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The Goebbels effect

Let us stand still and recognize what has happened in the Dutch repudiation of Geert Wilders and embrace of Moroccan-Dutch – in all its ambivalence – but not cheer it, yet.

Some weeks ago, in the run-up to the Dutch municipal elections, Gert Wilders – our most successful populist – decided it was time to get to work. Campaigning in The Hague, he told journalists what he had never said before in so many words: voters for his party are, “voting for a city with fewer problems and, if at all possible, fewer Moroccans.”

For the first time, after years of vitriol against Islam but not against any one specific Muslim group, Wilders’ explicit targeting of Dutch-Moroccans showed a clear radicalization of his politics.

Some weeks ago, in the run-up to the Dutch municipal elections, Gert Wilders – our most successful populist – decided it was time to get to work. Campaigning in The Hague, he told journalists what he had never said before in so many words: voters for his party are, “voting for a city with fewer problems and, if at all possible, fewer Moroccans.”

For the first time, after years of vitriol against Islam but not against any one specific Muslim group, Wilders’ explicit targeting of Dutch-Moroccans showed a clear radicalization of his politics.

Leaders of European Eurosceptic groups talk at the the Federal Congress of Lega Nord, unity symbolized by one hand atop another Geert Wilders and other leaders at Lega Nord Eurosceptic summit in Turin, Dec 13/Michelle Dottavio/Demotix/All rights reserved

As Wilders anticipated, the comment generated just the pre-election controversy and media attention he sought. A number of official complaints were lodged and national Moroccan-Dutch lobby groups put pressure on the Public Prosecutors’ office to charge Wilders with discriminatory speech, even as Wilders qualified it all by telling the media he had meant “criminal Moroccans.” Then on election night, Wilders upped the ante.

Standing in front of a full room, he set up a call-and-response. “I would like to have an answer to the following three questions. Three questions – and please give a clear answer – that define our party, the Party for Freedom. And the first is: Do you want more or less European Union?” “Less, less, less!” chants the room faster and faster, clapping in rhythm. “And the second question is, perhaps even more importantly, do you want more or less Labour Party?” “Less, less, less!!” More clapping, more cheers. “And the third question” – and here Wilders pauses to build suspense, telling his audience "And I'm not actually allowed to say this, because one will be accused [of a crime], and there might even be … a court case, but freedom of speech is a great treasure. And we haven't said anything that is not allowed. And we haven’t said anything that is not correct." Then, his audience fully prepped, “So I ask you, do you want – in this city and in the Netherlands – more or fewer Moroccans?” “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” To which Wilders answers, with a smile, “Well, then we’ll take care of that.”

The explosion was immediate, starting with social media, then spreading to conventional media and the public at large. Across Twitter and Facebook there was intense anger. Wilders was compared to Hitler. A Dutch actor, Thijs Römer, tweeted “Volkert [referring to the assassin of the anti-immigrant populist Pim Fortuyn], where are you when your country needs you?”

The Facebook page “I am lodging a criminal complaint against Wilders” (Ik doe aangifte tegen Wilders) received some 70,000 Likes within 24 hours. The deputy editor of one of main commercial news broadcasts, Pieter Klein of RTL Nieuws, took the extremely unusual step of writing a highly emotional public letter to Wilders (the first time in 25 years that an RTL editor had publicly taken a position), telling the politician he had gone too far and that he should be deeply ashamed. 

Knowingly applying the oldest rhetorical trick in the world, knowing what will happen and then that empty, insane promise “We’ll take care of that.” … Yes, yes, yes. Does it surprise you that there is a flood of historical comparisons? No, of course not – you sought them out, you encouraged them deliberately. Juden raus. Hitler. Goebbels. Memories of deportation.

Even De Telegraaf, the largest Dutch daily – and no great friend to minorities – felt “shivers” up the back on hearing Wilders and directly launched a campaign inviting readers to write in about their “Favorite Moroccan” neighbour, colleague or soccer mates. The international media was just as quick: AP, El Pais, Frankfurter Algemeine, Fox News, Le Monde, Washington Post, Straits Times and Al Jazeera, among others. The German Press Agency (DPA) even compared Wilders’ address to Goebbels’ infamous sportpalastrede: “I ask you, do you want total war?” (Ich frage euch: Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?).

At the same time, Moroccan-Dutch citizens were setting up sites to challenge Wilders – “Ich bin ein Marokkaner” (referencing Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner”), “Marokkanen mogen blijven” (Moroccans can stay),  “Ik ben Marokaanse en ik ben …” (I am Moroccan and I am … – a site to which Moroccan-Dutch – overwhelmingly young professionals – posted selfies with a description of their successful careers) and “Mocro’s be like born here” (Mocros be like: born here – a site where Moroccan-Dutch posted selfies with close-ups of their Dutch passports).

