The issue: The rhetoric of a street fighter

Text: Geert Maarse / Photography: Ronald van den Heerik

It is impossible to conduct debate in The Hague, the seat of Government in the Netherlands, without the necessary dose of political gesturing and exaggeration, says philosopher Ger Groot. However, the position that Geert Wilders has created for himself is untenable. ‘You cannot continue to treat people with contempt.’

What do you think of the current Cabinet? “A parliamentary support agreement is absolutely something new in our parliamentary democracy. Wilders’ party, the PVV, formally does not carry any responsibility for governing, but does in fact jointly govern. I consider that an erosion of the state's logic. The PVV can play the typical game, that Sartre once upon a time described as ‘bad faith’. A most unfortunate situation: you commit yourself to certain things when it suits you, but at another point in time you can weasel out of it using the same logic.”

Is that not typical of politicians? Bos was also a weasel, according to Balkenende. “Sartre would say that it is typical of most people. Everyone is trapped in his own incapacity to be authentic. But there is something more going on in current politics than simple opportunistic manoeuvring: it is impossible to get a grip on the PVV and they cannot be held accountable for anything.”

And yet, Wilders gets away with it. Is that because he is such a good speaker? “He uses the rhetoric of a street fighter. Wilders does not debate by exchanging arguments like other members of the Dutch House of Representatives. He simply repeats the same stance. It is more a form of advertising than intellectual debate. This works well, because the House of Representatives has never experienced anything like it and up to now is fairly powerless against it.”

Do we not more often observe this kind of seller's mentality in politics? “Things should revolve around facts, but these seem increasingly more often to be subject to exaggeration. Wilders in part creates his own reality. One year ago, he said it was crazy to have sixty million Muslims living in Europe and called for action. But it turns out that there are only twelve million. This is what is referred to as an embarrassing error. However, Wilder does not even bat an eye. He is firmly convinced that he is right and roars ahead like a steamroller. It seems as if he is intoxicated by his success. People who radicalise more often display such narrow-mindedness.”

How is it that no one is successful in pointing out to him – and the voters – that he is missing the mark? “From a rhetorical perspective, nuances are always detrimental. To negate a clear, simple story, you have to explain a complex situation. And Wilders has made himself immune to this to a certain degree, because he cannot be judged against the policy being pursued. The LPF party collapsed, because it very quickly became clear that as a governing party they were creating a shambles. But the PVV does not carry this responsibility.”

Does this mean that someone could therefore make an issue of a few hundred veiled women in the coalition agreement? “It is rather absurd for the burkah issue to be put forward as a thorny problem that would cause Dutch society to stand or fall. However, as a symbol it is very effective.”

Often they are just empty words. How many times have we heard that half of all civil servants would be let go? “There are still tens of thousands of civil servants that according to earlier government plans should have been let go long ago. Instead of concluding that this is not as easy to accomplish as it looks, the government happily announces another round of downsizing.”

Is that not strange? “But also nothing new. The Van Agt-Wiegel Cabinet in the late seventies, the successor to the Cabinet of Prime Minster Den Uyl, leader of the Labour Party, was going to give short shrift to the huge budget overruns that the socialists would have incurred. But there is not a single cabinet that let budget overruns rise to such a degree as the Dries van Agt and Hans Wiegel team. This in itself is not all that strange either. You always have to set your goals high. You could say that this is part of the political game.”

Why do we fall for that each time? “I think we are able to see through this. However, in politics things simply move exceedingly slow and lose their sharp edge rather quickly. Certainly in a country such as the Netherlands where the polder model always leads to compromise.”

People speak about the Islamisation of the Netherlands – surely this is complete nonsense? “It is a fact that the massive immigration that the Netherlands has had to absorb since the seventies has not exactly been without blemish. Furthermore, it is evident that Islam is increasingly emphatically manifesting itself politically, especially since 11 September 2001. From an electoral perspective it appears attractive to in any case create the illusion that there is a link between these two issues. This gives people the impression that the Netherlands is being threatened.”

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard suggested that many of today’s problems are only playing themselves out in the media. He even went as far as to suggest that the Gulf War never actually took place. “When you walk through the Geuzenveld district in Amsterdam or the Spangen district in Rotterdam, the idea that there is a tsunami of Muslims would not appear to be all that farfetched. I think there is a limit to the influx of other cultures that a society can absorb. Let us assume that this is around 20 percent. In certain districts it is much higher than this. When this happens, the idea that there is some kind of an invasion seems quite plausible. People say: just look around you.”

Do you think that the Cabinet will last for an extended period? “I already did not think that on election night. There will come a time when Wilders’ political allies will as a matter of course become fed up with the brutal style on which his success depends. The way in which he called Verhagen, leader of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party and Deputy Prime Minister, to account (as a result of the reservations expressed by the CDA’s ‘dissidents' who do not wish to collaborate with Wilders' party, ed.) was really borderline. Politicians are people with tremendous egos whom you cannot continue to snub. The idea that Wilders must continue to be able to shout what he wants because he is not a member of government is absurd. But he cannot behave in any other way, because he knows that the people who voted for him expect him to adopt that tone. Once there is a cabinet crisis you can bet your life that the current Rutte I Cabinet will be done within 48 hours. In fact it is not even in Wilders' ultimate interest that this cabinet should last for an extended period of time. He expects to achieve even better results in the next election.”

These are exciting times. “Everything is on edge. Should there still be someone who claims that politics is not alive….”

During these times it would really seem that the world is becoming increasingly complex and the solutions increasingly simpler. “Sweeping statements such as ‘Get all Muslims out of the country!' have been heard throughout all time. The left in the seventies proclaimed: ‘We will abolish the armed forces!’ And let’s not dramatise things. The division among the Netherlands population is not all that much greater now than it was then.”

Will someone not come along who will say, hold on a minute, everything has become much more complex? “There are always people who say this, but they are not the ones to get the votes. Job Cohen, leader of the PvdA Labour Party, is an example. He completely ground to halt in relation to his competitors. Because he wants to approach complex problems in their full breadth, he is forced to wage battle on three fronts at the same time. It’s impossible to do this.”

Friday, November 4th 2010 (week 44).

The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.

Ger Groot (1954) is a philosophy instructor at EUR and this year became Professor of Philosophy and Literature at Radboud University in Nijmegen. His primary activities in Rotterdam involve cultural philosophy and philosophical anthropology, however he publishes on a wide range of subjects. He writes a column in Trouw and is a contributor in philosophy and literature for the NRC Handelsblad. In his speech ‘Vergeten te bestaan. Echte fictie en het fictieve ik’ (Forgetting to Exist. Real Fiction and the Fictitious I) on 23 September, he suggested that fiction and reality are continuously manipulating each other.