“I don’t agree with the film myself but I want to provoke debate.”

The speaker is Mal Pearson, sorry Malcolm Everard MacLaren Pearson, Baron Pearson of Rannoch, of Bridge of Gaur, a fastbucks reinsurance tycoon elevated to the House of Lords in the dying days of the Thatcher era. Pearson is the prime mover in getting a showing of the controversial short film Fitna at the House of Lords tomorrow, prior to a discussion by various Lords and Ladies — the equivalent of an AV club half-day bludge when there’s no lesson prepared.

Fitna is a film essay by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, arguing that there is no such thing as moderate Islam, that the Koran is of a moral equivalence with Mein Kampf, and should be banned in the West, to “stop the Islamist invasion of Europe”.

Wilders was an unremarkable political staffer for the Dutch liberal VVD party for years, before setting up his own outfit called The Freedom Party, and taking on most of the policies pioneered by the murdered anti-immigration gay Foucauldian Leninist Pim Fortuyn in the early 2000s. If you think there’s something strange about a Freedom Party calling for book banning then ha ha ha you don’t understand Dutch politics.

In any case Wilders has now hit the jackpot, with the Home Office excluding him from entry as a person likely to disturb community harmony, which guideline should really rule out half our fellow countrypeople turning up at Heathrow with a Rabbitohs t-shirt, a slab and a “Free Face Rides” baseball cap. The Dutch government has vigorously protested this attack on free speech, particularly as it interrupts their prosecution of Wilders for erm “disturbing community harmony”.

Two hundred and seventy people have been thus excluded since 2005, many of them simply for their ideas and arguments, but the Wilders case has become a cause celebre for the trans-atlantic right. However, any defence of him is prefaced by the ritual “I don’t agree with his point of view, but…” which is necessary because the man’s a nutter.

Quite aside from the contradiction of the Freedom Party urging the banning of a book, Wilders’s other commitments to liberty include a proposed ban on Muslim headscarves in public — chemo patients will presumably have to carry a letter from their doctor — and the use of the army in civil policing. Wilders supporters, like Mad Melanie Phillips, taking a break from reintroducing measles to the UK*, have been more circumspect in their support for Wilders, partly because they were so badly burnt by the Theo van Gogh experience.

Van Gogh, maker of the short film Submission, (ostensibly from a script by Ayaan Hirsi Ali though the film bears little relation to what she wrote), was murdered by a Muslim Dutch citizen angered by scenes in which parts of the Koran were written on a woman’s body. Van Gogh became an unambiguous hero to the Right who weren’t aware that the man was a nihilist provocateur, whose anti-Islamic enthusiasms were simply a continuation of his earlier anti-Jewish tirades.

“Auschwitz smelt caramel when they burnt diabetic Jews,” he told a magazine in 1991.

When a female historian objected, he accused her of “wanting to f-ck Dr Mengele”. Oh, a great standard-bearer for European civilisation.

They haven’t made the same mistake this time, but the strategy is the same, which is to find the most extreme obsessive, disown the content of his views and then promote the crap out of him. The object is to take a debate that should be complex and nuanced — the character of Islam, how a pluralist society deals with groups that profess literal beliefs in a single Truth (Christian as much as Islam), etc etc — and push it to the point where people have no choice but to cleave to their fundamental loyalties.

As with the Mohammed cartoons controversy, there’s a fundamental and wilful misunderstanding of the role of offensive speech in an open society — one should be willing to cause offence if it’s necessary to making a substantive argument (including satirical or comic ones), but make an effort to avoid it, if the only purpose is offence itself. Free speech carries a responsibility to be serious about its exercise. Wilders of course believes that it is legitimite to ban people and texts for the common good, so he has no real comeback to his own banning — except to say “not me, them”.

Fitna, Submission and the Mohammed cartoons having nothing much more to say than “we’re being provocative”, fail the seriousness test (though they should not be banned). Mind you, they meet their match with the UK and Dutch governments, both desperate to suck up to their own multicultural voting blocs.

The champion of banning Wilders from entry is Lord Ahmed, a Labour peer, who managed to get an earlier attempt to show the film blocked on a parliamentary technicality, allegedly describing the move as a “victory for the Muslim community”**. His Lordship’s beliefs in the limits of judicious speech were less on display in 2005 when he hosted a book launch by a Swedish Islamic convert named Israel Shamir (ne Joran Jermas) to speak on the “Jewish appetite for empire” (sic).

On Radio 4, at the end of a debate about the issue, Lord Pearson — a member of the loopy UK Independence Party, largely composed of grumpy little Englanders — yelled “free speech!” and Ahmed parried, “what about my free speech?”, at the end of a half-hour nationally broadcast publicly-subsidised radio programme. It’s the proverbial Collingwood/West Coast game — somehow, you’d like them both to lose.

*Phillips, embarrassingly for her “anti-Green voodoo, etc” fanbase, continues to argue that the MMR “triple-jab” vaccine may cause autism, even though the argument has been thoroughly discredited, and now looks like a case of outright scientific fraud. The populist campaign against the triple jab has so reduced vaccination levels in the UK that measles has returned in force. For the record, I’m not suggesting she goes round infecting people.

**The necessity for governments to nominate scads of life peers to maintain power in the Upper House leads to some interesting news reports. The usual practice of old left Labour members was to use their full name as their title — thus in the 60s George Brown, changed his name to George George-Brown, so that when he became Baron George-Brown, he could still sign himself George Brown, and not, as a Lord does, simply “Brown”. Current adoptees of this pratice include Baronness Lola Young, a young black Glaswegian social activist, something I always find hilarious — a sort of equivalent of Viscount Les Twentyman, or Lord Gary Foley of Fitzroy — a reaction which many Britons, inured to the absurdity of it all, find racist.

The surname trick doesn’t always work — witness the elevation of a Cypriot-Briton Labour activist who now rejoices under the title Baron Adonis, which makes him sound like a DC comic superhero — all the worse since he’s a plain and weedy little man. Baron Black of Crossharbour is less an evil half-orc prince, than Canada Prison system inmate #41233112, Conrad Black. He, like Lord (Jeffrey) Archer and other convicted criminals continue to have the power to block legislation that a majority of elected representatives have passed.

Labour peers usually take their home suburb as their locale — Lord Ponsonby of Tooting Bec, etc etc — but you can take anywhere in the world. Thus a WW2 senior military figure became the splendid Lord Ironside of Archangel, in memory of the Russian port, where he had spent happy times waging war on the Bolsheviks in 1918. This is actually a hereditary peerage. As was that of Clement Attlee, first earl Attlee, who had sworn to abolish the system. His grandson third earl Attlee, still sits in the Lords — as a Conservative.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW