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Pretentiousness Kills

Lessons from the corrupt prosecution of Geert Wilders

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Since January, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Beach Boy-haired founder and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), has been on trial in Amsterdam for inciting hatred against Muslims and Holland’s recent Moroccan immigrants, for inciting discrimination against Muslims, and for insulting Muslims. Wilders’s alleged offenses include directing a short film, Fitna, that criticizes the Koran as an incitement to violence and writing a letter to the editor that called for the banning of the Koran—a “fascist book,” in Wilders’s opinion. 

Pretentiousness Kills

Geert Wilders in court

REUTERS / Robin van Lonkhuijsen

The wording of the law is clear. It targets anyone who “publicly, verbally or in writing or image, deliberately expresses himself in any way insulting of a group of people because of their race, their religion, or belief.” Before Wilders’s indictment almost a year ago, Dutch politicians and lawyers, liberals and conservatives alike, assured the public that the law could only be used against those who were haranguing mobs bent on riot, and against publishers of Mein Kampf (banned in Holland) and other hate speech. But an Amsterdam judge named Tom Schalken overruled the public prosecutors in his district who recommended that the case against Wilders (urged on by extreme-left politicians) be dropped.

For obvious reasons, Wilders’s trial has attracted worldwide attention. It’s not just that, since the indictment, the PVV’s stunning success in the June general election made it the third largest party in Holland. The charges against Wilders raise grave human rights, legal, political, and moral issues. Have Holland’s laws and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights put fears of blasphemy ahead of any concern with the right of free speech? And have the Dutch allowed the definition of blasphemy and insult to be controlled by the feelings of a particular group of citizens—Muslims—because of favoritism or fear of violence? A Dutch professor of human rights created a furor when he suggested that Wilders is being persecuted just as dissidents are persecuted in China and Cuba.

The trial has been suspended since October 22, when an appellate court dismissed the panel of judges led by Judge Schalken and ordered a new trial, which may resume shortly, as three new judges were appointed November 11. What happened to the first panel of judges? Their dismissal had surprisingly little to do with the profound issues of human rights and political freedom I mention—and about which I have nothing new to say here. It happened because an expert witness, a retired professor of Arabic and Islamic thought named J. J. G. Jansen, was affronted by a load of post-structuralist cant.

But Professor Jansen’s indignation may be just as important as the weighty issues touched on in the prosecution of Wilders. It raises the question of whether our best and brightest are still intellectually equipped even to think about, much less decide intelligently, the great questions of law, freedom, and human rights. What is really troubling, and fascinating, about the Wilders prosecution is how much it depends on the intellectual weapons of “postmodernism,” deployed by a highly educated Dutch elite. In Amsterdam’s battlefield of ideas, the guns of Adorno, Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida, Edward Said, and their countless academic popularizers have been turned against civil rights and human freedom. Learned pretentiousness has consequences.

 

J. J. G. Jansen, known as Hans Jansen in Holland, retired from the University of Utrecht after a distinguished and rather dashing academic career, including many years spent living and researching in Cairo. Jansen testified at the Wilders trial in May. He had been called as a recognized expert in Arabic and the modern interpretation of the Koran (about which he has published several books and numerous articles since 1972) to tell the court about what the Koran actually has to say on the subject of jihad and other disagreeable matters. Jansen believes that he was asked to testify because the court “could not imagine that the things Geert Wilders claimed were in the Koran were actually in the Koran.”

On October 20, Jansen dropped the bomb that derailed the trial. In a post at the small but well-regarded blog HoeiBoei, he revealed that a few days before his May testimony, Judge Schalken had engineered a surprise meeting between them at a dinner party, where the judge tried blatantly to influence his testimony. Schalken’s intentions seemed obvious, even clumsy. He kept turning the subject of conversation to the trial, tried to convince Jansen that the charges against Wilders were justified, and attempted to elicit Jansen’s sympathy and even his cooperation with the prosecution (Dutch trials are always presided over by a panel of judges, but Schalken’s role in forcing the case to trial was unusual). 

Jansen’s witty account of the dinner party produced chaos among the Dutch legal establishment. The Amsterdam appellate court to whom Wilders’s lawyer appealed delayed for a few days, insisting that it was “implausible” that Schalken could have intended to influence the witness, but suddenly gave in. On October 22 they dismissed Schalken and his fellow judges from the trial for bias and ordered that the case be restarted. But behind the scenes there was even more uproar, very un-Dutch, in the world of judges, prosecutors, and law professors. Secret and very improper memos flew from officials of one court to judges of another. Judges met in secret like trade union bosses. The president of the Supreme Court sent rockets in all directions. What exactly did take place at the dinner party? 

