1 May 2020

Making a Virtue of Nationalism

"Our own world on 1 January 2020 was not quite so turbulent as that, but it was a great deal more turbulent than it had been on the same date in 2000 before the Russo-Georgian war, the 2008 financial crash, the travails of the euro (launched that day), the emergence of “populism” in Europe and America, the refugee crisis of 2015, and not least Brexit and Trump. It was into this nervous and apprehensive world that the COVID-19 pandemic crashed in slow-motion in the first two months of the year as a Chinese New Year gift from the Communist Party. And fragmentation was further fragmented."

I am afraid that a dominant theme in our latest issue is that of fragmentation. Of course, that has been a theme of our civilisation since before 1914 when ideas like rebellion, vitality, primitivism and shock began to emerge in the arts and sciences, replacing ideas like stability, order, self-discipline and harmony. The Great War itself disrupted millions of lives, overturned or discredited familiar institutions, and literally fragmented Europe and especially the Habsburg Empire into smaller states. Hungary itself was scattered across the map and its fragmentation formally confirmed in international law by the Trianon Treaty of June 1920. Revolutions and revolutionary movements, inspired by the 1917 October Revolution, spread across Europe in 1919, seized cities and ruled for a time, but were eventually suppressed. And as this new international order was finally settling down into an uncertain normality, the second wave of the Spanish flu swept through the world taking millions of new lives.

Our own world on 1 January 2020 was not quite so turbulent as that, but it was a great deal more turbulent than it had been on the same date in 2000 before the Russo-Georgian war, the 2008 financial crash, the travails of the euro (launched that day), the emergence of “populism” in Europe and America, the refugee crisis of 2015, and not least Brexit and Trump. It was into this nervous and apprehensive world that the COVID-19 pandemic crashed in slow-motion in the first two months of the year as a Chinese New Year gift from the Communist Party. And fragmentation was further fragmented.

Professor E. Sylvester Vizi, the former President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, gives us an exhaustive scientific and political guide to the origins, development and consequences of the pandemic. A main point of his argument is that the international medical organisations on which governments and others rely were slow to realise how dangerous the virus was and to transmit that information onwards. As late as 13 February when 60,000 people had already contracted the disease, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control was telling governments that the risk to their populations was “currently low”. The World Health Organisation and the European Union also failed to inform and advise national governments in a timely manner. As a result, national governments had to improvise independently. Some governments – such as the Austrian and Hungarian ones took strong and prompt measures restoring border controls, imposing “stay at home” orders, closing schools and succeeded in limiting the disease’s spread. Others were slower or took measures that in retrospect look inadequate. They subsequently learned best practice from one another – fragmentation becomes diversity if it has positive effects – but time had been lost and more people had become ill.

As the pandemic was raging through Italy, France and Spain, the weak response of the EU was impelling national governments to look after their citizens first. They began to halt medical supplies to their neighbours, adding to the sense of fragmentation and lack of solidarity. At almost the same time the EU was moving forward on other fronts to fine Italy for budgetary failures, to require Poland to bring its constitutional reforms of the judiciary into line with European Court of Justice rules, and to investigate whether Hungary’s “state of emergency” regulations were steps towards indefinite authoritarian rule. The EU Commission has since decided that they were not, influenced perhaps by the inconvenient facts that Hungary’s measures are proving more successful than elsewhere and that, as István Pócza in his survey of different national health emergency measures points out, its allegedly authoritarian aspects occur repeatedly across Europe in other states of emergency. Meanwhile, the EU Commission is continuing its attacks on Poland and Italy, and the agitation against Viktor Orbán (in which the international bien-pensant Left is heavily invested) is likely to resume when the COVID-19 pandemic fades from memory.

What will remain in the public mind, however, is the contrast between the practical incapacity of the EU in the crisis and its determined ambition to take its member states on a forced march to a global multicultural utopia. Todd Huizinga, a former American diplomat who was stationed in Brussels, fixes on this contrast, and especially on its soaring ambition, in his reflections on globalism versus national sovereignty. He quotes a statement from the EU Council of Ministers on the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Global Development goals:

The agenda should leave no one behind. In particular, it must address, without any discrimination, the needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, including children, the elderly and persons with disabilities, as well as of marginalised groups and indigenous peoples; and it must respond to the aspirations of young people. We should ensure that no one person wherever they live and regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, religion or belief, race, or other status is denied universal human rights [...].

