Whose Good Fortuyn?

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The metamorphosis of the Netherlands from an exemplary nation to an example of Europe's continuing troubles with difference turns on the figure of Pim Fortuyn.

Charlie Bertsch

Friday, May 31 2002, 8:30 AM


This hasn't been a banner year for the Netherlands. As the World Cup begins in South Korea and Japan, its highly regarded football squad sits at home, having inexplicably failed to qualify. More seriously, the nation's status as a "model democracy" has been punctured by the revelation that a great many of its citizens share the same fears as their neighbors in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. There's a good chance that they are more perturbed by exclusion from the World Cup right now than they are by cultural relativism. But it's worth reminding ourselves of what has happened there, particularly at a time when one major news story -- right now it's Pakistan and India's dispute over Kashmir -- seems to erase its immediate predecessors from our minds.

The metamorphosis of the Netherlands from an exemplary nation to an example of the European continent's continuing troubles with difference turns on the figure of Pim Fortuyn. Even before Fortuyn's bizarre assassination by an activist for a cause that he had barely discussed, he was getting namedropped with regularity. When Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world by placing second in the first round of the French Presidential election, commentators frequently mentioned Fortuyn in the same breath as other leaders in Europe's Far Right: Le Pen, Austria's Jorg Haider, Italy's Umberto Bossi, and Denmark's Pia Kjaersgaard. But the focus was still on Le Pen, a known quantity with remarkable staying power.

That all changed with Fortuyn's assassination on May 6. Suddenly, this bald, beautifully dressed intellectual and his three-month-old party were center stage. Coming right on the heels of Le Pen's resurgence, Pim Fortuyn's rise to posthumous prominence has inspired the press to "compare and contrast" him with his reactionary counterparts on the continent. Yet as helpful as this exercise may be -- it's always a good idea to pay attention to the ways in which ideas transcend national borders -- it's bound to end in paradox. For, despite the fact that Fortuyn's stance on immigration resembles that of Le Pen, Haider, and other right-wing leaders, his refusal to identify himself with them sets him apart.

It is certainly possible that Fortuyn was more closely allied with Le Pen and his kind than he cared to admit publicly. But because he was murdered before his movement had the opportunity to show its true colors, he is destined to stand for something distinctly different. Whereas Le Pen, Haider, and other established leaders of the European Far Right sustain a political tradition hostile to the ideals of the Enlightenment, Fortuyn held out the possibility for an "enlightened" xenophobia. His statements on immigration make it difficult to write him off as the latest example of warmed-over fascism. There is ample evidence of this in the comments of ordinary people attempting to make sense of his legacy. The remarks of a Swiss gentleman participating in a BBC News forum after the assassination are typical. "It seems to me that he was not an extremist at all. He spoke out what many think - and say privately: every country asks from its immigrants to accept the core values and contribute to the society."

This is a case where perception is more important than fact. If the people who speak up in Fortuyn's defense imagine him to have been different from other leaders rallying against immigration, then his legacy will differ from that of Le Pen, Haider, and Bossi. Consider this statement included in Fortuyn's obituary from The Guardian. "Fortuyn's open gayness was fundamental to understanding his politics. His belief was that Muslim immigration undermined the society he cherished. For him, Muslims were people who hated gays, and thought women were second-class citizens. He told me: 'I have gay friends who have been beaten up by young Moroccans in Rotterdam. We need to integrate these people; they need to accept that, in Holland, gender equality and tolerance of different lifestyle is very, very important to us.'" Regardless of the ironies at work here -- intolerance of another culture's intolerance -- these are hardly the sentiments of someone who believes that the modern world is decadent.

It's important for those of us on the Left to bear this in mind, or we will lose sight of the real dangers posed by Pim Fortuyn's legacy. Unless the world economy gets a great deal worse than it already is, it's hard to imagine the Le Pens of this world making significant political headway. If nothing else, their brand of national socialism is bad for business. Just as Pat Buchanan found himself marginalized by the corporate giving that sustains the American Republican and Democratic parties, the traditional leaders of the European Far Right are sure to find that the only way of achieving real power is to betray the ideals that made their parties attractive to the poor and disgruntled in the first place. There is ample evidence for this in the trajectory of Austria's Jorg Haider. What makes Fortuyn so much much more frightening for the Left is the fact that his kinder, gentler intolerance fits the agenda of mutlinationals like a glove.

In this respect, the Fortuyn program is actually more like the "mainstream" conservatism of the Bush Administration than it is like Le Pen's impotent paranoia. Capital doesn't want to get rid of religion, but to divert it into consumerism. It's only when Muslims -- or Christians, Jews, and Hindus, for that matter -- follow through on the dictates of their faith that the trouble starts. Fortuyn tapped into a desire for integration that's fundamental to both capitalism and the political ideology that has helped it to colonize new territory.

The message he was able to articulate so forcefully is simple. Even the most modern society has limited powers of absorption. If the rate of immigration exceeds the rate of integration, the social fabric will start to fray. And the longer that this imbalance persists, the closer that this society will come to disintegration. For all the talk of how the European fear of strangers cannot survive in a heterogeneous society like the United States, any scholar of American history can list numerous occasions when anxieties of this sort were prominent. Indeed, the recent examples of Pat Buchanan and similar figures in Canada and Australia suggests that the difference between the Old and New World on this point is at most a matter of degree.

The challenge that Fortuyn's legacy poses for the Left is complex. We need to speak out against intolerance that masquerades as tolerance. No matter what Fortuyn and his supporters state publicly about the need to integrate Muslim people of color into modern Dutch society, the animus they have stirred up will undoubtedly lead to Arabs and Asians getting beaten up in the name of progressive values. But we also need to subject our own convictions to agonizing scrutiny. Civil rights are the sine qua non for the multicultural Left. You would be hard-pressed to find leftists in the developed world who do not believe that the liberty of women and homosexuals must be rigorously defended.

Multiculturalism has always had a blindspot where intolerance is concerned. So long as historically oppressed cultures are being united against the homogenizing power of corporate imperialism, left-wing coalitions are viable. But when those cultures are pitted against each other, as corporate imperalism does so effectively, the stress threatens to burst them apart. If Fortuyn's program is really a simplified form of corporate imperialism itself -- make everybody into consumers who tolerate difference in the marketplace -- then the Left must find a way of extricating the tolerance we can do without from the tolerance we must never forsake. As that last sentence implies, though, the word "tolerance" is unlikely to make the sorting easier. Perhaps it is time for leftists to spend more time thinking about the history of the concept as a way of moving on to something better. As you read the platitudes about football transcending borders that are sure to accompany the World Cup, remind yourself that the tolerance being promoted exists solely as a spectacle of consumerism. So long as we shop together but live apart, our commitment to difference will be shallow indeed.

Charlie Bertsch teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, USA and is a Bad Subjects editor.

Copyright © 2002 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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