It turns out that a sizeable minority of educated people in The Netherlands support Geert Wilders in his campaign for free speech either covertly or openly. (Volkskrant 23.02.2009). When a well-known lawyer called Spong managed to get Wilders to face charges of inciting hatred last month he received a tsunami of hate-mail which, it turns out, included a large number of mails from people whom one would describe as educated, people who have received tertiary education of some sort. This has, quite naturally, become the focus for public reflection in The Netherlands. Of course, if Wilders' campaign were just a campaign for free speech I would support it myself. "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire's dictum is a useful trick to ensure an open society, institutionalising Parrèsia, the need to be able to speak the "inconvenient truth" (that is, sincerely held or well-informed opinion) so as to avoid the spiralling consequences of injustice at the hands of the politically biased, the administratively absurd, the wilfully cruel, the socially misguided, the misanthropic love of contempt as well as the simple mechanics of rivalry and revenge. Despite the real evidence to support the idea that Wilders is a defender of free speech, I myself feel that he is not. There is more to his campaign, a dark side. This darker side may be unintentional but I rather doubt it. Ultimately, his is a campaign that uses the problem of free speech to justify calling The Netherlands "Our Country". But who is us?
We, the Dutch (new settlers and old) have built up a morality, a culture of practices and attitudes of which we are proud. We can, we feel, pursue our own good, as long as it does not harm others; that good, because of the geography of The Netherlands is often found in complex and sophisticated cooperation. Holland is after all a big pump that needs to be kept going at all time in order to stop us from drowning. We like to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves through institutions of welfare as well as personal charity, and if that help turns out to be rather unhelpful we are not frightened of reform; we tolerate the use of soft drugs; we give light prison sentences in decent prisons because we are sceptical with regard to the benefits of punishment and believe that a return to society can best be achieved by giving people a sense of dignity; we have gay marriages, gay parades, we support people with a legitimate desire for euthanasia, we hold religious and philosophical freedom as high virtues and freedom is taken by most to mean the social sanction to pursue an own sense of what is right. On top of all this we tolerate a lot of vulgarity and barbarism on our television. At the same time public criticism of our institutions is almost obsessive. The paradox of a complaining society is doubly applicable in The Netherlands: lots of people complain a lot, which generally helps to keep our institutions on their toes, or at least exposes their rotten apples. At the same time we hardly seem to profit from that institutional health as people are constantly complaining. When things do go wrong the issues involved are endlessly discussed in the media and around the coffee dispensers at work. Our politics is generally boring, which is better than a politics which is exciting. Despite cultural differences, we feel that there are things which need a universal approach, genocide being one of them. It is for that reason we are proud of the international court of justice, which is housed not half a mile from where Spinoza, our greatest second generation Dutchman, lived in Voorburg. I am not sure how many people subscribe to this self congratulatory list of wishful thoughts, but I am sure many would at least recognise most if not all of the issues as what we believe we stand for. They are all things I myself heartily support even though I do not practice all of these virtues and tolerances personally. I like the idea of an open society, in which I can construct a sincere personal search for whatever truths can be found, and for behaviour that is helpful to the promotion of a society in which everyone can find a place with dignity. I appreciate the comfortable and secure network in which I am able to bring up my family. One would be excused for feeling that it does not get much better than this. The Dutch, for the moment at least, appear well clear of dictatorship: populist individuals or populist democracies where strong men or enthused majorities dictate the terms. Instead we discuss things endlessly and believe in consensus, or rather in what Rawls called a reflective equilibrium, which really comes down to discursive exhaustion.
Civilisation is a thin and fragile veil. It has never been more than that. It needs to be cherished, worn elegantly and maintained with great care and devotion, never confusing means for ends. Surely the only legitimate goal for a society can be the attempt to provide a dignified place for everyone. Anything else leads to exclusion, injustice and the triumph of the violent: a pecking-order society where people know their place and are not allowed to explore it. Surely it is preferable to have an open society where everyone is given a chance at a dignified existence, where issues are discussed and discussed again rather than giving full reign to selective processes favouring the violent, the macho, the narrow-minded, and the happy to hurt. We know that side of history, we've been there. Honesty, sincerity, charity and generosity are good tricks for the happy evolution of the self as a part of the greater whole. I believe that, however naive it might seem.
