What do you do when a famous racist politician descends on Australia in a fanfare of media? Geert Wilders' current speaking tour makes the question topical, raising key issues about free speech, the political response to racism, and the utility of protest.
No sooner had Wilders' tour been announced than activists in Melbourne and Sydney called for demonstrations at his meetings. The Melbourne protest — involving scuffles and allegations of provocation on both sides — was on Tuesday. Wilders is speaking in Sydney tomorrow. The Perth talk, slated for yesterday, was cancelled by the venue at the last minute.
Problems securing venues have been endemic on Wilders' tour. The only location willing to host Wilders in Melbourne was on the city's northern fringe. Something similar is likely tomorrow in Sydney.
Wilders and his supporters haven't hesitated to construe the venue problems and the Melbourne protest as violations of the right to freedom of expression, a recurrent theme of the commentary the tour has so far received.
"Whether you support or whether you differ," a representative of Wilders' sponsor, the Q Society, was quoted as observing, "to me the big issue is he should be able to speak".
There is, of course, something of a paradox about a defence of free expression being advanced by groups that want to banish the practice of Islam from the West. The Q Society campaigns against Halal food and the construction of mosques, believing that "the further Islamisation of our Nation must first be stopped, and then reversed". Last year in Holland, Wilders' party, the PVV, set up a dob-in-a-foreigner website designed to provoke resentment against Eastern Europeans.
It is, in any case, hard to believe that anyone could seriously imply that there is an obligation on venue owners to rent out their premises for Wilders' talks. No commitment to free speech entails any duty to actually facilitate the dissemination of particular views. Nor does it preclude taking active steps to prevent certain views spreading. What politics is about, among other things, is control of the public sphere. Shaping the channels through which ideas flow is an essential part of this.
There is, however, a tactical question for Wilders' opponents. A sizeable current of opinion apparently agrees with Victorian premier Ted Baillieu that the best way to counter Wilders is to ignore him. On this view, his opponents should simply pull their heads in and deny Wilders oxygen.
This belief neglects three factors at least. Most obviously, Wilders was always likely to be fêted by a strong media presence. An absence of overt protest leaves his prescriptions for Australian society — "find and elect politicians who are not afraid to speak the truth about Islam" — unchallenged. Only demonstrations at the scene can keep Wilders' views controversial in the minds of the public who only watch the TV news.
Second, Wilders' respectability in The Netherlands can only be influenced by his reception abroad. Giving him a free pass in Australia contributes to the standing of the PVV.
But the most important rationale for direct protests at Wilders' events is their effect on his immediate audience.
Wilders is a lightning rod for Australian racists. The success of events like his tour will be a key factor in their ability to convert their ideas into meaningful political action, adding to the momentum already created by the Rise Up Australia Party, which shares Wilders' anti-Islamic agenda.
Political programmes need activists — ordinary people prepared go out into the real world to interact with the flesh-and-blood public. This is exactly why it is important that their attempt to do so be nipped in the bud while they are still relatively weak.
This doesn't mean that anyone should be physically prevented from entering an event where Wilders is speaking. But there is every justification for discouraging actual or potential racist campaigners by refusing to rent out venues for their functions, by creating a climate in which the venue cannot be advertised in advance, and by protesting vigorously outside the meetings.
Wilders and the Q Society both trade on the idea that the character of Wilders' appearances is essentially educational. He is, on this interpretation, informing people on a matter of social importance. Consequently, any attempt to disrupt him is fundamentally illiberal, as this editorial in The Australian also suggested.
A similar implication can sometimes be extracted from the classic liberal defence of free speech, John Stuart Mill's 1859 On Liberty. Mill's main contention is that "only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth".
Balance — between "democracy" and "aristocracy", between "sociality" and "individuality" — is the overriding goal Mill promotes. His claim that we should defend the right of those to express even the most mistaken opinions is a central plank of classical liberalism.
In his autobiography, Mill described himself as having believed, at an early point, that "educated intellect, enlightening the selfish feelings" would be the source of political progress. He claimed to have later abandoned that belief, but in fact it deeply informs On Liberty.
Mill's argument assumes a bloodless, scholar's world in which the exchange of opinions only serves the purposes of dispassionate, impartial reflection in which the truth will finally win. He has nothing to say about all the other goals achieved by political expression: the emotional rallying of supporters, the fostering of esprit de corps, the arousal of hatred. These effects are real, but Mill's intellectualised analysis ignores them.
Wilders' talks are clearly not principally aimed at "educating" anyone, regardless of his and the organisers' claims. They are first and foremost political events which have the potential to consolidate and give new impetus to the already entrenched currents of Islamophobia and racism in this country.
It is a remarkable double-standard to decry — as so many liberals did — commuter passivity in the face of the recent racist diatribes on Melbourne and Sydney buses but also to insist that Wilders' ideas should simply be swept under the carpet.
The bus episodes and Wilders' appearances are essentially identical: both are attempts to vilify people solely on the basis of their identity. In both, the targets of the attack have committed no crime other than belonging to a category which their assailant finds offensive.
While identical in kind, Wilders' appearances in Australia are a far more serious threat than the public transport incidents, as horrifying as those are. Wilders' intent is political. Under his suits, his veneer of rationality and his politician's obfuscations, the bigotry of his message is just as palpable as that of the Melbourne commuters who attacked French tourists or the Sydney woman responsible for Jeremy Fernandez's ordeal.
If challenging Wilders directly is counterproductive or infringes free speech, then the same must be said about challenging the public transport racists. The absurdity of that argument could not be clearer.
Mill intended his arguments to foster the clash of opinions, not as an excuse to leave mistaken views free rein. Wilders uses classic liberal arguments as cover for the corrosive poison he disseminates. A society that cares about the equality of its members cannot sit on its hands while racist forces celebrate their high mass.
The author is one of the organisers of a Sydney protest against Wilders' visit.
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