Experts on terrorism have recently begun speaking of a phenomenon they term “self Islam”. This refers to the fact that many dangerous extremists act not out of loyalty to a religious or a radical political movement, but rather justify their actions by picking and choosing among the elements of various viewpoints. Their acts of aggression are not rooted in any particular conviction. Their desire for self-fulfillment appears to stem from a unique, psychological defect or identity crisis, which indeed sometimes leads to a brutal tragedy. Naturally, the tragic outcomes are relatively rare, but they nonetheless deserve attention, for while the acts are often regarded as the symptoms of a particular kind of social crisis, in fact what lies behind them is an increasingly widespread mass phenomenon. Self-serving, instinctual actions and the many kinds of mimesis are well-known in the history of culture. Indeed, at the beginning of every cultural process or transformation, borrowing existing patterns and external elements for new purposes is common. We might even say that this pattern of borrowing, in milder form, is characteristic of every person, a natural consequence of the cultural patterns of our age. But the discussion here is about something different; the phenomenon of arbitrarily choosing particular details out of closed philosophical systems (such as a religion or political ideology) appears to be something quite new. It seems as if personal conviction has been transformed into a buffet- style menu of choices, such that each individual notion becomes an element of a confused discourse or even gibberish: it is used to explain an act that needs explaining. Let us leave aside the criminal nature of the act, and also recognize that the right to free expression can include incoherent speech. The phenomenon deserves examination simply because of its power to explain.
The current crisis (though often narrowly understood to mean merely an economic crisis) is more widely interpreted to mean that the individual in the Western world believes he is incapable of differentiating between good and bad, between justice and injustice. From Oswald Spengler to the French “declinologists”, to Timothy Garton Ash and Euro-pessimism, the themes of crisis and decline are well represented in countless forms and viewpoints. More recently, discussions have emerged about how democracy might be preserved. The fact that we continue to argue over what might constitute a just, a good or an even better social-political system leads us to two definite conclusions. One, precisely because of this process of decline, there seems to be no scope for political philosophy. Two, the resulting mood of restlessness and melancholy proves that we have not yet forgotten our need for such a philosophy. The process of cultural crisis is thus not exclusively linear; it is not at all clear that this road is leading us inexorably into the deep. One proof of this is the birth and development of the idea that created the European Union. The decline of the West has been widely proclaimed since the end of the First World War. Yet in 1950, the plan that sought to achieve respect for the sovereignty of the individual and peace among the community of nations (without differentiating between victors and vanquished) was one of moral renewal. The new, democratic institutions created as part of this plan were a response to the tragedy of the Second World War, its immeasurable human losses, including the Holocaust, the final defeat of Nazism, and the lessons of these events. For a time, political philosophy again fulfilled a purpose, because the post-War generation of Europeans understood what is just and what is unjust; they understood the virtues of the new democratic framework for the common good; they knew they had to adopt these if they were to avoid repeating the horrors of the past. While Europeans today are firmly convinced that the established democracies will not allow the tragedy to be repeated, their faith in the new Europe and desire for a virtuous system for the common good seem to have receded into mere dreams. Once again, political philosophy is considered a science to be taught in college courses; value judgments are considered unscientic; and only fact-based judgments matter, because they are allegedly empirical. But the collapse of the 40-year era of Communist dictatorship created a different situation, at least on the Eastern half of the European continent. On the surface, these changes have consisted of transformed political systems and a redrawing of the map. At its depths, though, much more has occurred, at the level of instincts and in a chaotic fashion. What has happened is definitely comparable to the end of Nazism in one respect: the collapse of the Communist dictatorships had no historical precedent; as in Germany after the defeat of Nazism, it was not clear what would happen next. Moreover, the most important consequence was also the most difficult one to recognize. With the collapse of Communism, a human type disappeared, though not suddenly or without a trace: the homo sovieticus. This human was the most pathetic type of all, one who had been stripped of all ideals and moral desires, yet was fed, more or less cared for, allowed to subsist within the corrals of dictatorships of varying degrees of harshness. The birth of the so- called new democracies and their slow process of integration into the two major Western systems of alliances were accompanied, for a time, by general euphoria, such as when the East Germans were permitted to emigrate en masse, and when the Berlin Wall came down.