Soon there were a flood of criminal complaints, by individuals, organizations, even entire city governments from the mayor on down. There have been circular letters across Facebook, some sent to the King as well, and large groups – dozens to hundreds of people – networking and coordinating in the biggest cities to go complain together, creating long lines outside police stations. To handle the crowds, the police developed a simplified form, opened whole garages to waiting people, and freed up officers from other duties. Some police tweeted their progress processing the complaints, while a few confided in those filing complaints that they too had submitted a complaint. And still as I write, the complaints are pouring in.

At the same time, eight politicians from Wilders’ Freedom Party (representing roughly 9% of the total number) have resigned their positions, including one just elected in The Hague, the city where all this started. The Liberals have said they will not work with him (in a land of coalition politics) unless he takes back what he says – which Wilders has fiercely asserted that he will not do (“I won’t let you beat me. I will fight to the last breath.”) Other politicians have said they nearly vomited on hearing him, finding his statements so disgusting and repellant.

And just as all this was going on, an anti-racism demonstration in Amsterdam that had been planned for months ahead – building on the gut-wrenching debates about the national figure of Black Pete last December – now drew bigger crowds than in years. Perhaps even more significantly, it brought together white anti-racists, Surinamese and Antillian activists, national and international socialists, labor unions, lawyers, illegalized aliens, cultural elite, Moroccan-Dutch, Turkish-Dutch and many others of diverse colours, ethnicities, generations, organizations and classes in a mix that has rarely if ever been seen in the Netherlands before.

Where does this leave the Dutch and their most successful anti-immigrant populist? Has Dutch society turned a corner, does this mark a new era? Is the nation returning to a politics of cultural pluralism, equality, and dignity?

Depending on whom you ask, opinions diverge wildly on the matter. There are those who immediately began to prophesy the end of Wilders and the implosion of his Party for Freedom. Others see this as a turning point for the Netherlands, when the country finally, publicly rejected Wilders’ ideology of anti-immigrant and anti-Islam denigration and exclusion that has been so influential in shaping politics, discourse and public debate for the past ten years. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who say that the events of the last week, for all their flashy energy, constitute little more than a bit of cosmetic window-dressing. Rather than marking a decisive shift, they mask, even excuse, the persistence of a much more fundamental racism that saturates Dutch society and has yet to be addressed. And then there are those who assert that the current mass aversion to Wilders is simply a continuation of his demonization by the politically-correct cultural and political elite.

The fact that opinions are so divergent – in a consensus society like the Netherlands – is at least as significant as what those opinions are. Not mapping in any simple fashion onto existing ethnic, class or political divides, they reflect instead how fractured the Netherlands is today – and the extent to which it fundamentally lacks a shared public language to discuss issues of diversity, pluralism, denigration and exclusion.

Running through the substratum of Dutch society today are two intense veins of radical criticism of the status quo. One entails a furious and deeply-felt denunciation of immigrants (Moroccans in particular) and Muslims as disruptive, parasitical and dangerous for Dutch society and of mainstream politicians for coddling and giving in to them time and again at the expense of indigenous, native Dutch interests. The other vein entails an anguished and variously furious or simply firm denunciation of the aggressive language and policies of denigration, exclusion and discrimination against immigrants and Muslims that mainstream politicians, media and pundits have almost (though not entirely) unanimously taken up in the past decade. This vein is feeding the renewed spurt of activist, political, artistic and student organizations that have become active in the last few years, explicitly setting out to challenge the racist status quo. These two veins are utterly irreconcilable – even as they at moments run through the middle of friendships and families – except for their joint rejection of politics as it is.

Atop this sits much of mainstream Dutch society, aware of but unpersuaded by either, though also deeply disappointed in mainstream politics. Most striking here is a different divide, between native white and minority communities: as is typical under relations of inequality, most white Dutch society knows little in any specific fashion of minority communities, cultures, internal debates, tensions and fractures, or their critiques of mainstream white society.

That is to say, there is a widespread cultural and racial illiteracy among white Dutch when it comes to the cultures of their society that are not their own. This both enables and ensures that much of the public Dutch debate about diversity has been a debate about minorities – and their shortcomings – rather than a debate with minorities that also includes consideration of the shortcomings of Dutch society itself. It also means that the increasingly stringent, inhumane and race-driven policies of the Dutch state implemented in the last decade to govern migration and police minorities have met no serious resistance from the mainstream.

