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Homo Politicus Pim Fortuyn: A Case study

BY HERMAN ASSELBERGHS AND DIETER LESAGE

The only thing missing was Elton John. Aside from that, Pim Fortuyn’s departure had all the ingredients of a modest remake of Princess Di’s funeral. It turned into a massive public display of the Dutch nation’s disenchantment and grief. A huge gathering of the national family turned the city of Rotterdam – the assassinated politician’s home ground – upside down.

Thousands of fathers, mothers, children, youths and pensioners erected makeshift roadside memorials out of farewell notes, bouquets and cuddly toys, providing the sort of TV material that had already proved its impact several years ago – the main difference now, of course, being the deceased in question. Fortuyn was not the innocent child bride who had publicly blossomed into an independent yet vulnerable woman. He was not the people’s princess who had single-handedly and at great personal expense guided the long-isolated British royal family into the modern world. Ever since his appearance on the Dutch political scene, Fortuyn had been a staunch and rowdy iconoclast, a new kind of politician who made paradox his trademark: an elitist populist, a libertine puritan, a modern traditionalist.

Unlike Princess Di, Fortuyn had already undergone his transformation by the time the mass media focused their attention on him. It was as if though his shift from the extreme left to the new right over the past few decades had never taken place, as if he had never advocated anything other than the self-professed common sense which he came to embody during those few first – and last – months of his political career. This public figure, who having dominated the local elections on March 15, 2002, now seemed bound towards a national victory on May 15, seemed made for the spotlight. Today the making of a political personality must be taken quite literally: there can be no political stars without extensive media training and expert hair stylists. But Fortuyn, by contrast, was a natural (and bald to boot, to the regret of many a hairdresser but much to his own benefit, effectively defusing any tricky questions that could have possibly endangered his ambitions for premiership from the start). His eloquent one-liners seemed to be the actual product of his own wit, not prompted by overpaid spin doctors. This was partly due, no doubt, to his years of experience addressing crowded auditoriums in various university departments and his past work as a newspaper columnist. Yet his sharp tongue and flamboyant camera appearances were an unmistakable part of his nature, or "proclivity," as it was once known. Fortuyn was the extroverted kind of homosexual. He may not have been ordinary, but he was perfectly normal.

"At Your Service"

How else to interpret this campaign slogan of Fortuyn’s than as a naughty double entendre, a mischievous allusion to the sexual activities our politican admitted he readily succumbed to in the darkrooms of many a gay club? "At your service" means being at someone’s disposal, being available. To those in the know, it was a clear sign that this newcomer to the political arena had learned the rules of taking and being taken in quite a different sphere than the public one. His accompanying military salute could be taken as a symbol of determination, but it also suggested – at least as performed by him – a parody of the rituals of the ceremonious "purple" Dutch ruling coalition and of politics in general. Both before and after Fortuyn’s death, more than one commentator pointed out that his rudimentary political program functioned mainly as a classic bombshell that shook up the status quo. The same can be said of his image, that of the impeccable but cosmopolitan outsider, the extravagant gay man who poked fun at the stuck-up straight establishment. Queer though he was, his ideas were square. His tough stance and simplistic solutions ensured that his mainly heterosexual constituents gladly forgave him his homosexual coquetry. His straight followers tended to overlook the fact that "their Pim" was gay. They didn’t care: he gave voice to what they felt.

That an openly gay politician should be so successful among the gay community, on the other hand, is hardly surprising. As long as equal opportunity for lesbigays goes unrealized, there remains a need for positive role models in the public sphere. For many, to have the first openly gay premier in a modern democracy would be effective proof of true social tolerance. Because in our Belgian federal organization a "prime minister" is different than the Dutch "premier," such tolerance has already been demonstrated in our case by the success of socialist Elio di Rupo, who served as prime minister for the Walloon Region. The staunch leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party, Di Rupo is a kind of leftist-populist – but equally dandyish, ultrapopular and gay – Belgian counterpart of Fortuyn, and as the mayor of his hometown of Mons, he can count on overwhelming loyalty among voters.

That Fortuyn’s bid for this highest of representative functions should have been applauded by the gay community mainly serves to illustrate the ghastly limitations of an apolitical sexual politics. Since the 1990s, it appears that for many gay people today, the ultimate social acceptance of one’s own homosexual identity is mostly a matter of buying into the consumer market’s appropriate niche. For this eager commercial market, gayness means being able to shop like any other affluent citizen. Brand awareness is more highly favored than political awareness. To invest in Dolce & Gabbana, Dior’s Higher, Kylie’s newest and Brad Pitt’s latest is to support the good cause: that is, the introduction of hip queerness into everyday life. For what could be more normal than to consume? It seems that a clever gay person who knows how to enrich boring politics with the hedonism of this entertainment culture can automatically count on gay voters – Fortuyn’s crass statements regarding ethnic minorities notwithstanding. Or perhaps he even struck a certain chord with that same gay audience there: after all, who harasses the boys in the street and steals their brand-new Nokia cell phones?

Explicit Politics

During the elections, Fortuyn was doubtless successful among politically unaware (or disinterested?) gays. The real miracle is how, in a country where scandals concerning pedophilia usually cause a public outcry, a considerable number of heterosexual citizens – morally outraged heterosexual citizens, even – voted for this self-confessed pederast. In interviews Fortuyn never made a secret of his love for young boys nor his fondness for rimming. It must be said that most Dutch journalists wouldn’t dream of asking an obviously heterosexual politician about his or her sexual habits, but Fortuyn visibly enjoyed such confessions. He understood like no other media celebrity that giving explicit details on his sexual activities would allow him to make his far bolder, blatantly racist and nonsexually intolerant statements unhindered. Fortuyn was the first politician to voluntarily depart from the asexual sexual politics that still dominates the media. For no matter how big a part of the media and the public domain sex may be, every public figure who actually gets associated with it risks humiliation and demonization. If politicians have learned one thing from the Monica Lewinsky affair, it is that in their particular field of work, sex appeal had better not lead to real sex.

Some gay media celebrities excel at desexualizing their own sexual identities. These openly gay pop stars, game show hosts and soap actors often seem to lead private lives devoid of sex. They are proudly normal, just like any straight celeb. In other words, no promiscuity, no limp handshakes, no nervous tittering, no boas or tutus. To each his or her own style, but it is often these esteemed gay folks who frown upon the participation of flamboyant leathermen and drag queens in the annual Gay Pride parades. These moralists seem to have redeemed their social stigmatization by means of a thorough makeover, and as if that were not enough to ensure their full media cooptation, they now advocate a general purge among their peers. Fortuyn never subscribed to this call for decency. He knew that in these times of full media exposure sexual scandals threaten the life of every politician, especially if they are gay. So he embraced such scandals from the start, to prevent other opportunists >from doing it first. He wasn’t going to get caught with his pants down, as George Michael did: his sexual identity would not be a sexless one. After all, he was the guy who "puts his money where his mouth is" – the first politician to take kissing ass in a purely literal sense.

Modern Traditionalism

How to reconcile political dignity with an explicit sex life, let alone an explicitly gay sex life? How to combine social respectability with anonymous, fleeting darkroom sex? Fortuyn’s premature death leaves such modern questions regarding contemporary politics unanswered. His indecencies no doubt contributed to his amazingly swift rise as an agent provocateur. The long-term effects of his unusual image still remain to be seen. Other candidates with similar sexual preferences will no doubt step forward, for perhaps those sexual activities which may at first seem aberrant to the average heterosexual voter may well lead to lasting appreciation in the long run. After all, Fortuyn was not merely a politician of daring tastes, he was also a neoconservative of distinct preferences – and pleasure, desire, and diversity just happen to be distinguishing features of the free market hailed by neoconservatives. In the eyes of many an uneasy and concerned voter, the unabashed homosexual may well look like a tower of strength. Someone who dares to make an autonomous decision about his or her sexual identity – especially one so clearly unconventional – and manages to stay in control over the private sphere that is the body surely must stand out like a rock in a society that is subject to such rapid and radical change it practically seems adrift. Moreover, sexual tolerance and the acceptance of new forms of sexuality are hallmarks of modernity. The social visibility of homosexuals (as in the emergence of lively gay areas in the cities of Shanghai, Tokyo and Paris, for example), in particular, is perceived as a measure of the more pleasant aspects of globalization.

Fortuyn never failed to exploit the modernity of his sexual status. He never tired of stressing the contrast between the wonderfully permissive Netherlands and those "backward" nations where (homo-) sexuality remains taboo. He loved to provoke conservative Muslims, because each time they responded with some diatribe about unnatural behavior and Western decadence, his supposed progressiveness only gained. This is an old racist technique, a tired cliché which gay couples in affordable (and hence ethnically mixed) metropolitan areas are certainly all too familiar with. When someone pees in their mailbox or scratches their car, their longtime Moroccan neighbor will point the finger at some newly arrived Congolese refugee. The former victims of stigmatization are adept at stigmatization themselves. Victims are great at victimizing. Fortuyn was no exception to this sad rule, openly blaming immigrants for rising crime rates and seeking to revoke the Schengen Treaty at once, close the national borders, and introduce racial quotas for all towns, neighborhoods, and schools. Ironically, his simplistic proposal that the Netherlands put itself in order first before concerning itself with the outside world seemed like a secular variant of the Taliban regime’s attitude in Afghanistan. With his possibly even more insane resolution to ban computers from all Dutch schools, he displayed a great affinity with those ultraorthodox Jews in Israel who warn against the Internet because it would leave the door to the outside world wide open.

If Fortuyn would have nothing to do with restrictions on sexual conventions, he was fervently eager to narrow the Dutch national identity. Gays could do whatever they please, but foreigners must adapt to Dutch customs. "It’s about time we strike back, in a very restrained yet effective and forceful manner, and plainly point out the joint responsibility that the Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese and Antillian communities have in containing the misbehavior of some of their numbers. We need to build a people and a nation in order to survive, so they must either adapt and become true Dutchmen, or they must go back to where they came from." This is how the populist from Rotterdam summed up his alien assimiliation program. The first Dutch politician who managed to put nationalism at the top of the public agenda got all worked up when "with each Turkish soccer victory, my hometown suddenly turns into Little Istanbul, as if we’re under temporary foreign occupation." Chances are that a large number of his conservative heterosexual followers felt exactly the same way about Rotterdam’s annual Gay Pride parade – until an assimilated gay man in a tailor-made suit managed to convey to them in plain terms that "in our part of the world, which is that of modernity," the odd homosexual favored the normalization of our complex existence. The Pigmentation of Nationalism After falling out with the "Leefbaar Nederland" ("Livable Netherlands") party of which he had been the leader, Pim Fortuyn suddenly had to assemble his own group of candidates to form his "Pim Fortuyn List" for the upcoming general elections. Joao Varela, a handsome 27-year-old communications manager for a cosmetics company who is of Cape Verdean origin, came in second. Varela is what you might call the "white boy" in the Pim Fortuyn saga. Not so much because the genealogy of many Cape Verdeans is characterized by frequent intermingling between black slaves and white colonists, but because in the Fortuyn saga Varela played the part of the "alien achiever": as a successful businessman, he was almost like a real Dutchman. Moreover, as the story goes, he voluntarily offered his services to the esteemed Mr. Fortuyn at the very same time when Fortuyn was being "stigmatized" as a racist: Varela was the perfect political butler. By joining Fortuyn’s list, Joao Varela wanted to help fight the bias against Fortuyn as a racist – something we might call the strategy of the pigmentation of nationalism.

Talk about profitable partnership!

Even Pim Fortuyn’s alleged killer unwittingly contributed to the politician’s destigmatization as a racist. An hour after the assassination in a parking lot in Hilversum’s "Mediapark" – bastion of the Dutch mass media – the local police spokeswoman offered some "good" news. The murder suspect had been apprehended, and what’s more, he was a white Dutchman, a fact that was greatly emphasized. Sighs of relief were heard everywhere, not least from immigrant organizations. It was the same sort of relief as that which met the announcement that the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been killed by a radical Jew, not a Palestinian. For a moment, people were afraid Fortuyn had been killed by an immigrant – perhaps a hint that they were well aware of Fortuyn’s racist remarks after all, or perhaps itself the result of some primitive racist reflex: It must have been a foreigner. Either way, Fortuyn’s racism had not led to his murder. If Fortuyn had been killed by a Dutchman instead of an immigrant, the general understatement went, then perhaps his so-called racism hadn’t been so bad after all. Hence, in every interview they gave after his murder, Fortuyn’s family always made sure to emphasize that Pim had been a symbol for all Dutch people, black and white. But the raw political reality soon turned out differently. After Fortuyn’s murder, the inevitable questions about his political heritage arose. Who would take his place as party chair? And, even more poignant, who would replace him as the would-be new premier? Some in the Dutch media suggested with a certain malicious glee that Joao Varela, the second candidate, could become the first black European premier. The irony was clear to all, but the suggestion itself was presented in a deadly serious fashion. After Pim Fortuyn’s assassination, it was all hands on deck for the Dutch political establishment, and the mainstream media, having been infinitely complicit in the political turmoil caused by Fortuyn, were now more than willing to offer their subtle contribution to containing that very same turmoil. The dry suggestion that a black premier might now come to power was no doubt meant as a subtle threat: Now that Fortuyn is dead, you’d better not vote for his party, lest there be contrary effects. A black premier, imagine! Needless to say, Fortuyn’s own party never seriously considered appointing Varela as its new chairman. As for the first woman on their list, who was briefly considered to be a serious candidate to succeed Fortuyn, she was soon found to be too hysterical; the night of the elections, she suddenly blew her fuses and disappeared from view. The alien achiever at number two, the clever blonde at number four: they proved their worth, but things soon returned to white-male-chauvinist-pig business as usual. Well, what else did you expect? Those who voted for the Pim Fortuyn List were the last to worry about all of this, having understood from the beginning that Pim was just playing it smart – that an immigrant and a woman could (only) serve the cause.

