There is more than a touch of the political science seminar about this issue of Hungarian Review. We discuss the protean nature of “human rights”, as currently understood in international relations; the upsurge of “populism” across not merely Central Europe but the whole of it; the emerging dispute over the bifurcated character of “liberal democracy” in European politics; the application of some of these concepts to disputes such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and of others to Viktor Orbán’s recent speech in which he proposed the mysterious concept of “illiberal democracy” and caused a furore.
Perhaps the first thing to be said about these large topics is that in our current Western political discourse “rights” are held to be good things and “populism” a bad thing, maybe even a dangerous thing. That’s not a very sophisticated analysis, of course, and it sometimes advances backwards. Much “serious” debate consists of little more than looking for someone who expresses doubts about the virtue of rights or about the wickedness of populism and throwing stones at him.
When we dig a little deeper, we also discover that the triumph of rights in intellectual discourse, law and treaty-making has not resulted in much improvement in the actual welfare of people suffering injustice and ill treatment. Courts both domestic and international invent new and recondite rights all the time – for instance, prohibiting the deportation of a terrorist because he would be deprived of his right to a family life – while ignoring any costs that these decisions impose on the community. When ordinary citizens complain their taxes are financing murder through welfare, their complaints are dismissed as primitive conservatism. Yet acts of violence and brutality, ethnic cleansing, torture and mass murder have been rising around the world in the 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Oddly they arouse very different levels of concern. Even Christian bishops struggle to condemn the worldwide persecution of Christians while European parliamentarians campaign to withdraw from doctors the right of conscientious objection to performing abortions on the basis of reproductive rights. How do we explain these discrepancies?
Christiaan Alting von Geusau in a very powerful argument traces them back to a human rights regime that has lost touch with common humanity, natural law, and the impracticality of granting people rights that the community cannot provide. Because rights are seen as originating not from the authority of God but from men, they are either divided into different cultural understandings or they become the more or less arbitrary results of laws and ideologies and therefore of political bargaining. But, as he points out, rights are ill-suited to bargaining because, in modernist understanding, rights are unqualified – you are entitled to them without any contribution or responsibility on your part. The community’s legitimate interests in the matter need not be taken into account. Indeed, they must be overridden. Thus, a series of conflicts develops between the purveyors of rights – courts and international bodies – and the ordinary citizens. And these conflicts grow increasingly bitter as well as remote from the original concerns (mass murder, torture, etc.) that prompted concern over human rights.
Nicholas T. Parsons sees the same process from a different standpoint. Populism is in his view the rejection by ordinary people of an elite that has ceased to take their interests and opinions into account. He sees this across the political board in Europe and the UK, but rights-creating courts are especially likely to provoke populism because, as we have seen, once rights have been recognised, they cannot be legitimately withheld. That makes a rights regime potentially hostile to democracy since it will want to override any practical objections (it’s too costly, that’s never been done here, it will undermine my husband’s authority over the kids) that voters and governments might raise. And, of course, it creates a political conflict between a government that represents the voters and their traditional opinions – and institutions that represent the novel moral rights proposals favoured by international courts and bureaucrats.
Both writers deal subtly with this theme – Christiaan Alting von Geusau deeply, Nicholas T. Parsons wittily.
Rights emerge in a very different context of foreign policy in the essay of Géza Jeszenszky. He eloquently reminds us that even after the horrors in Croatia and Bosnia, and despite the catastrophes in Iraq and Syria, largely due to the desire of one religious group to dominate another, the world is still pursuing the chimera of multiculturalism. As a consequence it overlooks the compelling case for some form of autonomy for minority groups. He argues that in the case of Ukraine a settlement which provides for a legislative body and an administrative structure in the eastern half of the country and which respects minority needs and values, could form the basis of a workable compromise. Such a settlement, he believes, would satisfy any minority community living in the eastern half of Europe, certainly the Russians, Romanians, Poles and Hungarians in Ukraine. Further, it would be impossible for Russia to refuse peace with Kiev with such rights guaranteed. It is therefore high time that the US and the EU pressed both parties to reach a deal that guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity while also recognising the case for regional autonomy.
Whether Putin’s Russia would continue to respect such an arrangement, or use it to destabilise the government in Kiev remains open to question.And how would the common-or-garden democratic rights of the eastern Ukrainians be protected in such a structure – since one of Mr Putin’s aims in this crisis is to remove the example of living democracy next door to his authoritarian structure of power?
That seems like a substantial menu. What of dessert? Readers can rest assured that the “back of the book” continues to delight with works of criticism and imagination and visual and verbal beauty. The claim of railway stations, in particular Budapest’s fine Keleti terminus, to occupy a romantic place in our collective imagination is evocatively asserted by Dávid Bán and supported by photographs of great occasions when history was made in them.
It is odd that such a practical industrial structure has such power to excite us. Obviously this power is linked to the sense of adventure which is itself linked to the idea of travel to exotic places. But the plain fact is that railway stations areromantic in large part because of movies – think of Brief Encounter, The Lady Vanishes (now filmed three times, beginning with Hitchcock), Bandwagon in which Fred Astaire dances around one, the three Anna Kareninas (Garbo, Viven Leigh and Keira Knightley) throwing themselves under that train, Casablanca where an angrily heartbroken Humphrey Bogart, one step ahead of the German army, has to be dragged by Sam onto the train from Paris to the South because Ingrid Bergman hasn’t kept their rendezvous, and any number of movies in which New York’s Grand Central Station is one of the stars. (It’s a complicated station but I knew my way around it on a first visit from constant cinema going.)
Literature played its part too. Anna first throws herself under that train on Tolstoy’s printed page. But railway stations seem suited in particular to the popular poetry of the popular song. The 1930s “list” song, These Foolish Things, has this couplet that joins two vivid images in an incongruous medley of things that remind a lover of his lost mistress:
The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations
Silk stockings thrown aside dance invitations
In a slightly different mood, comic revue songwriters Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote a nostalgic tribute to the small country railway stations that were disappearing from England in the 1950s, closed down by an economic rationalisation scheme. The Slow Train lyrics consisted almost entirely of their names. The melody is a slow and sadly charming one that fades quietly away to these words:
Cockermouth for Buttermere … on the Slow Train, Armley Moor Arram …
Pye Hill and Somercotes … on the Slow Train, Windmill End.
Mr Dán’s article set off these and other associations in my own memory. He will excite different memories for you.