The Diffusion of Stupid and Offensive Ideas

by Erik Voeten on August 30, 2012 · 10 comments

in Comparative Politics

A Dutch parliamentarian, Kees van der Staaij, thought it was a good idea to echo Todd Akin and pronounce on Dutch television that it is a “fact” that women almost never become pregnant after rape. He went as far as to put a specific number on it: 0.5% (The Dutch newspaper NRC went through the trouble of looking at  studies on which this number could have possibly been based and found, naturally, that it was hogwash).

So why would a politician say sh*t like this? He clearly was aware of Akin’s remarks and the responses to it, although he now purports to have been completely blindsided (in Dutch) by the outrage his comments have generated. The answer is pretty straightforward: there are situations where this type of negative attention may help a fringe party such as Van der Staaij’s SGP.

The SGP is one of the most reactionary parties in Europe. It is a Christian Conservative party that was finally forced in 2006 to allow women to become members. It still prohibits women from standing for elected office (although the Dutch Highest Court has ruled that something needs to be done about that). It would hardly seem necessary for a party like this to advertise its beliefs that women shouldn’t be allowed to choose much of anything. Yet, the party is routinely ignored by the media unless its spokespeople say something offensive about gays or women. However, even that is difficult. The party has long held that abortion should not be allowed even after rape. This viewpoint no longer gets the media juices flowing. Yet  the Akin theory that the female body has magical properties that shut down its reproductive channels in cases of rape seemed to do just that in the U.S. A nice opportunity to draw some attention a few weeks before an election.

For most politicians in most electoral settings mimicking Akin would be a bad idea. But the SGP has two seats in a proportional representation system. It would like to have three seats, as it did in the past. It is not going to attract mainstream voters so it has to draw the attention of voters with fringe ideologies. Geert Wilders has long been a master at this: looking at the US public space as a laboratory to figure out what types of opinions create maximally divisive responses; and thus attention. European political parties have long mimicked the campaign strategies of their American counterparts but now at least some of them also seem to be mimicking their campaign gaffes (although Van der Staaij was smart enough not to talk about “legitimate rape”). If you can think of any more examples from this phenomenon from other countries, I’d look forward to reading them.

{ 10 comments }

Craig Burley August 30, 2012 at 9:54 am

Political trolling. It’s nothing new; but I like the idea of the lunatic fringe keeping tabs on each other everywhere to cause maximal attention-getting chaos.

Joost August 30, 2012 at 11:22 am

This post reminds me of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

What I mean with that is that the theory posited here, that Van der Staaij deliberately said something outrageous in order to kick up a media firestorm, seems a little far-fetched. It would seem strongly out of character for the leader of the most strictly culturally austere, the most media-averse, and the most inward-looking party of the Netherlands was following the example of the ever-flamboyant Geert Wilders and deliberately court media controversy. I mean, this is a party that until earlier this decade didn’t air any television ads and whose leaders, IIRC, did not even appear on TV for any interviews because television was seen as a sinful medium. If there is one party that would seem unlikely to purposefully go for a gimmicky media stunt, it’s the SGP.

The SGP’s voter base relies almost entirely on long-standing fractional religious loyalties, and not on any appeal to swing voters of any stripe. Whereas the competing Christian Union has, since the 1990s, purposefully widened its outreach beyond the specific denominations it initially represented to evangelical and other christian voters from all currents, the SGP has seemed entirely uninterested in appealing beyond its own specific church community. It does not need to either. The strict denominational loyalty within this community has yielded an unparallelled stability in parliamentary representation. The SGP has alternately held 2 or 3 seats in parliament ever since … 1925.

I can not look into Van der Staaij’s heart, of course. But I would be very surprised if the man said what he did on the basis of some premeditated media and electoral outreach strategy. The more probable, and arguably scarier possibility is that he simply believed what he said – and said it in spite of any potential public backlash, since it would not affect a party like his anyway. Keep in mind that even after Akin, there are still plenty of evangelical figures in the US who believe Akin was right too. The man from whom Akin got his theory from about the female body “shutting down” in the case of rape, Dr. Jack Willke, founder of the International Right to Life Federation, has just sent out a letter saying that “the pro-life movement and I unequivocally stand with Rep. Akin.” Willke added that his book, “Abortion, Questions and Answers,” includes “a full chapter” on the theory Akin raised, “fully documented,” which “completely exonerates” him. And Akin has welcomed and publicized this letter, suggesting he hasn’t really changed his mind himself either. If anything, many in the right-wing evangelical movement believe Akin was unfairly abandoned by the GOP leadership.

The idea that a woman is less likely to become pregnant in case of rape, an article in The Week (of all places) explained at some length, goes back centuries, in both Europe and the US. It’s only natural for those who oppose an exception for rape in anti-abortion legislation to grasp for such a belief to ease their conscience. Van der Staaij’s religious community is at least as self-contained as those of the religious right in the US – it has its own newspaper and community groups, and avoids confrontation with sources of information that present opposing perspectives. With Hanlon’s Razor in mind, I think it much more likely that Van der Staaij simply let slip what he naturally believes, and what he reads and hears within his community on a day-to-day basis, than that he ‘went Wilders’ and deliberately kicked off a media firestorm in order to attract floating voters.

Erik Voeten August 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Joost: I appreciate your comment. Perhaps I am too cynical but I don’t buy that Van der Staaij is as naive as you make him out here. He may very well believe what he says but as far as I know he had not uttered this publicly until he went on two tv shows in one day just a few days after the Akin firestorm erupted (and a few weeks before the election). Hanlon’s razor has merit but there should also be a name for the fallacy to think that “true believers” don’t act strategically (perhaps there is already a name for that).