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What does the Wilders scandal mean for all this? Certainly, Wilders – for the moment – has been damaged. But not as significantly as those hoping for his political demise would wish. Both his party and his support among constituents have shrunk, but not enough to be dangerous in any fashion to him. While he will receive fewer votes in the upcoming European elections, the Party for Freedom is not about to disappear.

Even as the scandal has hurt Wilders for the moment, it enables other crucial long-term goals. At the discursive – and possibly ideological level (though with Wilders ideology almost always is subject to the realpolitik imperative of increasing his power, influence and control) – it has allowed Wilders to experiment with more explicitly racist discourse now that he has reversed course and is helping to consolidate a new “Brown International” (calling itself the ‘European Alliance for Freedom’) with parties more explicit in their racism such as Le Pen’s Front National, the Lega Nord, Vlaams Belang, the Swedish Democrats, the Slovak National Party and the Austrian Party of Freedom (but not UKIP). At the same time, the refusal by current mainstream parties to continue working with him can be seen as something Wilders not only anticipated but very easily could have intended: their rejection – at a time when many of their policies in the domain of migrants, immigrants and minorities implement ideas first launched by Wilders and other anti-immigrant populists before him – reaffirm his status as an outsider while allowing him to remain free to do and say as he likes while his party grows, unconstrained by the compromises that come from governing.

The one aspect of recent developments that Wilders could not have anticipated, however, was what one might call the Goebbels effect: how what he did on election night looked, once it was caught on film.

There suddenly, the Dutch saw a man not only presenting his individual politics, but creating the effervescent religious effect that Durkheim described so well – the unification, frisson, and excitement that fuses massed individuals into a whole. The chanting call and response, most especially culminating not just in courting opinion, but in the promise to eject Moroccan-Dutch evoked – for many mainstream Dutch – the echoes of World War II in a way that nothing Wilders has said before managed to do.

This helps to explain the intense and widespread emotionalism of the reactions to him. And that emotional rupture in turn enabled something which has not happened before: the explicit, public embrace of Moroccan-Dutch people as valued fellow-citizens, colleagues, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. In the ongoing discussion since 9/11 (and before) about how to make sense of immigrants in Dutch society, there has never been such a moment when immigrants and their Dutch children have been publicly embraced and protected as “ours,” as part of the weft and warp of our society.

More generally, if something has changed, then it is that the worst excesses of degrading, insulting and humiliating Muslims, migrants and Morrocan-Dutch have lost their chic appeal as somehow exciting and taboo-breaking. Having been badly beaten in the same elections where Wilders made such a splash, for example, the Labour Party just announced that it will no longer seek to formally criminalize alien migrants who lack residency permits.

Yet this does not imply that now the Netherlands is acknowledging – as such – the deeper racial illiteracy, discrimination and sense of cultural superiority that plagues it.

So, in the very midst of all this, the Dutch premier, Mark Rutte, made a horrifyingly embarrassing joke at an international press conference on the nuclear summit about to take place in the Netherlands. He was asked how he hoped to solve the challenges of nuclear power when he couldn’t even solve the problem of Black Pete (the traditional helper of Saint Nicholas, covered in blackface, whose persistence is being debated fiercely at the moment). After saying that he could not do anything about Black Pete’s blackness (he is black, not brown or green), Rutte then joked that his friends on the Antilles are much better off during that time of the year because they do not need to put on blackface to celebrate Saint Nicholas, while Rutte is busy for days trying to get the make-up off his face. His friends in the Antilles were not amused, any more than were those who have been struggling to challenge racism in the Netherlands.

Rutte eventually apologized – itself an achievement – but his statement is striking for its utter and unselfconscious blindness to the grotesque slurry of racist images and statements that were unleashed late last year against those protesting Black Pete, among other things because many Black Dutch experience it as utterly degrading to have whites “jokingly” identify them with Black Pete.

Just after Rutte’s faux pas another, very different, incident took place: the wife of a jewelry store owner shot and killed two robbers. The woman was white, the robbers were a Moroccan and a Moroccan-Dutch man. For a number of years now, violent attacks on jewelry shop owners have been an emotional media item, with some owners wounded seriously and even killed. The fact that the wife of the jeweller now turned the table on the robbers – with an illegal gun – after having been robbed at gun point a few years ago – made her hero of the hour for many. Some were even calling for ribbons and honors to be showered on her, while the police refrained from detaining her, on the grounds that evidence to date suggested that she had acted in self-defense. In response, twenty-odd friends of the Dutch-Moroccan man came and demonstrated with banners in front of the jewelry store, calling for the woman’s prosecution and stating she was not a hero but a murderer.

