In the wake of Pim Fortuyn’s assassination—Holland’s first political murder in some 350 years—the mystery of his ascendance has become his legacy. With that country set to hold elections this week, it’s possible that Fortuyn’s party will emerge as the most popular. That wouldn’t necessarily put it in power, given the Dutch system of government by consensus. But one thing is clear: The experiment that is the Netherlands has never seemed so vital, or so strange.
Begin with the killing, a real auto da fur, to play on the old old Inquisitional phrase. (The burning of heretics was called an act of faith, or auto-da-fé.) For a politician who doted on two small dogs to be murdered by an animal rights activist seems bizarre enough. But the fact that a flamboyantly gay man could get as far as Fortuyn is the greatest tribute to this radically liberal nation. Holland is a place where weed can be bought in coffeehouses and a 12-year-old can go to court to defend a relationship with an adult. Somehow, it all coheres into a highly functional state. Fortuyn argued that unregenerate Muslims are a threat to this way of life. He would have closed the Netherlands to new immigrants and pressured landed foreigners to Dutch up their act.
Fortuyn, who liked to call French paleocon Jean-Marie Le Pen “a petit-bourgeois nationalist,” struggled to shed the authoritarian taint. But he was willing to be as demagogic as any wannabe dictator. One of his favorite tactics was to debate an imam and let his opponent’s phobe-flag fly. A number of these clerics accommodated him by comparing homosexuals unfavorably to pigs, or warning that gay liberation would destroy society. If this sounds like Jerry Falwell on a feisty day (except for the aspersion cast on pork), remember that these imams weren’t part of the political establishment, as American fundamentalists are, but members of a widely despised minority. They may be bigots, but they are also victims of bigotry. So, in a sense, was Pim.
Homosexuals of the West are in transit from pariahs to parvenus, and the anxiety produced by this uncertain journey can easily express itself in a desire to transfer stigma to someone else. Perhaps this was what gave Fortuyn such a talent for skewering immigrants. Every time he bashed Islam, he “celebrated” his own emancipation.
Now that he’s pushing up tulips, conservatives have rushed to rehabilitate Fortuyn. Here in the States, he’s been embraced by neocons as a martyr, the Matthew Shepard of the managerial class. All the more reason to pin Pim’s politics down.
Was he a fascist? Not as we understand the word (though fascism might be facilitated by his rise). But he certainly was a right-winger. In America, any conservative could run on his platform, stripped of its planks on personal liberty. Fortuyn advocated slashing the public sector, cutting taxes, and cracking down on crime. Substitute African Americans for immigrants and any number of right-wingers would echo his views. Of course, no man willing to admit his yen for Maggie Thatcher’s purses, as Fortuyn did, could hope to lead the party of Ollie North. Imagine a politician who made a positive issue of his homosexuality getting a serious crack at the White House.
It was Fortuyn’s good fortune to be a citizen of the world’s only free state for gay people. But that doesn’t mean his perspective was uniquely Dutch. Beyond his immigrant bashing, Pim had much in common with an American homocon like Andrew Sullivan. Their coruscating styles are a perfect match, and so is their bright-eyed appeal to heterosexuals who consider themselves liberal. Both men rose in the liberal media of their countries by professing to be talking common sense, not ideology. Yet both belong to a new kind of conservatism that springs from the love that dare not vote Republican.
What ties homocons together, beyond their often-proclaimed libertarianism (except when it comes to the liberty of other minorities), is their postmodernism. They are flexible fliers, unlike the stalwarts of the far right, who seem rooted in rigidity. A figure like Pat Buchanan counts on fear and loathing to propel him. The gay right is certainly willing to exploit resentment, but it doesn’t require a backlash in order to grow. It has a more adaptable asset in the image of homosexuality.
A gay man can present himself with real credibility as an enemy of the system and a voice for change. Fortuyn was able to stand for freedom by the very fact that he was part of the ultimate newly liberated minority. Being out and proud allowed him to seem progressive, as did the flamboyance with which he proclaimed the most distinctive value in contemporary humanism: self-creation. When the negative connotations of queer culture are stripped away, what remains is a representing energy that is also very gay. This can be a deeply attractive trait for a politician, assuming a society that gets past homophobia—a place like the Netherlands.
The famous flaming of gay life is the surface manifestation of a deep faith in personal freedom. You can see this radical belief in the effulgence of identities on display in any queer parade. But in the hands of homocons, the same individualism can produce a syncretic politics that draws from all across the political spectrum. It’s possible to imagine the gay perspective on freedom inspiring an uncanny synthesis of feminism and cultural chauvinism, or racism and divine decadence. The gay right, with its blend of seemingly opposed beliefs, makes it rad to be trad. That’s why Pim was so appealing to the Dutch young.
But there’s a major difference between Fortuyn and his American cousins. He was a feminist, while our homocons are dedicated to the preservation of male power. Fortuyn’s outsider image stemmed from his sense of the political elite as an old-boy’s club. He wanted to replace it with something else entirely, whereas Sullivan merely wants in—this is a major part of what he means by the term virtually normal. That’s not a standard Pim aspired to. He had no beef with gay people who flamed or fornicated, whereas American homocons turn their anger on their own kind. This stance has taken them far in the media, always eager to be entertained by a homophobic aperçu delivered by a homosexual. In the Netherlands, that sort of shtick would be seen for what it is: minstrelsy.
The anxiety that still surrounds homosexuality in this culture is what makes our gay right so brittle, and so set against any queer who doesn’t meet the standard of respectability. But the saga of Pim Fortuyn shows what can happen in a society where the energies of gay people are unleashed. The potential for leadership asserts itself, and if the result isn’t always pretty, call it an unintended consequence of success. The goal of the gay movement is to liberate gay people. What they do with their freedom is something else again.
Richard Goldstein’s book The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right(Verso) will be published next month.