Still tending our own gardens

A response to Samuel Abraham

Corruption continues to play a decisive role in the relationship between the state and its citizens. Éva Karádi, editor of Magyar Lettre Internationale, responds to Samual Abrahám’s warning that European stability is threatened by the type of illiberal politician gaining ground in the Visegrád Four nations.

I want to support my argument with a reflection on the widely debated new language law in Slovakia. Some say that it is not such an important issue and it just distracts attention from the real problem, which is corruption. The two things are connected and I will try to show this. I think that the reason for corruption lies in the lack of ideology, in the pragmatic attitude towards moral values and responsibility; this language law, on the other hand, is connected with identity politics, which plays on emotions. I would like to introduce into this context certain concepts that will help us with the analysis and to understand these problems better.

One was indicated by the Polish-Australian constitutionalist Martin Krygier, who after the changes in 1989 spoke about institutional optimism and cultural pessimism in our countries. If the institutional system and the independence of judiciary (we could also include here media independence) is well developed, the personal qualities of the political leaders do not matter that much. Cultural pessimism concerns the mentality and political culture we inherited together with the legacy of communism – maybe this is why we are ready to accept a strong leader.

Actually, in case of Hungary there still is a leader, albeit a soft one, that is popular among large parts of the population – János Kádár. In his era, broadly speaking, the whole political culture became in a sense corrupt, so that “society” accepted a “pact” with those “in the saddle” not to feel responsible for and not to get mixed up in big politics. In return people received the promise of a better life, the freedom “to tend one’s own garden”. That is what I consider corruption in much larger sense. Corruption plays a decisive role in the relationship between the state and its citizens. That is why we can still be labelled post-communist countries 20 years after 1989.

I would like to include two other termini in the context of the language law, formulated by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who gave a lecture at the Collegium Budapest about identity politics. He introduced the terms “status quo” and “primordial loyalty”. I think the language law is dangerous because it attempts to change the “status quo” through the rhetoric of “primordial loyalty”. It changes the habit of using the Hungarian language in Slovakian villages. People can be fined up to 500 euros if they don’t use the Slovak language, for example in healthcare institutions. One can say that it does not make a big difference. But it is law that can be instrumentalized at the everyday local level, while at the level of symbolic politics it can disturb the relationship between our countries, as members of the Visegrad four and the European Union. Confrontation replaces cooperation in local and international politics.

Taken from a special English language edition of Res Publica Nowa, published with the support of the International Visegrad Fund

Published 23 October 2009
Original in English
First published by Res Publica Nowa V4

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa © Éva Karádi / Res Publica Nowa / Eurozine



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