By Stan Persky | May 30, 2002

The usually sober-minded, tolerant, easy-going Dutch held a federal election last month and elected a dead man. Not just any dead man, but an assassinated, flamboyantly gay, anti-immigrant, allegedly far-right-wing, dead man named Pim Fortuyn.

In the wave of mourning that engulfed the Netherlands and its May 15 parliamentary elections, the Dutch threw out a more or less competent social democratic government, which had presided over years of a buoyant economy, low unemployment, and enlightened social policies, and replaced it with a right-of-centre Christian democratic government. The Christian democrats, who secured a plurality of seats (about 40 out of the 150 available), will ally itself in a governing coalition with the late Fortuyn’s list of newly-elected amateur MPs, who got about a quarter of the Dutch ballots in heavy voting.

There was understandable world attention given to the terrible killing of Fortuyn–the first political assassination in the Netherlands in centuries–but once the Dutch electoral contest was settled, the important issues underlying the dramatic events quickly faded along with the international media’s short attention span. The motives of Fortuyn’s killer, allegedly some sort of animal rights activist, according to sketchy press reports, remain a mystery.

There are 3 questions outstanding: 1) Who was Pim Fortuyn and what did he believe? 2) Is the Dutch election another ominous sign of the revival of the European Right, and maybe even a New Fascism? 3) What about the problem of immigration?

The most interesting aspect of the chaotic post-mortem on Fortuyn was the North American media’s rapidly shifting "construction" of this unusual political figure. The assassination, coming immediately in the wake of the French presidential elections in which an extreme-right-wing, anti-immigration candidate accidentally became a finalist in the run-off contest, gave the media an initial purchase on Fortuyn. The dead man was at first lumped in with other extreme right-wingers, such as France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, Austria’s Jorg Haider, or the far-right parties of Belgium, Denmark and Sweden.

But there was a big problem with this identification. First, once the reporters started rooting around to write their profiles of Fortuyn, they quickly discovered, since it wasn’t a secret, that Fortuyn had been openly homosexual, and what’s more, was a rather flamboyant gay man with a shaved head, a chauffeured Bentley, lapdogs, and a lust for appearing on TV. That is, he didn’t at all look like your usual grumpy, racist, proto-fascist. Second, as respected European commentator Neal Ascherson noted, Fortuyn "had no time for neo-Nazis, welcomed non-whites into his party, and loudly attacked Islam for its intolerance of gays," even as he declared that the Netherlands was "full," immigration should be curtailed, and immigrants should be required to assimilate in certain ways to Dutch culture. Finally, with respect to race, it wasn’t difficult to learn that when Fortuyn was asked on TV if he talked to, for example, Moroccans, he had replied with complete insouciance, "Talk to them? Why, I sleep with them!" Hardly the sentiments of a standard opponent of immigrant strangers.

So, Fortuyn was, over the week or so between his death and the election, reconceptualized by the media day by day. Gradually, he emerged as a "populist" right winger (whatever that means), or alternately, as simply a "maverick" politician who had shaken up the cozy consensus arrangements of the major parties by saying aloud things that a lot of people in Holland had been thinking. Then, satisfied that it had a handle on Fortuyn’s location on the political spectrum, the media succumbed to its usual instant amnesia. Once the votes were tallied and it was clear that Jan Peter Balkenende, head of the Christian Democrats, a former philosophy professor and a Harry Potter-lookalike, would likely become the next prime minister of the Netherlands, the late Fortuyn slipped from the sightlines of the North American press.

But was Fortuyn simply a maverick populist? Is that the correct pigeonhole for him? Or is contemporary European politics more complicated than the categories available in the media? We’re unlikely to find out–at least from that selfsame media. Former students of Fortuyn’s (he had been a sociology professor at one time), adamantly denied that he was a racist, describing him instead as your average Marxist-leaning intellectual. Further, he had published several books (in Dutch), including a sexually explicit autobiography, prior to his brief and meteoric political career in the city of Rotterdam, where he had burst onto the stage by winning a large chunk of the vote in a civic election less than a year ago.

Is it possible that Fortuyn was, in fact, a legitimate critic of multicultural relativism, and a proponent of certain minimal standards of assimilation to make immigration work? Now of course it’s also possible that while Fortuyn had some fairly sensible ideas about the problem of immigration, he still might be blamed for bringing together, intentionally or not, the scattered forces of racism within Dutch society. (I’ll come back to that issue in a moment.) But my main point here is that we’re unlikely to know who Fortuyn was and what he believed, at least insofar as we’re dependent on the daily blab. Even the handy Google search engine is of limited help. Barely a fortnight after his death, except in the Netherlands itself, Fortuyn merely exists in a few minds, to make a bad pun on the title of Canadian playwright John Herbert’s homoerotic drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes.

