Whenever I have written about Eastern Europe, the article has provoked a venomous response from Eastern European readers and their supporters. Any debate seems characterised by over-sensitivity and misunderstanding. This was demonstrated by the range of replies I received to a blog I recently published about Poland and its occasionally prejudiced approach to its relationship with Jews and Judaism.
Tim Marshall in his book “Prisoners of Geography” states that: “The land on which we live has always shaped us. It has shaped the wars, the power, politics and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of the earth.” To that I would add a crucial ingredient, history. If land determines the way we develop, it is because we exploit or are exploited by our environment in ways that lead to power relationships that feed our historic memories, our insecurities or our ambitions (or both). It is the interplay between geography and history, with emphasis on the history, that makes the issue problematic for the integration of the whole continent into a United States of Europe.
Defining the Regions
Poland is a former Warsaw Pact nation. As such, it is some decades behind Western (and Southern) Europe in its approach to liberal political indoctrination and social custom. A geo-political definition is loosely applied because both Central Europe and parts of Asia are regarded as part of the European region. It is more accurate to refer to them as the former Warsaw Pact nations because their affiliation means inclusion within the former Soviet Union’s regional hegemonic embrace.
We can divide Europe into former Warsaw Pact nations and, Western and Southern European nations. But note also, the Russian Federation is not included as part of continental Europe. If it was, its size alone would dwarf the rest of Europe.
The Second World War made Europe wary of nationalism, but it was primarily an issue of the European tendency to view warfare as a productive means of engagement, that made a European super-state a necessity. Excising a European behaviour that had led to incalculable amounts of global suffering, through the creation of a federated Europe, was supposed to prevent a military option from ever again being considered as part of, or in place of negotiation.
It did not stop malevolent factions within society from spreading hatred or discord but that is perhaps global societies greatest challenge in a world that is increasingly deifying freedom of speech on a selective and prejudicial basis.
The European tendency to propound radical, extremist ideological positions has not changed. Following the end of World War 2, as the full horrors of its conduct became known to everyone, a European propensity to embrace bigotry and scapegoating of minorities may have been briefly sublimated, in some circles but that is mainly the extent to which prejudice disappeared from view. Soon, it once more emerged from the shadows, as mass immigration brought migrants whose own cultural baggage was replete with prejudice. When these recent arrivals gained the self-confidence to openly express those noxious views, society was happy to listen, because it ameliorated their guilt (whether by association, or, active / passive complicity in war crimes). When prejudice is legitimised it also wipes clean the past.
The New-Old Europe, Post 1945:
But the new Europe was not meant to re-write the history of the past or to sanitise it. The new Europe was meant to be an ongoing project; a holistic approach to incremental integration; a European federal super-state that would eliminate any need for a new clash between barbarianisms. But here is the problem:
A new ideology will also create its own narrative language. Without the choice of opting out, the new ideology becomes, like any new religion, disinclined to accept disagreement or dissention in the ranks. Instead of taking the confrontation out of human interaction, it creates its own class of neophytes. From the ranks of the loyal party faithful emerge guardians of language and ideological purity. Welcome to the new fascism.
The one thing that has never changed is that the most passionate believer is also the most dangerous. They serve as the greatest threat to peace and security because they deny others those same rights. The power of knowledge has always been jealously guarded by those for whom ignorance equalled control.
Britain’s ongoing, antisemitism scandal provides the perfect example of how things can go so badly wrong, within a political movement that is allegedly anti-racist. The use of legal instruments to shut down dissent is useful and can discourage leaks that could be politically embarrassing. The banning, by legislation, of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) was proposed by the British Labour Party as a matter of principle. Except, it is now clear, that this moral proposal does not apply to matters pertaining to the British Labour Parties behaviour towards either Jews or those people that support Jews. But what if NDAs don’t work? What if telling everyone (via a television program) that Labours detractors are either pathetic losers or liars, creates a negative or dissonant atmosphere that damages ‘The Cause’?
Then violence is nearly always acceptable, because it prevents the opposing side from expressing anything that runs counter to a politically ‘corrected’ version of history; it banishes a different cultural narrative or faith and it maintains the supremacy of a politically prejudiced global view (welcome to the Muslim war against the Jews, as so emphatically embraced by the Left).
The Golden Rule as a Civilising Concept and its Betrayal by the New Order
The Golden Rule, so central to Jewish thinking (as well as being present in many religious traditions and cultures) is portrayed as an ethic of reciprocity and empathic forbearance in the promotion of positive human behaviour. It remains a fundamental ethical standard. But any ideology will create its acolytes for whom there can never be any midway or compromise, both of which are essential, if the Golden Rule is to work universally. Therefore, the Golden Rule runs counter to current trends in Society.
When ideology clashes with inconvenient truth then truth nearly always is the first but not the only casualty. When truth becomes a readily bartered or saleable commodity then it is not long following that people will be its primary victims.
