Free speech fundamentalist on a martyrdom operation


Taken from Index for Free Expression 11 November 2004

If maverick Dutch journalist and moviemaker Theo van Gogh was a fundamentalist believer in the right to free expression, his 2 November murder may have been his very own 'martyrdom operation'. Rohan Jayasekera comments on the disturbing legacy of a man who believed in free speech, whatever the consequences. The Dutch language is thick with words wrapped up in culture-specific meanings which defy easy translation. Gezellig , for one. It means cosy, slightly self-satisfied. Gedogen , another. It means tolerance, but something else as well - like a kind of polite endurance of something unpleasant.

Gedogen really means accepting reality. If the law cannot prohibit an unpleasant problem - and the Dutch do not care to solve it - then it must be politely endured and managed out of sight. Dutchmen take rich pride in their global reputation for tolerance, even one based on mistranslation. The word only works in Holland, and then only when spoken by 'native' Dutchmen. It doesn't work so well for hundreds of thousands of Dutch citizens of Arab and Muslim descent. Dutch white folks' gezellig reliance on gedogen to manage uncomfortable realities took a knock with the violent death in May 2002 of maverick anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn.

On 2 November it took another with the stabbing and shooting of film director Theo van Gogh , a descendant of the mad genius Dutch painter.

The September 11 attacks on the US set the perfect stage for Van Gogh , a man who addictively cultivated controversy. Holland had looked on its million non-white and Muslim fellow citizens and cried out with fear, so Van Gogh made films and wrote books that celebrated this horror. He reminded them that gedogen had failed. Like Fortuyn he sought out his fiercest critics and provoked them into maddened fury. Cleverly he would often seek out the most extreme and ignorant opponents for his public battles, reinforcing the perception that only the extreme and ignorant opposed him. The inevitable violence of their response was grist to his mill. He reinforced Fortuyn's achievement of turning debate on minority rights and integration into a baying dogfight. Theo van Gogh became the Jerry Springer of Dutch political discourse.

The result, to use a word that doesn't need translating into Dutch, was bullshit. In the wake of Fortuyn's death and across Van Gogh's stage came some of the most ardently stupid opinions in Europe. Dutch politicians, social scientists, policemen, teachers, journalists, all fell over themselves to reduce complex issues of migration, race, religion and social responsibility to idiot sloganeering.

The late mayor of Tilburg, Johan Stekelenburg, said that in the case of black people of Caribbean descent, the law "should not be slavishly followed". Dutch supermarket tycoon Jan Blokker called on police to launch an 'arms race' with black robbers. Rotterdam police chief Jan Wiarda tore up 500 years of Dutch jurisprudence and urged judges to single out non-white defendants for tougher sentences - on the grounds that they could expect worse in their former home countries. Instead of the sack he got ministerial support.

These cretinous positions were then celebrated by the Dutch media for their supposed defiance of censorship. The European Research Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations has reported that Dutch media coverage of minorities is one-sided, negative and tends to focus on their lack of Dutch language skills rather than their real social problems. The idea that poverty and racism might have a part was dismissed as 'political correctness'. Non-white Dutch families are three times more likely than white ones to live on below average incomes. A quarter of non-white working-age Dutch citizens were on social security in December 2000. The Dutch justice ministry reported that the jobless rate among non-western immigrants was about 10 percent in 2002, compared with about three percent among 'native' Dutch.

It's a fact of life. The right to free speech includes the right to freely speak crap. Fortuyn founded a land where the spoken language is bullshit and where van Gogh is its poet laureate. Van Gogh's juvenile shock-horror art finally led him to build an exploitative working relationship with Somalia-born Dutch MP Ayann Hirsi Ali, whose terrible personal experience of abuse has driven her to a traumatizing loss of her Muslim faith.

Together they made a furiously provocative film that featured actresses portraying battered Muslim women, naked under transparent Islamic-style shawls, their bodies marked with texts from the Koran that supposedly justify their repression. Van Gogh then roared his Muslim critics into silence with obscenities. An abuse of his right to free speech, it added injury to insult by effectively censorsing their moderate views as well. Fortuyn and van Gogh freed the Dutch from responsibility to rationally debate the country's cultural crisis. So without fear of further disturbing already ravaged public sensitivities, applaud Theo van Gogh's death as the marvellous piece of theatre it was.

A sensational climax to a lifetime's public performance, stabbed and shot by a bearded fundamentalist, a message from the killer pinned by a dagger to his chest, Theo van Gogh became a martyr to free expression. His passing was marked by a magnificent barrage of noise as Amsterdam hit the streets to celebrate him in the way the man himself would have truly appreciated.

And what timing! Just as his long-awaited biographical film of Pim Fortuyn's life is ready to screen. Bravo, Theo! Bravo!


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