Geert Wilders is heavily favored to be the next prime minister of the country that has now charged him with inciting discrimination.
The New York Times reports that Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, violated Dutch law when he led a crowd in the chant of “Fewer! Fewer!” to the question of whether they want more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands.
Wilders was charged, although not fined, with “inciting discrimination,” apparently a step under the heavier charge of “inciting hatred.” One might think this charge would still hurt Wilders’s chances, fine or no fine, in the March 2017 election. However, the latest poll from IPSOS – as reported by The Express – shows quite the opposite.
If the election were to be held today, Wilders’s party would have 29 out of 150 seats, making it the largest party in the Netherlands and giving him control over not only these same speech laws, but the country. In the last month alone, Wilders’s Party for Freedom won six seats in polling, IPSOS reports.
Wilders – who, by the way, was a speaker at this year’s RNC – frequently compares the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and has said it, along with essentially the entire Islamic religion, should be banned from the Netherlands.
So how will these speech laws be used if he becomes prime minister?
Yeah. Right. Probably not too well.
This is the problem I see with any speech law: They allow a government to control sentiment and the definition of “hate” or “inciting discrimination” instead of allowing civilized debate or heated debate in the face of uncivilized people. It lacks trust that citizens will sniff out needless hatred and tries to silence dissenters, even those who may one day gain power of the same laws.
In addition, once that party or politician that controls these speech codes is defeated and a new party is elected, the definitions are likely to swiftly change. This, in most cases, will be damaging to society’s most vulnerable minorities.
Wilders’s opinions are detestable, to be sure, but it seems to me the better way to confront him would be with reason, fact, and fair comparisons instead of legally mandated slaps on the wrist in an effort to silence him. This would allow a better understanding, even in disgust, from all sides and create a better informed populace.
There’s a line of questioning one could take with Wilders that would lead him into many well-placed (and fair) traps. For example, under Wilder’s philosophy, you’d likely have to ban the Old Testament too, right? After all, it’s essentially the source material for the Quran, although the text of the Old Testament is much more violent, from my readings. I can’t believe the Dutch Jewish and Christian population would approve of a ban that would set precedent for the eventual dismissal of their texts and beliefs.
What else gets banned under Wilders? Violent novels and films? Do violent thoughts and certain kinds of ideas eventually get banned too? How will dissenters be viewed through the lens of his desire to ban Islam?
These are questions that I have to think would sap his voters and save the Netherlands a lot of problems in 2017 and beyond. They would spark back-and-forths with Wilders too, as he surely has responses to such questions, but it would allow voters from all corners a larger peak into Wilders’s platform and decide if they want to give up rights in favor of fear or confront that fear with public debate.
Here’s a video of Flemming Rose, a Dutch journalist best known as the editor of Jyllands-Posten when it published cartoons of Mohammad (otherwise known as the Cartoon Crisis), interviewing Wilders and pressing him on the inconsistencies of his proposals to ban the Quran. Rose, who still travels with security to this day after receiving numerous death threats from Islamists and Jihadists, questions Wilders from the side of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, pushing him on his beliefs and un-cynically allowing the viewer to decide how they feel.
Wilders’s arguments from this video will seem familiar, if not a bit more extreme, to U.S. residents who watched President-elect Donald Trump in interviews during the 2016 election cycle. Wilders backtracks, he draws strange conclusions (banning a book and religion will lead to more freedom?), yet he’s consistent in key points. This sets the proverbial table for those who want to contest Wilders. They can better know his thoughts and beliefs, thereby allowing themselves a chance to pick apart his fallacious arguments and ask tough questions.
As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
As we saw in the U.S., making Trump’s ideas seem dangerous and wrong from the outset only seemed to empower his movement. Wilders has stated multiple times that he sees himself and Trump – as well as Germany’s Frauke Petry and France’s Marine La Pen, among others – as part of the same global movement. In fact, Wilders’s campaign slogan is “Make the Netherlands Great Again.” Sound familiar?
The answer, then, may be what Luigi Zingales suggested in the opinion pages of The New York Times in November: Treat these candidates as normal politicians and go after their policies instead of being shocked into ad hominem attacks or, in Wilders’s case, legal sanctions. On resisting former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom Zingales sees as a Trump parallel, he writes:
“The Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.”
To me, cases like this are what sets America apart from the rest of the world. Our speech laws – or lack thereof – give us some distance from the dangers of this kind of tyranny, even if we do have to hear and contest loads of racist garbage. This becomes invaluable when said racist garbage reaches power. We must sustain criticism of these bad ideas without letting emotion cloud our thoughts and judgment. It’s useful to say mad, to a certain point, but arguing and debating from a point of anger will turn onlookers off more than win them over. We must maintain reason and logic when picking apart our opponent’s points.
In America, free speech is seemingly our last line of defense against our next president, who has shown he will use and test the 1st Amendment in ways other presidents simply have not. We must remain vigilant in this way and remember that we have this right etched into our country’s constitution. Fear, whether or being wrong or retribution, should not stand in our way.
Instead of remaining in a permanent state of shock and awe, we should skillfully and tactfully pick apart and question ideas of all politicians, no matter how much we agree or disagree with them. This, of course, will demand not only access for journalists – which now seems to be in question – but will require courage in the face of Twitter attacks, death threats, anger, and nasty phone calls.
We take our freedoms for granted in many ways. Pew reported in November 2015 that 40 percent of U.S. millennials say the government should be able to “prevent people from publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.” But who is to say what offends an entire group of people? Does a single person, or even a group, being upset or offended at non-violent speech fall on the offender or the offendee? Does this carry over to art, religion, film, novels, or science? Does this not, in many ways, give speakers of offensive content exactly what they want?
Other countries live in a speech bind where if a new PM or president is elected – such as in the Netherlands – the thoughts and ideas of the populace can be sanctioned, and thereby controlled, from the top via speech laws. Wilders may be on the losing end of this charge now, but who loses when he becomes PM? He’s already laid out who will likely lose and be the target of the same speech laws currently being used against him: the Netherlands’s Muslim population.
We don’t have these laws and must ensure they’re never passed, not only to protect minorities and ourselves now, but to protect the country from future tyranny.