Danube Institute
Batthyány Lajos Alapítvány
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Magyar Szemle

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21 May 2019

Diagnosing a Mysterious Oppression

"My mind and editorial attention have been devoted in the last few weeks to attending a series of conferences in America, England, Croatia and Hungary on three large topics: immigration, the persecution of religious believers, especially Christians, and the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. These topics stand independently of one another, yet they also overlap and influence each other."


My mind and editorial attention have been devoted in the last few weeks to attending a series of conferences in America, England, Croatia and Hungary on three large topics: immigration, the persecution of religious believers, especially Christians, and the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. These topics stand independently of one another, yet they also overlap and influence each other. They also bump up against each other in the forthcoming pages of this issue of the Hungarian Review.

Migration was the single topic of a major international conference to which the Matthias Corvinus Collegium invited a long roster of distinguished international statesmen, academics, religious leaders, business people, and independent writers in March. It was an impressive event by any standards, including intellectual and political ones, and we hope to plunder its papers for Hungarian Review articles in coming months.

As a political event, of course, its most immediate interest was that two distinguished leaders from Europe’s conservative establishment, Nicholas Sarkozy from France and Václav Klaus from the Czech Republic, gave coded messages of support to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in his struggle with the Christian Democratic establishment of the European People’s Party. That struggle continues in a minor key during the election campaign, since neither Mr Orbán nor his principal scold from the CDU-CSU, Manfred Weber, knows who will need whom most after the election results come in. Changes in political and party loyalties at the European level are all but inevitable after the votes are counted. All that is uncertain is how big they will be.

As an intellectual event, it was a unique one in pan-European politics because it brought together experts, on every aspect of mass migration and related questions such as multiculturalism, who were not merely cheerleaders for EU policy. Our on-the-spot correspondent, Theodore Dalrymple, who writes regularly from the prisons, socialized hospitals, and municipal low-income housing estates of Darkest England, found it unnerving to be among so many people who shared his own prudential nervousness about uncontrolled mass migration. It is hard to imagine a howling mob of Dalrymples, but this anxiety (if hypothetical) is prudential too. What soothed him considerably, however, was the wider social effect of a policy of controlling migration seriously. Neither he nor his wife were submitted to massive security searches, as they would have been on attending a similar event in either London or Paris. Throughout the city of Budapest the ordinary citizen felt safe and secure compared to some of his European neighbours, especially those in Western Europe.

That might easily not have been so. As Éva Eszter Szabó points out in her essential survey of intellectual debates over the moral significance of walls and borders, the migration crisis of 2015 was misinterpreted at the time. Indeed, the risks of not halting the illegal storming of Hungary’s borders have never been candidly admitted by critics of walls:

The number of asylum applications per year multiplied in Hungary from 2012 to 2015 from 4,676 persons to 177,135 persons. In most cases, migrants were not willing to cooperate with the Hungarian authorities but aimed to pour through the country illegally either by not waiting for the adjudication of their asylum applications – as it happened in 90 per cent of the cases – or through bypassing the screening process altogether on their way to Germany, Sweden or the UK. […] The massive irregular entry thus defied the rule of law and order, and created utter chaos along the route between Hungary’s southern and western borders. […] It constituted a major health hazard with several migrants diagnosed with infectious diseases, and it posed a national and international security threat as it would turn out later. In October 2016, Hungary’s Counter-Terrorism Centre revealed that seven ISIS terrorists had entered the EU via Hungary over the summer of 2015 by taking advantage of migrant crowds and they set up a “logistics hub” in the country where they planned and prepared the November 2015 Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives, and the March 2016 Brussels attacks, killing 32 people.

Even when such facts are admitted, the bien pensant response is too often to compare the number of deaths due to terrorism with the number due to such causes as faulty electric wiring in hair-dryers. Such responses are absurd even in their own terms. Modern society goes to very great lengths to protect people against electrical accidents. We do not ignore them because they are few in number compared to deaths due to automobile accidents. Similarly, we should not be deterred from protecting people against terrorist murder by feeble casuistries that treat a wall built to protect law-abiding societies as one to keep morality-abiding people inside prison-societies run by sadists and ideological fanatics.

