Geert Wilders and Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Last week Dutch politician Geert Wilders was convicted of “inciting discrimination” and “insulting a group” by a Dutch court.  Wilders is the leader of the right-wing nationalist “Party for Freedom” which is currently leading in Holland’s parliamentary elections.  It’s unclear yet if the conviction will affect Wilders’s party in the polls, but early indications show that, if anything, his standing will improve.

His trial and conviction are an extreme instance but will likely prove a case-study in how not to combat the right-wing hate speech and destructive insular ethno-nationalism that is on the rise in the legislatures of not only Holland, but of France, Austria, Hungary, the executive and lower legislative chamber of the United States, the referendum votes of Italy, the United Kingdom, and others.

Most of these parties and movements rely not only on unifying their supporters around ethnically pure nationalism, but also on challenging the legitimacy of the established order.  Their success rests on setting up the center-left and center-right political establishment as opponents to (white native) working people who serve only the well-being of immigrants and multicultural or international special interests.  For this reason, the ideas of far-right wing nationalist parties need to be debated on their moral and logical merit and not silenced by legal or administrative means.  The latter only reinforces the narrative on which these movements depend.

This is all to say nothing of the dangerous precedent set by official prosecution of speech of any kind.  “Hate speech,” while a useful descriptor, is highly subjective and the term can be twisted to suit the needs of whoever seeks to apply it.  In some governments, when the balance of power shifts, such a precedent could be easily directed at political dissidents and minorities protesting their treatment.  But equally important is that prosecuting hateful speech will not work; freely debating right-wing ideas quite possibly will.

We often think of twentieth century history as being dominated by the threat of communism and left-wing radicalism but right-wing and nationalist politics have a history equally long and disastrous.  From the right wing populism (and terrorism) of the post-reconstruction United States South; to the extreme nationalism of the early twentieth century; to the brutality of fascism, World War II and the Holocaust; to the reactionary far right dictatorships of the Cold War era.  The protectionist, ethno-nationalist, culturally right-wing policies of these movements are almost universally disastrous and historically result in war, instability, ethnic violence, economic stagnation, and poverty.

Many of the policies advocated by these groups are disgusting but the moral and logical arguments against them are richly abundant.  Trading partners don’t go to war; religious, racial, and ethnic persecution begets extremism; the line between expelling immigrants and ethnic cleansing is razor thin and easy to cross (assuming a meaningful line exists in the first place).  Moral arguments spring easily from founding documents, charters, and centuries of philosophy, and religious texts.  Administrative or legal prosecution of the hate speech of these right wing parties (and much of it is hate speech) only allows to fester the notion that none of these logical or moral objections exist.

We’ll find out in rather short order if the Dutch court’s censure of Wilders will hurt or help his party, but he could hardly have designed a better political situation for himself.  He is now speaking “truth” to power and, by attempting to silence him rather than dismantle his ideas, that power has signaled to his supporters that it has no winning argument.  By attempting to silence him rather than dismantle his ideas, the Dutch courts have likely helped him more than he ever could have helped himself.