If Christopher Hitchens ever performed a public service during his lifetime, it was recovering and popularising many of the first-principles arguments for basic liberal rights. In particular, he re-popularised the notion that free speech isn’t just about the right to speak freely, but more importantly, to be exposed to ideas — including those the listener may find disgusting or abhorrent.
In the case of Geert Wilders, who will most likely be denied a visa to visit Australia at the invitation of Cory Bernardi and the anti-Islam Q Society, it’s important to revisit first-principles.
Make no mistake, Wilders has nothing new or interesting to say on the topic of Islam. But in an ideal world we would welcome him to Australia with open arms so he can be torn to shreds in the arena of public debate. If there is any reason for concern it’s here; perhaps our journalists and politicians aren’t up to the task of comprehensively showing the general public that Wilders is no European hero.
This was the case when the last member of the "lunar right", the Briton James Delingpole, visited Australia on a comprehensive speaking tour. One of the world’s chief proponents of the "Watermelon" theory of Green politics, Delingpole was feted by the Quadrant crowd and Institute of Public Affairs when he toured the country promoting his book Killing the Earth to Save It: How Environmentalists Are Ruining the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing Your Jobs.
The hardest interview Delingpole suffered from a member of the mainstream press was from Jon Faine, the tenacious host of ABC 774 in Melbourne. Although Faine put up a spirited defence against Delingpole’s characterisation of the mining tax as "an attack on the most productive sector of your economy", it quickly became obvious that Faine hadn’t read Delingpole’s book, and was shouted down. If Faine had bothered, he would have been able to drag Delingpole over the coals for claiming that sustainability is really part of a conspiratorial axis of satanism, the "Club of Rome" and one world government:
"The idea that began a decade earlier as a twinkle in the eyes of [Club of Rome founders] Alexander King and Aurelio Peccei had finally been made flesh. Few were capable of spotting at this stage that this oh-so-nice-looking, bonnie, bouncing, gurgling babe had a birthmark on his scalp that read ‘666.’"
Wilders is no different. Much of his politics centres on the idea of "Eurabia", the demographic threat to white European society by Islamic birth rates, and the Muslim minority’s dependence on welfare:
"The Netherlands has approximately one million Muslims. Many of them are immigrants. And none of those really came over here out of love for the Netherlands. They did not really come en masse to the Netherlands because they find it such a fabulous country with all those unbelievers, all those kaffirs. What did they come over for then? Well, for state benefits, for instance."
All this is to say that taking down ranters like Delingpole and Wilders should be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. Instead, because the press are too lazy to even skim their scribblings, they get a free pass.
But even if our journalists and politicians were to make no effort to explore the thicket of Wilders’ thought, his recent electoral performance in Europe should allay fears that he has any real popular support. In the 2006 Dutch elections, Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) won seven seats, leaping to 24 in the 2010 elections. But this week, when the results of the Dutch election rolled in, the PVV had lost a third of their seats, dropping to only 15. "A significant amount of his supporters are also getting tired of his antics," writes Dutch analyst Anno Bunnik. The Economist expressed a similar sentiment:
"Mr Wilders is the election’s biggest loser. Dutch voters, who seemed to fall either for his populism or the opposing socialist one, have overnight turned back to the two largest parties. Tactical voting is one explanation, but the Dutch are also tired of Mr Wilders’s relentless aggression. And, after years of merely reacting to populists, the two large parties have found that voters prefer them to take the initiative."
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale has spoken out against the ban, saying, "his hateful and divisive views are not welcome in Australia, but to deny him a visa risks giving him more oxygen and publicity". This is an overwhelmingly sensible view, in part because Wilders has already visited Australia on two other occasions. But more importantly, to deny him entry would feed the persecution complex that exists on the anti-Islam far right, typified by the overweening "free speech" victimhood of writers like Mark Steyn:
"To be honest, I didn’t really think much about ‘freedom of speech’ until I found myself the subject of three ‘hate speech’ complaints in Canada in 2007… But I don’t think I really understood how advanced the Left’s assault on this core Western liberty actually was."
The potential risks of prohibiting the movement of political figures and journalists are great. By restricting Wilders, on the far right end of the spectrum, the precedent may be set for figures on the left to be the victims of similar bans under a future Liberal government; bans could be laid on visiting unionists, activists or critics like Ilan Pappe, the controversial Jewish historian who recently toured Australia. At the very least for our own benefit, we owe it to ourselves to allow the free movement of people and ideas — no matter how awful they may be.