One of the most bizarre aspects of being an American in Western Europe — at least if you’re an American who has opinions and is used to expressing them freely — is getting accustomed to the fact that there’s no First Amendment over here. Some of us grew up thinking of Western Europe as part of the “Free World.” But how free is a country if it doesn’t recognize freedom of speech as a fundamental right?
I’m old enough to remember the landmark case in the late 1970s when a group of Nazis wanted to hold a march in the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie. The story made headlines nationwide and sparked intense debate. The ACLU took the case; the Supreme Court ruled for the Nazis. But it was not a victory for Nazism — it was a victory for the Constitution. It affirmed that the First Amendment really means what it says, and that the United States really is the land of the free.
I grew up hearing many Americans speak of Western Europe as if its values were somehow superior to our own. After I began traveling to Europe and then — as a European resident — began traveling extensively around Europe, I came to love many things about the old continent. But not even in my most Europhile moments did I believe that it would be a good deal to trade in the Bill of Rights for its European equivalents.
In recent years, the superiority of America on this score has been affirmed again and again, as one Western European government after another has prosecuted individuals for saying or writing things that were deemed unacceptable. In a preponderance of cases, these prosecutions have been for statements about Islam. Some of the defendants — Oriana Fallaci, Brigitte Bardot — have been famous.
But no case has been more sensational — or more bizarre — than that of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. The Dutch general elections on June 9 propelled the Freedom Party, which Wilders founded and heads, into a position of real government power. Yet even as he was beginning to flex his muscles, he was hauled into court for speaking his mind.
I’ve met and interviewed Wilders. I liked him. He was kind enough to write a blurb for my book Surrender. In person he is thoughtful and soft-spoken — nothing like the ranting demagogue that his detractors portray. On several occasions, moreover, I’ve expressed my admiration for his courage in the face of Muslim death threats, which oblige him to live behind several layers of armed protection.
I’ve also frequently defended Wilders against those who have routinely labeled him a fascist or extreme right-winger. Taking him at his word, I’ve described him as, essentially, a libertarian, a man whose antipathy for Islam is rooted in his love of individual liberty. In criticizing Islam, after all, he habitually cites the religion’s brutal subjugation of women and violent intolerance toward gay people as reasons to be concerned about the Islamization of Europe.