Politics & Policy

How Enlightenment Dies

Dialogue, reason--and in response, savagery.

Amid all the weird, wild wailing in Manhattan, amid the hot air and hysteria in Hollywood, amid all the crazy-lady shrieks of mainstream-media anguish (yes, Maureen, I’m talking about you) and the banshee howling of liberal complaint, Americans heard one overarching theme from the disappointed and distraught left–one meme, one fear, one insult that finally spoke its name. Jesusland (that’s what they call it now) had won. The America of Jefferson and Madison had fallen, delivered by Karl Rove into the hands of ranting theocrats, holy rollers and the monstrous ghost of William Jennings Bryan. Writing in the New York Times, an overwrought Garry Wills had this to say:

The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what they had experienced from this country in the past. In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies.

The title of his article? “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out.”

Oh really? If it was the fate of the Enlightenment for which Mr. Wills feared, he would have done better looking some 3,000 miles to his east, to lovely, wounded Amsterdam, a city once famed for its brisk, North Sea tolerance, a city that now mourns the death of an artist killed for speaking his mind. On November 2, the very day of the election that was to so sadden Garry Wills, an assassin in Amsterdam murdered the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh–shot him, stabbed him, and then butchered him like a sacrificial sheep. Van Gogh, you see, had transgressed the code of the fanaticism that has now made its home in Holland. And for that he had to die.

The movie that doomed Van Gogh was Submission, a ten-minute film shown on Dutch TV earlier this year. A collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee and Muslim apostate who is now a member of the Dutch parliament, the film is a caustic attack on Muslim misogyny. Back in September, Marlise Simons of the New York Times described some of its scenes thus:

As she begins to pray, the woman looks heavily veiled, showing her eyes only, but her long black chador turns out to be transparent. Beneath it, painted on her chest and stomach, there are verses from the Koran. More women appear. A bride is dressed in white lace, but her back is naked. The Koranic verse that says a man may take his woman in any manner time or place ordained by God is written on her skin. The images roll on, now showing a woman lying on the ground, her back and legs marked by red traces of a whip. The Koranic verses on her wounded flesh say that those guilty of adultery or sex outside marriage shall be punished with 100 lashes. There are chilling sounds of a cracking whip; there is the haunting beauty of the Arabic calligraphy and soft music.

In a country in which Muslims account for nearly six percent of the population, there was predictable outrage from predictable sources. Ayaan Hirsi Ali added more death threats to her already substantial collection (she has been living under police protection for some years), and Van Gogh gathered a few of his own. Despite that, he declined the help of the cops. They hadn’t, he pointed out, managed to save the rightist politician Pim Fortuyn from assassination back in 2002. Besides, he argued, who would think it worth their while to gun down the “village idiot”? And so this appalling, brave, obnoxious, and foul-mouthed provocateur, an opponent of religious intolerance whatever its source–an ornery chain-smoking contrarian who relished describing himself as a “professional adolescent, a die-hard reactionary”–carried on writing, filming, grumbling, grousing, and cursing.

With a horrible–and ironic–appropriateness, Van Gogh’s final film was an investigation into the murder of the equally truculent Fortuyn, a killing that he blamed partly on the demonization of Fortuyn by “leftwing, politically correct…politicians.” Like Fortuyn, he too was to die for his views and like, I suspect, Fortuyn, in those final terrifying moments Van Gogh would, despite his often-expressed fears for Holland’s future (and, half-seriously, his own), almost certainly have been astonished that matters had really come to this–that the Netherlands had fallen so far. Forget the victim’s evocative name (he was the great grandson of the painter’s brother); even his mode of transport–the bicycle he was riding when the assassin struck–conjures up images of Holland, of the practical, somewhat earnest civilization that nurtured him: a kindly, almost painfully fair civilization so sensitive to the rights of the accused that the full name of the alleged murderer still cannot be officially disclosed; a tolerant, decent civilization that finds itself now threatened.

And who better to explain that threat, than B, Mijnheer B, Mohammed B? After, allegedly (we must, I suppose, use that word) shooting his victim, B started to stab him. In a last attempt to save his life, a desperate Van Gogh reportedly pleaded with his attacker: “We can,” he said, “still talk about it.” Talk. Dialog. Reason. In response, savagery. The murderer sawed through Van Gogh’s neck and spinal column with a butcher knife, almost severing his head. And that, Mr. Wills, is how Enlightenment dies.

