Calling him “a problem, not a solution”, Charlemagne’s Economist article is primarily aimed at discussing the current hate speech vs. freedom of speech trial against Geert Wilders. Much of the background will be known to regular readers of this blog, and for those linking through, the article was written prior to the dismissal of the charges against Wilders. Nonetheless much of the article is written as discussion of Wilders towards the ultimate focus of the article: considering strategies to deal with far right candidates (far right at least on issues with regards to immigration, visible minorities and Islam).
Even more importantly, [Wilders] has become the political kingmaker. His party came third in June’s general election, winning 15% of the vote, and will now prop up a minority government of the liberal VVD with the centre-right Christian Democrats. In exchange, Mr Wilders has secured the promise of tighter immigration rules, a ban on some Islamic garb and more money for care of the elderly. Newspapers are calling this the “Wilders 1” government.
Mr Wilders’s party is only one of many anti-immigrant and anti-Islam groups that are gaining ground in northern European countries previously known for their liberal social attitudes. The Dutch coalition deal was copied from Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party has backed a minority government since 2001. In Sweden’s recent election the far-right Sweden Democrats won seats for the first time, denying Fredrik Reinfeldt, the prime minister, a centre-right majority (he is now running a minority government). These parties, all with their own special characteristics, are distinct from older far-right groups such as France’s National Front and Italy’s Northern League, and have still less to do with thuggish movements in eastern Europe. But a common theme is a dislike of foreigners, especially Muslims.
A big question is whether Germany, the European country most inoculated from right-wing extremism, may be next. There have been stirrings of late, such as the sacking from the board of the Bundesbank of Thilo Sarrazin, a former Social Democratic politician, who published a book saying Muslim migrants were making Germany “more stupid”. Enter the inevitable Mr Wilders. He was in Berlin earlier this month to launch a new party called Die Freiheit (“Freedom”), founded by René Stadtkewitz, formerly a member of the Berlin branch of the Christian Democrats. To cheers, Mr Wilders declared that Germans, too, needed to defend their identity against Islamisation.
Mr Wilders should not be underestimated. By identifying the enemy as Islam and not foreigners, and by casting his rhetoric in terms of freedom rather than race, he becomes harder to label as a reactionary, racist or neo-Nazi. Mr Wilders does not want to associate with the fascist sort. He has no truck with anti-Semitism and fervently supports Israel. He is, for want of a better term, a radical liberal: he defends women’s emancipation and gay rights. He is fighting to defend the West’s liberties; the enemy is Islam (not Muslims, he says), which seeks, violently, to destroy them.
Such views chime with some American conservatives.
And what should we do about Wilders and the like?
What should democratic parties do when lots of voters back a far-right party? At a time of recession, populism cannot just be wished away. One answer is to address legitimate grievances about the scale and nature of immigration. (In France Nicolas Sarkozy has, controversially, pinched far-right rhetoric.) Another is to use the law to curb blatant examples of hate speech.
But the temptation for many is to isolate the extremists, perhaps with an alliance of mainstream left and right. That risks intensifying voters’ sense that politicians are not listening to them, further boosting the extremists, but it may be necessary against the most odious groups. Some, like Mr Reinfeldt in Sweden, may try to ignore the far right. More stable would be a Dutch-style deal to secure their backing for a minority government; some Christian Democrats hope this will tame the wilder side of Mr Wilders. The danger is that it just gives him power without responsibility—and without forcing him to recant outrageous positions.
A better, braver strategy, in some cases, might be to bring far-right leaders into the cabinet, exposing their ideas to reality and their personalities to the public gaze. It may make for tetchy government, but it could also moderate the extremes. So roll the dice and make Mr Wilders foreign minister: for how long could he keep telling the world to ban the Koran?
I am not sure I am convinced by this approach, though I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand either. The crux is: does the exposure that comes from actually being in cabinet actually moderate someone like Wilders or does it lend him legitimacy. On one hand, I tend to think the latter. On the other, I think two points are worth considering. First, as per the article, I do think that the longer Wilders is kept on the sidelines the more strident his supporters will become. Second, had Wilders had to explain, defend, negotiate and (hopefully) amend his immigraton policies in parliament and in public as a Minister, I am hopeful it would have taken some wind out of his sails. There are no definitely no easy answers here I am afraid.
In a decisive and vulgar 7-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court once again upheld the constitution’s First Amendment this week, calling the freedom of expression among the most “inalienable and important rights that a motherfucker can have.”
“It is the opinion of this court that the right to speak without censorship or fear of intimidation is fundamental to a healthy democracy,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. “Furthermore, the court finds that the right to say whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want, is not only a founding tenet, but remains essential to the continued success of this nation.”
Added Ginsburg, “In short, freedom of speech means the freedom of fucking speech, you ignorant cocksuckers.”
During oral arguments, Charleston’s chief counsel Dan Roy said his clients could restrict any public speech they deemed offensive, an argument quickly dismissed by Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, who turned to his colleagues and made a repeated up-and-down hand motion intended to simulate masturbation.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority, wrote a concurring opinion in which he made little mention of established court precedents but emphasized that he himself had viewed materials “way, way nastier than this stupid play.”
“I don’t know what kind of bullshit passes for jurisprudence down in the 4th Circuit these days,” Thomas wrote. “But those pricks can take their arguments about speech that ‘appeals only to prurient interests’ and go suck a dog’s asshole.”
Writing in dissent, however, Justice Antonin Scalia contemplated the limits of the constitutional guarantee of free speech.
“The court has an interest in protecting meaningful human communication, which is jeopardized when every other word out of someone’s mouth is ‘F this’ or ‘F that,’” Scalia wrote. “In practice, such an expansion of free expression becomes far too unwieldy and large to accommodate.”
To which Justice Ginsberg immediately replied, “Yeah, that’s what his mom said.”
“This is a historic victory for free speech, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, a hundred years from now, the hallowed walls of this court bear an inscription taken from the eloquent decision handed down today,” lead defense attorney Carl Huddleston said. “Particularly the phrase ‘That which erodes human rights serves to erode humanity, fuckface.’”