Defending a National Culture

Hungarians gathered in their thousands on the brisk spring morning of 15 March to celebrate their National Day, or Nemzeti ünnep. The date marks the start of the War of Independence in 1848, the beginning of the country’s struggle for freedom from the yoke of Habsburg domination, and its yearning for a constitutional state. 

Yet the immediate results of the uprising were not promising. Only when the Compromise of 1867 established the dualist Austro-Hungarian Monarchy did Hungary finally begin to enjoy proper national self-government. 15 March is thus an important commemoration of Hungary’s unwavering desire for freedom. 

Freedom was a key theme in the speech Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, delivered in Budapest this year on the 176th anniversary of the revolt. He was assertive in his defence of national sovereignty, warned of the imperialist intentions of Brussels, and declared that “the greatest privilege for us is to be born Hungarian.”

When Orbán speaks of the privilege of being born Hungarian, he is referring to more than biological birth within the nation’s borders or the neighbouring Hungarian enclaves, such as Transylvania and Transcarpathia. Nationhood expresses the idea of a people bound together by common ties and holding in common a form of life. 

For Orbán, Hungarian identity and culture transcends geography to embrace tradition, history, language and, above all, Christianity. He is insistent that Hungary’s common form of life is best defined and defended by the idea of the ‘Christian nation’ which informs all aspects of the ways Hungarians consider how they act as citizens.

Of course, while the majority of Hungarians identify as Christian, church attendance is declining, with only about 15% of the population regularly attending services. To describe Hungary as a Christian nation or a Christian democracy, therefore, is clearly to make a claim about culture rather than confession. 

For conservative politicians, such as Orbán, appeals to a national culture and a sense of national identity are key points of political differentiation from Enlightenment liberals for whom anything which threatens to compromise the sovereignty of the individual, unencumbered by history or tradition, is to be treated with suspicion.

Unsurprisingly, Orbán’s insistence upon the priority of a national culture has set him at odds with the bien pensants populating the offices of the European Union, as well as with liberal elites in the media. While they are intent on dissolving national identity and the physical borders that define it, Orbán proclaims their crucial value. 

National culture is important in Hungary and Hungarians, both young and old, are overwhelmingly proud of their nation’s history, language, and culture. But Orbán’s appeal to Hungarian culture is more than merely sentimental; it is also a political stratagem deployed deliberately to stem any slide down the socially corrosive slope of identity politics.

The impact of identity politics is an issue confronting conservative politicians in many Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, but efforts to address it are now fraught with political and personal risk. For identity politics is about much more than an appeal for tolerant, inclusive or equal treatment of minority groups. 

After all, tolerating something simply means putting up with something you don’t like. But tolerance is not enough for the advocates of identity politics. Inclusion in the mainstream will not suffice for them because the mainstream comprises the very ‘oppressive’ structures that identity politics seeks to repudiate and overturn.  

What advocates of identity politics really want is public endorsement and recognition of group members as public bearers of a particular identity. And this entails challenging prevailing cultural, political, and social norms that define the good citizen. Identity politics, in other words, has become the politics of legitimation.

Once identity politics is understood as being about the pursuit of political goals for the affirming and attaining of identity and cultural change, it is easier to see it for what it really is: a bid for power. And because of the impossible demands identity politics makes, an unavoidable consequence of this battle for power is division.

Identity politics segments society and institutionalises difference, elevating the value of group experience over what diverse individuals hold in common, as Francis Fukuyama has observed. Sections of the community are divided one from another and law is then used to enforce those divisions.

This, in turn, means that any conception of a shared culture or common form of life is attacked and eroded—and all in the name of equality and liberty. No wonder Orbán expends such political energy on defining so precisely the shared culture that Hungarians hold in common.

The great 18th century Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, regarded culture as the fundamental element of society, “the sediment in which power settles and takes root.” Today, we can think of culture as the broad social and moral context—the shared form of life—within which a society functions.

For conservative philosophers, such as Roger Scruton, this shared form of life is the basis of a shared moral imagination. In Scruton’s view, it “offers not truth but notions of the right and valuable; a sense of who and what people are.” And it is the very value of this common bond that liberals have long questioned and challenged.

The liberal Enlightenment ideal was of the abstract individual divested of locality and history and released from contingency. Accordingly, liberals judge a culture which is ‘dominant’ to be a culture that is ‘oppressive’ because, they say, it makes no provision for the individual as an individual who is free to define their own identity.

But for Scruton and fellow conservatives, such as John Gray, human beings can never be wholly self-defined. The notion of the individual as totally sovereign is illusory, they say, because the contingency of our human condition cannot be separated from the contingency of the social arrangements which form us.

Far from being an encumbrance on individuality, culture is its prerequisite. We take our bearings from the cultural and social context in which we find ourselves. There can be no private identity—or private morality—without reference to the society to which we belong. Human identity is always socially constructed.

This conservative conception of the socially constructed self should not imply that human social identity amounts to a mere contrivance deliberately devised and engineered by a ruling elite. Rather, social constructionism expresses the idea that underlying commonalities emerge, evolve and endure as they stand the test of time.