The killer then concluded the desecration by using another knife to pin a letter onto Van Gogh’s corpse. This letter, which is addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is a frenzied blend of superstition, anti-Semitism, and, as this extract shows, morbid obsession:

There is one certainty in the whole of existence; and that is that everything comes to an end. A child born unto this world and fills this universe with its presence in the form of its first life’s cries, shall ultimately leave this world with its death cry. A blade of grass sticking up its head from the dark earth and being caressed by the sunlight and fed by the descending rain, shall ultimately whither and turn to dust. Death, Miss Hirsi Ali, is the common theme of all that exists. You, me, and the rest of creation cannot disconnect from this truth. There shall be a day where one soul cannot help another soul. A day with terrible tortures and torments, a day where the unjust shall force from their tongues horrible screams. Screams, Miss Hirsi Ali, that will cause shivers to roll down one’s spine; that will make hair stand up from heads. People will be seen drunk with fear while they are not drunk. FEAR shall fill the atmosphere on that great day.

And what’s in store for the rest of us?

“I deem thee lost, O America. I deem thee lost, O Europe. I deem thee lost, O Holland.”

These, regrettably, do not appear to have been the words of a lone lunatic. A total of nine men, all of Middle Eastern or North African ethnic origin, have so far been arrested in connection with Van Gogh’s murder. There is the usual, and not unconvincing, talk of shadowy international terrorist connections, perhaps even with al Qaeda. Meanwhile, two other Dutch Muslims have been detained in connection with the Internet posting of a video promising “paradise” for anyone who managed to behead Geert Wilders, a right-wing politician outspoken in his opposition to immigration.

Mass immigration, of course, played a part in creating the social pathologies that cost Van Gogh his life, but its effects were exacerbated by official Holland’s embrace of multiculturalism, a dogma that made integration impossible and alienation a certainty. Crucially, the Dutch appear to have abandoned teaching the mutual tolerance, however rough-and-ready, that is essential to the functioning of a free society. Instead they opted for the walking-on-eggshells sensitivities of multiculturalism, and a state of mind in which open debate, if someone somewhere could deem it offensive, was a danger, not a delight. In a country that was drawing many of its immigrants from traditions where notions of tolerance had little or no part to play, the consequences should have been obvious. If liberal democracy is to survive in all its noisy acrimony, all of its citizens–even the most disaffected, even the most devout, even the B’s–need to develop a thick skin. In Holland, nobody showed them how. To Van Gogh, multiculturalism was farcical. And for Van Gogh it was a farce that turned lethal.

In the aftermath of Van Gogh’s murder people behaved in ways that were thoughtful, thuggish, moving, and almost certainly quite futile. There was tough talk from the government, an outbreak of arson attacks on a number of mosques, and a spontaneous 20,000-strong protest in central Amsterdam: The crowd banged pots and pans, the crowd blew horns and whistles. The noise symbolized Dutch freedom of speech and had been requested by the Van Gogh family. Silence was not the way to honor their Theo.

But for the responses to this crisis that give the best clue as to what will happen next, look elsewhere–perhaps to the decision by two Dutch TV stations to abandon their plans to broadcast Submission, or, perhaps, to the objections expressed by some leading politicians to the deputy prime minister’s declaration of war against Islamic extremism. “We fall too easily into an ‘us and them’ antithesis with the word war,” complained one, the leader of the Greens–words beyond parody that Van Gogh would have enjoyed parodying, had he lived long enough to hear them.

Or go, perhaps, to Rotterdam, and stare at a wall. A few days ago, a local artist reacted to the news of Van Gogh’s killing by painting a mural that included the words “Gij zult niet doden” (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”). Fair comment, you might think. Apparently not. The head of a nearby mosque complained. The police showed up and city workers sandblasted the inconvenient text into oblivion. Rotterdam’s mayor has since apologized, but the damage had already been done.

Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Erased, obliterated, unacceptable. Much like Theo van Gogh.

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