One such prison was the Hungary of Rákosi between 1947 and 1956. Any prison will naturally provide prison chaplains to preach submission to the authority of the prison authorities. In the case of Rákosi, that was, of course, an unlawful and anti-Christian authority (occasionally in clerical disguise). Gradually replacing lawful teachers of Christianity in Hungary with more pliant preachers was an early priority of his Stalinist regime. Since it invited national resistance and international embarrassment with such blunders as the trial of Cardinal Mindszenty, it took time. But under the slow and subtler siege of religion mounted by his successor, János Kádár, it seemed to be slowly succeeding when in September 1977, a sermon delivered in rural Hungary by the American evangelist, Billy Graham, revealed a hidden mass congregation hungry for that old time religion. As David A. J. Reynolds describes it in his account of the impact of the Graham address on Kádár’s Hungary:

There had been no public advertisements of Graham’s appearance at the Baptist camp in Tahi, 25 kilometres north of Budapest, on the eastern edge of the Pilis Mountains. Three to four thousand had been expected, but, alerted by word-of-mouth, ten thousand arrived by bus, car and on foot. They came not only from Budapest and around Hungary, but hundreds from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. “At dawn the worshipers began gathering in a sunbathed clearing in the wooded hills”, Time magazine reported, even though Graham would not arrive until ten.

Graham’s evangelical address was a national event, even though it was not mentioned in the government’s controlled press. My colleague, Gyula Kodolányi, attended the event. In a poem written at the time and translated here by Thomas Cooper, he describes the ordinary Hungarians making their way quietly past the Sunday vacationers in the wooded park where Graham spoke to receive a biblical refreshment. He compares it to John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ’s emergence into His ministry. From a different historical perspective Reynolds shows how this single speech resonated with Hungary’s masses deprived of spiritual substance and how it helped to revive the dormant evangelical tradition in the country and to persuade it to be bolder in its Christian professions.

Did Graham influence the whole of Soviet Europe too? For it is also possible to see Graham’s visit as preparing the way for John Paul II’s visit to Poland less than two years later. Though the Pope’s visit could not be kept out of the media, as Graham’s was, and though the historical impact of it was inevitably greater, in both cases the preachers avoided politics as such and devoted themselves entirely to delivering the message of the Christian God. Both John Paul II and Billy Graham thought first and last: how many souls can we save? It was the congregations who saw the political implications of the gospel. A call for religious freedom led easily to a call for other freedoms too. And that in the end produced massive political changes and improvements.

Is Graham’s evangelical influence still silently at work? For instance, were the Graham sermon and its impact among the factors that have helped shape the Hungarian government’s unique aid policies that, under the rubric “Hungary Helps”, seek to provide assistance and protection to persecuted Christians where they live in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere? At the Danube Institute’s conference in London on “Invisible Victims: Persecuted Believers and Western Governments,” I heard a powerful account of that policy from Hajnalka Juhász, who is both a Christian Democrat MP and a ministerial commissioner. More unexpected, and at least as heart-warming, however, were the interventions from the floor from both Middle Eastern Christians and Western aid workers who testified gratefully to the arrival of help when they felt they had few friends left anywhere. I hope to put the videos of the conference up on the Danube Institute website shortly – and also to hold similar conferences soon in, among other cities, Budapest.

A secular lesson for governments is that when we suppress other opinions and attitudes, secular or religious, we prepare an unpleasant surprise for ourselves. As the great British liberal historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay once wrote of political censorship: “Profound and ingenious policy [...] To leave the serpent his deadly sting, and deprive him only of his warning rattle”. I have been recalling Macaulay’s magisterial irony in recent days as I went to meetings on Brexit and populism and not least the Euro-elections thundering down towards us. After a brief examination of any of these topics, most serious discussants dismiss the notion that the elections will be “about” a populist attack on liberal democracy. Though this is the “line to take” of the main political establishments in Europe, America, and even (on Brexit) in Britain, it cannot be maintained seriously for more than a few minutes. One objection alone refutes it: however much you dislike the populists, you have to admit that they at least think they are trying to revive and broaden democracy in the interests of all voters.