Different societies inevitably produce different people with different natures formed by a complex of different relations. The socially constructed self reflects these natural forms of cultural evolution. This is just the point of difference Orbán emphasises when he attests that a principal element of Hungarian culture and society is Christianity.

However, while conservatives emphasise the authority of a particular society’s accepted truths, it is not a comfortable position for them to take. For one thing, if one’s beliefs are shaped by circumstances, those circumstances will, in turn, shape what one considers to be good, moral and true. And yet circumstances can change.

If conservatives are right that the historical and social location of the individual is inseparable from the forms of life of a community which shape the ways in which the individual responds to the surrounding world, they must answer an important question: can the socially constructed self be contained by a common form of life?

Scruton certainly understood the problem. He conceded that at times conservatives must resort to what, following Plato, he called the ‘Noble Lie’ about the ideas that sustain a society. The Noble Lie, he says, functions to cultivate “the ideology which sustains the social order, whether or not there is a reality that corresponds to it.”

But in most Western societies many different cultural traditions and social networks co-exist. Take the example of a child born to immigrant parents in a new country but whose family breaks apart with divorce. By means of migration and divorce alone, the child will be exposed to a complex matrix of cultural, social, and moral influences. 

Given this contemporary cultural and social complexity, conservatives face the charge that their appeal to a common or single national culture is a nostalgic one that has been overtaken by history. Like it or not, say critics, we now live in societies marked by diverging cultural and moral conceptions of the good life. 

As Gray has observed pithily, “to try to renew old traditions by deliberate contrivance is, in Wittgenstein’s evocative phrase, like trying to repair a broken spider’s web with one’s bare hands.” Can conservatives refute the charge that they want to have things both ways?

The problem they face is that their arguments for the social construction of the self can readily precipitate an uncomfortable slide down the slippery slope towards moral and cultural relativism. Indeed, Scruton saw that social constructionism could easily lead to nihilist postmodernism and the destruction of meaning.

But of course, destruction of meaning is precisely the outcome that Orbán, Scruton and other conservatives are determined to avoid. What they want to do is to recover and define again an overarching authoritative account which will defend the importance and value of meaning binding on all the citizens of a nation.

Even so, given the contemporary existence of extensive co-existing cultural differences, this is no easy task. How is it possible both to uphold a commitment to the local, social construction of the self and, at the same time, to define the cultural homogeneity of a single form of life of a national community? 

The device which conservatives construct in order to check the risk of sliding down the slippery slope of deconstructionism is the idea of a common culture. After all, they argue, it is a common culture, a shared culture, that endows the world with meaning by giving moral form to the individual’s experience.

In a key sense, a common culture is a constructive fiction. It goes beyond notions of truth and falsehood to notions of what is right and what is wrong—a point made by Gray who argued that Scruton’s political project of defending a common culture is “essentially that of preserving a mythic, organic, national community.”

To describe something as a ‘myth’ or ‘mythic’ is not to say that it is not true. On the contrary, a myth is a device or structure that points beyond itself to truth, albeit in a non-empirical way. Thus, for thinkers such as Rudolf Bultmann, a theologian, myth expresses our human experience of the world: myth is about the human condition.

The idea of a ‘common’ culture shares some of the characteristics of myth. It has an existential quality to it, expressing the human experience of living in a particular society and being shaped by a particular moral imagination. In this way, the idea of a common culture serves to confer order where there would otherwise be none.

How does this ‘mythic’ common culture fulfil its role of conferring order? It does so by both establishing and demanding widespread acceptance of certain fundamental norms of behaviour that ought to prevail in a society. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, these norms embrace, notably, the family, human dignity, and national sovereignty.

The conservative ideal of a common culture helps to convey a shared sense of national identity. It does this by imposing limits on diversity and by fostering a common outlook about the moral and social issues of the day. But, of course, the imposition of such limits is an affront to the liberal ideal of the unencumbered self.

Small wonder that in Western countries such as Australia, liberals strive determinedly—with apparent success—to ensure there is no agreement about either national identity or the moral and social norms of civil society. They dispute the existence of such norms and denounce as “recidivist” all efforts to uphold them.

But conservatives are right to press ahead with the political project of articulating for their own societies the mythic truth of a common culture. Indeed, it is imperative that they do so if they are serious about abating the danger of a slide into subjectivity and relativism that social constructionism could very well entail.

As individual human beings, we are encumbered; we are exposed to different forms of life; and we are, to a very great extent, the product of chance, having been born, without the opportunity to choose for ourselves, into a particular historical, cultural and moral tradition.

Today, Orbán’s appeal that Hungary must recall its identity as a Christian nation—in a cultural rather than a confessional sense—resonates with very many Hungarians for whom the distinctiveness of their history, language and culture is precious. The mythic ideal of the Christian nation points Hungarians to a greater and profound truth.

As Europe faces the real and menacing prospect of war, Orbán’s appeal to the ideal of a Hungarian national culture is also something of a defensive act. It encourages Hungarians to stand resolutely against the tide of history that has washed many times across its borders in the past, and now, just possibly, threatens to do so again.



Source

Leave a Comment