What America Can Learn from New Zealand

05 05 19

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about just how much political power and social capital White Nationalists have amassed in the US. The Trump Administration treats them as a valued constituency group, Republicans in Congress associate with white nationalist figures, invite them to testify before Congress, and cater to them politically. Tech companies have only recently bowed to public pressure and changed their policies on explicitly white nationalist content, and they still must be pressured to even enforce those policies. Media outlets have been duped into amplifying white nationalist content for years and continue to profile prominent white nationalist figures as the Nazi next door.

We all feel the collective impact of their power whether we’re actively working to combat extremism in America or just trying to go about our lives. Hate speech, hate crimes, mass shootings, and other domestic terrorist attacks are all now commonplace, a part of daily life in America. We’re all vulnerable to harm online and off. The institutions that should protect us largely don’t, because they ignore the threat of White Nationalism or are themselves co-opted by it.

Changing this reality is possible but the solution needs to be systemic. Pressuring government, tech companies, or media alone won’t be enough. There’s also a lack of vision on what we’re working towards, which makes sense given how much time we find ourselves playing defense. We’ve got to dream bigger. What might an America where White Nationalists don’t have any clout look like? What should we be striving for?

New Zealand offers the best blueprint I’ve seen so far for a systemic and proactive approach. After the Christchurch Mosque shootings, they’ve chosen to expel White Nationalism from their nation and have put their institutions to work in service of that mission. This week New Zealand’s five major media organizations collectively agreed not to promote White Supremacist ideology during the trial of accused Christchurch Mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant. According to the Associated Press, the agreement includes “coverage of Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto and broadcasting symbolic images.” This agreement is in line with what extremism researchers have strongly suggested media outlets who cover extremism to do for a while now.

This approach isn’t coming out of nowhere. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made it clear from her first statement that extremism has no place in New Zealand and she would do everything in her power to keep extremist ideologies from taking hold there. Ardem refuses to say the shooter’s name in public, explaining “He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety, and that is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”

New Zealand has banned assault weapons with their parliament voting 119-1 in favor. The government helped to pay funeral costs for the victims regardless of immigration status and banned both the shooter’s so-called manifesto and the video of the shooting. New Zealand and France are working together to pressure tech companies to eliminate violent extremist content from the Internet entirely. New Zealand Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, recently said that “Facebook cannot be trusted. They are morally bankrupt pathological liars who enable genocide, [and] facilitate foreign undermining of democratic institutions.” Internet Service Providers in both New Zealand and Australia have blocked access to 8chan and 4chan.

Obviously, not all of New Zealand’s actions are a perfect fit for America, but there’s a lot we can learn from their common values and resolve. New Zealand’s ambitions aren’t just to keep extremism at bay but to eradicate it. The government, media, and private sector companies are generally working towards that goal. Extremists will find it difficult (or impossible) to foster political power and social capital there.

At this moment it’s difficult to imagine an America where White Nationalists aren’t a dominant power bloc. But if we’re ever going to break free of their grip it’s vital that we start to do so. Individuals and individual institutions can’t change things in a vacuum. Curbing White Nationalism piece by piece isn’t enough. It’s time to take their power away entirely. Thanks to New Zealand, we have a roadmap as a starting off point.

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© Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ted Eytan.

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