Let me caution the jury: You must guard yourself against bringing your own cultural preconceptions to the question. At a dinner party of pols in pre-Tea Party Illinois, you might imagine brown paper bags of cash circulating with the port and walnuts, the after-dinner conversation veering to whether it’s better to serve on the Sanitary Commission, the Cook County Park District, or to aim for Carp Czardom. In London or Oxford, you might expect to overhear mumbling about a peerage, connected to a consulting gig or two.

They order things differently in the Netherlands, and Tom Schalken used different bait. After all, his host, the fellow guests, and perhaps Jansen himself had all been comrades on the university barricades in the ’60s and now enjoy distinguished places in academia, the bar, and public broadcasting. Schalken seems to have calculated that Jansen would respond if the trial were “reframed”: He should think of it not as the criminal trial of a notoriously populist politician, but as a high-level academic seminar. Geert Wilders was not a defendant but a text to be deconstructed.

Jansen’s blog post tells the story well (I rely on the translation by the Dutch blogger “Klein Verzet,” aided by my own bad Dutch). Jansen was not at all surprised to meet the usual run of left-wing highbrows at the party—they were the pals of his host, Bertus Hendriks. Hendriks is famous in the Netherlands for having been a leader of the 1968 student revolt at the University of Amsterdam, and then for many years a senior correspondent with the Netherlands Broadcasting Service. In his piece, Jansen teases Hendriks for being the heart and soul of the Palestina Komitee, the most prominent of many Dutch do-gooder organizations advocating the destruction of the state of Israel: “No one can talk as beautifully about the sufferings of the Palestinians as Bertus,” Jansen wrote, but “after a couple of beers, Bertus once told me that he doesn’t care that much about the Palestinian problem itself. What he’s really interested in, he explained to me painstakingly (because I am a ‘petty-bourgeois product of the older generation’) is using the fate of the Palestinians as a way of unmasking the ‘global structure of exploitation.’ ” Jansen did expect to be quizzed about Islam and the Wilders trial, but in private and among friends of Hendriks—even if those friends were officials of the biggest Dutch socialist and Green parties and other judges.

But the atmosphere of the party was not quite what he expected. He was astounded to meet Schalken, simply as a matter of legal propriety—he even feared that anything he said in response to Schalken’s first questions about Islam might put him in legal jeopardy (much to Schalken’s indignation!). But eventually he realized that something else was going on. The underlying message was not that he was regarded as an Islamophobe or reactionary—far from it. Jansen was meant to understand that he was at the party because he was one of the elect—professors, socialist politicians, and intellectuals, with degrees from Amsterdam and Leiden and CV-pagefuls of imposing books and -articles. Such people of quality have to stick together, whatever their politics, against counter-jumpers like Wilders. 

Schalken, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Amsterdam, the very university with which Balkenende, Rouvoet and Bos were associated [the then-current Dutch prime minister and his coalition partners who were running against Wilders in the upcoming June elections], let me know that this trial was, purely in scholarly terms, an “imposingly interesting case,” which needed tremendous study and would yield all kinds of perspective on vital current questions. 

Ah, now I understood.

For Schalken, this trial was not so much a real trial, but rather a kind of academic seminar, or even a legal student’s plea exercise—not a criminal trial with serious consequences for the adults involved in. This academic exercise would make use of a profoundly threatened and vulnerable politician. “Unmasking global structures”—what a nice hobby to have!

 

Wilders presents a serious problem for the Handelsblad-reading (i.e., New York Times-reading) classes. What scandalizes them about Wilders are not so much his commonsense views on immigration and doubts about political Islam, not even so much that he speaks, without racism or neo-Nazism, for 1.4 million Dutch voters who had been persuaded to feel ashamed by a national consensus of politicians, professors, jurists, and journalists. It’s his rhetorical skill that floors them. Wilders is a persuasive and concise speaker, writer, even filmmaker—yet he never attended a real university. He studied “insurance” at the equivalent of a community technical college and has law certificates—not full degrees—from a distance-learning college. And there’s more. He is of partly Indonesian descent. He is from a Catholic family (though he is an atheist) from largely Catholic Limburg province, dangling off from the rest of the Netherlands at its far southeastern border. Limburg has its own style, its own dialect, and shares a much longer border with the Belgian province of Limburg than it does with what might be called the Netherlands’ “lower 48.” It’s not just his flamboyant personality and hairstyle. Wilders himself can seem foreign in his affect (and perhaps his accent): One foreign correspondent wrote a long thumbsucker headlined “Listening to Wilders raises the question: am I still in Israel?” His propensity to speak bluntly and charm the masses is as embarrassing and horrifying to the educated classes as Sarah Palin is to everyone I know. 

