The sorrow of the Netherlands

Tjebbe van Tijen
21 May 2002

The renowned British historian, Simon Schama, opened his epic portrait of the golden age of Dutch culture with the words: “It is the peculiar genius of the Dutch to seem, at the same time, familiar and incomprehensible”. In the days after the killing of Pim Fortuyn, it could be said that the resonance of this singular judgment came to be shared by the people of the Netherlands themselves.

(click for collage and poem)

In the most painful and shocking of circumstances, and under the intense, unexpected gaze of the world’s media, they became collaborators in a new enterprise: making sense of a still familiar but suddenly incomprehensible social landscape.

For a country, as for an individual, putting oneself under honest scrutiny can be a difficult as well as a necessary task. It is also one that, inevitably, generates insights and understandings that are different to those produced by outside scrutiny. Without these, no larger truth is possible.

This, then, is a first attempt to communicate to a mainly non-Dutch audience, some elements of politics and society in the Netherlands that form the background to the crisis the Dutch people are now living through. It is merely an overture, an invitation to the familiar strangeness of this northern European country of sixteen million inhabitants.

Puncturing harmony: politics in the Dutch lands

Every few decades Dutch party politics seem to need a shake-up and a wake-up to re-establish the power balance of the social forces in the country, be they good or bad. Just before and after the Second World War, the NSB (Dutch Fascist Party) and the Communist Party had brief periods of sharply rising support. In the early 1960s, three new parties successively emerged: the Boerenpartij (a protest party of farmers fighting the rationalisation of agricultural production), the Amsterdam-based Provos (an anarchist mockery of the parliamentary system as such), and D66 (Democrats 1966, a party advocating reform of the Dutch parliamentary system, including referenda).

Some of these parties (NSB, Boerenpartij) have vanished completely from the political scene. Others fused some of their ideas and membership into what could be called ‘regrouping parties’, new entities made up of bits and pieces of minor older parties, like Groen Links (Green Left, a funny fusion of former communists, Maoists, pacifists and radical Christians).

In the 1990s, a stable governmental alliance between Social Democrats (PvdA), free market Liberals (VVD), and the reformist D66 ran the country, consigning the main Christian Democratic Party (CDA) to a minor role on the opposition benches. This troika is labelled ‘purple’ in Dutch – the mix of the three party colours: red, blue and green.

This decade of ‘purple’ politics in the Netherlands was in itself a break with a much longer tradition of power sharing, in many cabinets, of the PvdA and the CDA, with one or two smaller parties added to make up a governmental majority.

The end of purple stability

The shake-up to this recent period of ‘purple rule’ had its first expression in local elections, with many locally initiated parties – often called Leefbaar-(Liveable) followed by the name of a village or town. The issues raised by these parties varied depending on the particular area. But in general they focused on ‘quality of life’ issues: recurring elements were environmental, housing, and traffic problems, and sometimes also questions about ‘foreigners’, be it the influx of refugees or lamentations about the lack of adaptation of other nations, religions and cultures to Dutch society.

After the success of such Leefbaar parties in some bigger cities in the mid-1990s, an initiative was made to try to bundle this locally dispersed force into a national Leefbaar Nederland party.

A short-lived reign

The bundling of loose parts implies the use of a binding element, and little coherence could be found in the diverse assembly of many of those local parties. Also, the initiators of the new Leefbaar Nederland party did not manage to formulate a coherent party philosophy or programme. So, as in older days when a new nation was looking for a king to help force a diverse population into a unified state, they started looking for a leader.

Soon a king was found and crowned in the person of a commentator on Dutch social and economic affairs, a former professor of sociology at the University of Groningen, a ‘coming out’ homosexual, and a provocative public debater: Pim Fortuyn.

But his reign over the new national party, which he was supposed to lead into the national elections on 15 May 2002, could be counted in days. Fortuyn’s strong statements on controversial issues, like the lack of integration of Muslims in Dutch society and the halt to accepting more refugees, led to a polarisation of public opinion. The disapproval extended also within the ‘eclectic’ structure of Leefbaar Nederland itself, with its base in many local and differing single- (or dual-) issue component parties.

