Home Book Review “Widespread Self-Righteousness”

“Widespread Self-Righteousness”

Book by: James Kirchick
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Summer 2018

What happened to the Europe Americans loved to love? Ancient and modern, “like us” but not too much, clean, good food, low-crime, democratic, and friendly. Was it ever so? Was that view from Sorrento a scrim to cover something much less inviting? Was the post-WWII period just an interlude in a longer history that, while having aspects to recommend it, is also non-democratic, rabidly nationalistic, anti-Semitic, and intolerant of opposing views?

And most important, is there something called “Europe” at all, or is the divide between the United Kindom and Ukraine not only less manageable than that between Texas and California, but also fundamentally different? Are the historic and cultural differences between Greece, the United Kindom, Germany, and Ukraine so great as to preclude their being in the same Euro-structure? Are European institutions a way of suppressing not only dangerous forms of nationalism – which most Europhiles accept as the price of two World Wars and a lot of other violence – but also a way of suppressing all political thought to the right of the far left? What made the European left so a) self-righteous and b) powerful?

And what, if anything, can be done to bolster the “better nature” of Europe in the 21st century?

These are only some of the questions implied by James Kirchick’s ultimately disappointing The End of Europe. Unfortunately, he doesn’t raise them, he doesn’t answer them, and his cure for the “coming dark age” appears to be more of the disease. A prolific writer, Kirchick is a visiting scholar at The Brookings Institution, a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and has appeared in the LA Times, The Washington Post, POLITICO and more.

Kirchick loves Europe – at least the Europe that used to be, in his view – and fears it is gone. But maybe the post-War version was only a blip, fashioned of American money and military protection, war weariness and war wariness, and bolstered by the explosion of enthusiasm that greeted the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe Europe is returning to roots that are less salutary, but no less real.

The book chapters cover Russia, France, Hungary, Ukraine, Greece, and Germany plus the European Union (EU).  Thematically, it spans immigration and assimilation, Russian meddling, left- and right-wing nationalism, economics, anti-Semitism, and “group think.” Some of the themes pass through countries. Russia’s understanding of its role as protector of Russians “abroad” and almost paranoid fear of the West is a strong element in German and Ukrainian politics. Hungarian nationalism – both the respectable sort that manifests itself as patriotism and the disreputable sort that downplays the role of Hungarians during the Holocaust as well as current manifestations of anti-Semitism – looks a little bit like Ukrainian nationalism. But oddly, Kirchick finds no anti-Semitism worth mentioning in the latter. He might check the new monuments to pogromist Symon Petliura and Nazi-collaborator Stepan Bandura. Or the sign pointing Babi Yar visitors to the grave of Ivan Rohach.

He worries that some of the formerly Soviet-occupied countries don’t have enough depth to remain true democracies. In the Hungary chapter, he writes,

A key feature in distinguishing real democracies from ones that exist solely on paper is respect for the culture and spirit of democracy, a quality defined, in the truest sense of the word, as “liberalism” …Democracy, in other words, needs democrats, and it’s these that Hungary lacks, beginning with the prime minister.

On the other hand, he credits Ukraine with a deep internal longing for democracy and liberalism.

Many [in Europe] see the EU flag as a symbol of bureaucratic oppression, a trapping of Brussels’ ‘imperialism’ and strangulation of national sovereignty. To Ukrainians, this simple standard…is an aspiration, an icon of grand ideals such as individual rights, the rule of law, economic prosperity and political freedom…

Whatever Ukraine’s historic plus points are, rule of law and political freedom have never been among them. Ukraine was number 130 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s corruption index for 2017. At least Hungary had an uprising. But the truth is that neither has a history of democratic governance and it may simply be too much to expect them – or others – to develop one in the 25-plus years since their liberation from communism.

Or develop one ever.

If a region’s history is kings, strongmen, armies, changing borders and never actually ending wars, the idea that the late 20th century’s European borders are the final incarnation of countries may be unacceptable to its member states. (See Serbia and the Battle of Kosovo Polje, which started in the 14th century and had ripples in the 20th.) Hungary and Russia certainly believe in 21st century border changes, but so do Catalan, Flemish, and Basque separatists, revanchist Muslims who covet Andalusia, and some Alsatians.

The chapter on France is interesting. Kirchick accurately describes the current situation of French Jews in a country where Muslims have terrified the authorities. But while attaching Hungary’s current government to its WWII past with Gorilla Glue, not permitting Budapest to get away with, “It wasn’t us, it was the Nazis,” Kirchick has not a word for French governments that refused to take responsibility for the Velodrome D’Hiver until 1995. “It wasn’t us, it was the Nazis.”

