This article is supported by Blackkklansman, the new film from Spike Lee out in cinemas on August 16. In this piece, we look at the rise of fringe KKK thinking Australia.
When Blair Cottrell appeared on SkyNews last week, he was acting out a long building trend of white nationalists posing as legitimate political commentators. His masquerade was a single piece within a larger strategy orchestrated by the alt-right both here and overseas.
It’s hard to spot the genesis of this plan, but it was clearly in play in 1991 when a man called David Duke took off his hood and made a successful bid for public office in the US state of Louisiana. His time in the job would be short, but Duke who left the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980 would never quite shake the taint of the brand. While Duke would end up a footnote in history, his run for office is significant as an early attempt at achieving mainstream acceptance through public office and life.
It used to be accepted that any member or organisation belonging to the ecosystems of white nationalists, white supremacists or neo-Nazis would struggle to find a mainstream public audience with editors and television producers acting as media gatekeepers. That was of course forever changed by the rise of the internet. For the first time, hate speech didn’t need to get past an editor to reach the masses.
One of the first people to recognise the power of this new tool to spread the white supremacist message was Don Black, himself also a former member of the KKK. According to Professor Kristofer Allerfeldt of the University of Exeter, who specialises in American history, the internet offered white nationalism a way around the aforementioned traditional safeguards.
“Since 1944 [in the US] there has been no overarching Klan, just a shattered remnant of competing groups as distinguished by in-fighting as by ideological, pseudo-scientific idiocy,” Professor Allerfeldt told VICE. “Under Don Black and others, the order attempted to use electronic media to transcend national borders.” Professor Allerfeldt notes that during the mid-to-late nineties and early aughts, the Klan attempted to link up with other groups in Canada, the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia. Although he added, “it was never that successful in terms of numbers.”
The handful of global connections the internet offered did allow the uniquely US brand of white supremacism to make steps into Australia by linking up with sympathetic locals holding white supremacist views. The Klan would pick up pockets around Queensland and New South Wales, but never really gain a foothold.
Their vision though, of an empowered white nationalism that uses an modicum of respectability to gain entry to public discussion, materialised again last week as Australia watched Cottrell in a trim suit with a red tie, speak to Northern Territory Country Liberal Party chief minister Adam Giles on a national broadcaster. During the SkyNews interview, the two casually discussed immigration cutbacks and the threat posed to the nation by “foreign ideologies”. When he closed out the segment, Giles politely remarked to Cottrell, “Good luck. I hope it all goes well for you.
In that moment, things were going well for him. Here he was, a man who has expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler and bragged about having used “violence and terror” to control women courting public attention on a major television network.
It should be noted here, that Cottrell doesn’t boast any connection to the KKK. But it’s not hard to draw a line between Don Black’s vision of mainstream success and his place in the chair opposite Giles. It wasn’t even his first media outing of this size.
In January Channel Seven sent a news crew to a “private meeting” where Cottrell and his buddies were described as “concerned citizens”, organising “a kind of neighbourhood watch” to tackle “immigrant crime”. Triple J’s Hack live program, meanwhile, had Cottrell on the show in 2016. Although on that occasion host Tom Tilley held Cottrell to account by pointing out how he was being “divisive”.
“Well, you’re dividing people, one group from another,” he told Cottrell.
Despite the backlash that followed, and possibly because of it, the Sky News interview was a huge win for Cottrell. On his long march from militant, street-fighting nationalist who believes in an international Jewish conspiracy, Cottrell had put on a suit and was now selling himself as a legitimate political commentator.
This transformation was made possible by leveraging the journalistic requirement for balanced reporting. Just by being present during a discussion, someone promoting white nationalist ideas wedged open the boundaries of what is acceptable public conversation a little bit more.
The media, in this sense, has been complicit. Underpaid, overworked and under pressure from the demands of a 24-hour news cycle, it is easier to run a story in which Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who currently holds the seat of Dickson by a narrow margin of 1.6 percent, dog-whistles to the far right by whipping up fear around “African gangs” than challenge it. Meanwhile, commentators like Caleb Bond print editorials about whether Cottrell’s views should be heard out as part of the rough and tumble of free speech in a democratic society.
Thing is, free speech is an American right, and Australia has no such entrenched freedom. All it has is an implied right to political communication that can be withdrawn whenever a person crosses a line. Giving figures like Blair Cottrell airtime only makes them seem normal, existing as part of a healthy discussion. When white supremacism, neo-Nazism or ultra-nationalism of the KKK variety, are political movements that can only achieve their goals of a pure ethno-state through political repression, and violence. There is no calm, peaceful way to have that discussion. No matter how sharp your suit.
If you relate to any of the issues raised in this article, know there's help out there. If you are in Australia, you can call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4436 (24 hours, 7 days per week).
This article is supported by BlacKkKlansman, written and directed by Spike Lee and produced by the team behind the Academy-Award® winning Get Out. In Australian cinemas August 16. You can watch the trailer here.