Sunday, 21 March 2010

Save the Whales

“A government which can’t defend its flag at sea has lost its sovereignty!”

Something felt wrong last Friday. I’ve started some temping work in the centre of Wellington and, in my lunch breaks, take the chance to enjoy the warm early-autumn weather by walking over to parliament grounds.

Normally it’s a quiet spot but, last Friday, there was a small crowd listening to a man dressed all in black, flanked by two imposing New Zealand flags, as he delivered a speech on New Zealand’s loss of national sovereignty (the line above I took as a note during this speech). Turns out I’d spotted Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, addressing an anti-whaling gathering.

There is a worrying undercurrent of anti-Asian racism that permeates Sea Shepherd’s publicity and arguments. Most people, rightly, oppose whaling: the Sea Shepherd campaign connects this genuine environmental concern to much older, and dangerous, currents in Australian and New Zealand politics: nationalism, especially ‘left’ nationalism, and the racism that accompanies it. Facing an environmental challenge like the slaughter of endangered whales, we start to see a choice between an internationalist approach, stressing the potential for a politics which can unite, and a nationalism which turns genuine concerns into props for reactionary and toxic ideas. Greens Senator Bob Brown – with his talk of “our” whales, as if New Zealand and Australia ‘owned’ these creatures – and his anti-immigrant comments, re-enforces a long tradition of anti-Asian racism in this part of the world.

Sea Shepherd has chosen to draw on imagery from the Pacific War, modeling its campaign logo on “the legendary Flying Tigers who fought the Japanese Imperial Forces in China” and taking their name – Operation Waltzing Matilda – from “the unofficial national anthem of Australia.” If this media campaign is merely opportunistic and naïve then it is, at best, dangerous and regrettable. If, however, it’s conscious evocation then Sea Shepherd’s rhetoric is far more sinister. Nationalist mythology to the contrary, the Pacific War, in the words of activist historian Tom O’Lincoln, “was a ruthless power struggle between rival empires.” The death and suffering Australia and New Zealand helped bring to the Asian world – culminating, of course, in horrific and criminal atrocities in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki – are a warning to ordinary people the world over, not part of a tradition to be embraced. Since the war anti-Asian racism has appeared time and again in Australian and New Zealand life – with violent and dangerous consequences. In toying with this rhetoric Sea Shepherd takes up a dishonourable heritage.

We’ve always despised them – now we must smash them!

“We in Australia confidently approach our task. We stand ready, with freedom in our hearts…we shall throw the Japanese back where they belong.”

“Throw the Jap back where he belongs”

“There is only victory or defeat for the whales, and we do not intend to see the whales defeated, nor do we intend to let the murdering barbarian butchers win.” [Emphasis mine].

The first two quotes are from Australian government posters produced during World War Two; the second from a Sea Shepherd leaflet distributed on Friday.

The echoes are so obvious, the de-humanising provocation so blatant. The ‘murdering barbarian butchers’ of today are the ‘Japs’ of sixty years ago, the victims of racist attacks and outrages of the recent past, the ‘foreigners’ hated by racists in a settler colony founded on dispossession and dislocation and determined to forget its own foreignness. It’s the language of racism, of poisonous nationalism and, if it came from a neo-Nazi, it would be denounced as such.

And yet, lunch time last Friday, a crowd of good-natured environmentalists, respectable figures – including Green MPs – and campaigners heard it all without so much as a murmur.

It’s not only in the ocean that Sea Shepherd are playing a dangerous game.

A note on sources

All quotations taken without a link are from the Sea Shepherd leaflet “Defending Whales”, which I took from their stall on parliament grounds 19/03/2010.

By far the best introduction to anti-Japanese racism in Australia is, sadly, not available online. It is Phil Griffiths, ‘Australian Perceptions of Japan: the History of a Racist Phobia’, Socialist Review (Melbourne), no. 3, 1991, although I've provided a link to a summary of it above.

The Japanese side to the whaling debate would require a post of its own: David McNeill’s reportage on the state’s persecution of Greenpeace activists in Japan is very useful, and his commentary has been a consistent model of a non-racist, internationalist anti-whaling stance.


  1. Well written, well said. The overt racism Paul Watson has been putting out there for public consumption is horrific.

    But then again this is the same man who faked being shot in the chest for a cheap media get and for ratings on his Animal Planet television show.

  2. Readers interested in more detail on Australian racism in World War II, including that of the left, are welcome to write to me at
    I will be publishing a book on Australia's Pacific War in October.

  3. By the way we added you to our blog today, that post was worthy of a broader audience:

  4. Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society has been running a hate campaign against the Japanese for a few years now.

  5. McNeill, by the way, mentioned New Zealand and Australia 14 times in this article, which, according to his logic, makes his article racist.