Friday, November 04, 2005

Theo van Gogh remembered

Before he was killed a year ago I never heard of Theo van Gogh. He was, to put it kindly, not widely admired. He was "the man on the bike, the father, the errant moviemaker, the jester, the drinker, the womanizer, the man so full of life that he could not bring himself to see that it would soon be over," according to Pieter Dorsman whose superior blog Peaktalk is an unerringly erudite source of commentary. (If you want to see some real "live-blogging" take a look at his comments as Europe's simmering, huddled masses, yearning to breathe madness, continue to erupt in riots.)

Pejman points to the Peaktalk post remembering Theo van Gogh. If you drill into the links it will take some time to read, but it paints a picture (excuse the metaphor) of a singular creature whose life and death emerge as symbols of a deep and growing cultural rift. Dutch society and politics can be seen as a microcosm of Europe in particular and Western values in general...a rift that will be remembered historically by the horrible events of the last five years.

[Following van Gogh's murder]...there were those that were willing to look fear into the eyes and face the enemy. The deputy prime-minister declared without hesitation that jihad had arrived in the Dutch streets and some fairly drastic counter-terrorism measures were soon unveiled. And the decades of failed integration policies were finally addressed by a zealous minister who quickly earned herself an iron lady nickname. Her agenda was ambitious: deporting radical imams, mandatory integration tests for immigrants and rapid deportation of illegal aliens, all measures that were no longer taboo. In doing that a clear sign was given that a debate initiated by a gay professor, an unruly film director and a Somali immigrant was now sufficiently mature to be taken on by mainstream Dutch politicians. The fact that two of these initiators had been murdered and that one has to spend the rest of her life under very tight security may have had something to do with that.

Here, in miniature, is a case study in political identity-finding. Any thoughtful observer of a certain age will read this account and relate to the political mood swings and search for meaning that has been brewing for the last forty-five or so years.

Van Gogh was a supporter of Mr. Bush's war. His reasons were visceral and straightforward. Even now, two years into the war, his passion is shared by many. This is Dorsman speaking, with his translations of Theo van Gogh's remarks...

To keep things nice and within pre-defined rules of engagement is a typical Dutch instinct and it serves a politically correct debate well. Both Van Gogh and Fortuyn ignored it completely and spoke from their hearts. That approach also applies to the way he described his support for the invasion of Iraq:

Suzan – to whom I would love to devote some passionate words as being one of my great lovers – called me from Sydney, Australia, drunk, to tell me that Bush was the greatest threat to world peace. You shared a bed with someone like that, you had an enormous amount of fun with her, a year ago you shared an elephant in Thailand, and now you have to endure the complete nonsense she dispenses and you tell yourself that really, Western civilization is built on the right to disagree with one another. It is a paradox though that a fifth column of peace birds, in which all the Suzans of this world march along compliantly, provide the exact proof that the values that are defended by Bush and Blair are of a higher standard than those of Saddam. How decadent do you have to be as a free person in the West to happily applaud at your own grave by protesting against America and not against the butchers in Baghdad?

It’s a coincidence that the Belmont Club last week discussed the tendency of many European justice systems to punish victims of crimes for taking action against criminals themselves rather than wait for the overburdened and ineffective justice system to deal with it. In Holland last year tech mogul and ex-Compaq executive Roel Pieper was attacked with a knife in his home by a deranged anti-capitalist activist and Pieper's approach was – what else to expect from a tech millionaire – to take on the perpetrator, landing both him and his wife in hospital (I actually blogged about it here). Of course Van Gogh weighed in sensing that a dislike for success contributed to the attack and the lamentable reactions to it:

The Dutch police finds it very strange that there are people that dislike it when their wives are being stabbed by a nutcase. Even stranger is the fact that someone whose wife is threatened decides to chase down the terrorist in order to track him down and have him arrested. It’s better to let your wife be stabbed, call the police and wait for the police to turn up. Even the Telegraaf (a conservative newspaper) thought that Pieper had gone too far and that serves as evidence that fools have essentially taken over this country.

It’s a pity that Pieper didn’t kill the man that attacked his wife. Do you really think that millionaire Roel would have been let off the hook because of self-defense?
Absolutely not.

This particular column ended with Theo asking who was next in line to be killed in The Netherlands. It turned out to be him. Rest in peace Theo.
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We stand too close to events to know how history will write about them. And as we all know, but no one wants to say out loud, a lot of written history has to do with who the winners turned out to be. But in the end, I predict that Theo van Gogh will remain a footnote, but a very important one, in a larger account of the times in which we live. His passion, his vision, his frustrations with the insanities of the times, are symbolic of a larger debate. He seemed to understand that the comity of Dutch politics, habitually civil in its approach to conflict, no longer serves in a time when extremists do not share those values.

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