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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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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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