Prejudice, Superstition and Conspiracy
Conspiracy theories are perhaps the best way, for people whose belief system is constructed around lies and deception, to deflect attention away from the paucity of valid argument they use to support their prejudiced point of view. They thus become self-reinforcing threads (or memes in modern parlance). While conspiracies are typically mobilized against minorities in right-wing political movements, the Left, particularly the fascist Left will utilize conspiracy theories to lay the blame on powerful elites. Antisemitism is THE dream prejudice because it merges the rights biases with left wing theories that are given authority by being already acceptable amongst many groups.
So, what is a meme? The dictionary defines it thus:
- a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.
- a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet (and often altered in a creative or humorous way). – my brackets.
The first definition is also the perfect explanation for how prejudice, like any toxic virus, is transmitted across the generations. The second is the reason that hate has become a contagion that is barely contained within so many societies and it represents the greatest challenge to how governments must respond to the interface between social media, the internet and freedom of speech.
It is the reason that Jeremy Corbyn, her majesties loyal opposition leader in Great Britain is so wilfully successful in spreading his own version of hate to the masses, while denying that he has even a single cell of (antisemitic) prejudice in his bones!
if we consider civilisation to be a cultural journey, is empathy no more than culturally acceptable behaviour; a learned experience based on sensitisation and de-sensitisation? Is not intersectionality, as exploited, the intellectualisation of prejudice; not dissimilar to the academic construction of prejudice in the late 1800’s that lead us into WW2? If that is the case then Mr Corbyn and his coterie or cabal of senior advisers, through their public and oft exposed (secretive) displays of contemptuous disregard for the truth have empowered a new generation of racists and bigots, intent on doing harm to whomsoever they disagree with.
It is not only a regression into a less safe period in history but also a message that democracy is but an odious blip between periods of fascism.
The History of Conflict
Prior to the First World War (1914-18) monarchies exercised sovereignty over nearly all nations. A monarch could be a tribal chief or a princeling (ruling over a principality). That ruler often controlled an area no bigger than a modern-day town or village. Intermittently they went off to war with their (sacrificial) peasants and workers, to gain materials (resources) in order to expand their wealth and power. The gruesome deaths of the lower classes were simply an acceptable price and of no consequence unless it meant that productivity for the remaining human flotsam decreased.
A common thread in the first two books Yuval Noah Harari has written is just how lucky most of us have become within the three quarters of a century since the end of the Second World War in 1945. He writes that the decline of violence “is due largely to the rise of the state.” Compared to humanities experience throughout human history, the period since 1945 has been almost heavenly, for most of us. And yes, there have been terrible exceptions to this rule. But, nearly all of us go to sleep without having to fear for our safety. War is something that affects few of us and is truly, an exception to the rule of modern society. Few people starve to death and an accidental scratch will no longer set you up for septicaemia and a certain, painful death. Unemployment is no longer a death sentence for yourself or your family and child-baring, servitude or prostitution are not the only roles that are open to members of the female sex.
The re-emergence of Populism as a political force
So, how did we arrive at the political situation we have today that we are now seeing an increasing number of authoritarian and populist leaders elected to national office (or as in Britain, on the cusp of election to national office) who cater to prejudice and intolerance when they are supposed to be leading us away from violence and prejudice?
Our universities have become havens for intersectional bigotry where protection from micro-aggressions and, safe- spaces insulate the ‘disadvantaged’ from ‘harmful’ banter and proximity to ‘unsettling influences.’ These measures are meant to apply only to the fortunate unfortunate who are at the top of the intersectional hierarchy of disadvantage. A wealthy Arab is viewed as being a victim of western imperialism even when he a slave-owning warlord and responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Intersectionality places the ethnic or national cause before fact or morality.
I wrote in a previous blog: “Intersectionality, Impartiality and Propaganda”
Intersectionality is corruptly defined as the overlap of identities (such as race, religion, sexuality and gender) afflicted by systemic oppression, marginalized and denied ‘justice’ (a justice that is self-defined). All injustices are interconnected even when it compels us to adopt positions diametrically opposed to our core beliefs. Having created a hierarchy of virtuous groups for which protection from criticism is unlimited, groups that are excluded (principally defined either as white or Jewish) are offered no protection from either criticism or violence.
In the opinion of the intersectionally blessed social-action warrior, constitutional and legal rights enshrine privilege in the elite and are therefore of no relevance to them. Selected groups are protected from carefully defined micro-aggressions while their rivals are openly abused, both physically and intellectually. Knowledge is secondary to ‘the issue,’ discrimination and bigotry are fluid concepts. The pigs in ‘Animal Farm’ would be proud.
I have written before that our schools and higher education institutions fail to teach us discernment. If social media are such an important part of our everyday existence, then we need to be able to judge the ethical value of what is written and what is visually projected towards us. The alternative is that we are unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and evil.
But most of us are living in our own echo chamber: we hear what we want to hear and see only what reinforces our prejudices. This is, to a significant degree, driven by social media.
We are supposed to have moved on from Twentieth Century justifications for bigotry and prejudice. After all, it is not supposed to be applied under any circumstances in a world that preaches peace and reconciliation. But the new political reality as facilitated by the integration pains of immigrant communities throughout western nations has modified that ideal. The language of compromise, reaching out to understand people who have experiences that differ from our own, is also now failing in the Western World.