Perhaps our Dutch liberties have ultimately contributed to creating a selfish, materialistic, overly individualistic society but I don't think so. Liberties are of course highly sensitive to abuse, otherwise they wouldn't be called liberties. The fact that they are called liberties indicates that they are a product of history in which their status as liberty cannot be taken for granted. They have been won. It is we who abuse our liberties and not our liberties that abuse us. Whatever our liberties, we are our own problem, our own worst enemy. It is not our liberties which are the cause of a society that people now see around them in every affirmative event, it is people letting go, both in what they do, allow and the way they perceive the world around them. An open society, with all its tempting liberties, requires a great deal of self-discipline to negotiate. It requires people to say what they think. As such even a Geert Wilders must have his say. However, it requires practice, the development of an attitude whereby, for example, the letter of a game rule promoting free speech is not confused with the spirit of it. To be allowed to pursue truths and understanding does not mean we should be allowed to indulge in hate and wilful contempt. Geert Wilders should be allowed to say what he thinks and then should be challenged in open discussion, by example. There have to be ground rules. If you want the freedom to be allowed to pursue your own good you can only get it within the framework allowing everyone that freedom. The game rule of free speech cannot distinguish between the search for truths and the helpful and the contemptuous and hateful, which is why we have to allow the latter in order not to compromise the former. And that is right. We have to tolerate the intolerant, the hateful and the contemptuous. We have to allow the rude, but we do not have to like them or support their rudeness, or leave it unchallenged. However, we can only counter such things with the gentler weapons of openness: open discussion and example. We do not have to invite him to say his hateful things about the Islam over and over again in every public Forum. Hyde Park corner is good enough for him. He needs no more and we should not feel obliged to give him more. It is simply not very helpful or nuanced what he has to say. It is filled with tribal thought.
Liberties, being sensitive, being open to abuse, quickly become the focus of suspicion. Dealing with the symptoms often makes us believe we are dealing with the disease. But our liberties are not even the symptoms of a disease. The disease is not even a disease! Our tendency to overdo things, to overshoot the mark, to go too far or not far enough is simply part of who we are: individuals engaged in an environment, a society. Liberties are attempts to open up society and we should defend that openness, despite occasional abuse, despite the fact that liberties become the focus of suspicion from people who believe that it is the liberty that is at fault, who do not like self-discipline, but who feel it is safer to impose discipline from without, from the security of system. At that moment Wilders takes centre stage. Wilders is being received sympathetically by the educated because they are fed up with the small everyday examples of what they see as Islamification, an assault on our hard won culture: rude Moroccan boys making the streets of Holland unsafe for the girls to dance in or to cycle home at night. It is not just because they terrorise, but also, and in equal measure, because they are felt to terrorise. A foreign morality is challenging the hard won liberties of being allowed to bare your legs in public. The article in De Volkskrant cited the specific example of a Turkish lady openly disapproving of the bare legs of her neighbour. Such a small domestic example made part of national mythology suddenly leading its own life. What about people who say something about spitting in public? What about people who chastise children getting into mischief? What is the problem with telling somebody that you disapprove of something? Can that somebody not respond? Because we feel so intimidated, the question quickly becomes: whose country is it anyway? And this is where Wilders offers release. He stands up and says. Ours! If you want to be in our country you have to live according to our rules! A dictatorship of the autochthonous. As if things like that are privileges. In fact with every new arrival the discussion has to start out all over again. No liberty is a good in itself. No liberty can or should be taken for granted. They are all situational and conditional. Most Islamic people in Holland just want to get on with their lives. If there are a few who are becoming desperate, perhaps we should address their desperation by allowing them their dignity. Perhaps we should take the time to discuss things with them instead of feeling intimidated by Turkish ladies.
So it would appear that we have to re-establish our right to have bare legs, we have to address the question whether our blatant, open, explicit and ubiquitous sexuality might have to withdraw a little. It has to be said that I do not bare my legs in public, except perhaps on the beach and even then rather reluctantly. My legs are not my strong point. Nor, it has to be said are my neighbours of Turkish descent. They are all Dutch. On one side my neighbours live in social housing and on the other in very large villa's each of them worth several millions. In urban terms this is not unusual in Holland. A lot of Dutch cities have the poor and the rich living in very close proximity, often at right angles: large tree-lined avenues with large houses from which sprout narrower side-streets for social housing or the generally less well off. My house is literally caught in between the two extremes of Dutch culture. It makes for interesting ambling around my neighbourhood. Just down the road, in a sweet, rather picturesque street of terraced housing originally built for the railroad workers in the early twenties of the last century, lives a rough family whose front garden looks as if it has been bombed. Two scooters and two scoot mobiles have replaced the shrubs and evergreens that usually frame our curtain-less windows. The frequent exercise of the engines makes up much of the music of the street, syncopated with guttural, monosyllabic grunting exchanges punctuated with Homeric laughter. At New Year’s Eve this family sends most of their monthly benefits up in the air in an endless chain of colourful and above all loud explosions. They are Dutch and very unpleasant users of public space. On the other side, that is on Millionaire’s row, there live people who drive obscenely large cars and who simply ignore everyone else who do not. Both groups appear to have a hand glued to their ear while brawling into their cell phones. The funny thing is that the people I have just described on both sides, in fact only make up a tiny minority of the total population of these two streets and yet, for most of us, they somehow constitute the full image of it. People, happily going about their business in a quieter way are somehow less visible it would seem. We mind about the supposed Islamification of The Netherlands but I am much more worried about the asocialisation of the Dutch. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely pleased to live in Holland. I still believe it to be at the forefront of social innovation. If Holland sounds as if it is in crisis this is partly due to the fact that people are happy to speak their mind. And that is a good thing. Geert Wilders may be internationally the most visible part of Holland, but he does not constitute the full picture of this country, which appears able to combine the happily anarchic with the institutionally disciplined; the institutionally ponderous with the personally tenacious. He is merely a part and a product of all that contradiction.. I don't believe antisocial behaviour is any worse here than anywhere else in the world and I do appreciate the hard edged debate we seem to be able to have here. So what is my problem?
