Sunday, January 2, 2011

Geert Bewilders

Every once in a while I have a clear sense that what I do has a positive impact outside of the academic community. Whether its large or small, I cherish it .... and, of course, blog it.

In this case, the story regards the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, a right-wing populist, leader of the "Freedom Party", which currently occupies 24 of the 150 places in the Dutch House of Representatives. The hero of the story is a blogger, René Erker, who is speaking out against his words and actions. His blog is titled "Stop the Danger of Wilders" (Dutch).

Mid-November, I got an e-mail from a former colleague of mine who knows the blogger and was helping to promote his blog. I share her sentiment of concern. In my view, Wilders gives the outside world a skewed view of the Netherlands and the Dutch political process, which could potentially work to damage the cooperative processes necessary to keep productive dialogue in motion and Europe and the world at peace.

But if the blog was intended to be pushing back against Wilders, it didn't quite get off to the right start. When I first read it, it had blasted off with two posts on the same day, with some entertaining rhetorical flourishes, but no information on who was writing or on the sources from which they were deriving their information. I wrote some words of critique to my former colleague, who passed it along to
René. The deal we struck was that if he would write one post a week until the end of the year, I would feature his blog in a post of my own.

René has followed through. I don't flatter myself that it's a big deal to be featured in a post on my blog. Especially, of course, since I usually discuss search and not politics. If the intended readerships of our blogs overlap, it is by chance. However, the interface of search to the real world necessarily touches on political issues. In this case, the link is that my past work in the area of user generated media (blogs and podcasts -- see references below) gives me an awareness of some of the issues involved with creating media that then gets read.

I don't claim to "understand" Wilders or why Wilders is able to claim so much space on the front pages of newspapers here in the Netherlands. Perhaps I could even be allowed to say that I'm "bewildered". He appears to spend a lot of time trying to get people expelled from the country on the basis of their system of belief. The Netherlands is a "Rechtsstaat", which means we have rule of law. Belief systems don't impact rule of law until beliefs cause people to break laws. In cases where that happens, then the courts take over. What's the role of the fulminating politician in keeping the Rechtsstaat running smoothly as it was conceived to run?

Is the concern that the core values of the country will shift? That people will vote to change the law? In the end, we are all linked to each other. Each time we turn to point to the shapeless nameless "Them", it simply evaporates. As a rule (Six Degrees of Separation), every person on the planet is separated from every other person on the planet by only six degrees. Imagine a project that would calculate Wilders' six degrees of separation to each an every human soul he harbors the wish to expel from Europe. What a graphic realization of the principle that there is no "Them". What there is instead is this: a series of long and challenging conversations between linked individuals, within linked groups, down the channels of the six degrees so that they finally reach all of us in a real way. The law is as stable as our network is strong.

What is the real danger of Wilders? In a way, by its existence (by the necessity for its existence!) says it all. Wilders obliges us to spend our time pushing back, responding one-by-one to the over-simplifications and push-button fomulations that he produces concerning the topics at the obsessive focus of his attention. Our work pushing back is the only way to restore the balance, to repave the arena for constructive discussion.

Here's the danger: The time we devote to Wilders push-back could be used for moving forward -- having the difficult conversations that we need to have with the people around us that are necessary to strengthen our society. Instead, we are stuck treading water.

Thank you to René Erker and the other bloggers that keep the current from sweeping us backwards. Keep giving us more links to each other and to your sources. And happy 2011!

He, J., Weerkamp, W., Larson M. and de Rijke, M., An Effective Coherence Measure to Determine Topical Consistency in User Generated Content. International Journal on Document Analysis and Recognition, Vol. 12, No. 3, pages 185-203, October 2009.

Tsagkias, M., Larson, M. and de Rijke, M. Predicting Podcast Preference: An Analysis Framework and its Application, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 374-391, February 2010.