Homo Politicus: On the case of Pim Fortuyn
A paradoxical politician
Ever since he first appeared in the political arena in the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn had been a resolute and loudmouth iconoclast, a new type of politician for whom paradox became a trademark: an elitist populist, a permissive paragon of virtue, and a modern traditionalist. This public figure, who first made an impressive appearance in local elections on March 15, 2002, and headed for nationwide triumph during the general elections on May 15, 2002, seemed destined for success under the glare of the cameras.
Nowadays, the construction of a political persona must be taken literally; there is no leading politician who hasn’t had in-depth media training and expert hair styling advice. Fortuyn, in contrast, was a natural talent. His short, catchy phrases never seemed to stem from high-paid ghostwriters, but instead appeared to be the result of his own incisiveness. His media savviness can certainly be attributed to his long-standing experience as a professor facing packed lecture halls at various universities combined with his past career as a columnist. Still, it escaped no one’s attention that his quick tongue and flamboyant manner in front of the camera was inherent to his temperament. Fortuyn was an exceptional, homosexual. Perhaps complex, but very normal.
The political is the personal
How can Fortuyn’s election slogan, “At your service,” be understood as anything other than a sleazy double entendre – a roguish allusion to Fortuyn’s own sexual activities that transpired in, according to his own words, the dark rooms of gay clubs? “At your service” meant as much as “I am available”. It was clear to close observers that this newcomer to the political stage had learned the rules of the “taking and being taken” game in a completely different arena outside of the public sphere. The military salute accompanying the slogan could be read as an energetic gesture. However, it equally suggested – at least the way Fortuyn himself performed it – a parody of the rituals of the formal club, which constituted not only the “violet” government, (Red and blue: Socialists and Liberals) but which continues to represent the political class through and through. Prior to and also after Fortuyn’s death, various commentators have pointed out that his rudimentary party program had the effect of a proverbial bull in a china shop on the established order. The same can be said about his image as a respectable, yet universal outsider: the boisterous gay queen cocking a snook at the “straight establishment”. Even if Fortuyn was “queer,” his ideas were “square.” His verbose language coupled with his simplifying solutions, compelled his predominantly heterosexual voters to gladly excuse his homosexual coquetries. These voters were not so eager to talk about the fact that their Pim was a homo. That detail didn’t obscure the fact that Fortuyn expressed their political opinions.
The success of this openly gay politician among the homosexual electorate, on the other hand, is hardly surprising. As long as equal rights for homosexuals are unrealized, there is a constant need for public homosexual role models. The first openly homosexual prime minister in a modern democracy would, for many, have been conclusive proof of a truly tolerant society. The fact that large segments of the homosexual community applauded Fortuyn’s aspirations for a representative position, mainly illustrate the appalling limits of apolitical sexual politics. He gained ground during the pre-election phase predominantly with politically uninformed homosexuals. But, it can indeed be regarded as highly astonishing that in a country, which otherwise reacts in an oversensitive way to pedophilic scandals, a considerable number of heterosexual, often morally outraged, citizens voted for a declared pederast. In interviews, Fortuyn did nothing to conceal his interest in very young men or his fondness for rimming.
It would never entered the minds of the ladies and gentlemen who comprise the press to ask heterosexual politicians about their sexual activities. Fortuyn, however, obviously enjoyed his confessions. Like no other person relishing such a presence in the media, Fortuyn succeeded in utilizing the elicit information he imparted regarding his sexual activities and his sexual tolerance as a protective shield against the much more severe allegations of open racism. Fortuyn was the first politician to voluntarily break away from the asexual sexual politics that still dominate the media. No matter how much sex belongs to what goes on in the media and in public life, any public person who is actually associated with sex risks being humiliated and demonized. If there’s something politicians have learned from Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, it is that sex appeal, in their field, better not end in actual sex. Fortuyn was all too aware of the fact that in the age of media saturation a sex scandal hovers above the heads of each and every politician, and all the more so, if they’re homosexual. He kept control over any scandal from the very beginning, so that other opportunists wouldn’t step in and do so instead. He was never threatened by being caught in flagrante delicto in the way George Michael was. He never wanted his sexual identity to be incinerated by sex. At the end of the day, he was the man who said what he did and did what he said; the first politician to take ass-licking literally.
How can political truth coalesce with an open sex life – a publicly homosexual sex life at that? How does a social reputation go along with anonymous sex in dark rooms? Fortuyn’s premature death leaves these brand-new questions for contemporary politics unanswered. His indecency, no doubt, helped promote his lightening rod career as someone who represented provocation. The long-term effects of this unusual image can only be assessed in a provisional way. Other contenders with similar inclinations are certain to follow. As the sexual practices, which at first sight appear as deviant for the majority of heterosexual voters, will perhaps, upon closer examination, result in a lasting recognition. Fortuyn, in the end, was not only a politician with daring preferences; he was a neoliberal politician with a unique and distinct taste. And aren’t the traits of the free market, so joyfully acclaimed by the neoliberals, precisely fun, desire and difference?
