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East European Perspectives: November 13, 2002


13 November 2002, Volume 4, Number 23

NOTE TO READERS:
The next issue of "RFE/RL East European Perspectives" will appear on 4 December.

MADNESS IN THE MEDIA IN COUNTRIES IN TRANSITION: AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH WITH MARGINAL NOTES ON PUBLISHING IN HUNGARY AND SERBIA

By Eric Beckett Weaver

In "The Open Society and its Enemies," Karl Popper argues that historical determinism, the belief in the inevitability of historical development, has been one of the banes of our age. As Popper was well aware, the belief that one state of being must assuredly lead to another, in logical social procession, is a common thought pattern. Nonetheless, as Popper has so eloquently argued (1973), it is a pattern that might lead to the establishment of closed, dictatorial regimes that establish legitimacy through a belief in utopia "proven" by a projection onto the past of the progress of history (on nationalist dreams of past utopia, see Smith, 1997).

It has been argued that since ancient times monarchies have established divine descent for royalty through myth and ceremony (Fraser, 1941, esp. pp. 139-159). Traditional monarchies have tried, from time immemorial and in many differing cultures the world over, to establish their legitimacy through proof of descent from some illustrious ancestor. Such claims often include theories of divine descent (Geertz, 1980, esp. pp. 11-33). Thus, at times the Hapsburg emperors (most notably Charles IV) were "found" to be descended through the Roman emperors from Aeneas and the pagan Roman gods Saturn and Jove, and simultaneously (through another ancestral line) from the priests and kings of the Old Testament, thus ultimately establishing their kinship to Christ (Tanner, 1993, esp. p. 97; also Poliakov, 1974, p. 18).

While not wishing to overemphasize social continuity, (and rather wishing to stress the commonality of certain social thought patterns), it should be pointed out that attempts have been made to prove the divinity or divine blessedness of individual nations in newer political arrangements, where legitimacy derives from the nation and no longer the sovereign (for a classic description of the process of transfer in legitimacy and power from monarchy through crown to state and nation, see Kantorowicz, 1997 ).

Antony Smith has said: "[T]he modern religious and even some of the secular assertions of nationalism have been influenced by these older, long-lived beliefs; and, more fundamentally, that modern nationalism has taken from these older traditions a vital component of its outlook, one that readily translates into collective tasks and visions: what we call, the 'national mission', and the 'national destiny'" (Smith, 1999, p. 349).

While early patterns of belief may well provide a sort of template for later extremist thought, it might also be argued that the recurrence of such patterns indicates some deeper psychological need. Indeed, the fact that finding ancestral links with gods appears among widely separate monarchies the world over (Fraser, 1941; Geertz, 1980; Tanner, 1993) might instead indicate that societies arranged on similar lines raise similar psychological needs.

In fact, theories on national primacy in historical terms are common. To examine them in our time, there is no need to attempt to trace continuity with thought patterns under previous forms of government (such as monarchy). Some have argued that the attempt to prove that one's own nation is "first" is almost universally inherent to nationalism and seems to create histories of primacy in all things and places possible (Lowenthal, 1998). This may indicate a psychological state common to nationalism, or a cultural logic, rather than a continuing cultural pattern. Thus, on the need for genetic-moral superiority, preceding his discussion of continuity in Aryan theories, Leon Poliakov says: "[I]t is the simple expression of an urge which is universal among human groups or cultures; namely that of claiming distinctive origin, an ancestry which is both high-born and glorious" (Poliakov, 1974, p. 2). Apparently in nationalist logic, being first is best, even if those who are first are only a "we" in the distant past. Contemporary Greek claims to Hellenic heritage, Italian "memories" of Roman greatness, and claims of Daco-Romanian (e.g., Tatomirescu, 1998; see also Verdery, 1995, pp. 31-33), or Illyrian-Albanian (Nimani, 1997; Pushka, 1997) continuity fit within this general framework.

Less widespread theories of national historical primacy can gain support among certain splinter-nationalist groups, or might gain a degree of social respectability for a time. Again, Smith has said: "We sometimes find examples of a symbiosis and even fusion between the earlier religious myths and the nationalist ideal. Here the old religious myths, particularly where they are associated with the idea of a 'covenant' between a people and its god, have survived intact" (Smith, 1999, p. 332).

Smith concludes: "My argument, then, is that modern concepts of national mission and national destiny are lineal descendants of the ancient beliefs in ethnic election" (Smith, 1999, p. 350).