Though some of these local party voters could associate themselves with Fortuyn’s views on ‘foreigners’ and ‘integration’, it certainly was not the highest common factor among them. A congress of Leefbaar Nederland even voted against such ideas and policies.

Fear of foreigners

Why, then, was Pim Fortuyn asked at all to become the leader and public ‘face’ of this party? The answer is to be found in the Dutch mass media – television, radio and the written press.

Fortuyn’s own position as a former columnist for a conservative weekly, Elsevier, his close relations with some Dutch television figures (especially on the commercial RTL channels), and most of all the irresistible attraction of his flamboyant figure that was making the rather dull Dutch political debate tasty again, meant that more and more journalists were eager to interview him, host his presence, have him join their debating table.

Selecting Fortuyn as party leader of Leefbaar Nederland meant a secure ticket to a lot of media exposure; it was the fastest and cheapest way to reach a mass audience. He had the charisma that the already bickering founders of this new party certainly had not. The leadership of the Leefbaar Nederland party was aware of Fortuyn’s ‘soloist’ tendencies, and the possible incompatibility of his views with part of its membership. At the same time they gambled, as they knew that some of Fortuyn’s views – giving expression to widespread ‘xenophobic’ sentiments in Dutch society – could attract growing support (it should be noted that the word ‘xenophobic’ means ‘fear’ of foreigners and certainly not ‘hatred’ of foreigners).

Free speech champion

It was, then, a double-dealing policy – trying to reach out to a wide spectrum of the electorate, both progressive and conservative – with Fortuyn as the Janus-faced priest. Fortuyn was to be allowed to express his radical views on religion and the position of foreigners, but not too explicitly, as that would alienate the more tolerant potential voters.

The problem was that Pim Fortuyn behaved like an absolute, not a constitutional monarch. He continued to express his ideas freely, and to make provocative statements. An article in the national daily De Volkskrant in early 2002 ended his leadership of the Leefbaar Nederland party. The article not only inveighed against the ‘backwardness’ of Muslim culture, it also announced that, once in power, Fortuyn would close Dutch borders to all refugees.

Moreover, Fortuyn stated that the amendment to the first article of the Dutch fundamental law in 1983, forbidding discrimination (“on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, or sex or on any other grounds”), should be scrapped, as it contradicted the older and more fundamental constitutional article protecting “freedom of expression” (article 7: “No one shall require prior permission to publish thoughts or opinions through the press, without prejudice to the responsibility of every person under the law”).

Fortuyn paradoxically also made reference, in this controversial interview, to the dangers of Muslim fundamentalists in the Netherlands wanting to deny him free expression of his homosexuality. As Fortuyn refused to recant his public statements, emphasising the need to be true to his convictions, he was relieved of his office by those he was supposed to lead. All this happened in the full glare of the media, making Fortuyn into a champion of free speech, the ‘only one’ in the nation who dared to speak his mind in public.

Landslide victory

Ejected from his throne at Leefbaar Nederland, Fortuyn had to found his own kingdom. He turned defeat into a victory, waving from his car at the press after he left the party meeting that had dismissed him, shouting “Watch me, I will be the next prime minister of this country!”

With a small group of followers, Fortuyn created a new party and within a few weeks rose spectacularly in the opinion polls. In his home town, Rotterdam, he won a landslide victory in the local elections, ending over half a century of social democrat rule (although other places, like the city of Amsterdam, were hardly touched by the ‘Fortuyn effect’).

After these municipal elections, some opinion polls suggested that Fortuyn’s new national party (Lijst Fortuyn) could become the second biggest political force in the Netherlands. As the established political parties saw their support shrink by the day, they were forced to direct their fire against the high-profile leader of this brand new party composed of otherwise obscure or indistinct figures.

Such labels do not fit

Fortuyn publicly employed a sharp, attacking rhetoric, and received the same in return. The usual vocabulary, made up of names and notions related to former dictators, was applied to him. Possible resemblances to Hitler, Himmler and Mussolini were tested, and the old pair of scissors to cut the social tissue in two halves could be found in many people’s hands – left and right, right and wrong – depending on their position in the political field.

