Evil Forces in the World

Reflections on ''Evil Forces in the World,'' as well as occasional remarks concerning ''Good Forces in the World.''

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Thanks to my former roommate's lax attitude toward forwarding mail, I was able to spend my evening commute yesterday reading The New Yorker's highly unfortunate exhuming of Pim Fortuyn. I generally love the magazine and think that people who whine about how it's not like it used to be should go pound sand. Still, this was a pretty wretched piece.

Andrew Sullivan (God bless him) has done great work on Fortuyn, the gay Dutch politician assassinated in May. Most of what I'm inclined to write about him would be redundant in light of Sullivan's heroic efforts to save the dead man from malicious mislabeling by liberals in the media. While generally politically astute and sophisticated, sometimes the writers of The New Yorker end up offering very subtle, rarefied restatements of the editorial positions in The Nation. This was just such an instance.

The challenge for an intelligent writer like Elizabeth Kolbert is how to assimilate Fortuyn into the group of creepy European right-wingers (Le Pen, Haider, et al.), of which he was manifestly not a member. While using typical rhetorical bludgeons such as "reactionary xenophobia," she, unlike some others, does not elide the man's flamboyant homosexuality. Rather, she hits upon an ingenious way to explain Fortuyn's seemingly complex appeal. Putting words into the mouths of Dutch voters, she says of the immigrants he often disputed with:

The problem with immigrants is that they are intolerant. In this context, Fortuyn's flamboyant gayness probably was an asset. After all, if you're willing to back a man who brags about sleeping with Arab boys, how much of a bigot can you really be?

This is certainly glib: Homophilia, a Tool of Racism. It's an attempt to paper over the yawning chasm between the two major values of contemporary left-liberals: social liberalism and multiculturalism. What the Dutch told themselves was a concern with women's equality, gay rights, and separation of religion and state was actually a racist, xenophobic impulse. We can go back to telling ourselves that there is no contradiction.

Certainly, race usually presents itself in democratic politics by proxy: crime in the U.S., immigration in Europe. But I have yet to see any statement by Fortuyn himself (and it's important not to identify him with the woolliest of his followers) that indicated anything like racial ideology. His arguments were political and cultural. Agree or disagree, they needed to be made.

If I (a white male) were to announce publicly that homosexuals should be jailed, that women have no rights, and that democracy is against the will of God, and if I did it in the name of, say, devout and traditionalist Lutheranism, no one would interpret my opinions as part of my essential identity, much less as part of the gorgeous mosaic of cultural diversity. Similarly, if the immigration Fortuyn targeted for its socially regressive effects were an influx of Mormons from Utah, no one would have called him a bigot or a xenophobe. Yet these are precisely the reactions that arise when the religion is fundamentalist Islam.

Fortuyn's challenge to European liberals was to choose: the social toleration they had come to cherish, or the "Trojan horse" of intolerance in the guise of liberal immigration policies. He was killed, and it may be some time before someone is positioned to make the challenge again.

Incidentally, I don't think that social liberalism and mass immigration are in conflict in the U.S. I just moved to a neighborhood on Chicago's north side where English, Spanish, Greek, Korean, and sometimes Arabic jostle for space on signs and storefronts. Immigration invigorates societies. Why that is more the case here than in Europe is a big question, and although I have my theories, I'll leave it aside for the better-informed to answer.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Like most people with far better incomes, I spent much of August traveling about the country. As a consequence, I dropped out of my routines of information consumption and instant commentary (aldaily followed by Andrew Sullivan followed by, depending on my mood, either The New Republic or National Review). So for my first few posts on the site, I'm going to have to rely on the rightly dreaded Personal Experience.

Casinos are a much-overlooked force for evil in the world. Fundamentalists of various stripes hate casinos, but for the wrong reason--that is, they hate gambling, which everyone who's tried it knows actually gladdens the heart and makes life interesting. Gambling on, say, the color of the next car to pass by is fun. Gambling on the vanishingly slim chance of red 36 coming up, hunched over a styrofoam cup of coffee and cigarette butts in a fetid, buzzing dungeon--as Howlin' Wolf would say, "that's evil."

Not that I didn't in some sense enjoy myself when I recently hit the only $2 table at a pretty big casino in Minnesota. For one thing, I was with my Grandmother, who still enjoys blackjack. And I enjoy blackjack. And I've been to a great many casinos throughout Nevada, from "classy" places like the Bellagio to the kind of places filled with what appears to be the cast of a Sam Peckinpah movie. Some years ago, my visits to casinos were frequent enough that I became inured to their evil qualities. Thankfully, that insensitivity had worn off.

You will never find a casino with a clock. Similarly, you will never see natural light from anywhere inside a casino. All of us have experienced perverse uses of human ingenuity; I spent the last two years of my undergraduate education having just such an experience. Social life is full of subtle manipulations and half-conscious influences. Yet the manipulation in a casino is breathtaking, from the free drinks and the bustier-equipped waitresses to the maze-like layout and the absence of any organic or conventional notion of time, all of it bent toward the goal of keeping the gamblers at the table, in the casino, playing and inevitably losing (full disclosure: I lost about $80 over the course of six hours, punctuated by a long walk with my uncle who observed, "time crawls when you're losing").

I thought of Mystic Lake when I was n New York shortly thereafter with an old friend at the Village Idiot, a manipulative milieu to be sure, but a force for good nonetheless. More on that in a future installment.
I promised myself that I'd wrap up a brief review essay before battling evil, but this simply couldn't wait: the Gossip Girl series. I couldn't possibly do it justice. You really must see for yourself.