It is altogether foreign to the nations of the former Soviet Union. And the reason is simple.
In the Russian Empire, in order to participate in the commercial life of the nation you had to be able to stand your ground and impose your physical presence on your opponent. A successful business transaction involved a perception of domination that meant there was always an unequal relationship between two sides. As Russia has not been minded into changing its cultural model inside of the borders of the old Russian Federation it is probable that this formula continues to dominate Russian thinking. It explains Russian behaviour and attitudes towards the Western way of transacting business. It also explains the relationship Russians have with others, including their often-fraught relationship with Western nations today.
And so, I can now return to my first paragraph. Poland, one of the former Warsaw Pact nations, has little experience of the new language. The new Western language has so much conceptually in common with ‘the emperor’s new clothes.’ Grotesquely old-world concepts such as chauvinism, prejudice and aggression are selectively acceptable (just as they were prior to WW2) and this makes Western hypocrisy bewildering to most people who grew up within the nations of the old Warsaw Pact.
I wrote a reasoned piece about Polish insensitivity to the past and forgot that given their persecution during the War, Poles are similarly sensitive to criticism. As I once read “The fact that Poland took in and was home to more than 3 million Jews, does not negate the pervasive antisemitism that existed there for centuries. Each side hurts its own narrative by denying the truth of the other.” The comments I received were almost without exception, angry, hateful, and in many cases, antisemitic.
Part of the problem is the narrative. Of-course Jews were communists – as were Christians, Muslims and people of all other faiths. The unspoken issue with that last statement is that identification with any theistic faith precludes being a communist. After all, communism is an atheist ideology; a religious construct that deifies the absence of a godhead by exalting the leader, past and present. But to the bigot, a Jew is a Jew even when they have no Jewish identity. A similarly unhinged or prejudiced behaviour would have me berate all Christians for the actions of some Irish Catholic priests against children, or similar bias, would have me demand that all Christians be held accountable for the crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Sudan, the Congo, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In all those places the (Christian) Lord’s Army have carried out atrocities. And should all Muslims be blamed for the intermittent orgies of violence committed by members of the Muslim Brotherhood? Or what about the atrocities of Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Islamic States, ISIL, ISIS etc? Of course not!
History is complicated but it is also largely circumscribed; edited to protect societies from tearing themselves apart. And it is that editing that is perhaps the main barrier to Judeo-Christian reconciliation.
Integration and the EU problem
The Russian model I referred to earlier is the same model that has been internalised by the nations of the former Soviet empire even as some of them attempt to integrate into the Western sphere-of-influence.
Warsaw Pact and Western models of society are increasingly incompatible because what cannot be solved through the liberal distribution of someone else’s money, leaves just the sharing of mutual contempt and bigotry.
It also means that the old prejudices are unaffected by the last 75 years since WW2 ended. It means that if former communist nations appear oblivious to the heightened sensitivity of our post-nationalism, non-sexist, politically correct language then that would be because they are unmoved by the selective nature of the ‘new’ sensitivity. It is not part of the cultural costume that they wear.
The European Future Vision
The world wide web is often compared with the Wild West – an unregulated free for all where lawlessness is inevitable because no-one wants to undertake the administrative nightmare of regulating it. That regulation will only happen if global governments collectively agree to take ownership of the internet, away from tech companies and news empires.
It is one probable future consequence for our present, inconsistent inaction.
The reason for this conclusion is that the nihilism of the internet has not been a blessing for society. If we cannot write without the extremists expressing their rage, is not the internet no more than a bigoted forum for expressing hatred and inciting violence? There has been a collective failure to address the issues that are disrupting and poisoning society. Free speech is not and has never been an absolute but unless it is truly free, then by its very nature, its selectivity encourages and provides a fertile and febrile environment for spreading prejudice, incitement and hatred.
The downward spiral becomes increasingly difficult to contain.
We have all got used to a level of freedom that may be unsustainable because its downside is escalating levels of threat within society that some people and some groups assume to be their right. In the 21st Century, if you over-regulate society, the people will eventually push back, with vigour. But if the perception of equality fails because free speech often curtails the freedom of selected groups and individuals, at the expense of others, then integration will become a joke that is easily exploited.
If the vision of a unified Europe is still relevant, then a reworking of the model, originally meant for Western and Southern Europe only, must be redesigned so that Central and Eastern Europe can also be successfully integrated. The holes in the original model, deliberately left unfilled in order to placate national rivalries, must be sealed tight so that the connection between the individual and whatever shape the ‘state’ takes, is more closely aligned.
Radical movements of both Left and Right are once again ascending to political power across the world. As individuals and as a community, they do not respect restraint, and consequently, that which is hurtful to others has become fetishized, so, discussing what divides “them from us” represents a hurdle too-far.
A social contract involving not just rights but critically, responsibilities, must be applied across the union so that citizens, immigrants and refugees are equal in their commitment to a shared, peaceful vision with a clear commitment to truth, unsullied by politics or faith.
The way in which prejudice is shamelessly, once more on the march, indicates that none of this is possible. The sad fact is that the European Union is not up to the task. We may be at the beginning of a long drawn out disintegration.