article on Geert Wilder’s talk at Columbia University this week, along with my comments on the Columbia College Republicans’ rationale for asking Wilders to address them. The group is to be commended for the courage they showed in inviting Wilders. At the same time, their stated reason for inviting him leaves something to be desired, and points to a weakness in modern conservatism which conservatives must correct if they are to have any chance of fighting successfully against and defeating the prevailing liberalism.
Dutch leader tests free speech
Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders spoke out on campus, even as many questioned the legitimacy of his views.
23 October 2009
Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament and leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, spoke on campus Wednesday at an event hosted by the Columbia University College Republicans.
Wilders’ appearance sparked substantial controversy, as he is known for his provocative calls to end Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and impose a national ban of the Quran. The Republicans maintained that their invitation was not an endorsement of Wilders’ views—which they characterized as “extreme”—but rather a defense of free speech. [LA replies: Would the Columbia Republicans have invited a Communist or a Nazi or a pornographer to address them? No, because they would regard such as either beyond the pale or not worthwhile. So clearly they regard Wilders as not beyond the pale and as worthwhile. Meaning that their invitation to him is not just about freedom of speech, but about freedom of speech that the Republicans regard as substantively significant It is the mark of an inadequate conservatism, or rather of liberalism and libertarianism, to reduce controversies over substance to controversies over free speech rights. I’m not saying that free speech doesn’t matter. I’m saying that to reduce questions of substance to questions of rights is to prohibit questions of substance, which is what liberalism has been about since it began in the 17th century. Of course, it’s entirely understandable that in an extremely hostile leftist environment, conservatives conceal their conservatism by saying that what they are standing for is not conservatism but merely the right of conservatives to speak. But that doesn’t change the fact that in doing so, they are speaking purely as liberals and failing to defend the conservative position.] The issue has become perennial at Columbia, where from Minutemen Project founder Jim Gilchrist’s appearance in 2006 to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address in 2007, the distinction between free speech and hate speech has been the subject of heated debate.
“We felt that inviting Mr. Wilders would provide Columbia with a view into what freedom of speech is like in other parts of the world, how it has been limited, and how it is very important that we continue to fight for that freedom,” College Republicans member and event organizer David Honeycutt said in a statement.
Wilders was invited to discuss free speech and his experience with repression. In February, the British government banned him from the country, though a court overturned the ban this month, and within the Netherlands there have been numerous calls for his prosecution. “I would not qualify myself as a free man anymore,” Wilders said.
He devoted much of his address to criticizing Islam, stating at various points, “The Quran is an evil book, full of violence, murder, terrorism, war,” “Muhammad was not a perfect man—he was a mass murderer and a pedophile,” and “Europe is in the process of becoming ‘Eurabia.’” He maintained that he did not hate Muslims, distinguishing between the Muslim people and the “ideology” of Islam.
“We didn’t invite him to talk about his views on Islam,” the Republicans wrote in a statement released on Thursday. “We find the fact that he spent so much of his speech talking about those views regrettable, but he did explain that those views play a part in his concern for free speech.” [LA replies: Well, there you have it. The Columbia Republicans really did desire to avoid substance altogether. They wanted Wilders to discuss the efforts in Europe to deny him his rights of free speech, while remaining silent about the very issue which makes people want to suppress his speech! I repeat that to reduce a substantive position to a person’s right to express that substantive position is a mark of right-liberalism or libertarianism and the opposite of conservatism.]
Wilders sought to draw a direct connection between Islam and his own repression, stating, “Free speech is Islam’s enemy,” and calling cultural relativism and Muslim immigration obstacles of free speech.
But not all agreed with Wilders’ conception of freedom.
“We are fundamentally accepting of freedom of speech, which is not denied in Islam,” said Adel Elsohly, a graduate adviser to the Muslim Students Association of Columbia. “What are denied are hateful and derisive comments.”
Elsohly argued that “freedom from fear” is just as important as freedom of speech, but added that the MSA chose not to protest the event in order to underscore its commitment to First Amendment principles.
While she doesn’t support his views, “I think it is important that we can hear what he has to say,” Wijnie de Groot, a Dutch lecturer at Columbia, said of Wilders. “Banning him or preventing him from speaking does not serve any purpose. On the contrary, we need to hear what a politician such as Wilders has to say so that we can voice an opinion and reaction to it.”
The Republicans invoked this idea of dialogue as well. “CUCR invited Geert Wilders not because of his views, which the club does not in any way endorse, but rather because he is one of the more prominent victims of free speech limitation in Europe and in other parts of the world,” the Republicans wrote. “As anyone who has studied the history of free speech knows, its defense lies not where mainstream views are voiced but rather among those who hold unpopular, offensive, or extreme views.” [LA replies: To repeat the point, would the Columbia Republicans have invited, as a victim of free speech limitations in Europe, a Holocaust denier? No, because they regard a Holocaust denier as substantively beyond the pale, regardless of his free speech rights. Clearly, even though they disagree with Wilders, they would not have invited him if they thought that he was substantively beyond the pale. In other words, while they disagree with Wilders, they regard his position as a reasonable one that deserves to be heard. If they regarded his position as unreasonable, they wouldn’t have invited him. What the Republicans are really standing for, though they decline to put it explicitly in these terms, is not just free speech, but free speech plus reasonableness.
[A possible reason why the Columbia Republicans did not explicitly take this position is seen in the fate of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers when he took a such a position explicitly in his talk at Harvard that got him in trouble with feminists. Summers did not endorse the idea that genetic differences between the sexes explains the absence of women at the highest level of math and science; he said that it was a reasonable possibility that deserved a place at the table. But as soon as he was attacked for merely saying that the idea was a reasonable possibility, he backed away from the idea altogether and denounced it.]
Wilders’ appearance at Columbia came one day after he spoke at Temple University, where his speech was cut off midway through and his invitation officially rescinded due to student protests. [LA replies: what does this mean? His invitation was officially rescinded midway through his speech?] At Columbia, few protesters stood outside the International Affairs Building, where several police officers guarded the doors. Only one poster could be seen, reading “No to racism, no to Islamophobia, stop Geert Wilders’ Euro-fascism.”
“Columbia students, passionate as they are, have an admirable respect for dialogue and CUCR believes that is exactly what took place last night,” the Republicans stated. “The students, instead of shouting down Wilders like those at Temple did on Tuesday, expressed their passionate views regarding Wilders through thoughtful questions and constructive inquiry.”