Wilders should simply be unable to compete on equal terms with highbrow judges, lawyers, professors, and journalists, all liberal arts graduates of the great Dutch universities. But he can, and as a result many nice Dutchmen feel that there’s something uncanny about him. After all, as one Handelsblad reader exclaimed, “Highly educated PVVers scarcely exist. Whenever you read the response of a PVV member, there are almost always several grammatical errors.” Wilders, for all his educational limitations, nonetheless speaks truth to those who believe in such things as “global structures of exploitation” and the fetishization of free speech. 

But there’s help for liberal Netherlanders. If you were in Rotterdam last month, you could have joined them at a public seminar, cosponsored by Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, that taught the secret sources of Wilders’s dazzling rhetorical technique. The seminar leader, Delft University professor Hans de Bruijn, has just published a new book on how Wilders’s debating skills can fool you into thinking that his arguments are reasonable, even attractive. De Bruijn promised to teach the audience his own method of resisting Wilders. Then audience members were invited to test their newly learned skill against a professional actor playing the role of Geert Wilders!

What both empowers and disables the Dutch elite in the face of J. J. G. Jansen’s learned honesty and Wilders’s sheer talent is their long marinade in the discourse of postmodernism. The Handelsblad-reading classes actually believe what they have been taught in school: namely, that opposition to multiculturalism and unlimited immigration has no rational basis. Left in the state of nature, the Dutch masses would have followed elite guidance and never have had second thoughts about these matters. That it might be disagreeable, even dangerous, to have neighbors who do not respect the secular nature of government, sexual equality, freedom of speech, and toleration of homosexuality—these feelings, to the postmodern eye, are merely social constructions. 

Properly deconstructed, these feelings can be seen for what they are: the product of malign, racist, and no doubt Zionist rabble-rousers and their politician toadies, who have created these feelings among the Dutch electorate to redirect anger that would otherwise be correctly aimed at capitalism. So Rudolph Peters, professor of Islamic law at Amsterdam University, instructs us in his paper “Dutch Public Intellectuals and the Koran.” He believes that the Dutch masses have “feelings of fear” that stem from the “deep transformations” of Dutch society in recent decades that are really caused by left-wing bogeys such as “globalization” (from which the Netherlands has in fact profited immensely). A certain group of Islam-hating intellectuals and politicians then “projected” this anticapitalist resentment against radical Islam instead. Their voices entirely constructed reality.

You might then argue that Islam should be able to take its lumps just as Christianity and Judaism do in a modern society—but how wrong you would be. Peters reminds us that the 19th-century critics of Christian orthodoxy spoke against a privileged institution from a noble—and thus permissible—position of weakness. But Islam in the Netherlands is not in the “position of power” enjoyed by Islam’s critics like Wilders (hauled into court), and others, whom Islamists tried to murder, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali (driven from the Netherlands by death threats in 2006); or whom Islamists did murder, like Theo Van Gogh (shot and almost decapitated in 2004) and Pim Fortuyn (gunned down in 2002).

The history of the left’s attraction to tyranny is a very old one. Less well appreciated is its attraction to pomposity and pretension, so well illustrated in the Wilders saga. Fashionable academic theory has completely unhinged the best and brightest minds in the West—rendering too many of our elites incapable of thinking clearly about matters of ordinary justice, racism, and democracy, which they fancy they have special expertise to fix. Judge Schalken, Professor Peters, and their like, in Europe and America, are happy to render certain kinds of discussion illegal because of utterly abstract concerns that are real to them only because of dogmas absent-mindedly absorbed from Foucault and his followers. They would be worthier opponents if they were morally suicidal or loathers of European civilization. They’re not—they merely enjoy the feeling of superiority to which they believe they are entitled by the argot of anti-essentialism and the social construction of reality. They should be pitied, and also sometimes feared.

Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, was publishing director of the American and publisher of  Wigwag.


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