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19 January 2018

Culture and Its Uses

"When liberation came, however, in 1989 and later, the West was a great disappointment to its admirers in Central and Eastern Europe. It could not be otherwise. Hopes had been invested in a Western way of life that from afar seemed almost magically satisfying. When outsiders went there, they discovered alongside the prosperity a cultural life that was spiritually barren, anomic, and lacking in any sort of élan. It was almost as if whole nations, certainly whole governments and whole political parties, had ceased to believe in themselves."

Culture is a word that in recent times has increased its meanings to a remarkable degree. Not long ago it was largely restricted to Matthew Arnold’s definition of “the best which has been thought and said in the world” or, slightly more broadly, to the arts of painting, music, sculpture, architecture, literature and philosophy. That concept may have been defined quite narrowly but it extended in time and space to the cultural and artistic achievements of Greece, Rome, Israel and other civilisations which Western countries encountered through discovery, commerce and conquest. Later the anthropologists got hold of the word and stretched it to mean everything which had been thought and said within the small circle of a particular tribe with little formal history. Today it has been pushed outwards to give dignity to almost anything, for instance the “culture” of criminal gangs, while simultaneously being confined within the ownership rights of small “cultural groupings”, however defined, to whom others must pay tribute for access or imitation.

We may perhaps be running up a substantial debt with this issue of Hungarian Review, since everything in it concerns culture defined in one way or another – music, political allegiance, religion, literature, architecture, language, science… And, of course, we bump into various obstacles and ambiguities in the course of our intellectual travels.

We begin with some subtle reflections on the links between European culture and the development of the European Union as a political identity from Donald Tusk, President of the European Council of Heads of Government, on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Pécs. Mr Tusk is a European official with a duty to European institutions, as he concedes in a graceful aside, but he spoke on the occasion with distinctly un-bureaucratic wit and feeling about the sources of European identity both in his case and more generally. A former Prime Minister of Poland he took his starting point as the traditional fellowship of Poles and Hungarians through history. Poles of his generation, indeed he himself, living inside the prison of Communist censorship, had glimpsed “the West” through the freer cultural expressions of a sophisticated Hungarian culture the cinema of Miklós Jancsó, István Szabó and Márta Mészáros; the literature of Sándor Márai and Imre Kertész; and in a more directly political sense, the Revolution of 1956:

And when I say that Hungary was for us like the West in a political sense, what I have in mind is the power of the legend of October 1956, which for many years captured the minds and imagination of my generation and without which the “Solidarity” movement in Poland might not have happened at all.

There is leap from culture to politics here, or perhaps an extension of the definition of culture, but it is one fully justified by the evolution of 1956 from a political struggle to a cultural phenomenon. It is undeniable that 1956 powerfully stimulated the imagination of a “West” that included those “Easterners” with Western aspirations. Their imaginations more than repaid that debt with films, plays, poems, novels and paintings inspired by 1956 and telling its truths. In particular Andrzej Wajda’s two films, Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), indicting Stalinism and welcoming Solidarity respectively, may be seen as a cultural response to 1956 that midwifed the rebirth of Polish democracy and pointed to its baptism by John Paul II. The actual West responded admiringly too, admitting Hungarian exiles in then unprecedented numbers, making 1956 a symbol in literature and film of the resistance of free peoples to totalitarianism.

When liberation came, however, in 1989 and later, the West was a great disappointment to its admirers in Central and Eastern Europe. It could not be otherwise. Hopes had been invested in a Western way of life that from afar seemed almost magically satisfying. When outsiders went there, they discovered alongside the prosperity a cultural life that was spiritually barren, anomic, and lacking in any sort of élan. It was almost as if whole nations, certainly whole governments and whole political parties, had ceased to believe in themselves. One response to that emptiness has been to embark on the large project of creating a new West or, in practical terms, enlarging the European Union and making it the vehicle for a greater and more enthusiastic sense of identity. But this is inevitably an elite political project expected to gain popular support after its completion rather than in advance. Instead it is encountering resistance both to its specific policies and to its larger claims to supranational authority. Thus Mr Tusk sees that most actual Europeans define their identities on lower and less abstract levels than European. So he looks for what is distinctly European in their everyday lives and surroundings. And he is in the south Hungarian city of Pécs. First quoting Polish writer Stefan Chwin, he says:

The Town Hall and the Market Square are a trademark of Europe, just like Cathedral towers over towns seen from many kilometres away, used to be a trademark of Europe in the past.” What I would add to this landscape is the University. Now you will understand why I said with such conviction at the beginning of our meeting that Pécs is a metaphor for Europe. Because if we agree that the main landmarks of a European town are the Market Square, the Town Hall, the University and the Cathedral, this town with the oldest Hungarian University, with five churches in its name, is worthy of being a metaphor for Europe many times over.