Mariano T. August 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Women very seldom become pregnant after ANY sexual relation.

Johan van Gorp August 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I’m prone to agree with Joost here. The article assumes that Van der Staaij went to a media outlet and actively advertised this position based on what he saw happening in the US. However, he was merely repeating what the SGP believes based on a question asked of him by Frits Wester. If you look at the interview, you’ll see that Frits Wester asked him the question – presumably based on what was happening with Akin. So it is the media that seems to be drawing its cues from what happens in the US, not the candidate. So to assert that ideas are spreading from the US to Europe – “the diffusion of stupid and offensive ideas” – is right, but not the way in which the picture is painted here. The SGP has for a long time asserted such beliefs; it’s not as if they suddenly decided to make a point out of it based on what was happening to Akin in the U.S. Instead, the Wester appears to be drawing his ques from what is happening in the US. By interviewing the leaders from one of Europe’s most reactionary parties, Wester in all likeliness knows he’ll get an outrageous answer, which in turn will make for headlines and great television.

Erik Voeten August 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I agree partially in the sense that the SGP has long held that abortion should be prohibited even in cases of rape. The repetition of Akin’s argument that women have a magic property that defends them against becoming pregnant if they are raped was discretionary (note that he actually volunteered American research to back this up in a radio interview). So yes, he was asked about this because of Akin but if had simply defended the position without reference to the biological wonder woman theory there would not have been much of a fuss.

Maurits August 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm

I am inclined to agree with Erik. When I was growing up, a pretty good chunk of my relatives were SGP voters; they always struck be as very dogmatic about God’s word, but not particularly inclined otherwise to buy into pseudoscience. Moreover, I have read a lot of Dutch parliamentary debates, and Van der Staaij does not come off as naive.

P.S. I notice a distinct pattern in the names of those responding to this post :-)
P.P.S. I see that Van der Staaij will be celebrating his birthday on election day. Maybe he’s hoping this controversy will give him a birthday gift of a 3rd seat?

Joost August 31, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Yes this post definitely got the Dutch readers of The Monkey Cage out of the woodwork :)

fnn September 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm

For now at least, you’re all part of the American Empire:
http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2008/01/how-i-stopped-believing-in-democracy.html
(…)
“Europe was conquered in 1945, but it was not conquered by Plainland. It was conquered by Georgetown. As I wrote here, the ideas now popular in Europe are obvious descendants of what the most influential people at State believed in 1945. The various so-called “parties” in Europe are mildly-flavored versions of this belief system, which becomes completely homogeneous in the upper elite. Brussels has no politics at all. It doesn’t need it. The situation is under control.

What Europeans call “anti-Americanism” is actually a belief, generally quite sincere, that America is not living up to her own ideals of 1945. “Anti-Americanism” might be better described as “ultra-Americanism,” or perhaps “Georgetownism.” And it certainly has nothing to do with the any pre-1940 negative perceptions of America. There is minimal cultural continuity between Europe before the war and Europe today. All the institutions were purged, all the individuals have finally kicked it. The Dutch who let you smoke weed in their cafes and the Dutch who ruled Indonesia might as well be on different planets. The former are thoroughly ashamed that they are even descended from the latter. And the latter are dead, which is probably a blessing.”
(…)

It’s kind of nutty to get hysterical about a very marginal party going from two seats in parliament to three. But I’d vote for Party for Animals if I had the opportunity.

fnn September 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Elaboration-with some redundancy:
http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/08/secret-of-anti-americanism.html
(…)
“Second, while it is not unusual for humans to believe nonsensical calumnies, anti-Americanists tend to be the best-educated, and generally most fashionable and sophisticated, people in their countries. It is not unusual for fashionable and sophisticated people to believe nonsense, but they need a strong psychological motivation to do so. Moreover, the obvious motivation – ethnic nationalism – tends to be quite unfashionable among these same elites. Not even French anti-Americanists believe that it’s wrong for America to rule the world, because France should be ruling it instead.

Third, anti-Americanists don’t actually seem to hate America or Americans. At least this is my experience, though of course there are exceptions. Often the line is that the US is the greatest country in the world, or would be if it lived up to its own values. Or they will tell you that they love the American people, but they hate the American government, Bush, etc.

Fourth, the world capital of anti-Americanism appears to be… America. Certainly, if there is a system of institutions in which anti-Americanism predominates, it’s the Western university system, certainly the West’s most prestigious universities are in America, and certainly anti-Americanism is no hardship to an American academic career. Where does Noam Chomsky teach? Not at the Sorbonne.

Here is my explanation of these four unusual facts. Your mileage, as usual, may vary.

First, I believe anti-Americanism is best described as an epiphenomenon of Universalism. The single most significant fact about the world today is that sixty-two years ago it was conquered by a military alliance whose leader was the United States, and whose creed of battle was this nontheistic adaptation of New England mainline Protestantism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the European ruling class holds essentially the same perspectives that were held at Harvard in 1945. The US Army did not shoot all the professors in Europe and replace them with Yankee carpetbaggers, but the prestige of conquest is such that it might as well have.

It makes sense to view anti-Americanism as a postwar phenomenon, because it’s hard to find anything in Europe’s prewar political scene that corresponds to it. Before WWII, a European who found American influences pernicious was most likely a man of the Right, generally either an anti-Wilsonian aristocrat or a Bonapartist nationalist demagogue. After the war, and especially since the rise of the postwar-educated generation of 1968, European anti-Americanism has been overwhelmingly on the Left. Considering the animosity between these factions, it’s hard to find any continuity between them.”
(…)

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