In the eyes of many undecided voters, this openly homosexual politician was indeed able to represent the firm: a standing rock against the tide; a person who dared to talk about his sexual identity – especially if it clearly deviated from the norm – and who succeeded in keeping his private life under control. Such a person definitely sends a clear message to a society that seems to be changing as fast and as extreme as a white-water raft floating out of control. In addition, sexual tolerance and allowing for new forms of sexuality are signs of modernity. Social visibility of homosexuality (e. g., in the lively residential areas of homosexuals in large cities such as Shanghai, Tokyo and Paris) is regarded as the standard for measuring the beneficial aspects of globalization.
Fortuyn did not refrain from abusing this modernist aspect particular to his sexual status. He just had to contrast the wonderfully permissive Netherlands with those countries in which (homo)sexuality remains taboo. He loved pestering conservative Islamists, because every time they felt compelled to rant and rave about unnatural practices and Western decadence, he was able to underscore his progressiveness.
This time tested racist tactic is a sad cliché, something which homosexual couples certainly experience themselves in the more affordable and thus “ethnically” mixed residential areas of larger cities. Anytime someone pisses into their mailbox, or scratches their car they’ll find their year-long Moroccan neighbor pointing his finger at the newly arrived Congolese refugee. Previous victims of stigmatization know how to stigmatize. Fortuyn seems to have been no exception to this rule, and he held the immigrants responsible for the rising crime rate. He immediately wanted to terminate the Schengen Agreement, close down the national borders and determine ethnic quotas for each city, residential district and school. His simplistic proposal to first see to it that order prevails in the Netherlands and then work on the rest of world ironically resembled one of the secularly founded resolutions of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. With his possibly even more insane intent to do away with all computers in Dutch schools, he displayed a close affinity to the ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, who caution against the Internet, because it opens up the gates to the outside world.
While Fortuyn would have nothing of limiting sexual morals, he couldn’t get enough of limiting what national identity is. “Homosexuals can act as they like, but foreigners must act according to what is deemed proper. It’s about time to strike back, with complete self-control, but effectively and hard, and make the Turkish, Moroccan, Surinam and Antillean communities responsible, without beating around the bush, for the bad behavior of groups from their communities. Our task is to form a people and a nation in order to survive, and that implies that foreigners either participate to the full and feel themselves as Netherlanders, or return to where they came from”. This is how the populist from Rotterdam briefly summarized his assimilation program. He was the first Dutch politician who knew how to position nationalism above a societal agenda. He got extremely angry whenever his city suddenly turned into a Little Istanbul anytime the local Turkish soccer team won. Chances are that his conservative, heterosexual voters thought he same about the yearly Gay Parades in their towns – up until this emancipated homosexual in a suit and tie made it clear to them that “in our modernized part of the world” queers of all sorts and origin strive for normalizing these chaotic conditions.
After the debacle with the Leefbar Nederland Party, Pim Fortuyn, who as top candidate was forced to quickly establish his own list for the parliamentary elections. Suddenly, the attractive 27-year-old communications manager João Varela of Capeverdian origin, wound up in second place. João Varela is, in Pim Fortuyn’s story, a bit reminiscent of Whity. Not so much because the genealogy of many people coming from Cape Verde is determined by frequent métissages - between black male and female slaves and white colonialists, but because Varela was a fortunate foreigner in Fortuyn’s story: a successful businessman and therefore almost a perfect Dutch. In addition, he was said to have offered himself to spontaneously help out chic Mr. Fortuyn at the very moment he was being stigmatized as a racist. Varela appeared as Mr. Fortuyn’s perfect butler. By being included in Fortuyn’s list of candidates, the Capeverdian communications manager of a cosmetics firm wanted to help invalidate the allegation of Fortuyn being a racist. One could call this strategy a strategy aimed at pigmenting nationalism. A profitable partnership!
Even the alleged murderer of Pim Fortuyn involuntarily contributed to Fortuyn’s de-stigmatization. An hour after Pim Fortuyn was murdered in a parking lot at Hilversum’s media park, the spokesperson of the local police had good news: the alleged murderer was arrested, and even more, he was a white Netherlander, a fact that was especially emphasized. Not only migrant organizations were relieved. The overall relief was similar to when it turned out that Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was murdered, not by a Palestinian, but by a radical Jew. The fear was, shortly beforehand, that Fortuyn might have been killed by a foreigner, something that would have publicized Fortuyn’s unambiguous racist statements. But it could have also been the result of a primarily racist reflex: was this again the act of a foreigner!? Fortuyn’s racism, however, was not a motivation for the murder. If Fortuyn was killed by a white Netherlander instead of a foreigner, it would have been an understatement, so to say. In this case, Fortuyn’s so-called racism was not that bad after all. In all of the interviews after the murder, Pim Fortuyn’s family insisted that Pim was a symbol for all Netherlanders, regardless of race.
