Can Eastern Europe rescue European culture?

In the most prosperous and traditionally most influential European countries, such as France, Germany and England, the political and cultural conversation today seems to have become entirely dominated by immigration issues, equal opportunities between the (multiple) sexes and the protection of sexual minorities. It is not only the media such as newspapers, magazines and talk shows that artfully feed this collective conversation, but issues such as LGBT marriages or the rights of migrant children, now seem to have become the ultimate issues around which great politics and the fate of nations is decided.

It is not really a conversation though, because a conversation presupposes two or more positions from which people try to find common ground. As for the most pressing questions of our time, judging by the unanimous tone with which the major international media seem to speak, one gets the impression that there is a single position corresponding to absolute good and “in step with the times”. Supporting homosexual unions, cheering the coming of a denationalized and multicultural society or the equality of women in all respects and so on, – and the position of the narrow-minded and the ignoble, that is, of all those who dare to put some doubt, even if only tangentially and politely, the dogmas of our age.

The current US President Trump, who has become a sworn enemy of the “liberal” globalist consensus, is contemplated with systematically exhibited and affected contempt by the Europe that counts, especially because of the racism that is attributed to him, racism that is considered one of the sins mortal in the virtuous and tolerant age in which we have the good fortune to live. But it is possible that in Europe and in contemporary European culture there is really nothing left other than obsessively discussing issues that until a few decades ago would have been considered of exclusively private relevance, such as the source of the derivation of one’s erotic pleasure or the way in which one does and does not seduce women? It is possible that European countries, many of which are unable to produce enough work for their young people, have gotten to the point where the migrant, no matter what his origin and culture of origin, is elected to new ideal of man, as if this ideal man should be some sort of clean slate ready to absorb the values of the immanent present, without being too disturbed by too heavy a baggage of the past which the migrant has hopefully left behind forever? Is it possible that Europe has become a place where every small manifestation of awareness and pride in one’s cultural heritage must automatically be equated with the most vulgar forms of nationalism of a century ago? A Europe where progressing and “becoming cultured” must necessarily mean moving away from one’s origins in order to pursue a distant and decidedly abstract ideal of a global man, a citizen of the world? And where would this citizen of the world live? In Paris, London, Madrid or New York, a non-European city, but a product of a culture of European derivation? And why shouldn’t this citizen of the world be closer to the people who live in Shanghai or Delhi?

Seen from the capitals of Western Europe, it seems an indisputable certainty that Europe cannot be other than the one described above, and that there is only a true Europe, a post-historical Europe so to speak, a Europe built on eternal values and which has been able to free itself from the chains of the past, a Europe entirely projected in the pursuit of progress and in the ideal of prosperity, democracy, freedom and equality for all. These really seem incontrovertible ideals, close, as far as humanly possible, to the absolute good, and each time such proclamations sound so new, courageous and visionary that it seems impossible to believe that these conceptions are not daughters of the inspiration of the day but have a history that goes back at least two centuries ago.

But there is also another Europe, roughly referred to as the Europe beyond what was the Iron Curtain up to 30 years ago. In this Europe, history has not yet been rejected in the impetus to devote oneself entirely to GDP growth, a one-dimensional criterion on the basis of which it is customary to measure the success of different countries. In this Europe, the past is not a shameful burden to get rid of, as it has become the case not only in Germany, but also in countries that have not committed monstrous crimes such as the Holocaust, such as England or Sweden, but which nevertheless they have decided (and to be more precise, whose elites have decided) to embrace the post-historical ideal of globalized multiculturalism. In this other Europe, collective conversation has not been so deeply permeated by political correctness as it has been in Western Europe. Is it possible that this Europe, in which here for convenience we include different and often quite hostile countries such as Poland and Russia, or Hungary and Czechia, could represent a sort of salvation for the tradition of European culture? Could this Europea become a bulwark against vacillating postmodernist drifts, a place where identity is not something to be ashamed of, but the solid foundation of one’s way of living and interpreting life and the world?

In his book ABC, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz dedicates an entry to the French writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, wife of Jean-Paul Sartre and probably one of the most important women of his time: “For those like me who came from a remote province, a dislike for a lady of the great world was inevitable […]. Entirely enclosed in her cocoon of being French, she couldn’t even imagine how anyone from outside could judge her. In Beauvoir everything was an adherence to the intellectual fashion of the moment. A cretin”. Today we certainly live in different times, but the Western elites have certainly not stopped looking at this other Europe with a deep and rooted sense of superiority. Although the gap in economic and cultural terms between Western and Eastern Europe has narrowed significantly in recent decades (and not only because the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, freed from the chains of communism, have seen their economies grow, but also because the most of the countries of Western Europe have been in the grip of profound stagnation for at least a decade), many in Western Europe continue clinging to stereotypes of the past when they think of the other Europe.

It is enough to see how severely the governments of countries such as Poland and Hungary are incessantly judged in the great international press, apparently for their refusal and inability to adapt to true European values and even accused of falling back into totalitarianism and obscurantism. There seems to be a significant contradiction in this arrogance of old Europe. Because if on the one hand, as we have just seen, the entire European construct seems to be based on the overcoming and denial of identity and particularistic culture in the name of inclusionism and progress, a tendency often accompanied by a display of a sense of guilt for a not too distant past when precisely in Europe ideas such as that of racial superiority at a biological level were born and were part of the intellectual discourse comme il faut to justify policies of expansionism. On the other hand many Westerners prove not to be able to to take seriously all those who are not exactly part of the West and do not fit into the predictable pattern of what is now known as politically correct.

Conversely, Central and Eastern Europeans often seem to look at Western Europe with a sense of inferiority, like a relative, but a poor relative. In countries like Poland the cultural debate is very lively and is more open to elements of criticism of the postmodern status quo than it might the case in France or Germany, where postmodernism has triumphed. In Warsaw or Krakow there is no shortage of serious and original thinkers, and here the overcoming of identity is not necessarily conceived as the only possible path into a better future with the aim of reaching a world without race, sex and oppressive traditions. But alongside this aspect there is also the old Polish habit of ironic self-flagellation that allows Poles to laugh at themselves and their country, without taking themselves too seriously, but which often makes others look richer, more elegant, stronger, with a certain degree of admiration and awe. It is a feeling that other countries, like Italy for example, know very well too.

Perhaps the only country that can offer an alternative to the single Western European model could be Russia. This is not a new thought, already in the nineteenth century shared by very different intellectuals such as the exiled liberal Herzen, and the arch-conservative Dostoevsky. Even in Europe intellectuals like Nietzsche and Spengler saw the Russian Empire as an island of stability and contrasted it to the decline resulting from the intellectual hypersophisticization of the salons in Paris or Berlin. But Russia today does not enjoy great prestige in the eyes of Western Europeans and is most automatically associated with a “genetic” tradition of authoritarianism and limitation of individual freedoms, freedoms that the average European is sure to fully enjoy and which are the object of immeasurable pride: the world can go to pieces but freedom and democracy are our supreme values and exclusively property, the French, Germans and Italians complacently think. For this reason, the Russian alternative, of a Russia at the helm of a conservative “International” does not seem too likely, in spite of the constant tales surrounding the omnipresent Kremlin propaganda and fears of Russian influence in the perfectly democratic West.

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