Once again, the media was up in arms about “criminal Moroccans.” The same Moroccan-Dutch umbrella group that had put pressure on the Public Prosecutors when Wilders first made his controversial statements, now very publicly distanced itself from these young men. The Union of Criminal Offenders (a serious and typically Dutch corporatist body) briefly tried to stand up for the young men, and for those killed by the jewelry store owner’s wife, but they were laughed at and dismissed by everyone from the Minister of Justice on down.

Newspapers and social media placed op-eds by Moroccan-Dutch professionals calling on the community, its parents and its mosques to think self-critically about what they can do to stop their young men from derailing: “time is up!” Others presented the parents as helpless despite their best intentions to keep their children off the streets, in school and at work.

A striking response was this poem written by a young Moroccan-Dutch man entitled, “Appeal to All Criminal Moroccans!”:

I am crying …

 

I am crying because we did not come to the Netherlands to create problems.

I am crying because our children and grandchildren have a bad name because of you.

I am crying because we are now hated because of our descent. I am crying because my heart hurts.

 

We have opportunities here that we never had there.

We came here to work, because we did not have work at home.

You were born in this country but know nothing about Morocco…

You wouldn’t even dare to consider this sort of thing if you were there!

If you were truly Moroccan, you would not do these sorts of things.

 

Respect your parents, their background, on the path from there to here..

Respect the country that feeds you.

Show respect, work hard and behave yourself!

 

I beg you please..

Show respect!

 

My heart is crying…

My soul is crying…

Your father is crying…

Your mother is crying…

 

Within 24 hours it had more than 20,000 Likes, 12,000 Shares, and 6,000 comments. Too many to discuss here. But still there are two points to be made in closing. The first is the way in which the poem became a platform for discussion and encounter among many people from very different backgrounds. The comments of many native Dutch have been highly positive, though also unintentionally denigrating: “This is what it’s all about. Sticking to the rules for decency and decorum, just as I would do in a country that took me in hospitably” and “This I have respect for. I hope those addressed will listen” and, “Fortunately, there are still people who know the difference between good and bad.” A Dutchman who makes a more racist comment like, “It’s just in your nature, Moroccans” is dismissed and insulted by other native Dutch. Just as the commentary by Moroccan-Dutch is often less enthusiastic: “I cry because this fellow wants to play the good Muslim” and “There’s no reason to cry, everyone digs their own grave.”

Many of the assumptions, strands of thought, feeling and argument that have circulated separately in different ethnic domains for the past decade, are here fully on display, in encounter with each other. It does not guarantee anything like understanding; but it does mark a step in the direction of familiarity: an opening among native Dutch who a month ago could have been voting for Wilders simply to look and listen to a Moroccan who before would have been completely uninteresting, irrelevant and incapable of generating any emotional response among white Dutch.

At the same time, we should not miss the socio-economic issues and moral sensibilities at work here: the Moroccan-Dutch who are being embraced – and who have been most performatively and assertively claiming their place in Dutch society – are those who most abide by the bourgeois middle-class norms that form the core of Dutch identity: hard-working, emotionally and economically disciplined, law-abiding rather than disruptive. These are the values to which the poem above appeals. Its author, like many of the most active and visible Moroccan-Dutch today, is part of an incredibly energetic, ambitious wave of immigrant children who within one or two generations are leaping over boundaries of culture, nationality, class, and education to become our newest entrepreneurs, politicians, pundits, lawyers and white-collar professionals.

But this is at the expense of a growing divide and distance from the other half of young Moroccan-Dutch life, the youth that leave school without a diploma, take to the streets, become criminal. These youth nobody wants.

While this might seem obvious and natural, it in fact is a problem because it reproduces and validates quite vividly the divide that is increasingly becoming a vivid gash in each of our societies and across the world: between those who are economically in and those who are economic – and therefore social and political – refuse.

I mention this issue in closing, to raise one final point. Reflecting on the recent Wilders scandal and the Dutch response to it, while taking into account that it is an event whose context includes much larger changes to our world, has crucial implications.

Namely: let us stand still and recognize what has happened in the Dutch repudiation of Wilders and embrace of Moroccan-Dutch – in all its ambivalence – but not cheer it, if it arrives at the expense of and on the backs of those in our societies and our world who are increasingly thrown away.

The goal should not be pluralism – even pluralism that comes one difficult step at a time – if it is at the cost of excluding those our societies despise most: the criminal and criminalized poor whom our politicians and pundits blame for their poverty and whom they lust to discipline and expel. Our goal instead – as shapers of our world today – should be a pluralism that reimagines how we might do social relations as a politics of deep equality, when so much in our world pushes against this.

To be continued.

 

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.


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