This objection is quite a moderate one, but when it comes from the mouths of voters, it is expressed almost furiously. Many people, not all with conservative opinions, feel that they are not supposed to say it or anything like it, and that in doing so, they are trampling on respectable taboos and risking official rebuke. Sometimes they are. And this angers them. Questioned more closely, they will say such things as “we feel it is not our country any more. There are lots of things we feel we are not supposed to say. It never used to be like that. You used to be able to say anything you wanted..., except, you know, one or two swear words. And now they say those words all the time on television”. I would invent a good example except that Nicholas T. Parsons, in his review of Eric Kaufman’s well-received book Whiteshift, has unearthed a better one from Canada:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada is a completely new society with “no core identity and no mainstream”. It is a “post-national state” according to him. He is, says Kaufmann, an apostle of “progressive modernism” [...] His brand of “positive liberalism” is however provoking a backlash. The ex-leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party in British Columbia, who happens to be a Sikh-Canadian, has written blisteringly of how the commendable desire to reduce inequality has “mutated into an ideological orthodoxy based on a neurotic desire to repudiate the sinful white man.

Kaufmann himself says “left-modernism” is not simply a critique but a “theory of white ethno-racial oppression” and a “millenarian project sustained by the image of a retrograde white ‘other’”. He could also have used the terms multiculturalism or diversity to describe it. Parsons concurs adding that “apart from being itself racist, this dogma requires the application of double standards on a heroic scale if the unique evil of the white man in history is to be sustained as an unchallengeable fact”. This ideology of a poisonously aggressive white ethno-nationalism does not, of course, indict all white people. It could hardly do so since it is largely the work of white progressive intellectuals. They are absolved of any guilt for their race’s oppressive behaviour, naturally enough, but the circle that encompasses the guilty is gradually expanding to include almost any white person, including conservative women, who have not written a left-progressive book or at least tweet. And these judgments are not simply academic arguments in the obscurity of learned journals. Increasingly, they are used to determine government positions, university entrances, work promotions, salary levels, lecture invitations, political candidacies, and much else at the disposal of the modern managerial state or of business corporations, especially those in the social media industry, that now seem to see themselves as agents of its moral, political and historical correctness.

A particular problem arises when these ideas arrive in our lives under the legal guise of either judicial review or of decisions by courts of human rights which are both widely believed by left-progressives and even some old-fashioned liberals to possess the right to overturn conventional laws passed after democratic debate. Unless this belief is challenged and restrained sensibly, it will set up a serious conflict between democracy and the rule of law. Contrary to much elite argumentation, moreover, the original “attack” comes not from governments and populists (who are in the main responding to judicial over-reaching) but from left-progressives in NGOs and the legal profession who see the law as a way of reversing their defeats at the ballot box. In an important and original essay, Sir Noel Malcolm, the distinguished British academic, argues that contrary to most writing on this topic, the justification of conventions to protect human rights only makes sense in the context of democratic societies. It would be absurd to complain that Tibetans in the 19th century lacked human rights because they could not hold the Dalai Lama accountable when they thought him divine. If human rights laws arise from democracy, however, then they should be part of democratic debate and not imposed on parliaments and congresses from outside by a new class of guardians either in courts or in international bodies. If we do not succeed in resolving these questions in a democratic direction, we risk the worsening of the alienation of people from politics that is a main source of the present European crisis. People who do not make a living from politics or its related trades in the academy experience the various forms of “correctness” as a mysterious oppression imposed and sustained by a “Blob” of the official and semi-official organizations of society. They resent it and would like to repudiate it, and elections are supposed to enable them to do so. Until recently, however, no political party seemed to agree with them. So when populists turn up on their doorsteps and say they also would like to repudiate both particular policies like multiculturalism and a general climate of elite disdain, they get a warm welcome. And when the populists say next that we want to defend our democracy against the oppression of people who insist, against all apparent evidence, that they are liberal democrats, they do not seem to be attacking either liberalism or democracy as traditionally understood. In fact they seem to be defending both.




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