Wertheim: Wilders’ Lethal Words

Anne-Ruth Wertheim writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

Words can incite violence. These are the kind of words Geert Wilders used in the Dutch Parliament . . .

On Wednesday January 21, 2009, the Amsterdam Court decided a court ruling was required on whether Member of Parliament Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom) was inciting hatred towards a segment of the population with his statements about Muslims. Since Dutch Members of Parliament are not liable to prosecution for anything they say there, the judge will mainly focus on what Wilders said outside Parliament. But his words in Parliament are at least as interesting, if not more so. Especially the way he combines his various descriptions of Muslims.

Elihu Richter from Israel met a group of older Moroccan Amsterdammers in Auschwitz. They wanted to understand how it all could have happened. When one of them said whoever did the selecting and gassing were monsters and not human beings, Richter replied that they had been nursed by their mothers and played with other children just like anyone else. They had been turned into monsters by “lethal words.” The conversation also included other mass murders like the one in Ruanda. And Richter summed up the lethal words: garbage, monkeys, rotting corpses, rats, typhus, cancerous tumors, cockroaches, worms and parasites (Auschwitz Bulletin 2008/3).

Mass massacres all across the globe are frequently referred to as spontaneous. We all wonder in despair why no one saw them coming. It later turns out that the omens, the lethal words, had been around for years. But freedom of speech is sacrosanct and calling it racism is ridiculous. Someone simply started killing someone else and that set off the sinister circle of revenge, fear of revenge, seeing the killing, the fear of death, and more revenge.

People do not simply pick up their rifle or machete and go out on the street with it. There has to be hatred all around, and even more importantly, there has to be fear. It is not uncommon for fear to be the real reason for killing. Richter’s lethal words might all seem similar, but they aren’t. Garbage, monkeys, worms and cockroaches are dirty or inferior. Thus automatically making the speaker superior. Typhus, rats, rotting corpses, cancerous tumours and parasites have to do with disease and invasion. They transform the speaker into a potential victim. Degradation and branding as dangerous all mixed together makes for a very toxic brew.

What goes on in the minds of people who assault a segment of the population? It makes a difference whether they feel backed by the authorities, either covertly or openly. It also makes a difference whether it concerns a minority or a majority. Colonized peoples had to endure colonial racism. They were viewed as incapable of governing themselves, they were “childlike and dim-witted.” That is the way they were born, living from hand to mouth and spitting on the ground. They were good enough though to work from dawn to dusk for the ruling white minority.

Cultural racism against mercantile minorities who have to compete with the established majorities is however a very different matter. In the former Dutch East Indies, Chinese diligence and ingenuity only gave rise to resentment and envy. The Chinese could hardly be called dim-witted, but they still had a deviant culture to be targeted. They were “money hungry, unreliable and out for total domination.” The barely concealed message was that violence against this group would be considered self-defense. Violence against mercantile minorities is always on a mass scale – the entire group needs to be physically eliminated. It is this cultural racism that bears such a strong resemblance to pre-war anti-Semitism: the suspicion of unreliability, the accusation of wanting world domination, and the efforts at complete extermination.

Ever since the arrival of labour immigrants from Turkey and Morocco, there has been a shift in the Netherlands. First they got their share of the familiar colonial racism and were looked down upon. Nowadays the Muslims and essentially all non-Western immigrants are berated for their deviant culture and religion and accused of striving for total domination. What has now replaced contempt and scorn can well end in mass violence. Just like anywhere else where recognizable segments of the population are singled out as a threat to society.

At the moment, we are witnessing a combination of the two types of racism. Let us look closely at Wilders’ words at the most recent Annual Budget Debate in September 2008.

First he refers to the bad conduct on the street of youths of Moroccan descent. Then he switches in one breath to his real target group, i.e. the Muslims. “The Moroccan scum that goes through life cursing, spitting and beating up innocent people – I prefer to call them colonists – Muslim colonists … because they did not come to integrate, they came here to take over.” On the second day of the debate, he uses the same tactic. He once again speaks of “that kind of Moroccan scum that spits at us, threatens us and beats us up.” But then he reveals his true colors and is no longer talking about the youths on the street. “They are visitors who tear the wallpaper off the walls in our home, smash the furniture and toss the television out the window.” And he rhetorically asks Prime Minister Balkenende, “What would you do in a case like that? Throw them out!”

He slyly intertwines insulting innuendos with very scary prose. We ought to have nothing but contempt for the Muslims with their primitive customs like spitting and their anti-social behavior. And we need to be very scared of them, they beat people up and want to take over here, they want to colonize us. Now that the fear of numerical domination by Muslims no longer does the trick, he turns to the notion of them colonizing us in much the same way as we once ruled over the majorities as a Dutch minority.

It is funny how Wilders suddenly seems to practise “updating”. The target group he used to describe as “guests” – alluding to the term guest workers, he now allows to stay overnight! They are upgraded from day guests to visitors who can stay the night. But appearances can be deceptive. Visitors infiltrate your personal life in a far deeper way. And once they start touching your possessions, especially the sacred cow, your television set, they are very treacherous indeed.

History has taught us the instrumental role fear plays in generating mass violence. Parasites, invading germs, ‘international world Jewry’, Islam attacking our society from inside. But killing has always been easier if people can see their victims as inferior. So the fright cocktail requires a touch of disdain: cockroaches to be stepped on, Untermenschen unworthy of life itself.

There is every reason to pay very close attention to the words of politicians and opinion leaders as separate entities and even more so in combination.

This article was in De Volkskrant, a Dutch daily paper, on Friday January 23, 2009.

Anne-Ruth Wertheim is a journalist and the author of various books including De gans eet het brood van de eenden op, mijn kindertijd in een Jappenkamp op Java (The Goose Snatches the Bread from the Ducks, My Childhood in a Japanese Prison Camp on Java, 1994). An Indonesian translation of the book was published in March 2008.She works with the concepts of exploitation/colonial racism (contempt or condescension) and cultural/competition racism (envy and distrust).

End/ (Not Continued)