The second question, about the dangers of a fascist revival in Europe, can be dispensed with more easily. The answer is, No, there’s not a sudden recrudescence of fascism. There is, however, an ongoing political struggle–one that’s been in progress ever since the reconfiguration of Europe after World War II–between forces of what we’ve conveniently labeled the left and right. That struggle currently focuses on such issues as immigration, crime, the nature of government, and the future of the European Union.

Yes, there’s racism, and yes, far-right parties (ones beyond the normal spectrum of traditional conservatism) can command 15 per cent or more of the vote in many EU countries. And yes, there has been in recent years a broad move to the conservative right-of-centre (not the far right) and away from the social democratic left-of-centre. But a shift to the right is not the same as a shift to neo-fascism. To give one recent example: in the latest German provincial election, which took place last month in Saxony-Anhalt in
former East Germany, the social democratic government was resoundingly defeated, and replaced by an orthodox Christian Democratic regime. East Germany’s former communists, a now moderate entity known as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) came in second (the social democrats dropped to third), and the local extreme far-right party came in nowhere. Despite general cries of alarm, the specific results of that election provide no cause for alarm of any sort, unless you’re a worried social democrat wondering why your party has become so lacklustre.

Much of the confusion about neo-fascism is a result of the distortions introduced into the picture by the recent French presidential election. However, what happened there was not an omen but a combination of accident and leftist stupidity. Because many people stayed home and because many leftists voted for fringe left candidates, the socialist candidate for the presidency, former prime minister Lionel Jospin, was knocked out of the race instead of assuming his expected place in the second-round run-off contest. The candidate who came in second was Jean-Marie Le Pen, who didn’t ride a wave of new support, but simply maintained the far-right vote, about 15 per cent, that he had been receiving for a decade. It turned out to be good enough for a second place finish in a fractured field.

Since most people outside of France, and the North American media were relatively ignorant of the situation, the run-off second-round contest between the conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac and Le Pen was rhetorically billed as an "historic" struggle against fascism. It was a battle that Chirac handily won by an 80-20 margin. The French street demonstrations against Le Pen’s extreme rightism may have made for impressive TV visuals, but were not all that important. The whole thing can be more accurately regarded as French farce, and a series of unhappy blunders. The defeat was not of fascism but of Jospin, a reasonably decent socialist politician.

Finally, there’s the issue of immigration. If most of the foregoing is a matter of clearing away misconceptions, this is a matter of substance. In the story about Pim Fortuyn, this strikes me as the one actually important question. Unsurprisingly, it was the question that got minimal attention in the media treatment that followed his death. That is, it was referred to repeatedly as a hot-button issue, but was almost never actually discussed.

With respect to that muted discussion, the left has been part of the problem, and not just in Europe. Social democrats have more or less refused to address public concerns about immigration and have largely substituted piety for thinking when the topic is broached. Anyone who raises any question about immigrants is often accused of racism (sometimes the accusation is accurate, but often it is not). Instead of debate, a patina of political correctness has been applied to questions of immigration and multiple cultures, and the eyes-glazed-over claim that all cultures are of intrinsically equal worth passes for a truism. Well, it’s time to wake up.

There are legitimate questions about immigration in the modern world, as we Canadians are perhaps more aware than others. The basic question is one of balance: What should be required of immigrants politically and socially? At the same time, how can the host country respect the cultural affiliations of the new citizens?

Pim Fortuyn, as it happened, was one of the people asking pertinent, if discomfiting, questions. "In Holland," he noted, "homosexuality is treated the same way as heterosexuality. In what Islamic country does that happen?" Good question. Fortuyn further observed that "Christianity and Judaism have gone through the Laundromat of humanism and enlightenment, but that is not the case with Islam… We have a separation of church and state. The laws of the country are not subject to the Koran. We have equality of men and women… whereas in Islamic culture women are inferior to men." As well, Fortuyn duly noted that a good deal of the increase of crime in the Netherlands was statistically identifiable as perpetrated by immigrants (often on other immigrants). I don’t know whether or not Fortuyn’s claims were accurate, but they’re susceptible to verification if anyone is interested in checking. Fortuyn apparently advocated increased state spending to make it easier for immigrants to become Dutch citizens in good standing and to assimilate to the going culture. He also argued that discriminatory features of Islamic culture should be resisted in Dutch public life. If this is extreme far-rightism, or maverick populism, sign me up. But of course it isn’t extreme or maverick anything, even though people who are actual extremists will hop onto the passing bandwagon when such views are voiced.