And he comments:

Here, politics, or “governance”, is universal, global, all-encompassing, comprehensive. There are no constraints, no limits, neither geographical nor aspirational. There are no checks or balances to stand in the way of the good that can be accomplished by the global elite. The language here is almost messianic, ascribing a quasi-salvific power to politics and “governance”. It sets aside the West’s traditionally Judeo-Christian recognition of human fallibility for the notion that, via activist global governance, the world can be transformed and human beings liberated from the constraints of tradition, culture and religion.

Huizinga is right to notice what a very curious language is used in this statement. It is detached from such everyday problems of politics as balancing the budget, reducing crime, or pursuing some national goal internationally. It does not speak to the concerns of ordinary voters. It is rather a language that combines religious transformation, group grievance, and world political structures – since the statement makes clear that Utopia is to be delivered by the international treaties, conventions, courts, bureaucracies, development goals and global bodies inside and outside the “UN system” as well as by domestic courts, bureaucracies and even private corporations colonised by this “woke” ideology. It is, in fact, the language of Olympians who live on a high mountain and make plans as to how the people below must be led to see things their way and live accordingly.

That is a division rather than a fragmentation, but it leads to fragmentation because the Olympians need to divide the people below in order to rule them. And to a great extent they have already done so, dividing people not into the nations and national institutions and structures in which they feel at home and sometimes even in charge, but into something quite different and mysterious. As Nick Parsons observes in his review of Douglas Murray’s book, The Madness of Crowds, about the rise of social groups clustered around concepts of race, sex, feminism, and transgenderism:

It is based, says Murray (p. 91), on the assertion that Western democracies include a range of groups (women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities and others) who are structurally oppressed in a ‘matrix of oppression’ […]”. It is in this sense that the long march through the institutions is succeeding and has succeeded – ideas and attitudes which contradict and outlaw what hitherto were fundamental aspects of Western culture, are not argued, but imposed with the assistance of education, the law, the media and so forth.

If a society arranged along such lines were to be created – and some countries are in a rocky mid-journey to it – it would be riven with constant and bitter conflict since antagonisms based on identity are inherently more difficult to compromise over than disputes between social classes over “who gets how much of what?” Fortunately perhaps, the Olympians and their supporting lumpenintelligentzia face a prior problem. It is that getting people to think themselves into these categories rather than as citizens of particular countries, supporters of particular parties, or believers in particular religions is very hard. Universities seem able to achieve it, but it is quite expensive, takes years, and often wears off. Mass migration is another technique. But that raises the consciousness of the natives and provokes a backlash. And it has to be mass immigration or it does not work. Indeed, if the level of immigration is modest, the migrants usually blend into the rest of the population, assimilate culturally, and develop national loyalties, thus strengthening the pre-existing nation. All in all, the difficulties from the Olympian standpoint can best be surmounted by transferring political decisions from accountable institutions like Parliaments and local governments to legal, bureaucratic, or transnational bodies responsive to Olympian pressures and incentives. For then these bodies can shape a nation’s legal, social, and political decisions so that they reflect their own culture and values and laws rather than those that have organically emerged in the nation’s history.

Whatever the technical and immediate character of the disputes, this is the background to the moves by the EU Commission against Poland and Hungary and, in another context, Brexit Britain. There are many things to be said about this, but the central question is whether or not we grant a nation the right to its own distinctive national identity and, if so, whether we accept its further right to take steps to preserve that identity. It seems a simple question, but as István Stumpf, a distinguished member of Hungary’s Constitutional Court and its former President, points out, it becomes a complicated matter when the nation has committed itself to a European identity and when it has agreed that its laws should be constitutionally subordinated to European law. I will not compress and thus distort the persuasive legal reasoning from Mr Stumpf, which I urge you to read. As I read him, however, he grants the nation the right to confirm and protect its own identity while urging three bodies – the Hungarian nation (i.e., in this context its government), the Hungarian Constitutional Court, and Europe’s Constitutional Court – to strive for compromise on constitutional disputes since the stakes after Brexit are very high for all concerned.