It is an elegant argument, elegantly phrased, and it must have pleased its audience. One cannot help noticing, however, the uneasy position of the Cathedral in this quartet of cultural signifiers. One the one hand, it is there alongside the town hall, the market square, and the university as a metaphor for Europe; on the other hand the Cathedral and its towers “seen from many kilometres away, used to be a trademark of Europe in the past. (My italics.) Is there a God-shaped hole in modern Europe? And if so, does it matter? One might not be justified in asking these questions about a less thoughtful speech. But they are perfectly fair questions about modern Europe’s reality. And they are being answered in different ways – and sometimes disturbing ways.

Much of this issue is devoted to reprints of major speeches delivered to the recent “International Consultation on Christian Persecution” in Budapest last year. Convened by the Hungarian government and addressed by the Prime Minister, it was attended by senior Christian churchmen, mainly from the Middle East, to discuss an issue that is a matter of life or death for their congregations. Estimates differ but credible experts claim that approximately one hundred thousand Christians are killed annually around the world for their faith; the Middle East is being “ethnically cleansed “of Christians; and that governments in 128 countries have committed abusive and repressive acts against Christian minorities. Yet despite the scale of this anti-Christian savagery – a kind of religion-based genocide governments and international organisations have been slow, reluctant, even queasy, about combating what Ján Figel’, the EU’s special envoy at the Consultation rightly called a “long-neglected crisis”.

Doubtless there are the usual diplomatic reasons not to make a fuss that would imperil trade deals or security talks with the countries doing the oppressing. But there is something more too. When one American activist asked the State Department why the US had not spoken out more forcefully to condemn anti- Christian persecution, he was told that European nations had lobbied hard against doing so. Moreover, though we should certainly help other religious minorities like the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, there is a particular reason for intervening forcefully on behalf of Christians at present: Christians are the people bearing the brunt of today’s persecution. Why then have most governments – Hungary is an admirable exception – retreated from this responsibility?

Some years ago the political philosopher Kenneth Minogue, an agnostic incidentally, argued that post-Christian European elites self-consciously avoided defending Christians abroad because they hoped to persuade the world, in particular the governments of Muslim countries, that their liberal structures of international law and global governance were quite unconnected with the Christian foundations of Western thought. That is naïve, of course, and persuades very few Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. But it is all of a part with the increasingly aggressive secularism of Western Europe and European institutions seen both in the slowness of the West to defend Christians abroad and in an Oxford college’s request to Christian students not to flaunt their religious identity at a college fair to avoid offending non-Christians. As Zoltán Balog, Minister for Human Capacities, asked the conference, tongue only partly in cheek: “Is there a future for Christians in Europe?”

Mr Balog went on to cite the recent statement by European conservative intellectuals, including Sir Roger Scruton, Rémi Brague and András Lánczi as a counterweight to that kind of Europe:

The true Europe has been marked by Christianity. The universal spiritual empire of the Church brought cultural unity to Europe, but did so without political empire. The autonomy of what we call civil society became a characteristic feature of European life. Moreover, the Christian Gospel does not deliver a comprehensive divine law, and thus the diversity of the secular laws of the nations may be affirmed and honoured without threat to our European unity.

Christianity has not been without conflict in its history, of course. This issue also contains significant articles on the Reformation and on the intellectual conflicts between Christian scholars that marked the development of international law. But Christianity has long since decided that violence is not a moral method for curing the soul. And if Europe, united or not, is to protect Christians abroad and incorporate non-Christians peacefully at home, it has to be a Europe in which the Cathedral enjoys at last equal status with the market square and the town hall.





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