Performing the Nation – Memory, Murder and Fortuyn

Today it is ten years ago that Pim Fortuyn was killed. A flamboyant, openly gay, controversial politician who was the first to mobilize a constituency by connecting societal problems to immigrants. This did not only pertain to crime, low ratings in school and the labor market but also to a fear that native Dutch people would be alienated because migrants would threaten Dutch culture, in particular ‘backward culture’ from Muslim migrants would threaten to do so. He framed the problems such a way that culture seems monolithic and is based upon a negative definition imposed upon groups of migrants that are the bearers of this culture and whose actions necessarily derive from that culture; a culturized version of racism. With Fortuyn and increasingly so after his untimely death that the Netherlands was a moral community based upon citizens who find their virtue in adhering to secular and sexual liberties became dominant. Around 9/11 Fortuyn made plea for a cold war against Islam because it would threaten social cohesion and Dutch identity. In 1997 Fortuyn wrote a book called ‘Against the Islamization of Dutch Culture’ later republished as ‘The Islamization of Dutch Culture’ (note the change in the title). He combined his rhetoric of nativism with a strong anti-elitist and anti-left message.
In October 2001 I held a lecture for a group of foreign social workers on the Dutch multicultural arena. In that lecture I shared my thoughts about Fortuyn with the audience. Many of the foreign guests were shocked when I showed them quotes from Fortuyn but most of my Dutch colleagues then thought he would remain a marginal figure in Dutch politics. I told them I wasn’t so sure about that. Older studies from urban anthropology in the Netherlands already showed in the 1970s and 1980s that there was a potential for his message and it was my distinct impression then that it was gaining acceptance to state that one would vote for Fortuyn. I did not expect however that he would grow in his role as saviour of Dutch culture and society and that his constituency would grow so large. When he was killed on 6 May 2002 a nation wide mourning emerged that had no precedent in Dutch history as far as I know. Several interesting articles have been written about that. I will list three:
Peter Jan Margry, The Murder of Pim Fortuyn and Collective Emotions. Hype, Hysteria and Holiness in The Netherlands? Etnofoor: antropologisch tijdschrift 16 (2003) p. 106-131

The meteoric rise in the popularity of Pim Fortuyn and his political movement and its abrupt end, caused by his assassination on May 6 2002, was followed
by an outburst of collective emotion. These phenomena involve two waves of hype in which the media played a major role. Massive media attention for Fortuyn as a politician who was gifted with great charisma and was said to ‘speak the language of the people’, made politically-inactive social groups conscious of the potential role he could fulfill in solving the social problems with which they were confronted. His sudden death was consequently a great loss for his followers. The outpouring of public emotion that followed resulted in the creation of several spontaneous shrines, where thousands left messages, and which were visited by many thousands more. For a large part of Dutch society, the intense media coverage of this new phenomenon made these shrines preeminent
constructed foci for dealing with and processing Fortuyn’s murder. At the same time they functioned as ‘democratic’ tools in articulating criticism towards politics, and proved the hype to be an effective and meaningful one.

Margry, Peter Jan, ‘Performative Memorials: Arenas of Political Resentment in Dutch Society‘, in: P.J. Margry & H. Roodenburg (eds), Reframing Dutch Culture. Between Otherness and Authenticity (Aldershot 2007)

In this contribution I will focus on the actions and practices related to the temporary and subsequently permanent commemorative monuments set up for
Fortuyn in the Netherlands and Italy. The thousands of letters and notes deposited at these sites articulate a range of visual, written and performative messages that together help interpret and explain the Fortuyn phenomenon and his political movement. The narratives in these messages shed light on the nature and force of the widespread resentment toward politicians and authorities that suddenly manifested in Dutch society during the weeks that followed 6 May 2002. I have focused not on the material monuments but on their active effect or performative nature. Based on a substantive analysis of these documents and the media coverage at the time, I relate the significance of the memorials to the performance of those who positioned and created these in the public arena. In addition, I explore in what measure the performative effect has influenced public opinion in the Netherlands about Fortuyn and with respect to several subsequent changes in politics and society. To this end, I will review various types of Fortuyn memorials and will discuss theoretical constructs relevant for interpreting the research. In the ‘Arenas of Resentment’ section, I analyse in depth the significance and content of the memorials and texts as
a foundation for my concluding observations.