But the harsh political reality will soon take on another look. After Fortuyn’s murder, the inevitable question of his political heritage soon followed. Who would be his successor as party chairman? And – even more interestingly – who would take his place as candidate for prime minister? A number of Dutch media pointed out with great satisfaction that second on the list, João Varela, could perhaps become the first black prime minister of an European country. The irony was widely recognized, but speculations were formulated quite seriously. After Pim Fortuyn’s murder, all hands were on deck to guarantee a stable political order in the Netherlands, and the mainstream media contributed their part to sorting out the chaos they had helped create. The fact that for the first time a black person might become prime minister of the Netherlands was expressed as a subtle threat: now that Pim Fortuyn is dead, you better not cast your vote for Fortuyn’s list, because your vote could then have the contrary effect. Just imagine: a black prime minister! It really needn’t be said that Fortuyn’s party never seriously considered running João Varela as their new chairman. And Fortuyn’s voters understood right from the beginning that Pim was smart enough and that a foreigner was only necessary for the good cause.
The criminalization of immigration
Other European countries have also discerned that nationalistic parties include foreigners– not for the sake of making their original party program more moderate, but, quite to the contrary, as a strategy to radicalize their programs. With migrants on board, nationalistic parties protect themselves against any suspicion of racism, just like women are used in order to invalidate the accusation of sexism. As soon as they prove that they are not racists, the nationalists can step up their nationalistic agenda. Fortuyn wasn’t honest when he said that foreigners already living in Hol- land could remain, but that no additional foreigners would be allowed in. This actually equates to nothing more than the new common sense of Western, so-called liberal democracies. The only difference of opinion is in regard to how large the crack in the door should be: a large crack, a small crack, or barely any crack at all. All European countries advocate for the enforcement of a repressive immigration policy, and Fortuyn would have preferred to be even more repressive. But even Fortuyn didn’t intend to shut the door completely. His idea to allow Danes, Germans and British in, but not Belgians, sounded like one of those Belgian jokes so popular in Holland. Fortuyn’s discourse was not heterodox, but – if you’ll allow – homodox, in the sense of doxa. Fortuyn loved the same principles as the ruling Dutch ministers – only he loved them too much.
Years ago, Stephan Heym questioned communism in the GDR by saying: what kind of system is it, if it can only function by obliging the people to remain inside the system? This question must be reversed in regard to capitalism: what kind of system is it, if it can only function by excluding people? The Berlin Wall may have come down, but the call to turn all of Europe into a reverse East Berlin is not to be heard loudly right now.
It’s not just about the image, the metaphor of a wall. Walls have already been built, and there’s barbed wire all around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the African continent. The wall between Europe and Africa is longer than the Berlin Wall ever was. So the Berlin Wall never really came down, it was just relocated. As the fall of the Berlin Wall took place not too long ago, and the demand for a new, much longer wall is currently increasing, one must assume that the Berlin Wall was a scandal only in the eyes of the nationalists. The wall was simply located in a false position. The wall should have been erected along the border to Poland. And since Poland will soon join the European Union, a wall should at least be built between Poland and Russia. We now have received initial reports from the Russian enclave, Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, that talk about a fear of being closed in. This should indeed give Europe, which a short time ago was highly moved by the pictures of the crumbling Berlin Wall, cause for thought.
Until recently, a West German who helped an East German cross the wall was considered a hero. Today, if a German helps a Russian enter the country, he’s either a left-wing anarchist or someone trafficking human beings. He’s a criminal in either case. In many European countries it is no longer possible to marry a foreigner without the marriage being meticulously scrutinized. Nationality and the right to remain in a Western country are forms of the “surplus gained” from a mixed marriage that, according to the marital contract, cannot simply be divided. For spouses born abroad, the surplus gained in terms of nationality and the right of residency can, in principle, not be alienated. This is a reason for the mistrust of the authorities, which by all means want to stem immigration. At the same time, this state of affairs could motivate us to come up with ideas. Perhaps marriage, the most exposed symbol of sexual traditionalism, can be re-utilized as an act of political progressiveness. A different world is possible: Let’s marry non-European foreigners! And so that homosexuals can also take this politically progressive step, we must of course endorse the possibility of marriage between homosexuals.
Herman Asselberghs is an artist, critic and writer. He teaches Film and Transmedia at St. Luke’s Hochschule in Brussels.
Dieter Lesage is a philosopher, author and docent at the art academy, RITS in Brussels.