaint would carry more weight because of the shootings. And so it turned out. There seems to be an element of vengeful opportunism here – one that has been rewarded with over-reactions that show a worrying disregard for principles of free speech.

Incidentally, I found out about some of these cases from Bruce Russell’s overnight talk show on NewstalkZB. Commercial talkback radio is possibly the last sector of the media that hasn’t been captured by the Left, which must irritate the hell out of them. You can be sure they’re working on it.

PERHAPS all of the above can be forgiven as a collective rush of blood to the head, brought about by the shock of the appalling events of March 15. But far less excusable is the manner in which prominent people, many of them on the public payroll, exploited the deaths of 50 innocent people to further an ideological agenda.

By this I mean people like the Green MPs Golruz Ghahraman and Marama Davidson. In Parliament, Ghahraman blamed unnamed fellow MPs and breakfast radio “shock jocks” – presumably meaning NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking – for the “hate speech” that she claims led to the killings. (Hosking, incidentally, is another bête-noire of the Left, and for the same reason as Jordan Peterson: his daily commentaries connect with a large number of New Zealanders who are not racist or xenophobic and reject extremist ideology of both the Right and Left.)

Ghahraman, a highly accomplished self-publicist, was in such a rush to apportion blame that she wasn’t prepared to wait before making a considered response based on facts and evidence rather than supposition, assumption and prejudice. And why should she, when it was so much easier to make sweeping, unsubstantiated and emotive assertions about the killings being caused by “hate speech” (undefined), “white supremacy” and “gratuitous racism”?

She didn’t even have the decency to wait until all the victims’ bodies had been released to their grieving families for burial. The blame game took priority.

Davidson, meanwhile, took advantage of a vigil in honour of the shooting victims to unleash a barrage of denunciation. “New Zealand was founded on the theft of land, language and identity of indigenous people,” she was reported as saying. “This land we are standing on is land we were violently removed from to uphold the same agenda that killed the people in the mosques yesterday.”

This was not about honouring or mourning the dead. It was about finding someone to blame and settling old ideological scores. It stood in jarring contrast to the tone set by the Muslim community of Christchurch, which was all about reconciliation, forgiveness and unity. No recrimination, no anger, no fulminating about Islamophobia or white supremacy; just shock and sadness that this terrible thing had happened in a country they thought of as inclusive and welcoming. And which remains inclusive and welcoming, because the depredations of a single terrorist (an Australian, we shouldn’t forget) doesn’t change who we are.

I find people like Ghahraman and Davidson almost as frightening as terrorists. They don’t kill anyone, but their power to change society is greater. They use the institutions of a liberal democracy to whittle away at the open society. 

They are, in their way, as totalitarian and intolerant of difference as any gun-toting fascist or jihadist. They virtuously embrace ethnic and religious difference (except when it comes to Christianity, which is seen as part of the white power structure) but are aggressively intolerant of political difference and free speech.

It was no surprise to read that some attendees left an Auckland vigil early, apparently upset at a series of speeches attacking colonialism, white supremacy and white terrorism. One disillusioned early leaver was quoted as saying they wanted the vigil to be more focused on the victims; another said that while she understood the need for a conversation about racism and white supremacy, she felt that a week after the attacks was too soon.

“I think there was too much mention of “white” and colonial times. To me that wasn’t a remembrance of the victims and not the way to push for unity.”

That event was jointly organised by Migrants Against Racism and Xenophobia (MARX), Racial Equity Aotearoa, Shakti NZ, Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga and Auckland Peace Action. In other words it was an overtly political event, organised by radical activists (it was disappointing to see Shakti, which reportedly does admirable work for migrant and refugee women, keeping such dodgy company) and staged to make political capital out of a tragedy that deserved more time for people to grieve and wounds to start healing.

To its credit, the Labour-led government coalition has not bought into this unedifying grudge-fest. As far as I can see, Jacinda Ardern has been nothing but measured and conciliatory in her public statements. It’s the ideologues on Labour’s left who are busy stirring the pot.

Interestingly, political scientist Bryce Edwards noted in a commentary last week that prominent British authorities on multiculturalism had watched the course of the debate over the events in Christchurch and were despondent. Writing in The Guardian, the Indian-born Leftist academic Kenan Malik said it was depressing that much of the discussion that followed the shootings had degenerated into name calling and invective. “The dead deserve better,” he wrote.

In The Times, Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim, said both the far Left and theocratic Islamists were seeking to exploit Christchurch “for their own nefarious ends”.

It should be unacceptable, Nawaz wrote, to use the March 15 attacks to blame critics of Islam or immigration, or to seek to silence the political Right generally. “Shutting down debate in this way will only make matters worse and is precisely what the New Zealand terrorist explicitly told us he wanted, in his diatribe commonly referred to as a manifesto”.