My amateur reply is that whatever the constitutional niceties, if a nation finds that its essential character is inconsistent with constitutional obligations it has freely assumed, it will eventually break the constitutional link and follow its own path. In a forthcoming issue of Hungarian Review, Gergely Egedy claims that this is what Britain did when it voted for Brexit. His reasoning is that the British had always been ambivalent about membership of the EU because their national identity was inextricably entwined with the idea of a sovereignty that could be neither surrendered nor shared and that they had an alternative future in an Anglosphere that did not make such high demands upon them. When the referendum allowed them to do so, they chose unfettered sovereignty and left.

Does Hungary have a national identity that requires a similar unfetteredness? That is for Hungarians, not me, to say. My guess is that given their imperial experience, Hungarians are prepared to live in a world of shared sovereignty but not one in which their national sovereignty shrinks indefinitely inside an ever-closer union. They must think carefully before pushing a sensible argument to an extreme but will not yield to Olympians imposing what Disraeli called “cosmopolitan principles” on them. On the other hand, after Brexit, the Olympians in Brussels must be careful too. They must calculate whether they wish to risk bringing down the EU altogether – no longer a remote possibility – in order to refuse local rules and customs to Europe’s democratic peoples, including Poland and Hungary. That would be a self-defeating sectarianism even if it were to win a temporary victory. And it would be something less than democracy or even mere politics.

A choice between a Euro-state endgame of “More Europe” and its total collapse under the impact of its multiple crises should not exhaust the possibilities. While accepting that European governments have handled the pandemic more effectively than the ECDP, Professor Vizi affirms European cooperation in scientific advance as a practical ideal that has vastly improved the health of mankind. So how can we better allocate the tasks of medical science between national competition and European cooperation? Justice Stumpf similarly sees a contradiction between Hungary’s right to define its national identity and the EU’s legal sovereignty. He delicately suggests the contradiction might be resolved by Hungary’s constitutional court. After all, Germany’s constitutional court – which has just ruled the ECB’s roundabout purchases of member-states’ securities to be in conflict with the German constitution – cannot be the only constitutional court in Europe with authority to question aspects of the EU’s march to ever-closer integration. And any enduring constitutional settlement that hopes to cover Europe's many different traditions of statehood will have to be an amazing technicolour dreamcoat.

Not that politics is the sole shaper of a national identity. Shelley’s description of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind is truer of Hungarian poets than those of any other nation. Half the statues of distinguished Hungarians in Budapest turn out to be writers of one craft or another. The city is a living tableau of music, art, architecture and theatre.

Architecture and theatre are the two most public arts, and of the two theatre has probably been the more influential in shaping a nation’s image and self-image. Plays have caused revolutions, operas riots. In recent years, however, theatre throughout Europe has been critical, even hostile, towards the nation rather than admiring of it.

That is among the reasons why Gábor Turi’s account of Attila Vidnyánszky’s creation of a different kind of theatre in the city of Debrecen is so striking and hopeful. My Hungarian is not good enough to enable me to reach sensible critical judgements of his present role of director at the National Theatre in Budapest. But as a London theatre-goer in the 1960s and 1970s, I recognise some of his models like Peter Brook with a nervous respect – Brook’s really shocked.

Turi’s description of how he invented by trial and error a theatre style that combines the historical, the religious, the national, and the operatic alongside the more pedestrian acting values is encouraging. I hope he will also make some room for the Hungarian tradition of boulevard comedy that entertained the entire world through the agency of Hollywood in the 1930s. They added to Hungary’s image too.

Both these high and low traditions are needed to challenge and, with luck, displace the dominant tradition of the gloomy, preachy neo-expressionist theatre of shocks unlimited.

As Robert Conquest, a poet as well as a historian, once wrote:

 

It’s the Shock of, alas, Recognition

At what’s yearly presented as new

Since first seen at Duchamps’ exhibition

Des Maudits”, in Nineteen-O-Two.

 

And earlier still, in 1827, the satirist Thomas Love Peacock pointed out in his critique of transgressive landscaping why no play in the theatre of shock could expect a very long run:

Allow me”, said Mr Gall, “I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness.” “Pray, sir”, said Mr Milestone, “by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?”

 




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