Criminalizing Immigration

Elsewhere in Europe, too, we see how nationalist parties welcome immigrants who wish to join them, not because they have strayed from their original political programs, but as a strategy aimed at the radicalization of those programs instead. After all, having immigrants on board protects them from accusations of racism, just as female members serve to protect them from accusations of sexism. Once it has been "proved" that they are not racist, the nationalists are free to pursue the radicalization of their nationalism. Fortuyn was by no means being original when he said that immigrants already in the country were free to stay but no newcomers should be allowed. In fact this has become the new doxa, or position, of so-called liberal democracy in the West. The only possible argument concerns how far the door must be shut: somewhat, mostly, or completely. Every European country has repressive immigration policies; Fortuyn simply wanted to add a little more repression. Even he never fully closed the door, even if to us Belgians his statements on its desired degree of openness seemed to have more to do with the latest Dutch Belgian joke than with any clear political statement: only refugees from the neighboring countries of Denmark, Germany and the UK were to be allowed (not >from Belgium, it should be noted). In short, Fortuyn’s discourse was not heterodox but (allow us our own little joke) homodox: that is to say, in keeping with the doxa. Fortuyn loved the same principles as the ruling Dutch statesmen, only he loved them to the bitter end.

Stefan Heym once asked about East German Communism, "What kind of system is it whose only validity rests on the forceful inclusion of its own people?" The same question must now be reversed with regard to capitalism: "What kind of system is it whose only validity rests on the forceful exclusion of other people?" The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the demand to make all of Europe a mirror image of East Berlin is stronger than ever. And it’s not just about image and metaphor: walls and barbed wire fences have already been erected around the African Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, a wall between Europe and Africa that is already longer than the Berlin Wall ever was. In other words, the Wall never came down; it has simply been moved. In light of how recently it came down, and how strong the demand for a newer, much longer replacement is, one might say the Berlin Wall was a disgrace mostly in the eyes of the nationalists: it was simply in the wrong place. It should have been built at the Polish border instead. And now that Poland is about to join the European Union, effectively rendering this option redundant, at least we should build a wall between Poland and Russia. And so the first panic-stricken reports are starting to reach us >from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea: they fear they are about to become… isolated. This should be enough to give Europeans pause. After all, how recently was it that we were driven to tears by images of people smashing up the Berlin Wall? Not so long ago, any West German who helped an East German over the Wall was a hero. Today, a German helping an illegal Russian into the country must be either an anarchist leftist or a human trafficker: a criminal one way or the other. It’s the same in many Western countries, where you can no longer marry a foreigner without a thorough investigation into the "validity" of your marriage. Nationality and the right to stay in a Western country are "fringe benefits" of a mixed marriage, and not to be divided equally after the marriage ends. For the alien partner, however, these benefits are fundamental and inalienable rights. Hence the deep distrust shown by governments who seek to bring immigration to a halt at all costs. At the same time, this ought to be an inspiring thought for us: maybe marriage, that supreme symbol of sexual traditionalism, should be recuperated as an act of political progressiveness. We can have another world – let’s all marry non-Europeans! And needless to say, so that gays, too, may join in this act of progressive politics, we firmly support the right to same-sex marriage.

A Funerary Migration

It may seem odd that the self-proclaimed keeper of Dutch values and traditions chose not to be buried on Dutch soil. Fortuyn had arranged long ago for his funerary migration to an Italian village, and had already ordered his grave to be built there. According to this Dutchman, Italy was the only place he had ever known happiness. But how could he have chosen to try his luck abroad? Especially when it is obvious that his corpse will never be able to adjust to the peace and quiet of his final resting place. The villagers fear that their usually quiet town will become a tumultuous place of pilgrimage for right-wing extremists and Dutch nationalists. Should Italy allow this Dutch funerary refugee within its territory at all? At the same time, it is probably no coincidence that the nationalist can only find true happiness as a tourist. The socioeconomic realities of one’s homeland never conform to the fictions which the nationalist entertains and seeks to impose on it. Yet it is when they are on holiday that nationalists can experience a country as they prefer to imagine it. Nationalists rarely deny foreign nations their own identities: on the contrary, to each country its own identity. Since tourism is nothing but an identity industry, it is the nationalist’s delight. All year long, nationalists live in a reality that has little to do with the ossified national identity they dream of. Only on holiday does this identity do exactly what they want it to: it expresses itself through monuments and architecture, national costumes, traditional processions, ancient and unspoiled landscapes, rituals and customs. Only on holiday do nationalists regain the idea of a nation which they are hard-pressed to find back home.

Translated from the Flemish by Sakhra l’Assal