Mar 18th 2017

Wilders vs. Spinoza

by Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler is Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

MADISON – A Dutch demagogue stirs up his followers in a campaign against immigrants. Appealing to the public’s fears and nativist passions, he declares the culture of the immigrants antithetical to Dutch values and denounces their religion, which “scandalizes Christians,” as a kind of infectious disease.

In speeches and essays, he claims that the faith of these immigrants, while perhaps sincerely held, “does not have God as its source.” If they cannot be converted, they should be expelled from the country and sent back to the lands from which they came.

Sound familiar? It certainly recalls Geert Wilders, whose Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, or PVV) set the tone in the Netherlands’ just-completed election, which was won by other parties that appropriated parts of his xenophobic message.

In fact, it is a description of one of Wilders’s spiritual ancestors, the Calvinist theologian Gijsbert Voet (Gisbertus Voetius), the self-proclaimed protector of the Dutch nation, who later became the rector of the University of Utrecht. The foreigners against whom he was inveighing in the 1630s were the Sephardic Jews who, at the turn of that century, began fleeing the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal and had found refuge (and prosperity) in Amsterdam, and the Ashkenazi Jews arriving more recently to escape pogroms in the east.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Voet’s anti-Jewish campaign had little lasting influence on public policy in the Netherlands. The Jews were allowed to practice their religion openly, live where they wanted, and enjoy – as well as contribute to – the economic and cultural flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age.

Wilders, while lacking Voet’s scholarly credentials, represents no less of a threat to the Dutch tradition of openness, freedom, and toleration. His diatribes against Muslims and his self-proclaimed defense of “Dutchness” are all calculated to appeal to the basest ethnic proclivities of citizens.

The PVV has argued for the closing of all Islamic schools, the required “assimilation” of all immigrants (whatever that means), and even the prohibition of halal (Islamic) slaughter. (At one point, the PVV was against allowing even kosher slaughter.) These and other measures are meant to make the Netherlands a hostile place for Muslims.

Centuries before Wilders arrived on the scene, and just a few decades after Voet was fulminating against a Jewish presence in the Dutch Republic, the Dutch-born philosopher Baruch Spinoza – himself of Portuguese-Jewish background – was composing a powerful set of arguments against a politics of fear. Spinoza worried that the liberal and secular commonwealth, in which Protestants, Jews, and even atheists and (to some degree) Catholics were allowed to go about their business, was under threat from political and religious demagogues seeking to steer Holland away from its official policy of toleration. (The republic’s founding document, the Union of Utrecht of 1579, proclaimed that “every individual should remain free in his religion, and no one should be molested or questioned on the subject of divine worship.”)

What most concerned Spinoza was the way unscrupulous leaders could stir up religious passions and manipulate citizens’ fears. Above all, it was encouraging the fear of eternal damnation that enabled ecclesiastics and their political allies to control the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

Spinoza thought that there was no more pernicious superstition than the belief in the immortality of the soul and a post-mortal heaven and hell in which the virtuous are rewarded and the wicked punished. Citizens who are led by fear are “slaves,” in bondage to irrational passions, and thus willing to give themselves over to those who claim to know best how to achieve personal (and national!) salvation.

Spinoza’s goal – his overall philosophical, moral, and political project – was to see a politics of fear replaced by a politics not of mere hope (which is no less a passion than fear) but of reason. Such a politics implies that decisions of state are made on a democratic basis and with a clear-eyed vision of what would truly be best for all members of the polity.

Wilders did not win the Dutch election, as many had feared; but that does not mean his ideas have lost. As the Dutch now confront the results of their most consequential election in decades, we can only hope that they heed the lessons of their most famous philosopher and do not allow themselves to be governed by fear and hate. Let them stand by the values that represent “Dutchness” at its best.


Steven Nadler is Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
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