(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari.)
It's extremely important to distinguish the difference between a mere culture war, which suggests some parity, from an actual War on Culture. If what's going on here in the United States doesn't clue you in as to why, then perhaps you need an objective look at what's going on in Hungary, for instance.
Every now and then, I'll read an article that changes my entire belief system or at least one that allows me to sharpen my focus on a particular topic. This article by Philipp Oehmke in Der Speigel, one ironically translated from the original German, on the right wing war on culture in Hungary is one such example.
It stresses the need for a nation to have a national identity and a thriving, free-thinking culture in order to guard itself from outside influences such as the homophobic and anti-Semitic Jobbick Party in Hungary. One needn't squint too hard or pull a muscle stretching to draw parallels between the extreme right wing Jobbick Party, which is now the third largest in the Hungarian Parliament, and the National Socialist Party of 1930's Germany.
Budapest, as with Berlin 80 years ago, is a sophisticated cosmopolitan city with a thriving culture and a strong theatrical tradition. It's no less tolerant of its gay community than any other major city and, being the epicenter for cultural and political thought, it's an accurate barometer for what's going on in the rest of the country. Hungarians are renowned for their leftist leanings and liberalism, which makes it all the more mysterious why they'd vote in so many right wing bigots from the Jobbick Party so that now they're in roughly the same position as the Nazi Party was before the 1932 elections that saw the ascendance of Adolph Hitler.
Hungary currently has a conservative government in place, one that saw the ouster of the 20 year-long administration of the former liberal Budapest mayor's office and replaced with István Tarlós, described by one of his critics as being, "a reptile of Hungarian politics, muscular and well-fed."
I have a dear friend in Budapest, a young gay man, who's the victim of near-constant bullying from homophobic classmates. The school administration turns a blind eye to his victimization and when I recommended he go over their heads and air his grievances to the mayor of Budapest, he said that his letter was met with stony silence. Given Tarlós' track record, I no longer wonder about the apathy.
The leadership of the New Theater, the closest thing Hungary has to a national theater, was handed over to György Dörner, a right wing activist and sympathizer, by Mayor Tarlós after receiving a sloppy 20 page proposal essentially asking for control of the theater. The governing board, consisting of eight members, had no taste for any leadership change. Of the eight, six voted down the change and the other two abstained from voting. Despite the virtually unanimous consensus to maintain the status quo, Tarlós gave the reins to Dörner, who condemned the theater in his proposal for its "degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony." (He also wanted to rename it the "Home Front Theater", which even the rabidly right wing Budapest mayor found beyond the pale.).
Nonetheless, the soup sandwich of a proposal was approved by the mayor with absolutely no regard for the recommendations of the theater's board members and the new director will obviously use the theater as a propaganda tool. The outgoing director, István Márta, seems to be a capable one, providing Budapest's theater-going community with an eclectic range of well-reviewed plays spanning different countries, different eras and from different playwrights from Shakespeare to (believe it or not) our own Tom Waits. The theater is making money and doing more than its fair share that Budapest maintains its all-important if all too elusive cultural identity. One gets the feeling that when the new guy takes over, feeding the bottom line in the interest of a right wing hegemony won't be so important.
I do not agree with the author when he says, "Hungary today is a country trying to awaken a sense of national identity that never actually existed," although he contradicts himself earlier by writing, "In Hungary, culture is leftist and liberal, as it is in many other European countries." (Sidebar: How a nation can have a thriving, open-minded culture while not being possessed of a national identity mystifies me. Were it not for Hungary's proud national identity, the Uprising of 1956 couldn't have happened. But that's immaterial.) Yet culture is at the bottom of this issue, this Speigel article and my own.
Hungary for Change
The purge and rewriting of the laws, part and parcel to Hitler's extreme right wing agenda, has long since begun. Márta's been given the bum's rush despite the voice of the board and his counterpart in the National Opera in Budapest has since also been 86'd. There's this:
The government is investigating 82-year-old Agnes Heller, Hungary's most famous philosopher, a former dissident, Marxist and student of the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács. The government, with massive support from the right-wing press, claims that she squandered European Union grant money.
A monument to the poet Attila József on a square in front of the parliament building is expected to be taken down soon. József, whose works are classics of proletarian poetry, was a humanist with a Marxist worldview. He threw himself in front of a freight train in 1937. The new government does not believe that a monument to this sort of a person ought to be standing in front of the parliament. It's as if the Germans were to remove a statue of Friedrich Schiller because the poet had long hair.
The cracking down on dissidents with show investigations and trials, the disappearance of monuments honoring proletarian heroes (echoed most recently in Paul LaPage's Maine) and the purging of secular, humanist liberals and potential enemies of the state are just beginning, right out of the dog-eared playbook of right wing dictatorships.
