May 07, 2006

Remembering a Valiant Man

As usual, I'm too late with a memorial piece, but this bit from Peaktalk is too good to be missed and I am publishing it unabriged.

Pim Fortuyn, who was mind- and senselessly killed yesterday three years ago, was one of the rare original thinkers who unexpectedly spring up in Europe from time to time and much too scarcely.

He is sorely missed.

Today it is three years ago that Pim Fortuyn was shot by an animal rights activist, ending the life of a great political mind and someone who was very close to becoming prime-minister of the troubled Dutch nation.

Pim’s impact today can probably best be summed up by the words that he must have spoken when his old friend Theo van Gogh showed up in the afterlife last year: “see Theo, I told you so”.

Rather than rehashing what happened or his legacy in Dutch politics I think it’s far more important to once more reflect on who Pim was and why he came to the positions and ideas that formed the basis of his short political career. Both Dutch and foreign media, and the blogosphere too, have not always done a great job here. One of the best pieces was written by Bruce Bawer who as an American in Europe probably had a far better perspective than Dutch commentators who were too close to the situation or poorly informed foreigners writing from a distance.

Fortuyn was above a child of the 1960s, politically on the left, openly and proudly gay and an academic with a PhD in sociology. Hardly the material that makes a conservative but it was the collectivist and politically correct environment at Groningen University, in particular the Marxist leanings of his faculty, that contributed to Pim’s steady rightward journey. One of the most notable incidents that influenced his political thinking was a situation where Pim as member of the university board had worked both hard and creatively to achieve some cost-savings measures where all parties had been allowed input – it dealt with the catering services - but where at the very last moment the employees union nixed the plan as it meant they would lose their treasured status as government employees. Fortuyn was furious and it encouraged him to abandon the publicly funded academic world, literally by striking out as a self employed consultant in Rotterdam, the nation’s most culturally diverse city. His consulting work rapidly transformed itself into writing books and speaking engagements and he became a celebrity, especially among entrepreneurs and business owners with his eloquent speeches about the stifling impact of the omni-present welfare state. Pro-business talk show hosts gave him room on TV and a media star was born. His message wasn't limited to economics though. At the same time he started to take on the negative impact of a rapidly growing Muslim population in The Netherlands with well reasoned books and articles, pointing out that the greatest difficulty people often face is social change.

His critical notes on immigrants and his economic conservatism may have contributed to the label ‘right’ or for his many friends in the traditional media, ‘fascist’, but Pim was at heart a true liberal in the original meaning of the word. For a self-employed gay man who had lived through the tumultuous 1960s and had witnessed at first-hand the value of the achievements of these years, he was the first one to point out that maybe it was time to start defending them rather than continue the journey into the abyss of cultural and moral relativism. For the media and the political establishment to brand him as a dangerous and extreme-right zealot hurt deeply, although he never showed it. Instead he smiled, his message gained momentum after 9/11 and despite the ongoing vile attacks of the Dutch media and the political establishment he gained an incredible amount of popularity.

While his critics tried to demonize him they at the same time pointed to his likely inability to manage the nation as a cabinet leader. Pim always replied that he would manage the nation by speech and if you think about that it is hard not to compare him to Ronald Reagan. Both men had traveled from the left to the right over a long period of time and were able to use their unique gift to connect with the public and translate their political journeys into compelling messages that struck a chord left and right, leaving their opponents dumbfounded. Fortuyn was intellectually more gifted than Reagan and would probably have become quite pro-active in running the nation on a day-to-day basis as opposed to the hands-off management style of the American president. But both men however recognized that changing political attitudes can only be effected by actively guiding citizens through times of social and economic upheaval through an endless repetition of ideas and a vision for the future. That implied that at one point the highest office in the land needed to be captured so that it could be used as the pulpit for incessant message delivery. Fortuyn never got there, but Reagan did and it seems that Americans have indeed had some more exposure to the low-tax, peace through strength message than their Dutch friends.

That brings me to one last striking similarity. Both men took bullets, although Pim didn’t survive. That’s what we’re remembering today.
I'm not sure whether I'd support the comparison of Pim Fortuyn with Ronald Reagan wholeheartedly when even the author himself has his own reservations. Yes, the former was much less of a "populist" than the latter, but the crucial difference, as somebody who knows Holland as a close neighbour sees it, is that Pim Fortuyn's murder was not, like the assassination attempt of Reagan, a freakish accident perpetrated by an equally freakish loner, but the logical outcome of his country's policies.

However, as a near-contemporary of Pim Fortuyn, I know what insight, honesty and backbone it takes to partly denounce, partly re-evaluate one's former ideals. He "who had lived through the tumultuous 1960s and had witnessed at first-hand the value of the achievements of these years... was the first one to point out that maybe it was time to start defending them rather than continue the journey into the abyss of cultural and moral relativism." That is the point, isn't it? And it cost him his life.

What a terrible waste!