Theo van Gogh's polemic prose
In the private moments behind his typewriter, a vicious aspect of Theo van Gogh's personality surfaced. As an interviewer, he was well-mannered and a good listener (and a chain smoker). He was of the opinion that ‘good interviewers pull a vacuum of loneliness into which interviewees shed a glimpse of their unhappiness’. As for his movies, he was a real actors' director, stimulating and cooperative. Such was not his attitude as a columnist. He attacked in a ruthless manner the slightest bit of hypocrisy that he sensed in a person.
This piece contains a translated sample of Van Gogh's quotes, taken from his columns. I hope it shows that he is a better writer than would appear from the few isolated English quotes that are currently around on the internet. It is true that his insults could be vicious. It was a typical low blow, for example - taking Dutch war history in account - to accuse appeasing Jewish Dutch politicians of collaborating with the immigrant Muslim community. A bad boy, indeed. And a pretty darn good columnist too. I hope that, reading these quotes, the adolescent joy will come across of saying the unspeakable and crossing that line of good taste.
What is often overlooked is that Theo van Gogh's best polemic writings contained a grain of truth. As any good caricaturist, Van Gogh was a penetrating observer. He captured the fleeting but telling expression and then magnified it by a factor of twenty.
A comparatively moderate example first:
|'The most horrible example of moral theology in our interview sector is called Wilfried de Jong, a bellowing indignated, who pretends to make Art of television, with himself as ‘honourable’ central figure. De Jong knows everything in advance and has so far never been caught displaying even a single bit of curiosity for his guests.|
Wilfried is very politically correct and has the gas tap of his Rotterdam accent at his disposal […] to emphasize his solidarity with the masses.
Wilfried de Jong belongs to the type of person that climbs from servant to master and which prospers in dictatorships. His programs are of some interest to those who care for exercises in totalitarian thinking.'
I should mention that Van Gogh was writing here about a respected TV-interviewer of quality programs. He was a far from obvious target and while reading these lines, many must have shaken their heads in disagreement. But the core of truth in Van Gogh’s caricature gradually dawned on me, until it finally hit home years later. This was on the occasion that De Jong publicly humiliated, on a live TV-show, soccer player Patrick Kluivert, who had long been the scape goat of the nation. Indeed, quite a display of totalitarian thinking… I haste to say though, that De Jong is a fine professional, belonging to the top ten percent of Dutch TV-interviewers. It is just that besides his talent he might have a certain weakness, which made him an interesting target for Van Gogh.
Van Gogh often used the stylistic mannerism of feigning reverence or pity, only to strike back twice as hard in the next sentence.
|'On the front page 'the plagiarism' of Margriet de Moor was mentioned. The author claimed that she had acted ‘in good faith’ and although she of course lied, I didn’t experience the malicious delight I usually feel when our Literators have again snachted out of a collegue's candy jar. That is to say, the books of Mrs. De Moor are so helplessly written that one wishes her readers a permanent plagiarism.'|
Throughout his career he had his favorite targets, whom he kept attacking if an occasion arose or if he was bored. He was quite happy to quote from his own pieces. Perhaps because he had to excell himself each time, the caricatures could evolve into the bizarre:
|Mrs. Barend, recently described by me as ‘a plastified mummy who had still lived on Anne Frank’s attic’ came stumbling in behind little Frits: an old man walked his corpse. I thought they were two pathetic people with their: ‘I don’t want to see him on Boudewijns funeral’ and I remembered that compassion is our highest virtue, even with an Auschwitz-pimp who wants to ban me from funerals.'|
Van Gogh mostly attacked well respected public figures and spared the ones who were already under attack by the intelligentsia. He especially despised the ‘salon socialists’ , whose pity with the poor and with immigrants he felt was gratuitous.
In these debates, the Second World War was an ever-present system of reference. As a moral touchstone, and also by providing a handy jargon for polemic prose. Because of their connotations, words like collaboration, transportation, etc. were hard to resist. Van Gogh saw no problem in using these analogies. However, he mocked others for unjustly using the war in debates:
|'In lack of arguments, madam Grewel often talked of her experiences during the Occupation, on which she based her moral right in matters such as traffic poles, euthanasia and bad weather. […] I must honestly say that I found her too stupid to reply to when she railed at me in De Groene [magazine], but also that I friendly greeted her when the big decline had set in and she displayed to the public in a progressive spirit, like a shaven numbskull, the disadvantages of cancer. With her death, the darkest interferences of social democracy have ended.'|
The assassination of Fortuyn
During the rise of the charismatic populist politician Pim Fortuyn (1948 – 2002), the element of playfulness, however venomous it had always been, got to the background. Something urgent was at stake and polemic became an even grimmer matter - more than just a means of stirring things up. It was probably hard for van Gogh to keep believing that he was still only the ‘village idiot’.
Van Gogh chose sides with Fortuyn, as probably the only of the opinion leaders who did so. Two months before the assassination of Fortuyn, Van Gogh had written:
|'The funny thing is: Fortuyn and his allies are constantly accused of ‘inciting hatred’, but it is rather the other way round. That Prince Pim still hasn't been shot in the name of the politically correct community, by some saviour, can truly be called a miracle.'|
The day after the assassination of Fortuyn he wrote a column in which he congratulated the ones he thought were to blame:
|'What to do with those fine democrats? They aren’t worth spitting in the face and remind us of antisemites, real ones I mean.'|
A few months later, he wrote a long piece that was an analysis of the political circumstances that had led to the murder - entitled: Good riddance. There is a new seriousness in the way he makes his accusations here, permeated by a sense of loss.
