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Overall, he was far more to the left than most U.S. Republicans and probably half of the current Democrats.

Related Gully Coverage

Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

Complete Coverage Europe

The hearse carrying the coffin of Pim Fortuyn drives slowly through the crowd on its way to the town of Driehuis Westerveld for the funeral, May 10, 2002. Paul Vreeker

Mourning Pim Fortuyn

by Kelly Cogswell

May 14, 2002. People cried and chanted Pim Fortuyn's name as his remains were carried out of Rotterdam's 16th-century Cathedral Friday following a Roman Catholic Mass which was broadcast on Dutch national television. Tens of thousands of mourners lined streets and freeway bridges to throw flowers onto the passing white hearse of the maverick politician assassinated last week by a white Dutch ecofanatic.

Out and proud to be gay, the controversial Fortuyn set Dutch politics on its ears with a flamboyant combination of left right punches. While much of the global media cast him as a Jean-Marie Le Pen light, it's difficult to imagine the French extreme-righist declaring, like Fortuyn, that one of the first things he would do if he took office was "borrow that handbag from Margaret Thatcher, bang on the table and say I want my money back," from the European Union (the Netherlands' financial contribution is, proportionately, the largest of any member state.)

Fortuyn was pro-gay rights, pro-women's rights, and pro-Israel. He called for the legalization of soft drugs in the Netherlands, and pledged to increase spending in health and education. Overall, he was far more to the left than most U.S. Republicans and probably half of the current Democrats.

The fly in this apparent ointment of liberalism was his stance on immigration. He thought there shouldn't be any more, at least until immigrants already in his country had been fully assimilated.

Indulging in xenophobia, he generalized about Muslims, declaring he disliked them because they were intolerant, and he wanted to preserve traditional Dutch tolerance. He didn't acknowledge that some Muslims are definitely more moderate than others. Or that there are plenty of immigrants from Muslim countries who packed their bags to get away from intolerance.

He attacked Islam for forcing women into subservient roles, and was kicked out of the leftist party Leefbaar Nederland (Livable Netherlands) chiefly for calling Islam "backwards" while responding to a Rotterdam imam's remark on prime time TV that "gays were worse than pigs." Later he said he meant Islam was "lagging behind," because it had not undergone reformations like Judaism and Christianity.

When he said that the anti-discrimination clause of the Dutch constitution should be repealed so that bigots could be prevented from immigrating to the Netherlands, it was also an off-the-cuff response to the hateful local imams, and not part of the platform of his own newly formed party, Lijst Pim Fortuyn. Nevertheless, the foreign media, in the U.S. and Britain in particular, seized on these two remarks and pilloried Fortuyn as an extreme right xenophobe. So did much of the Dutch media.

This is perhaps why the left everywhere found him disturbing, because he called into question the sacrosanct limits of tolerance. Must we be tolerant of intolerance? Must we ignore bigotry in minority communities, or just differ with it politely as if, for instance, a discussion about the death penalty for homosexuality is no more than a quibble about pizza toppings?

Of course some racists will use any excuse to attack minorities, but isn't it a kind of reverse racism to remain mute about Islam when it is far more conservative, anti-gay, and misogynist than the Catholic Church, an institution the global left has criticized for years? Don't we hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable when their clerics indulge in hate-speech, or radical Catholics bomb abortion clinics? What does our silence mean?

It is a scandal that in Europe, and the U.S. as well, only characters like Le Pen or the American David Duke are pegged as racists. No one points a finger at the kind of sanctimonious European social democratic governments who throw money at immigrant ghettos when things get too hot, as in some French municipalities where housing project toughs are assuaged with ski weekends, but refuse to share power with minorities or show them the respect of peers.

"Tolerance" is increasingly just an oil to pour on troubled and troublesome waters, or just a mask for indifference or disdain. In the U.S., we're still waiting for an African American Senator. And of the supposedly "tolerant" white Democrats, not one in the Senate contested the results of the presidential Florida vote which clearly discriminated against black voters.

In France, you can be born and raised there, but still get labeled a foreigner if you're the child of immigrants. Even under the "tolerant" Socialist Jospin you rarely saw brown faces in the top levels of government. Immigrants who themselves begged for more and better police in slums were ignored, their letters unanswered, their few small immigrant-led volunteer social programs left to fend for themselves. This is racism, too.

Now think about Fortuyn who didn't espouse anything like Le Pen's "France for the French," and "kick all the immigrants out" platform. He didn't want to dump immigrants, but incorporate them into Dutch society. Which is what most immigrants want — the means and ways to succeed in their new countries.

Most immigrants would become more Dutch than the Dutch, more French than the French if only they were welcomed as equals and partners into society, and if "Dutch" and "French" were defined with enough flexibility so that people with different accents, skin colors, and sensibilities could be included, and more importantly, so that they could contribute something of their original cultures.

It is rejection, humiliation, and varying heights of glass ceilings that sometimes push the children of immigrants to embrace the aspects of their cultures of origin that are not compatible with the democratic values of their Western hosts, sometimes becoming more "Muslim" than their parents, rejecting society before it rejects them.

Fortuyn may not have had the solution, but he was right to identify this as a simmering problem in densely populated Holland, where between one in eight and one in ten is an immigrant. His biggest failure in his brief and meteoric political rise was to not identify or articulate the two-way nature of intolerance.

That may have come with time. Fortuyn only seemed extreme because he entered loudly and flamboyantly into a realm of utter silence. He outraged the Dutch political establishment, many citizens, while delighting others, just because he dared mention immigration at all. As he told Reuters TV earlier this month, "everywhere in Europe, socialists and the extreme left have forbidden the discussion of the problems of the multicultural society. To identify the problem is to solve it." His discourse was raw around the edges partly because it was new.

A recent poll in the large Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant showed that many immigrants liked that he was "putting the finger on the sour wounds, stimulating debate, and giving immigrants their own responsibility back as real citizens." They may have been reassured that the number two person in Fortuyn's party, Joao Varela, was an immigrant from Cape Verde, Africa. Whether Varela was the token black as some critics charge, or a full partner, it is he who may now take power if their party does well in the May 15th election.

I was shocked when Pim Fortuyn was killed, and shocked at how the global media demonized him. Sure, his flaws were in the open for everyone to see, but he was getting at something. If he hadn't been killed, he would have evolved. As polls showed his party's viability, he was already beginning to soften his stances to court possible allies.

Most importantly, in his loud, out there honest queerness, he let fresh air into a stifling European left which fears being thought racist more than racism itself, and which relies on silence to erase dissent. By opposing conformity with not just content, but by literally putting his body on the line, Fortuyn blasted open a cultural space for all of us, queers, immigrants, natives alike, in Holland and beyond.

Somewhere in that space we can learn to expand cultures without eroding them, to speak with respect, but not mince words into meaninglessness. Let us get out our handbags then, and bang them on the table in homage. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

Related links:

For a measured profile of Pim Fortuyn.

For The new face of rightwing politics in Holland, a look at Fortuyn's successor, Joao Varela.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Europe

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