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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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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!

 

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