'There was a lot of hot air in Fortuyn’s revolution, but not in the invisible hand with which he defied all laws in dealing with the electorate. A future prime minister who declared he would continue visiting the dark room… never before had the political been more personal and the personal more political. [...]
The rage of Van Dam, Kok, Van Kemenade, Melkert and all those other salon socialists was probably also related to the notion that Left seemed to lose its natural dominance in the public debate in the weeks before the sixth of May. It was as if Fortuyn would break the power of the paralyzing Sixties in one blow. The gentlemen panicked, as for the first time in Dutch history the outcasts of the nation threatened to actually come into power. That wasn’t part of the plan. Fortuyn was the hated face of this impending revolt.
Left was flooded away and had only its worn jargon left. A lot of babbling about ‘extreme right’, ‘racism’, ‘reliving fascism’ and silently creating the climate in which murder becomes an act of heroism. There is something perverse about the fervor with which Volkert van der G. [Fortuyn’s murderer] was denounced a ‘madman’. A madman excuses our guilty conscience from the thought that we might have overreacted a little bit. […]
The question comes to mind if there is any in name democratic country in the world in which the free press would have lined up more servile behind the establishment, in comparable circumstances. […] the lackeys of the government hobbled on in endless indignation. But the people wouldn’t listen anymore. Couldn’t the people be dethroned? [...]
In the paradise of Marcel van Dam, there is no room for ‘inferior people’ and there preveils what the Germans call ‘klammheimliche Freude’ when a certain baldy is crushed. Dirty faggot, serves him right. [...]
Fortuyn’s funeral is regarded by many as ‘mass hysteria’. Maybe this is true, but personally it reminded me of the last journey of Falcone, the Italian Mafia fighter for whom thousands of scared civilians clapped their hands raw. There was one difference: in Fortuyn’s case, the Mafia sat in the Church. Under supervision of the yawning prime minister who left through the side exit, walking with a stoop, as the crowd chanted You’ll never walk alone. Partly because of the cowardness of Kok – due to whose policy, soaked in humanitarian small talk, under the eyes of ‘our boys’, almost seven thousand muslims were murdered [Srebrenica] – Holland has become very special. Kok has specialized in condoling, mainly with a loud display of conscience. The condoleance champion, that came in handy now.'
In the article, Van Gogh mentioned his telephone conversations with 'the divine bald one' (Van Gogh had liked to address Fortuyn with the words 'Oh beloved Leader') and sighed how he would have loved to see the republican, as Prime Minister, shake hands with the Queen, who reputedly hated him.
|'How I would have granted him that sour smile of the creature.'|
Hirsi Ali and the Islam
Van Gogh befriended Ayaan Hirsi Ali and supported her cause of denouncing Islam as backward:
|'It is the paradox of our society that our (just) tolerance gives free play to fanatics who before all want to dominate the Free West. Member of parliament Hirsi Ali had the fullest right to speak as she did. The attacks on her are echoes of the most retarded Middle Ages. How shady can a muslim be?'|
Although he had scoffed religious individuals and communities before, notably Christians and Jews, he was especially hard on the Islam in the later years of his career. The phones must have rung off the hook at the so-called 'anti-discrimination desks'. However, from one cynical perspective, being attacked by Van Gogh could be seen as a sign of integration: being challenged is a less cruel treatment than being ignored. Still, a lot of proud Muslims probably did not feel it that way when reading Van Gogh:
'It’s not my fault that some fellow-citizens hang to the fundamentally uncivilized faith of a little-girl-fucker who roamed the desert in 666. We may thank Allah that there are hundreds of thousands of reasonable Muslims in this country who don’t blemish His name. But they too are intimidated by the apparently pittoresque village officers of Mecca’s thought police, who try to sell the imagined blood that steams from their sewers by whining about ‘respect’.'
He ridiculed the policy of appeasement of the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen.
|'There is something about it, a wannabe prime minister who shits his pants so much for Allah’s callous hand that he keeps passing the hat round for the multicultural society. Maybe Cohen could enhance the harmony in Amsterdam by playing doormat in front of the mosque, on which the truly faithful could wipe their feet. A wave of compassion will go through his party and once again we humble autochthones will experience the delight of our multicultural society.'|
In the summer of 2004, he directed Hirsi Ali’s anti-Islam film Submission. It was aired about two months before he was murdered.
In a collection of his columns, published in 2003, he had written in the preface:
'This book is called Allah knows best because it is my dark suspicion that the new Middle Ages of Mecca are on the verge of outbreak; and because I feel, as a professional atheist, very unsafe in a climate that is dominated by ambitious mayors who are happily busy ‘keeping things together’ and sit round the table with the wrong mosque board, while Moroccan youngsters play soccer with funeral wreaths on the 4th of May. Since September 11, as you well know, the knives are sharpened and the fifth column of goat fuckers marches ahead relatively unhindered. I can’t make more of it. We live in a nightmare of good intentions and misunderstood idealism.'
Three years before his death, in a non-polemic, melancholic column, Van Gogh had written about the ideal woman. In a puzzling, seemingly isolated sentence, it read:
'I will die on the street, although such is uncomfortable.'
The quotes in this article are my own translations, taken from columns that Van Gogh published in various media, among which his own website theovangogh.nl (Dutch) and the free newspaper Metro. They were later republished in two collections of columns, called De gezonde roker (The healthy smoker) and Allah weet het beter (Allah knows best). See the appendix for
- Theo with bags under his eyes: from the cover of De gezonde roker
- Theo with bra: from his website (see below)
- Theo with scarf: from the cover of Allah weet het beter