Immigrants are a second major theme – as Europeans, particularly Germans, first considered the flood of Syrian and African migrants not to be a problem in the scheme of wealthy European socialism. This was accompanied by the idea that the wealthy, white West had an obligation to the poor and the dark – and specifically Germany had an obligation to “the other” in light of its past. No, that’s not a nice thought but it was their thought. As migrants became a social/cultural issue, Kirchick sees the left-wing response in Europe stoking inevitable nationalist sentiments. The strength of left-wing censorship of dissenting views on immigration pushed many center-left-to-center-right voters farther right than they might otherwise have gone.

For decades, Sweden’s open-door policy to refugees, economic migrants and asylum seekers…was politically untouchable, unanimously accepted by the country’s ruling parties, and rigidly protected from criticism by a media and societal elite that forbade even the slightest dissent.

“Liberal opinion has, for more than two decades, maintained that most Muslims are just like everyone else, but with more modest dress sense and more luxuriant facial hair; any differences would fade with time and contact,” former chair of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips wrote. “I too thought that Europe’s Muslims would become like the previous waves of migrants…I should have known better.”

In the UK, liberal snobbery and the iron fist with which dissenters were punished is well-documented – even before Tommy Robinson went to prison:

Labour MK Gordon Brown was overheard calling a lifelong Labour voter a “bigoted woman” after she challenged him about European immigration. “The salt of the earth were treated as the scum of the earth and unsurprisingly, they wouldn’t stand for it,” James Bloodworth…observed.

Had (Jack) Straw and his colleagues adopted a more prudent position and listened sympathetically to the Labour base instead of reflexively scorning its apprehensions as inherently racist, they could have avoided more than merely red faces.

Events move so quickly that The End of Europe finds itself outdated when Kirchick writes, “MP John Cruddas… concluded that Labour is “becoming a toxic brand.” In the spring of 2018, it completed the process, with Party leader Jeremy Corbin openly touting his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah.

This juxtaposition of a “democracy deficit” and a left-wing hammer on unacceptable political positions raises yet another question. If the best European (or American) politics are played between the 40-yard lines – and Kirchick refers to the German center-left/center-right coalitions – what are “moderates” supposed to do when their center is gone and the left looks increasingly harsh and determined to impose social or economic policies inimical to the old patriotic center? The answer is that voters move right, hoping the right-wing parties they choose won’t go “too far.”

The chapter on the EU is noteworthy in that regard. European institutions emerged from WWII in large measure to ensure that German nationalism would remain under control. It didn’t. It may have been eliminated at the highest levels of government but Nazi overtones remain at the lowest levels of politics.

In the Conclusion, Kirchick appears to believe that Europe has a lousy history (“arbitrary rulers who led their peoples into wars of aggression and genocide over matters like religion or family honor”) that can only be tamed by subsuming their nations into an amorphous “European” identity (“Europeans have enjoyed far greater rights and freedoms while living under some form of supranational EU authority than they have at any other point in history.”) The diagnosis may be correct, but the medicine he offers entails EU intervention in Hungary and Greece; and voluntary Muslim adoption of “Europe’s post-Holocaust commitment to sustaining Jewish communities and recognizing Israel’s legitimacy.”

Hardly likely. And in what might be an admission – though he doesn’t say so – Kirchick finally gets to the point that Europe’s late 20th century liberal structure came from the United States, not from some internal democratic gushing stream.

Twice, American presidents intervened in the continent’s wars. Hundreds of thousands of young men from California to Maine gave their lives to defeat fascism in Europe; millions served under arms to stop the advance of communism. A continent composed of peaceful economically prosperous democracies – rebuilt by Marshall Plan aid and protected by the U.S. military – is America’s greatest gift to the world.

Yes. It is. But the U.S. has neither the will nor the power to do it for them again.

So, what is left is for the Europeans to do it themselves with a “muscular liberal center” – though Kirchick has given no evidence of its existence – “that is as proud of a hirsute diva as it is willing to use force to defend itself, as welcoming of Muslim refugees as it is unyielding in defense of the values it insists they adopt, and as devoted to the social welfare state as it is committed to private entrepreneurship.”

In other words, more “Europe” and more pan-European institutions, more liberal Social Democrats. More “insisting.” OK. But nowhere prior to this last paragraph of the book has he suggested that those people exist or that they have the ability or will to insist on anything.

The real conclusion, then, is that The End of Europe may, in fact, show you how the end of Europe will emerge. It will make you sad for what you knew Europe to be once and angry for the self-destructive policies European governments are pushing as they move toward their own demise. Kirchick’s prescription may just get them there faster.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.