However, in many cases it would be extremely difficult to establish a direct link between new theories of national divinity and ancient folk beliefs or customs. At most, we can say that such theories evoke a sort of social resonance with established religious beliefs or historical tradition. For example, at times theories of descent from the 10 lost tribes of Israel have enjoyed some popularity among a great variety of social groups. One such theory, that the English were descended from the lost tribes, held a surprising degree of support among a portion of the elite in Victorian Britain. "Indeed, belief in the descent of the English from the Jews gained such wide currency in the nineteenth century that a movement called the British-Israelites claimed hundreds of thousands of followers, even counting Queen Victoria and King Edward VII among its patrons" (Efron, 1994, p. 39; see also Savile, 1880).

Not surprisingly, then, Oxford's Bodleian Library catalogue includes some 95 entries under the subject-heading "Anglo-Israelism." Although now almost dead in its homeland, the British-Israelite theory spread to Canada and the United States, where it has proven to be very resilient and has given birth to a number of extremist movements (Barkun, 1994; Kotz and Popkin, 1999, pp. 170-204).

Some scholars have suggested that messianic beliefs in national superiority and holiness (such as belief in descent from the lost tribes) are more prevalent in nationalist thought in Eastern Europe. Hence Peter Duncan has written: "Neither suffering nor messianism are unique to the Russians. Among the East European nations the age of empire offered fertile ground for messianic dreams" (Duncan, 2000, p. 1; see also Schopflin, 1997, pp. 19-35).

In my view, a belief in divine election is only part of a general search for national grace. Such theories of ancient greatness, holiness, or divine selection often rest on similar proofs. For instance, one of the techniques employed by such theorists as the British-Israelites is "to look for words in different languages that sounded the same, assuming, usually erroneously, that if the sounds were similar, then the languages and their speakers had to be connected. Since similar sounds often crop up in otherwise unrelated languages they allowed [one such scholar] to claim, and to believe, that he had proved that 'many of our most common [English] words and names of familiar objects are almost pure Hebrew'" (Barkun, 1994, p. 7).

Although always present, such theories generally only gain support among a tiny minority in any given society. If it is best to be "first" in historical terms, then it would logically seem best to prove a link with the Sumerians, with whom history allegedly begins (as the title of Kramer's 1958 book suggests) as well as to establish proof of national genius throughout the history of civilization.

Such theories as Hungarian-Sumerian (Gosztony, 1997; Bobula, 1982; Badiny, 1997) or Hungarian-Celtic (Kast, 1999) continuity theories and such works as "Serbs, The Oldest Nation" (Pjanovic, 1993), Hungarian as the most ancient language (Barath, 1997; Madarasi, 1997), "The Hungarian Origins of Easter" (Gyimesi, 1986), and "The Ancient Hungarian Origins of the Wheel" (Forray, 1997), are supported, created, or disseminated by scholars from the Hungarian or Serbian diaspora. Indeed, the diaspora has played an enormous role in the attempt to find ancient roots in Eastern Europe. Their role among extremist movements is also deserving of more complete analysis than can be provided here. Thus, we have the following quote on an individual in Serbia: "The clinical psychologist Dr. Ratibor M. Djurdjevic...lived in the West, mostly in America, and returned to Serbia in 1992. God Himself sent him back, he says, to help the almost extinguished ancestral Orthodox faith flare again among the Serbs who have been de-Christianized and paganised under communism and lived like wild creatures" (Colovic, 2002, p. 203).

Whatever the diaspora's role, domestic scholars have also been productive. Theories such as Serbs as the lost tribes of Israel, Hungarian-Etruscan continuity theories (Szabo, 1997; Zaszlos-Zsoka, 2001), Serbian as " The Oldest Language of the Bible" (Spajiceva, 1994), or "Olympic Gods from Serbia" (Skokljev and Skokljev, 1998) might be generated by extremely original domestic scholarship.

In and of themselves, such theories are not surprising and exist in so-called older democracies and in transition countries alike -- countries that some scholars (Linz and Stepan, 1996) have argued have a totalitarian legacy that, as Linz put it elsewhere, "shaped the entire social life and culture. It is that legacy -- difficult to define, conceptualize or describe -- that cannot be ignored" (Linz, 2000, p. 35).

Whatever the case, in my view the totalitarian legacy is not demonstrated by the mere existence of theories of cultural preeminence. To provide such demonstrations, one would have to show that these theories are absent from countries that lack a totalitarian past. And this, obviously, is far from being the case. One encounters them often enough in Western countries with a supposedly entrenched democratic tradition. What is surprising, however, is the degree of penetration such works achieve in some postcommunist societies, or rather the common availability of such works in a broad variety of bookstores; their serious discussion in a wide range of media outlets (television, radio, print); and their availability in otherwise seemingly highly prestigious venues.

