The Magazine

The "Fascist" and the "Activist"

The media get the late Pim Fortuyn wrong.

May 20, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 35 • By DAVID BROOKS
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THE PRESS, Tom Wolfe noted in "The Right Stuff," is a Victorian gentleman. After each event, the Victorian gent struggles to find the correct emotional response. Once the correct emotion has been discerned, it is repeated and recirculated with a pious self-assurance familiar to 19th-century drawing rooms. All data that support the correct emotion are emphasized, while all that do not are ignored.

On May 6, the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated, and an expression of troubled concern came over the press's collective visage. This violence is disturbing, the Victorian gent pronounced, especially in a country as peaceful as the Netherlands (the correct emotion to have toward the Netherlands is that it is liberal and tolerant, if a little drug-addled).

But Mr. Fortuyn wanted to drastically scale back Dutch immigration, and even in the face of his murder, the members of the press would be neglecting their gentlemanly duty if they did not lead their readers to the correct emotional response to this factoid. The Financial Times hence labeled Mr. Fortuyn a "far-right extremist." The New York Times called him a "far right leader" and compared him to France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and Austria's Jorg Haider. (The Times also called Fortuyn's alleged assassin an "environmental activist"--activism perhaps being the term of choice for the action of putting five bullets into far-right extremists.)

The European press, which since World War II has assigned itself the noble mission of suppressing the views of the European masses, was even more aggressive in repeating and enforcing the correct line vis-a-vis the newly dead Dutch pol. Mr. Fortuyn, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo declared, was an "incendiary racist" and a "distant heir" to Hitler. The Irish Times labeled his views "anti-democratic," which was odd since his views were being expressed in the context of an election campaign. Aftonbladet, the most popular Swedish newspaper, likened him to a brownshirt--a fascist. In Germany Der Spiegel called him "the voice of hidden racism."

But there were some facts that didn't fit neatly into the Fortuyn-as-Le Pen stereotype. All the news stories mentioned that Fortuyn was gay, and did treat this as an intriguing wrinkle. However, they did not point out, since it would have been confusing, that Fortuyn was actually a champion of what you might call a radical gay lifestyle. He boasted of his promiscuity, of his nights spent in the back rooms of gay bars, the delight he took in the male prostitutes he kept around the house.

Fortuyn was also an enthusiastic supporter of drug legalization and laxer rules on euthanasia. Unlike Le Pen, he was not an opponent of free trade and globalization. While Le Pen loathes what he calls Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism, Fortuyn admired Margaret Thatcher. Confronted with bloated government, Fortuyn once declared, "I will borrow that handbag from Margaret Thatcher, bang it on the table, and say I want my money back."

In other words, Mr. Fortuyn was something of a libertarian, which puts him in an entirely different camp from Le Pen, Haider, and the others. But Fortuyn was not simply a libertarian, he was a nationalist libertarian. Mr. Fortuyn was proud of his country as a haven for liberty, gender equality, acceptance of homosexuals, soft drugs, and alternative lifestyles.

But he perceived that most Muslim immigrants to Holland did not share these views. Muslims now make up one-eighth of the Dutch population, and in many cities over half of the young people under 12 are Muslim. "In Holland," Fortuyn asked, "homosexuality is treated the same way as heterosexuality. In what Islamic country does that happen?" Speaking of Islam, he declared: "How can you respect a culture if the woman has to walk several steps behind her man, has to stay in the kitchen and keep her mouth shut?"

Fortuyn wrote a book called "Against the Islamicization of Our Culture," defending Dutch liberty against what he saw as Muslims who don't seek to assimilate and share the tolerant attitudes. Fortuyn summarized his argument in an interview shortly before his death: "Christianity and Judaism have gone through the process of enlightenment, making them creative and constructive elements in society. That didn't happen in Islam. There is a tension between the values of modern society and the principles of Islam." Fortuyn wrote another book called "Fifty Years Israel, But For How Long?" defending Israel against Islamic extremism. Israel, he argued, is an open, tolerant democracy under threat from closed, intolerant dictatorships.

What confusion for the Victorian gent! In the parlors of polite society, social tolerance sits side by side with multiculturalism. They are two pastries on the platter of polite opinion. But Fortuyn was socially tolerant, even libertine, and it was for that reason he felt he could not be a multiculturalist.