10 March 2016

The Populism of the Elites


Recent
issues of Hungarian Review have been heavily preoccupied with the migrant crisis as it affects Hungary and Europe. We wish it had been otherwise. Some days the editors feel as if they were wrestling to escape its coils and move towards more inspiring and lighter topics, but as with the father and his two sons in the Laocoon statue, the coils wrap themselves around us and refuse to let us go. This issue is hardly an exception. Articles on the topic include the continuation of Tibor Frank’s account of migrations in Hungarian history, Otto Hieronymi’s study of the development of international law on migration and human rights, Barbara Piazza-Georgi’s analysis of Hungary’s response to the migrants’ arrival across its borders, and Géza Jeszenszky’s proposals on how Visegrád cooperation on migrant policy should work.

All these are fine arguments expressing civilised sentiments, and Jeszenszky’s proposals (as befit a former foreign minister) are a serious, practical and hopeful attempt to improve the situation of the migrants without destabilising the countries where they seek to settle. In the national, legal and intellectual circumstances that prevailed until, say, 1995, such proposals would have had a fair chance of being agreed and implemented throughout Europe. Tony Abbott, Australia’s former prime minister, points out that Australia has been able to welcome a large number of Syrian refugees precisely because the Canberra federal government, not some global UN agency, controls its borders and immigration policy. Its citizens, now secure, can afford to be generous.

Europeans feel no such confidence in the European Union’s administrative control of migration. Its failure is so blatant that it hardly needs to be argued. But even if they did, their insecurities would not be fully pacified. For the migration debate takes place in a moral and ideological atmosphere that distorts public and private thinking to the point where some practical solutions become unthinkable and some dangerous outcomes all but irresistible. It is with these moral-cum- ideological influences on public discussion that this issue is also largely concerned.

Western European thinking is saturated in the doctrines that Nicholas T. Parsons calls “progressive politics”. These are rooted in the vision that society is moving inexorably towards a better state of things, including knowledge, not only in science (where reality can be a check to “progress” – something either works or it doesnt) but also in ethics, politics, religion and the arts. Central Europeans have been made more cautious by history. When Boris Yeltsin was asked his opinion of Communism in 1991, he replied: “It is an experiment that should have been tried in a much smaller country.”

But the Soviet experiment, tested also on Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles (maybe as control groups), is being forgotten quite rapidly, and as that happens the idea of progress as inevitability gains ground. After all, if we are moving to a better world, change is privileged over stability, and innovation over conservation. Bureaucrats are given power and energy by this idea. Designing the future, especially the future of Europe, is far more exhilarating than merely correcting manifest abuses. On the other hand, those who obstruct change are seen as obstacles to be overcome, or “enemies of society”, or “populists”, rather than prudent people. In the end the elites begin to ignore obstacles and cautions in a mad dash for their vision of a radiant future. They start to applaud risk-taking with ever-fewer qualifications. They glimpse Utopia.

Utopia is the populism of the elites. Mrs Merkel’s grand experiment of inviting millions of people from North Africa and the Middle East to live in Europe won enormous admiration from UN agencies, EU bureaucrats, editors and readers of The Economist, international lawyers, those politicians who hope for a second career in these circles after relinquishing power at home, and everyone in the grip of the progressive mentality. The risks of this grand progressive gesture were de-emphasised and criticism of it dismissed as racism.

But what do the people being experimented upon think? On both sides of the frontier? Miklós Maróth, a realistic analyst of Islamic radicalism, points out in his essay that it has many sources, including the exploitation of Arab and Islamic societies by Western foreign policy. Violent jihadists are misusing Muslim religious teaching when they use it to justify terrorism which is more a reaction to the West than an impulse arising from reading the Koran. Did we help to create the problem of a youthful population hostile to the West now living in the West? Even if we did, is their mass arrival in Europe a generous gesture of repentance? A step towards a better, less divided, and more multicultural world? Or a thoughtless gesture inviting cultural clashes, public insecurity, and even the spread of terrorism? Such questions are to be examined coolly and realistically rather than in a spirit of religious enthusiasm.

What of the pre-existing local population? Being the subject of an experiment, even a progressive one, is rarely pleasant. Reality is often one of failure and disappointment in comparison to the promises, but this cannot be admitted because it would cast doubt on progress itself. Communism’s utopia was so oppressive, as János Martonyi reminds us, that the hecatombs of victims it killed could only be concealed by a vast theatrical performance of fraudulent treason and betrayal. Béla Nóvé gives us the tragic history of one decent man driven to suicide by this system of show trials.

As Communism weakened in its internal self-confidence, so its lies became more routine. The point was still that people were required to offer assent to them. In today’s politically correct half-way houses to Utopia like Sweden and West Germany, all that is required of ordinary people is that they should not notice the failures of progress. Viivi Luik documents the many lies that our Western and post-communist societies produce in order to deny our personal and social realities, notably the squalid pursuit of money above all else. But we may be required to notice less and less as the migrant crisis intensifies. Few recent lies can match the determined official and media blind eye that was turned to the mass rapes and sexual harassment of women in Cologne in order to maintain the fiction that Germany’s welcome for the refugees had been an unqualified success. Revealed at the same time as Germany was criticising Poland for its (largely imaginary) retreat from democracy, this silence provoked the Polish supporters of a basketball team visiting Germany to unveil a large banner that read: “Protect Your Women, Not Our Democracy.” It was needed rebuke to Berlin’s self-congratulatory but bogus high-minded self-congratulation.

What makes it more justified is that the support of German and European elites for a limitless welcome policy towards refugees and migrants is not rooted solely in humanitarian concern for people needing help (though that sentiment is certainly present.) It rests also upon a post-modern ideology of hostility to the nation-state and an associated belief that the popular desire for a society that reflects cultural similarity and patriotic loyalty is morally wrong and potentially bellicose. These convictions shared by media and government elites help to explain why institutions from the police, the media, and länder governments both lied and suppressed news about the sexual attacks on women by migrants. We do not yet have a word to describe this mindset of reverse nativism (nativism being a preference for native-born citizens). If psycho-analysts had not appropriated the term for their profession, we might call it alienism.

One clear-eyed Hungarian analyst of these mental poisons was George Jonas, poet, librettist, critic, journalist, documentary film-maker, columnist, and author of a rich and extraordinary book that combines autobiography and historical reflections, Beethoven’s Mask in English, History on a Broomstick in Hungarian. George was a fifty-sixer who lived and wrote in Canada for fifty years. He was a valued contributor to Hungarian Review. He never abandoned or qualified the classical liberal opinions that fuelled his brilliant journalism. But he was a man of such charm and wit that his friends were happy to receive a rebuke from him, and he left this world with enemies only among those who had never met him.

We shall be publishing a fuller tribute to George in a future issue.






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