Fortuyn was placed, from the beginning, on the ‘right’ side of this imaginary cutting line, which has its roots in the English parliament and the French assembly of two centuries and more ago: ‘left’ being those who want movement and change, ‘right’ those who want to fix and preserve. (One may ask if any society can be represented at all by such a simplified dichotomy. At best the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are mere markers on a scale on which opposing political forces in a particular society and at a particular historical moment can be compared.)

In the context of Pim Fortuyn and the Netherlands, this simplified dichotomy made little sense: after all, it was the ‘right’ which wanted radical change and the ‘left’ which was defending what they had attained. Yet demonic comparisons with actual political and religious figures from other countries were used by both sides in the election campaign. Fortuyn made a grotesque comparison between Osama bin Laden and elderly lady Els Borst, the Democrat party minister of health, because she had failed to shorten hospital waiting lists (thus, in Fortuyn’s vision, costing more human lives than the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre). Fortuyn in return was labelled as the Dutch Le Pen, Haider and Berlusconi. (He refuted all but the last comparison, perhaps because of a shared fondness for smart suits.)

Only in hindsight is this atmosphere of harsh rhetoric an element of the tragedy of 6 May; that explains why literally everybody, for or against Fortuyn, was so stunned by the violent act of one individual who went (for reasons still unknown) out of his mind and killed. Of course these glib labels do not really ‘fit’ and they do little to explain the realities of Dutch politics or society. Rather, this society needs to be explained, even by the Dutch to themselves, first of all in its own terms.

Fragments of Dutch identity

What are the relevant characteristics of Dutch society that are part of the ‘deep background’ of this extraordinary event in the country’s history, the murder of Pim Fortuyn? It is both too early and too late to make more than a preliminary sketch, so here are just a few pointers on the way:

It is a country that has a tradition, over centuries, of covering up social differences and problems: with elaborate charity distribution systems within its own borders, yet a ruthless slave trade and exploitation of people in distant colonies.

It is a country that has been able successfully to link freedom of trade with freedom of expression (in that order!).

It is a country that has accepted religious refugees while at the same time selling weapons or war services to the same nations people were fleeing from.

It is a country where opposing Christian churches, at last, learned to compromise, be it partly for financial reasons, with no mass killings of Catholics once the Protestants got into power (like the alteration of power in Amsterdam in 1587: an “un-bloody revolution”).

It is a country that has been a republic with a prince, and became a kingdom with monarchical socialists.

It is a country that was unable to protect its Jewish minority against the Nazis.

It is a country that fought a nasty colonial war half a century ago in Indonesia and still has not come to terms with it (as reflected in the war’s official title, politionele acties or “police actions”).

It is a country where homosexuals have been able to become emancipated and where women’s emancipation, in the economic sense, is lagging behind.

It is a country where the defeat of the proletariat by consumerism was declared thirty-five years ago (by the Provo movement).

It is a country where the art of repressive tolerance as a policy instrument has been flowering for decades.

It is a country where the membership and dense structure of volunteer civil organisations in all fields of life far exceeds that in any political organisation.

It is a country that tries to accommodate thriving Surinam and Antillean communities composed of people whose ancestors were once its slaves, and has some difficulties in sharing its prosperity with the gastarbeiders (literally “guest workers”) who helped to create it.

It is an over-developed country, offering great mobility to its own citizens, but denying similar mobility to “refugee tourists” from other parts of the world.

It is a country where many opposed South African apartheid and the horrors of the Balkan war, but very few would oppose the less spectacular process, just around the corner, of economic cleansing, the unsafe havens of Dutch welfare society, and local ghettoes in the making.

These, no doubt, are somewhat crude simplifications of the rich complexities of Dutch society. My aim is to play a sort of overture, to create an imaginative picture for non-Dutch people to get some understanding of the drama of the moment that we, in the Netherlands, are living through.

It seems especially needed at this time. For while we Dutch tend often to be well-informed about the fate of other nations, this does not work the other way round, because of language problems and the disinterest of many Dutch in communicating their own society to outsiders.

This is a very personal interpretation of recent events, with no claims to objectivity. But I have tried to accord all players in this drama, alive and dead, the dignity they deserve.

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