Responsible Rhetoric (and Tweets)

The liberal citation behavior of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik has put many bloggers, writers, and activists in the awkward position of having to distance themselves from someone who approvingly cites their thoughts as a justification for an absolutely horrific act. These debates are elevated to a different level when the accused is a politician with meaningful power. Such is the case in the Netherlands. Geert Wilders is the leader of the PVV, which is the third largest party in the Netherlands. The party provides pivotal support to the minority government coalition. Wilders was also mentioned numerous times in Breivik’s manifesto.

Opposition figures have been quick to stress that they don’t hold Wilders directly responsible for Breivik’s deeds. Yet, they worry about the climate created by his rhetoric. This has led to fury from PVV supporters, who argue that the left is using the Norway killings for political gain. At least one left-wing politician, Tarik Dibi, was threatened with violence by Wilders supporters via twitter. Wilders himself lashed out in a newspaper interview calling Job Cohen, the leader of the social-democrats, an “islam hugger” and attacked him for using the noun “mosque” rather than “hate palace” for referring to Islamic places of worship. He also labeled the social-democratic party (Partij van de Arbeid) the Party of Arabs (as he has done before). The left, in Wilders words , can “go climb up a tree.”

In response, a prominent VVD politician ( the VVD is the main governing party in the coalition supported by Wilders) tweeted (my translation):

Oh poor little Geert. What do you mean 77 people died? We almost forgot that HE is obviously the biggest Breivik victim.

Yet, others in the governing coalition have been quiet. Whereas opposition politicians have had  little trouble finding access to twitter or other means of communication from their vacation addresses, cabinet members all appear to be on safari or sunbathing on remote islands. It’s pretty obvious that the left is indeed using the Norway killings for political advantage. This is what happens after major events. After the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, Wilders accused the left of creating a climate that provided the legitimacy for the murders. The shoe is now on the other foot. Yet, the distasteful political opportunism that underlies all of this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an important debate to be had.

This debate is most importantly about the degree to which Wilders and his party truly fit within the confines of constitutional democracy. Wilders proclaims to be a committed constitutional democrat and was heralded as an examplar for free speech when he was (rightfully) acquitted in his hate speech trial. The trouble is that many of his proposals and rhetoric cannot possibly be executed within the confines of constitutional democracy. For example, the official party program wants to ban the Koran and lessons about the Koran, tax the wearing of headscarves, close all Islamic schools, and prohibit the building of new mosques. This cannot possibly be realized without violating  freedom of speech and the freedom of religion (guaranteed by the Dutch Constitution). Many voters will understand that these are simply extreme statements to attract voters rather than realistic proposals. But others may feel that extra-constitutional means are necessary to achieve what the party wants.  Wilder’s rhetoric doesn’t help quash those ideas. For example, one of his speeches for which he was on trial proclaimed that:

You feel that you are no longer living in your own country. There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves.

I don’t believe that the answer is putting people on trial for their speech. This only encourages extra-constitutional behavior. The problem right now is that “the responsible right” is so fearful of Wilder’s political power that they let him get away with just about anything.We now have the VVD, the party of Adam Smith and John Locke, agreeing to regulate the percentage of songs on Dutch radio that have to be sung in Dutch rather than some foreign language. I see similar patterns elsewhere, including in the U.S. where  many Republicans were so fearful of the Tea Party’s power that they let slip an enormous opportunity to achieve policy goals that they have wanted to realize for years (e.g. simplifying the tax code, entitlement reform, meaningful spending cuts).

Perhaps the moderate conservatives are right that it doesn’t pay electorally to stick to your principles. The is what the party leader of the Dutch CDA (Christian-Democrats) concluded when he gave a speech outlining a new direction for the party; essentially announcing that the party should say more bad things about Islam (this for a party for whom freedom of religion is one of its most important founding principles). This doesn’t stop me from longing for the politicians who show that you don’t have to be extreme to be committed to your principles.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.