My earlier entry concerned the question whether I should also have to defend to the death someone going on and on about things I do not agree with. (See 13.02.2009) Do I have to become a passive supporter of what someone says by keeping quiet, because of his right to say unpleasant things? No! Of course not! I can speak out as well. I can argue against people who have shown themselves to be ruled by hate and dislike for the other. I can show them my door and tell them to leave and think again. But the fact that Wilders appears to be supported by educated people does cause me to pause. This was a surprise, a bit of a hit below the belt. I felt cheated. Education cannot prevent misguided bias it would seem. Why are supposedly educated people attracted to the theories of Geert Wilders? The only answer can be that they are not educated enough. They need more education. They need to be shown why his way is unhelpful.
You cannot defend an open society by posing a closed one to defend it. That is, to my mind what he is doing. An open society must stay open, must tolerate the intolerant, must adapt through discussion and example, can only address intolerance through argument and example, not though laws and exile, not through hate and the implicit condoning of violence against those who think differently. By blaming a religion wholesale Wilders has disqualified himself as a serious critic of human liberty. No system cannot be undermined by the people that profess to represent it. No set of rules cannot be subverted. No quality is absolute, universal or general. No good intention automatically translates to a good result. No wish is ever complete. We need to keep talking. We cannot blame our institutions for the stupidities, intolerances and cruelties perpetrated by its members. It is people who make institutions. Institutions are abstractions. We, people, are responsible for our institutions as people. It is not Islam that is bigoted, it cannot be. Its members may be. But so are many members of Dutch society. Islam was for a long time the religion of the most sophisticated culture in the world. It is people who are bigoted, whatever systems they institute to further that bigotry. A system is never more than that, a system. Let's not fail to look at what happened in the Catholic Church recently: how can a Christian Bishop have wondered so far from the extraordinary, special and immensely brave morality of Jesus Christ, a Jew, to adopt such an extraordinarily mean and cowardly view of the Holocaust? It is deeply worrying but however worrying it is, it is he and his followers that need to be challenged in discourse and not the institution they represent. Institutions are abstractions.
Wilders is right of course to want to defend our liberties. My opinion is that he is going about it in a way that is misguided and in the end will prove to be merely destructive. Geert Wilders "does not mind gays" and is not anti- Semitic, he is of a new kind of extremism inaugurated by Pim Fortuyn some ten years ago. But however nuanced his opinions, he can only maintain his support by also attracting people with more basic discriminatory powers. Proud of the liberties the Dutch have claimed for themselves since the 17th Century (see Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches) he represents a politics so in love with these liberties that he is willing to sacrifice means to ends by creating a polarized state poised for counter violence and hysteria, a state of rude, hate-mail sending, lynch-hungry people to defend and thereby destroy it. He may himself be courteous, but he, Like Pim Fortuyn before him helped unleash the furies kept in Pandora's Box. Their own subtle distinctions get lost in the fray. Wilders will prove yet again, for the umpteenth time, that stupidity, bigotry and hatred of people merely generates more stupidity, bigotry and hatred. If we want to defend our liberties, something I believe we need to do, we need to defend them by upholding them in our way of life and as an example, in a Ghandian or Rawlsian way, by showing and illustrating that they can lead to a full life, with a chance for a dignified existence with an unconditional respect for our neighbours however bare their legs or covered their heads. We must not lower ourselves to bigotry in order to fight bigotry. That has been done too often. It merely creates more of the same. Wilders is the mirror image of that which he hates most! I shall be kind to Turkish ladies who mind about my bare legs, I shall be considerate and kind to people driving large cars and ignoring the rest of the road-using world. I shall smile at young men growing up in a bombed out gardens roaring their scooters, even if it kills me.