In hindsight, we can see that not only did the essence and nature of this change remain unnoticed; so did its consequences. With the end of dictatorship in East Central Europe, political philosophy had a renaissance here, too, though not under such cathartic conditions as in the West after 1945. In Central Europe, around the year 1990, everything was about democracy. Our model of democracy was the same as that created by a united Europe in response to the war. Through free elections, multi-party parliaments came into being in every country that wanted to join the West unconditionally and quickly. While everyone could feel that we had made a break from the earlier system (in Hungary, from the Kádár-era political system and mindset), the whole population, of all generations, faced an unusual problem in trying to redefine their identity and sense of community. The rejection of Communism was very strong even among those who had played active roles in the previous political system, which had tended to suppress the feeling of national belonging in the name of a different, but allegedly superior identity.
With the return of sovereignty in the former Soviet satellites around the year 1990, many factors seemed finally to come together within the framework of patriotism: democracy, the basic equality of all people, the state based on the power of the people, and the importance of a common language and culture. As a result, the larger issues of virtue and the common good again became relevant; yet it is also here, in the context of changes in Eastern Europe, that we must look for the essence of the current European crisis.
“Self-Europe” is a symptom of mistrust and the loss of faith, a phenomenon that has gained traction in recent years. While the key documents of the European Union are based on the principles laid down by the founding fathers, the actual discourse in the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the media is often unpredictably contradictory, superficial, and sometimes reaches the level of destructive hysterics. One example is the treatment of Hungary as a “black sheep” since the second half of 2010. “Orbán proposes to offer ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries Hungarian citizenship, rather as Hitler did for ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia” (The Observer, 8 January 2012). It is easy to refute this statement. The right to hold dual citizenship exists in many countries. The Hungarian electoral reform allows for non-resident citizens to cast one vote only, for a party list.
But the extremism of drawing a parallel with Hitler (and there are plenty of irrational and passionate statements of this kind in current circulation) causes damage that is all but impossible to repair. Many people, in both Eastern and Western Europe, might well conclude that a new conflict is emerging between the centre and the periphery, increasing public antipathy toward European unity. Statements of this kind exhibit an arrogance that permits the juxtaposition of glib, otherwise unrelated statements – under certain circumstances. For example: if a smaller, poorer, and more distant member state is concerned.
But self-Europe consists not merely of incoherent and thereby destructive statements that stand in contrast to the political philosophy of European unity. It is not just about the fact that unconnected, incendiary allegations are causing unpredictable outcomes in Eastern and Western Europe alike. European discourse itself is threatened if we must assume that such public statements reflect some concealed agenda, or indifference, or ignorance, or – at best – a lack of information. Such an agenda might be a lobbying interest, or the effects of a political dispute or power struggle, for which words and arguments are just a mask, or not even that. If this is the situation in which we find ourselves, then our common culture is in real danger of collapse.
Culture includes understanding and the capacity for knowledge. But what we have been describing here is just its opposite. From the Central European point of view, it is a longstanding grievance that we have a greater understanding for the culture of the West than the other way around. In essence, the current complaint is that this region had to take an unusual road following the collapse of Communist rule, yet the significance of this history is either not recognized or else treated with indifference. Yet this road is not the same one taken by the established democracies. Passing judgment upon those who are on this road today is a process that deserves much greater circumspection, understanding and knowledge than has been displayed thus far. Indeed, the prevailing environment of indifference and limited knowledge is fertile ground for the concoction of nightmares featuring ghosts and phantoms. Phantoms are frightening; they evoke aversion and distaste. Political correctness is a vehicle for superficiality. Naturally, a superficial judgement inflicts no penalty, but it does serve to worsen the feeling of alienation and scepticism.
If we take an even broader view of things, we might pose the question: is this a postmodern phenomenon, in which the periphery cannot stomach being treated as “the other”? Or will the tensions slowly be resolved, allowing the melancholic musings about the impending twilight to begin anew?
Translation by Katica Avvakumovits