Then there's this, perhaps the most chilling revelation of all:
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Party controls the country with a two-thirds majority in parliament -- enough, in other words, to reconfigure a parliamentary democracy or even reshape an entire country. A new constitution takes effect on Jan. 1, 2012, and a new press law designed to prevent unwanted criticism of conditions in Hungary has been in place for the last few months.
The Fidesz Party, as far as I understand it, is the mainstream conservative government which is bad enough. But even they're being challenged by the Jobbick Party, Hungary's answer to the Druz Party of Lebanon, Israel's Likud, Germany's NPD neonazis and our own Tea Party Republicans currently infesting Congress like so many ideological heartworms.
For a minute, let's shelve the speculation as to why a famously leftist nation such as Hungary would give a nearly 80% majority to right wingers and make the Jobbick Party the third largest in the nation and focus, instead, on where this is leading.
Oehmke's contention (one that may partially explain the political shift of the electorate) is that, bereft of a national identity, Hungary is weakened and made susceptible to political change no matter how radical and intolerant. Hitler's National Socialist Party was able to transform cosmopolitan, sophisticated Germany into a totalitarian state within a few short years by exploiting the peoples' dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic of Bismark that to this day is closely associated with hyperinflation and rampant unemployment.
Hungary at this moment is a relatively stable democracy (at least in name) that never gets listed with the usual suspects in doom and gloom prognostications of the fall of the European Union. But even if Oehmke's assertions about Hungary's lack of a sense of national awareness and identity can be taken at face value, one cannot deny he has a point where he writes,
But a country's culture can't be changed that easily. In Hungary, culture is leftist and liberal, as it is in many other European countries. Culture does what it pleases and what it thinks. But to gain complete control over a country, one has to control what people think. This is precisely the issue on many people's minds in Hungary today: a battle for people's thoughts.
And this, as Frank Zappa once said, is the crux of the biscuit. This explains in a nutshell the wearisome Republican mantra of defunding the NEA, calling Bert and Ernie gay, slinging mud at the Teletubbies, calling for the abolition of NPR and PBS, waging a war on science, calling the mainstream media and Hollywood liberal, in essence, literally embracing ignorance. It would be all too easy to assume they're trying to clamp down on dissident or potentially dissident thought but it would be all too easy.
If you want to undermine a country and get a toehold, tapping into mere dissatisfaction with the establishment isn't enough if you want to change a nation's thought and win over hearts and minds. Because the electorate has to be bereft of a culture and/or a national identity. And I've been saying for years that the United States has no culture other than what it's borrowed from others and that the closest thing we have to culture is hyperactive consumption that even this economic downturn can only slow down.
This goes a long way toward explaining why some of the stupidest carbon-based life forms in the solar system get elected to public office virtually every year. We're the type of nation that tweets about National Cupcake Day exponentially more times than the long-overdue drawdown in Iraq, one that shrugs at reports that global warming is worse than we'd been told and that we have only a five year-long window to correct potentially world-ending trends while obsessing over the Kardashian divorce. When you give electoral power to a people such as this, it's only inevitable that we're going to elect to public office ex-wrestlers and action stars as governors and dummies like Fred Grandy and Sonny Bono to Congress.
That's not to say we're illegitimately dissatisfied with the road our government is taking our Republic. However, since we are a solipsistic, selfish nation, our criticism of any administration seems to be largely predicated on what suits or doesn't suit us, as this now-notorious op-ed reminds us. As long as we can pay our bills and hang on to our jobs and can afford cable so we can watch the new season of Mad Men, the rest of the country can go fuck itself in the fieldstone square that was the foundation of where our homes used to sit.
The extreme right wing, fascist elements of the Republican Party had only partially or imperfectly tapped into this dissatisfaction with the current government but that dissatisfaction is largely squandered. It'd since been refocused and refined with a vengeance in the form of Occupy Wall Street, which isn't getting so much press anymore.
But if early 1930's Germany proved one thing, it's that all an extremist party needs is widespread dissatisfaction with the current government (which also explains the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917) and a promise of, well, hope and change to get a toehold. Once that toehold is established, anything's possible.
And right wingers are (until recently) very adept at recognizing that weakness. Dissatisfaction and polarization robs a people of whatever national identity left to them and they're susceptible to any political movement that at least promises to break the status quo.
Russia began its march toward Communist hegemony through a revolution. Germany's own paradigm shift was through a Democratic process that rendered revolution redundant and enabled by populist dissatisfaction. And when our own history begins to get too blurred by right wingers to read, we'll all too soon forget our identity, that our own Republic was founded on a thirst for liberty and a refusal to live in fear. If you want to see where America's headed in 2012, look no further than Hungary.