Pim Fortuyn, the assassinated Dutch politician who was highly critical of Muslim immigration, is being universally described in the major media as "right wing," "far right wing," "extreme right wing," etc. Most accounts lump him and his political movement, which was expected to do well in the national elections scheduled for next week, with various anti-immigrant movements elsewhere in Europe. The New York Times, for example, wrote on its front page Tuesday that Fortuyn "carried the same strong anti-immigrant message that has helped propel a resurgent far right to political triumphs in Austria, Denmark, Belgium, and, through Jean-Marie Le Pen, France."
This is a pretty lazy way to tell Fortuyn's story, and fails entirely to take into account his own rhetoric. It illustrates how the process of straining political events through the standard journalistic narrative templates - especially the right-vs.-left narrative -- can simplify a story so greatly that it emerges as a different story, perhaps even the wrong story.
Fortuyn's case is considerably more interesting than are the merely xenophobic political movements of Denmark or Belgium, because he attempted to turn Europe's immigration debate on its head. Although Fortuyn was certainly a "rightist" -- he compared himself to Italy's Silvio Berlusconi -- he described his movement not as an anti-immigrant crusade, but as an effort to save Dutch liberal ideals. Indeed, as an openly gay politician, he often described his positions in terms of gay identity politics. In brief, he coopted a "progressive" rhetoric.
Fortuyn consistently played a "victimhood" card in his immigration statements, claiming that the Dutch tradition of tolerance was under attack by an intolerant Islam that rejected assimilation, that his identity as a gay man was threatened by gay-bashing Muslims who characterized him as "lower than a pig," and that the ideal of gender equality was being undermined by Muslim attitudes toward women. Whatever else one may say about Fortuyn and his movement, an easy characterization of him as "extreme right" seems to miss the point of his rhetorical challenge.
Of course, this characterization did not begin with his slaying. Although the American press largely ignored Fortuyn's rise, the European press covered him closely -- especially after his party essentially won the March municipal elections in Rotterdam -- and it consistently described him in these same terms. In April, Fortuyn attempted to address the issue directly, telling a group of reporters that "I find it intolerable that I am being compared with statesmen such as [Austria's Joerg] Haider and Le Pen. My policies are multi-ethnic and certainly not racist."
Fortuyn pointed out that he did not call for repatriating immigrants, as did some politicians elsewhere, but rather argued for their assimilation into Dutch culture and its pro-diversity traditions. (It should be noted that, according to Fortuyn, the densely-populated Netherlands is "full.") He also claimed that as much as 20 percent of his support in the Rotterdam vote came from ethnic minorities. Indeed, some of his party's candidates are non-white immigrants from such places as Cape Verde.
Reporters treated Fortuyn's statements as political spin, which they certainly were. London's Financial Times, however, went out of its way to counter his statements in its own news account. According to the FT's April 10 story, Fortuyn's talk about diversity, gender equality, and gay dignity merely provided a convenient "way out" for Dutch voters who are concerned about immigration issues, but "who have no wish to be branded racist." This may well be true, but the paper offered no evidence to support the assertion, which came across as attempted mind-reading rather than journalism. Nor did the paper bother to challenge Fortuyn's claim to significant ethnic support. As for his party's non-white candidates, Fortuyn is "parading" them.
Maybe he was parading them, and maybe his whole rhetorical campaign setting immigration against diversity, gay dignity, and so on, was no more than a ploy. But what is striking about the case has been the effort by those writing about Fortuyn to protect progressive language and rhetoric from him. Fortuyn, both alive and dead, is categorized as a xenophobic right-wing extremist, period. That he was a gay former academic who formulated a series of unusual rhetorical positions is buried deep in the accounts about him, and treated as a series of curiosities. Perhaps that is because if Fortuyn's pro-diversity, gay-identity rhetoric were treated as central to his political challenge, then the power that such rhetoric currently enjoys might be undermined.
For now, appeals to diversity, gender equality, etc., are reserved for groups that, in contemporary journalistic discourse, are given "oppressed" status. When such groups use these appeals, or when these appeals are used on their behalf, it's legitimate. But when the same appeals are used to argue against the apparent interests of such groups, it's a category violation. In other words, you can't allow the villain any of the good lines without either raising the status of the villain or lowering the status of the lines, and that in the end that is one of the most revealing aspects of the Fortuyn story.