Nowadays it appears to be difficult to think about Fortuyn’s death without thinking about another murder, that of Theo van Gogh. As popular narrative goes he too is killed because of the freedom of speech and he as well was seen as a champion of the freedom of speech, albeit (just like in the case of Fortuyn) this was contested.
Irene Stengs – Dutch Mourning Politics: The Theo van Gogh Memorial Space. Quotidian. Dutch Journal for the Study of Everyday Life

On November 2, 2004, the provocative film director and publicist Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim fanatic. The assassination occurred in Amsterdam, in the context of Van Gogh’s habit of commenting bluntly on just about everything, including Muslims, and his film Submission, which highlights the relation between the abuse of Muslim women and the Koran. A large ephemeral memorial took shape on the spot where Van Gogh died in the days that followed.

Taking the Van Gogh memorial as its empirical focus, this paper attempts to broaden the prevalent perspective of ephemeral memorials as localised spatialities by approaching them as performative, mediatised spaces that supersede their material boundaries. In this perspective, ephemeral memorials appear as ritualised sites that not only ‘are’ but at the same time ‘act’ and interact with the social reality that constitutes them. This contribution highlights the interdependency between specific practices of mourning, the sites that evolve from it and the hierarchies and power relationships involved in the media coverage. The article frames the material development of the Van Gogh memorial during the one week of its existence together with its development as a medium within the contemporary Dutch public debate. It draws its major theoretical inspiration from Victor Turner’s ‘social drama’, and Nick Couldry’s ‘myth of the mediated centre’.

What one can conclude from studies like these is how these rituals are not only modern rituals of mourning but also performances of identity, a sense of community and nationalism and political critique against the elite. Participating in it, whether by visiting places of significance or by writing op-eds defending and celebrating freedom of speech, these performances affirm the hegemonic idea of a moral community based upon secular and sexual liberties, nationhood but also articulate misgivings, anxieties, frustration and anger about current society.

Important in this case is also that the commemoration of Fortuyn takes place after 4 May (the day when the victims of World War II are remembered) and 5 May (Dutch Liberation Day, when the country was liberated from the nazis). World War II is one of the most important historical events and during these the fight for liberty is remembered. A few days earlier, 30 April, Queensday is celebrated turning the week into somewhat of an secular equivalent of the Holy Week. The feelings of bereavement, belonging, heroism, commemoration, anxiety and anger are appropriated by the collectivity and reproduced in the rituals. At the same time there is always a lot of debate about who and what to include in these days (should German soldiers be remembered as well or victims of the Israeli occupation of Palestine?) which makes clear that while particular symbols and narratives are made visible, others are simultaneously excluded from the national discourse. In particular supporters of Fortuyn have tried to turn this two day event into a three day event: 4, 5 and 6 May. It is in particular the notion of freedom and freedom of speech that has become central after the murder of Fortuyn. Somewhat cynical, one could even argue that nothing has been so instrumental in affirming the value of freedom of speech as the horrible and tragic murder of Fortuyn; since then freedom of speech is celebrated, sacralized and up to a point even fetishized as an absolute right of people that should have no restrictions whatsoever. Any distinction between critique about ideas and worldviews (religious or otherwise) and critique on persons seems to have been lost. Freedom of speech has become an unreflected and unquestioned dogma; people have died for it.

For the opponents of Fortuyn the significance is not that different although they do attach different moral evaluations to it even when subscribing to the same ideal of the Dutch moral community. GreenLeft leader Jolande Sap for example declared that Fortuyn was a dangerous opportunist and harmful for Dutch politics because his his idea and styles lead to fake solutions and people will realize that, creating a space for even more radical politicians than Wilders. For Fortuyn’s supporters this meant creating insult after injury and many of them publicly loath her statements. While for Fortuyn’s supporters he was the example and hope for how the Netherlands should be and could become, for his opponents he was and his the fear of a loss of social cohesion and exactly how we should not be. While 4 and 5 May connects people with national symbols, creates and consolidates solidarity by means of contact with experiences and people from the past. Although the hype of 2001/2002 has toned down, the remembrance of Fortuyn does the same for many people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *