Eastern Europe pushes back against the elites

By Jonathon Van Maren

Most Canadians do not follow European politics very closely, and so nobody thought much of it when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeted out his congratulations to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who had just secured a third consecutive mandate and a two-thirds majority for his Fidesz party. Canada’s left-leaning media exploded with condemnation—the state broadcaster, the CBC, noted that Harper’s congratulations came “despite the concerns of international observers who say the campaign was tainted by hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric.” Orban’s resolute refusal to accept enormous numbers of migrants since the 2015 crisis struck Europe has made him the target of nearly non-stop criticism and accusations of various sorts for several years now.

But Ryszard Lefutko, a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, has been closely examining the increasing tensions between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. His analysis was recently published in the essential Journal of Religion and Public Policy First Things. He sheds light on why, exactly, nations like Poland and Hungary and treated with such hostility in the Western press. A few excerpts:

Religion determines the most important differences. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; Czechia is largely agnostic; and Hungary is Catholic, but with substantial Protestant minorities. In Poland, being a conservative has always meant a close attachment to Catholic Christianity, even for those who were not men of faith. Not only conservative but also centrist parties have never questioned the importance of religion in Polish history and modern Poland. Even left-wing parties have been careful not to attack the Church and Christianity, realizing that to do so would be political suicide. All attempts to build a strongly anticlerical political movement have failed and are likely to fail in the future. There are, of course, “open Catholics” in Poland as there are everywhere, most of them intellectuals such as Marcin Król, strongly critical of the Church (with the exception of Pope Francis, whom they praise to the skies), lavishly supportive of the European Union, and hysterically opposed to the current conservative government. But so far their influence on the episcopate and the Polish flock has been minimal.

Any traditional form of Christianity is despised by the elites because it presents an enormous roadblock to their progressive project. Poland, for example, bans nearly all abortions. Attempts by the European Union to force same-sex marriage on nations in Eastern Europe have been met by grumbling and resentment (I’ve heard much of it first-hand while traveling there.) As long as the worldview of Eastern European peoples is informed, at least to some extent, by the tenets of traditionalist Christianity, the elites and the EU find it very difficult to jerk nations like Poland into the 21st century that they are busily creating. More:

Since 2010, Hungary has been ruled by the Fidesz party, whose leader, Viktor Orbán (a Protestant), has repeatedly stressed the importance of Christianity for Hungary and for Europe as a whole. Predictably, this last point provokes angry grumbles from E.U. political elites. But the new Hungarian constitution, which Orbán managed to pass through the Parliament in 2011, states this attachment to Christianity in unequivocal terms: “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago….We recognise the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.”

Not only that, but Orban is one of the few European leaders who has been trying his best to tackle the issue of demographic decline in his nation. As I noted back in February, Orban is instituting measures to boost the birthrate that include enormous subsidies for each additional child a couple chooses to have, as well as paying off the student debt of women who choose to have children. These projects, which include social welfare that would ordinarily have progressive politicians singing loud praises, are largely ignored by the Western press due to the fact that they are borne out of Orban’s conviction that Hungary must not stop producing Hungarians, and that families are essential to a stable society:

In the major moral conflicts of today’s Western world—over abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.—Poland and Hungary clearly represent the conservative side, having perhaps the only governments in Europe, or across the entire West, that are consistently pro-life and pro-marriage. The defense of life from conception to natural death is enshrined in the Hungarian constitution as well, though the existing laws—dating back to previous governments—have remained unchanged and make abortion accessible under certain conditions. In Poland, abortion is permitted only in restricted cases. 

Poland and Hungary thus occupy a unique political position in the West. Against the moral revolutions that the West has launched with a surprising degree of fanaticism, they have defended the family and the unborn and affirmed the necessity of religion. This has turned these countries into the great blackguards of the Western world, criticized and bullied by American and European politicians, journalists, academics, artists, film stars, and pop stars.

So far, these attacks have only led to the consolidation of conservative forces in Eastern Europe. The more intense the attacks, the more people are convinced that they are a part of a larger cultural conflict. The old argument that until some time ago was effective—of anachronism, marginalization, the dustbin of history—has lost its force. Once it was enough to put the East Europeans to shame, telling them they should listen to what is being professed in Paris, Berlin and New York, to those who are more enlightened, who represent progress and who lead Western civilization, or by telling them their beliefs were outdated and laughable. Eastern Europeans backed down.

Anyone who has traveled in Eastern Europe and talked to anyone there knows that this is the case. Westerners like to delude themselves into thinking that we are beacons of freedom and democracy, when the truth is that many other nations look at us and see only decadence: Trashy pop stars, sex-infused and gore-spattered films, nonstop and increasingly perverse pornography, and a sexual culture so utterly confused that we cannot even say who is male and who is female anymore. In our own self-absorbed world of micro-aggressions, social media, and materialism, we forget that the image we project to the world is much different than what the patriotic politicians like to claim—and increasingly, we stand for a form of cultural colonialism that is resented wherever it appears:

A ritualistic appeal in support of homosexual causes issued by up to forty-five ambassadors every year before the Equality Parade in Warsaw did not diminish strong opposition to legalizing same-sex marriages in Poland. Nor has the country’s anti-abortion stance weakened in response to equally ritualistic criticisms that the European Parliament directs against Poland for failing to guarantee women their “reproductive rights.” The European Commission and the European Parliament suffered a humiliating defeat trying to discourage the Poles from supporting institutional reforms of the judiciary system. Outside criticism only strengthened the position of the government among the voters.

Though it has become less effective, this strategy of shaming has not died out. The basic conflict in a country such as Poland is between two groups representing two strategies—one that appeals to intellectual fashion and another that dismisses it. On one hand, there are those who are disgusted with the Polish society that they consider backward and permeated by dangerously obsolete beliefs. They want to modernize, which means giving the country a new liberal-democratic identity. They hope to achieve this aim by submitting the country to some kind of enlightened rule by local elites and European institutions, particularly the European Union. Polish society, in other words, needs mental and social re-education. Then it may join modern civilization. Ewa Thompson of Rice University, a contributor to A View from the Right, describes this attitude as an expression of a postcolonial mentality, in which the people who think themselves free unwittingly try to imitate and please the former colonial power.

This is precisely the case. The same thing is happening to Christian communities in North American and Western Europe—those who have not yet been “enlightened” and climbed on board with the LGBTQ project, including the redefinition of marriage and a few dozen new genders, are publicly shamed by the press and the progressive politicians. That’s why traditionalist writers like Rod Dreher are suggesting a new “Benedict Option,” where Western Christians bunker down and prepare to preserve whatever is left of Christian civilization against the modern Mongols. But the Eastern Europeans have not yet completely lost their minds (they don’t have a press that demands the use of fictitious pronouns like “ze” and “zir,” for example), and thus Western bullying ends up looking rather clueless—the West, with all of its existential problems, is urging other nations to follow its path. The reason is simple:

This elite aspires to monopoly. After all, whoever looks at the world only from the perspective of progress and modernization cannot grant any legitimacy to his adversaries. For a believer in modernization, anything other than acceptance of progress is an absurdity that should be eliminated, not another contestable point of view. No wonder that whenever this elite loses power through a popular vote, it reacts angrily and never really accepts the democratic results. One can see this in the E.U.’s reaction to the governments in Poland and Hungary, but also in the reaction of a large part of the Polish cultural establishment to the current conservative government… 

One symptom of this mentality is the reappearance of the word cham in Polish public discourse. It’s an elite term of abuse for the ruling government and its supporters. Impossible to translate into English, it goes back to the old caste-structured society, in which it denoted the lowest stratum, serfs and peasants. A “cham” is not only a person who is coarse, ill-mannered, uneducated, and unintelligent. He is also socially contemptible and deserves to be where he is, that is, at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. You did not argue with a cham; when he was disobedient, you had your servants beat him. When the elites apply the word “cham” to those who won the elections, they put themselves in the place of the old-time landowners living in fancy palaces, having refined tastes and cultivated minds, who were deposed by a bunch of brutal, illiterate peasants who deserve to be whipped until they know their place. Only then will the situation go back to normal.

The long historical memory of Eastern Europeans helps them to see our political battle lines more clearly. And considering the fact that they look at Europe from a broader perspective, both historically and philosophically, they are certainly more European than those who identify Europe with the European Union. Would it, then, be fair to say that the European Union is becoming less and less European in the genuine sense of the term, and that the truest defenders of European identity are now to be found in Eastern Europe among the chams rather than among the best and the brightest? My answer is: Yes, it would. 

What a fascinating term: Cham. That accurately sums up how the Western elites see those of us who have not yet discarded thousands of years of tradition and religious belief in favor of the social experiments they initiated just yesterday—with contempt, or perhaps the exasperation of an over-worked parent trying to discipline an obstinate child. It reminds me of the work of the League of the Militant Godless in the Soviet Union, which would diligently work to dissuade Russians from belief in God and Christianity. If they succeeded, the apostates would be praised to the apparently empty heavens—if the faithful refused to relinquish their archaic beliefs, they would be socially ostracized, mocked, and subjected to all sorts of ugly accusations. The Western elites are doing that to anyone who steps out of line here in the West—and elite institutions like the European Union are trying to do something similar to entire nations.

Across the West, an entire generation has grown up utterly ignorant of history. This has been key in ensuring that young people are willing to climb on board with all sorts of social experiments packaged with sexy names like “social justice” and “equality”—they are rootless and wearing the blinders of cultural Marxism that force every complex situation into the oppressed-oppressor paradigm. This sort of thing does not work so well in Eastern Europe, where people remember what real oppression feels like, and where suffering has been a way of life for centuries. They will not abandon the beliefs and traditions that got them through those bloody years so quickly, and are not nearly as gullible as the privileged activists of Western countries who howl about suffering they know nothing about.

Perhaps it is time that we began to learn from them.


For anyone interested, my books: The Culture War, Seeing is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion, and How To Discuss Assisted Suicide, are available for sale here

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