We’ve posted a couple of times in the last few days about the plight of a Dutch webmaster who was convicted of a criminal offense and fined for material that was not written by him, but was left on his website by visitors. For all intents and purposes this is a move by the Dutch government to establish a precedent for suppressing politically incorrect speech on the internet.
The case displays a glaring double standard: extremist Muslim sites in the Netherlands frequently post vile and hateful writings against the native Dutch, but are never prosecuted under the same laws.
One of my Dutch contacts helped set up a correspondence with the webmaster for rechtser.com. He’s asked me to refer to him simply as “Rechtser”, and here’s what he had to say in an email to me today:
As you know, I was arrested in the morning by four police officers and taken to the police station. Half a day later I could go home. Then a year later I had a trial in court.
The police judge sentenced me to a fine I had to pay and a two-year conditional sentence. My notebook computer and USB-sticks were also taken by the police, and I will never get them back. The costs of my lawyer I must pay also.
In a post last night at the Belmont Club Wretchard discussed Rechtser’s situation:
Recently, a webmaster in the Netherlands was arrested for remarks that a commenter had left on his site without any prior request from the authorities to remove the offending material. They simply arrived to arrest him. Perhaps to justify their actions, Dutch authorities argued that because the website contained the wrong tone it was a hate crime waiting to happen. The webmaster was going to be guilty sooner or later anyway. “The judge clearly indicated that the contents of texts placed on sites are the responsibility of the manager … The manager placed negative news items about Muslims and links to extremist sites. He could therefore expect that punishable texts would be placed on his site.” Again the offense was not in the posting, but in what was posted. “Hate speech” is proof, if any were needed, that the message is the message.
The context for this excerpt concerns the popular idea — exemplified by Barack Obama — that the only thing that world leaders need to do is sit down and engage in “dialogue”, that all the major differences between nations are susceptible to solution, if only people will just talk to each other.
As Wretchard points out, this concept has a venerable pedigree, dating back to at least 1938:
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In fact the illusion that “world peace” is automatically advanced by talking proved fatal on more than one occasion. [Joshua] Muravchik notes that two of the most disastrous meetings in recent history — between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler in Munich and FDR with Joseph Stalin in Potsdam — set the stage for conflicts which would subsequently shake the world. Chamberlain believed that if one summit was good, then several would be even better. Muravchik writes that “the story of Munich itself has been too often told to bear repeating, but it is worth recalling that it was not a single meeting but a series of three, with each serving to embolden Hitler further.”
The chief danger when two heads of state meet to resolve conflicts occurs when one, who has no clear idea of his own national interests, is manipulated by his counterpart by playing on his vanity, credulousness or innocence. Even illness and physical weakness can be exploited. Stalin knew how to play the dying FDR like a fiddle.
Barack Obama, however, may view things differently. Obama implied that international tensions, and in particular the fall the Berlin Wall occurred largely because Presidents like Reagan were willing to talk to the Soviet Union. (See a video of Obama saying so here). He was pointedly contrasting the process of reaching out from what suggested was a timorousness in the Bush administration based on fear.
The idea that any and all international conflicts can be resolved by talking is a persistent delusion, particularly (but not entirely) on the Left. It is another example of Western wishful thinking: the idea that nations are like friendly businessmen cutting a deal, or neighbors discussing the exact placement of a fence between their adjoining properties. Foreigners may wear funny clothes and speak exotic languages, but inside they’re just like us. They’re reasonable people, and all we have to do is engage in conversation with them until we reach a point of mutual agreement, and then everyone will be happy.
The fact that this conceit has been proved foolish and dangerous over and over again makes no difference. The conviction that dialogue is the answer verges on a religious belief, and cannot be refuted by mere facts.
We are the ones we have been waiting for. We will make everything all right when we speak our magic spells. Just watch us.
There is an ugly little secret about the real world that high-minded people in Western Europe and the United States are unable or unwilling to recognize: not all differences are rational, nor can they be resolved by talking. National leaders may not be well-meaning people; they are more likely to be ambitious for power, bent on conquest, or full of religious zeal. In pursuit of their ends they can be ruthless, deceptive, devious, and manipulative.
Not everyone is a starry-eyed idealist. Not everyone is a deranged altruist. Some leaders simply pursue their interests single-mindedly, and some of them do so unscrupulously, without qualm or compunction.
Why is this so hard to understand?
The idea that personal communications inherently carries within it the seed of understanding is the political analogue of Marshall McLuhan‘s famous adage that the “medium is the message”. In this line of thinking, whenever the medium is personal, the message is peace. But surely this is a half-truth. Historically, the outcomes of a President talking to hostile leaders depended not simply on the unmediated conversation, but more critically upon the substance of the discussion. It depended on what was said and conceded. For example, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval had many conversations with the Nazis for the purpose of cooperating with them. Laval was executed as a traitor in postwar France. In contrast Eisenhower’s staff also spent some hours talking to General Jodl for the purpose of arranging the surrender of German forces. Eisenhower was welcomed as a hero by an adoring public. The difference between the two negotiations can be summed up as follows: same medium, different message.
What matters is not the talking, but what’s behind the talking. Imagine that one party to a discussion just wants to get along, create a good photo-op, and bolster his political position back home in anticipation of the next election. His opposite number, however, is absolutely determined to annex a particular piece of territory, and doesn’t mind lying and dissimulating to achieve his ends. The first guy may oppose the second guy’s ambition, but he wants a nice conversation and good sound bites more than anything else.
Who do you think will reach his objective?
This brings us back to Rechtser, who has become a criminal for the contents of his website.
The Dutch government made an example of him because above all else they want people to talk sweetly to one another. It’s the modern Western cultural ethic: everybody must play nice. Anybody who calls names or sticks his tongue out has to go to bed without his supper.
But the hollowness of this position is shown up by the fact that extremist Muslim websites in the Netherlands are not held to the same standards when it comes to hate speech. They’re ruthless and dedicated. They’re into violence and incitement, and playing nice is not part of their game plan. They’re too mean for the powers that be to confront, so they get a pass.
It’s like a photo-op American president talking to the Premier of Brutopia. The Brutopians are mean, nasty, and duplicitous. They know what they want, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. They’ll be nice if it suits their interests, and slit throats when it becomes necessary. President Bozo doesn’t stand a chance.
One side is looking for a talking cure. The other side is seeking something quite different.