Those words came too late to deter people like Ghahraman and Davidson, who are probably too wrapped up in their own sense of grievance to heed them anyway. Sadly they also came too late to deter the Auckland University historian Dame Anne Salmond and the recently appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt. The blood still hadn’t been cleaned from the Christchurch mosques when both weighed in with finger-wagging commentaries upbraiding New Zealanders for their supposed failings and implying that we all somehow shared the blame.

“White supremacy is part of us, a dark power in the land,” Salmond’s melodramatic piece began. We may look “bland and reasonable”, but according to Salmond our dark side is hateful and violent.

Hunt, an English academic and human rights careerist who had barely got his feet under the desk, seized the opportunity to promote the identity politics agenda and to lecture us on the many ways in which we need to lift our game. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found it galling to read a new arrival (although he claims dual British and New Zealand citizenship) pontificating about the importance of “our” commitment to tolerance and diversity and the values that lie at the heart of “our” multiculturalism.

Among other things, Hunt pronounced that a “sensible dialogue” about our hate speech laws is “long overdue”. This should send a chill through anyone who values free speech, because I suspect that what he means by “sensible dialogue” is one that can be relied on to produce the outcome that the Human Rights Commission wants – in other words, one that puts greater weight on the protection of minority groups from views that they might find upsetting than on the far more fundamental democratic right to free speech and an open society.

It has been instructive to watch the speed and determination with which elements on the far Left (not all on the far Left, it should be noted – stand up, Chris Trotter) have tried to hijack the post-shootings conversation and twist it to their own ends.

Their purpose is to stifle free speech, to shut down legitimate journalism (which is in retreat anyway) and to prohibit people from asking questions that the neo-Marxists think shouldn’t be asked.

I think they may have overplayed their hand. At a time when common human decency dictates that the priorities should be compassion and grieving, they have coldly pursued a transparently ideological agenda.

People know weapons-grade vindictiveness when they see it. They also recognise it as the diametric opposite of what ordinary New Zealanders have demonstrated in abundance over the past two weeks, which is practical empathy and support for people who have suffered an unimaginable loss.

FOOTNOTE: I wrote two newspaper columns in the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings, both of which have been reproduced on this blog site.

Those columns, which were published in a number of papers and on the Stuff website, prompted several critical letters. Some of these I didn’t see, because I was away on holiday, but I want to comment on two that I did see.

One was from someone named Mike Sansom of Island Bay (Wellington), whom I suspect may have been the “Unknown” commenter on this site whom I responded to on March 22. I say that because both Sansom and “Unknown” had the same beef about the column I had written from Long Bay in the Coromandel.

Sansom accused me of writing a self-satisfied column without even mentioning the 50 victims of the shootings. This, he said, demonstrated an appalling lack of compassion.

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. He criticised my column not because of something I said but because of something he thinks I should have said but didn’t. But if columnists are going to be attacked for things readers think they should have said but didn’t, then they are on a hiding to nothing. They are always going to be open to criticism for choosing to write about the wrong things. (Note to self: consult Mike Sansom in future before sitting down at the keyboard.)

More to the point though, Sansom implies that because I didn’t express compassion, it can only be because I don’t feel any. Here, laid bare, is the overweening moral conceit of some on the Left, who feel they have a monopoly on virtue. 

In fact the reason I didn’t feel it necessary to say I felt sorry for the Christchurch victims and their families was that as a fellow human being it would have been stating the obvious. I took it as a given, as most readers probably did, that we all grieved. But that’s the world we now live in: we have to publicly parade our feelings or risk censure for not being compassionate enough.

The other letter was from Professor Boyd Swinburn of Auckland University, who is deservedly famous as One Of Those People Who Know What’s Best For Other People. We have a lot of them in New Zealand, and especially in the universities.

Like Sansom, Swinburn made no attempt to engage with the substance of my column, preferring to compare it unfavourably with another column published alongside it which was far more to his liking. That column, written by an Iranian-born female journalist, was headlined Christchurch shootings: The rot behind New Zealand’s cloak of decency. Say no more.

Sansom’s letter at least tried to make a point, even if it was off the mark. Swinburn’s letter, on the other hand, was a lazy and gratuitous pot-shot that said nothing other than that he didn’t like my column.

Well, I have a deal to put to Swinburn. He started his letter by saying “I am an old, white, privileged male like Karl du Fresne.” The usual corollary to this type of statement is that because older white males have led a life of privilege, pushing other people around and generally exploiting their power, they should be disqualified from expressing an opinion on anything.

My suggestion to Swinburn is that if he promises to shut up, so will I. It would be a small price to pay for relief from his tiresome sanctimony.