Sunday, February 15, 2009

Euro Notes and Your Voltaire Moment: the Geert Wilders Debacle in the UK

First of all,  Dutch politician Geert Wilders seems (to me, anyway) to be an inflammatory, crude, extremist far-right wingnut.  He's made a name for himself by being, among other things, the creator of the controversial short film Fitna (you can see it online -- MM thinks one should at least see the thing before commenting on its content.  *cough* David Miliband! *cough*)  

Wilders also wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands -- a position that gives the rank whiff of hypocrisy to the entire "free speech" argument when he exercises it.  I do NOT endorse him, and I think his approach to Dutch problems with multiculturalism makes that tough situation even tougher because of his alienating belligerence.  The man is, frankly, a gadfly, and he's not the spotlessly shining hero and martyr of liberty that he seems to think he is.  In fact, he's kind of a CREEP.


He was invited to the UK by several British politicians to screen his film in Parliament, but then the Home Office decided to ban Wilders from entering the country.  He flew to the UK anyway and was turned back at the airport.  The resulting firestorm has been intense.  Supporters and opponents of the Wilders ban have all been shrieking about free speech, so the result is complete cacophony.

As I'm looking at this debacle, I'm thinking that the actual problem is not Wilders per se, regardless of how personally obnoxious or controversial he is.  He is a catalyst and a lightning rod for a bigger problem.  He has metaphorically kicked over the tree that is the UK -- and let everyone see the inner rot at the core.  The same nation that provided sanctuary for Salman Rushdie twenty years ago and stood up to Iran now cannot bear to let in Geert Wilders (and is apparently cowed by its own restive, unassmiliated, and radicalized minority populations).  The entire situation is really about the current state and mindset of the UK government.  Philip Johnston wrote about this a few days ago, for instance, as another editorialist called the moment "a disastrously missed opportunity." See too this very interesting bit from a British left-leaner.  Another editorial opines, not inaccurately, that the Wilders ban only helps extremists on both sides.

A note about the "lightning rod" sorts of people like Wilders.  There is a clear distinction between "defending the right of people to speak" and "defending the content of what they say."  If anything, freedom of speech is the freedom to say things that people don't want to hear, hence the famous quote attributed to Voltaire.  But this brings us to an unhappy situation.  What about people who don't see the distinction between right and content?  Look, plenty of committed defenders of a free society and I can, do, and will defend the right of people to speak even if their words are offensive .  That doesn't mean that we have to defend the substance of what they say (or how they say, either).  Here's a pithy Aussie editorial on just this idea.

What happens when other people don't make that distinction?  What happens when unhappy offended people look at free speech defenders and consider them the same as the speakers?  "Hey, look, So-and-So says that Wilders has the right to speak.  Therefore s/he must support the things that he says.  S/he also wants to (insert stupid Wilders policy idea here), etc. etc."  OH, BOTHER.  This complicates an already complicated situation in a world where overheated emotional people oversimplify at the drop of a hat.  Anyway, I thought I'd just throw this idea out there since everyone's shouting about free speech . . . so we can try to clarify and get back to the critically important debate about the right of free expression.

I'll also express the (almost certainly futile) wish that folks will engage in speech exchange with some good old-fashioned courtesy and civility even when the argument is heated.

We need more debate, not less.

PS: If the Home Office doesn't like Wilders, then why make a martyr out of him and therefore give him a much bigger platform and far more international media attention than if he had simply screened his film to a few MPs and then gone home?  Now you also have the spectacle of the Dutch government (that is prosecuting Wilders at home) more or less speaking up in his defense by criticizing the UK's decision?  Meanwhile, commentators are busy pointing out the massive cognitive dissonance that had the UK opening its doors to all sorts of unsavoury radicalizing characters, thus creating "Londonistan," while slamming those doors in the face of a European parliamentarian.  All this makes the UK government look even more feckless and lame than it already does.  Oh, and it got a letter from the International Free Press Society condemning it for abandoning Britain's own traditions of free speech.  Well done, Jacqui Smith, et al.

PSS: I made it this far through a serious post, but no farther.  My inner sarcasm has woken up, and it demands to know if Geert Wilders has the same hairdresser as Amy Winehouse.

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