The syndicated columnist William Pfaff, one of the few people to actually talk about immigration in the aftermath of Fortuyn’s assassination, argues, "In terms of the political system that a given community has adopted for itself and the values to which it is committed, it has every right to set terms on which it is prepared to welcome immigrants." Pfaff is assuming, I take it, a democratic society with standard U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights-type legal systems, since those are the systems faced with immigration demand. Folks aren’t yet champing at the bit to get into China (unless maybe they’re North Koreans) or Saudi Arabia or Somalia.

I’ve long thought that Canada is a pretty good example of how to deal with immigration, while a country like Germany provides the counter-example of how not to do it. The weak sense of national identity in Canada–where almost everyone is an immigrant and those who aboriginally aren’t don’t particularly want to be regarded as Canadians–makes immigration a lot easier to handle than in Germany, France, or England. In order to be a good Canadian, you don’t have to pick up the cultural traits expected of good Germans or Frenchmen. All you have to do to become a Canadian in good standing is uphold the liberal principles embodied in the Canadian Constitution and learn to speak one of the two national languages. What’s more, if you happen, for cultural or religious reasons, to be opposed to some of Canada’s constitutional values, you have the right to politically campaign to change them, as long as your campaign is conducted according to the country’s principles of non-violent political change. Pretty simple. And it works, at least so far (knock on wood).

What’s happened in Canada in the last half-century is that a few million people who started out as Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, etc., have turned into (mostly) English and French-speaking law-abiding Canadians. The process takes about a generation or so, and relies primarily on the institutional availability of public education. If grandpa doesn’t get much beyond the family home after he’s been brought over from the "old country" (as they called it in my immigrant family), the kids soon are at home on computers, togged out in terrible trendy clothes, and listening to Eminem rap piped into their heads when they aren’t yakking on their mobile phones. At the same time, ethnic groups are publicly supported in maintaining other languages, customs and religious beliefs. Once in a while we squabble about things like whether Mounties can wear Sikh turbans or not, and we usually resolve the squabble in favour of tolerance.

I’m not pretending that the process is perfect or that it hasn’t generated considerable redneck resentment–a minority of which may well be justified–but the Canadian experience is far from, say, the contrary example of Germany’s handling of its more than 2 million Turkish residents. A good deal of the mess there can be attributed to the policies of both conservative and social democratic German governments, who imported large numbers of Turkish "guest workers" in the 1950s and 60s, to provide muscle for the German "economic miracle," and then simply left them to their own devices. Instead of a clear-cut policy, much of Germany harrumphed, We are not an immigrant nation (this quickly became a racist code-phrase). Part of the problem, however, can be blamed on the clannish Turkish community, who simply stayed in their enclaves, were largely legally unable to become citizens, and did little to assimilate to Germany’s linguistic or political culture. The young men were sent on periodic visits to the homeland to find "a nice Turkish girl," and brought her back to Deutschland. It’s now two generations later and, by everyone’s account, it’s still a festering mess, despite belated efforts by the current social democratic-green government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to provide an avenue by which German-born children of Turkish descent can easily become German citizens.

A few provisional conclusions in a far-from-conclusive discussion: 1) Immigration is a legitimate subject of public debate and those of us on the social democratic left should not content ourselves with bland pieties. 2) Popular perceptions (even if they’re often misperceptions) about immigrants, crime, and all the rest, should not be ignored. 3) Public discussion of such touchy matters as seeking a "balance" of immigrant sources (let’s get a few more Czechs or a few more Thais rather than just a million more Brits, say) should not be treated as racism. 4) It’s permissible to criticize the cultural customs of others. If somebody wants to practice what they call female circumcision and what we call female genital mutilation, we are justified in preventing them. Of course, if they can get a majority of citizens to change the law, well, then we’ll learn to live with it. 5) Immigration as a topic should not be surrendered to conservatives and extreme right-wingers. 6) We should persuade immigrants, from whatever cultural backgrounds, that our values–with respect to free speech, tolerance, non-violence, separation of church and state, and even such matters as Canadian public medical services–are superior to most other alternatives going, and deserve to become universally embraced values.

Although we’ll probably never know for sure, in a weird way, Pim Fortuyn may have been someone who agreed with a lot of the above propositions.

Berlin-Bangkok, May 30, 2002 2758 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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