For example, the work "Serbs, The Oldest Nation" was featured for years in the shop window of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts' outlet, "Naucno Delo," in the heart of Belgrade and was still being sold inside the shop when I last visited in September. In Hungary, the above-mentioned works are available in a number of shops throughout the country and are seriously discussed in a range of right-wing media. Sometimes such theories are featured side-by-side in the same venue. Thus, when I purchased books elaborating Sumerian-Hungarian continuity theories with a work proving Etruscan-Hungarian continuity, the cashier at the bookshop ("Feherlofia" in Budapest) suggested I narrow my selection and "start slowly, as the theories might be confusing if taken all at once." Surprisingly, attempts have been made over time to consolidate and combine such seemingly inherently incompatible theories into meta-theory (e.g. Foyta, 1961).

Furthermore, evidence in Hungary of the penetration of such theories into ordinary life was provided by college-entrance exams for the Hungarian language that have included a question asking students to explain the false linguistic premises on which Hungarian-Sumerian continuity theories are based. The theory has apparently been so widely disseminated by its believers that, in a recent book on Hungarian culture published in English by the Hungarian Academy's press, the editors felt compelled to include the following text explaining the false basis of the theory: "Another view holds that the Hungarian language is related to Sumerian. This relationship is based on the similar sounding and apparently similar words. As such, it is convincing for those interested in but unfamiliar with the issue of linguistic relationships. However, the relationship of languages is not proved by accidental coincidences -- even if they are numerous --, but by regular similarities and differences (the so-called regular observations)" (Kis, 1999, p. 36).

In his description of Serbian national myths, the political anthropologist Ivan Colovic has written that extremist Serbian nationalists hold that: "The Serbian nation is the oldest nation in the world, all other nations originated from it, just as all other languages originated in the Serbian language. But it is at the same time the youngest and freshest nation, it offers the germ of universal, or at least European renewal. This is possible because this nation stands to one side of historical time, of the irretrievable loss of history. It lives in an eternal present, simultaneously old and young, in an eternal union of the dead, the living and the yet unborn" (Colovic, 2002, p. 7).

Some might also point to Hungary's relatively high levels of xenophobia (see Sik, 1999) and racism (see Fabian and Fleck, 1999) as well as Serbia's unfortunate recent history to argue that the symptom indicates a deeper social pathology and not just market distortions.

British historian Antony Smith has said: "[P]rofound belief in inward superiority underpins the capacity for endurance and self-renewal found among so many ethnies in history.... Closely allied to this belief is the idea that the community's special destiny will see a radical reversal of its hitherto lowly or marginal status in the world" (Smith, 1999, p. 336). However, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Victorian British-Israelites suffered from a feeling that their community was suffering a "lowly or marginal status in the world." It would seem that, no matter what the nation's current status, nationalists simply find it "best to be first." The widespread dissemination of such theories in countries in transition is not necessarily evidence of a higher degree of social pathology, but rather a sign of the relative weakness of the market, the overarching power of certain extremist elite groups, and a low degree of media autonomy. After all, such literature is published in a range of newer and long-established democracies. The difference here is in the availability of such "research."

Publishers' poverty and the very small impoverished local market with a surfeit of competition means that publishers are compelled to print virtually everything, regardless of quality, if the author can subsidize publication (as may be the case with many diaspora authors). Furthermore, the continued party-centered clientelism in Central and Eastern Europe (see Sajo, 2002) means that most parties, from the extreme right to the left, have established publishing houses or gained control of newspapers, radio stations, and other media outlets from whence they may disseminate their views regardless of popularity or market demand.

This attenuates the democratic crisis also common to Western democracies: "the voting system is distorted by the power of single-issue pressure groups. 'One man one vote' conceals the reality of tightly organised interest groups exerting disproportionate influence over all the political parties" (Harris, 2002). Research on the media in countries in transition from communist rule paints a particularly gloomy picture. As Colin Sparks has put it: "The press market remains highly competitive, although there is a high casualty rate amongst the new foundations of 1989. The press, too, remains highly politicised and partisan" (Sparks, 1998, p. 175).

Addressing the more specific problem of the weakness of local media in transition, Barbara Trionfi has written: "[T]his, in most cases, has been within very weak economic environments.... Not being able to rely on revenue from advertising has forced media outlets to seek financing from political parties or private financiers who, in return, have sought to influence the content of the news reported.... All this not only puts at risk the economic survival of independent media organisations, but also significantly lowers the quality of journalism making it dependent on external factors other than truth and accuracy" (Trionfi, 2001, p. 95). And in Hungary, a recent survey of the press and press freedom showed that: "[H]alf of all journalists have been menaced in one way or another, and only a third of journalists are able to resist attempts of political influencing" (Seres, 2001, p. 155).

The same could have been written of the book-publishing market. As an example of the access to media gained by even the least popular politicians, one can again look at Hungary. It would be wrong to assume that electoral outcomes and hence party popularity are more-or-less mirrored in the market availability of publications reflecting the views of parties. In the elections of 1998, the extremist Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP) was barely able to gain the 5 percent minimum of votes required to enter parliament and in the 2002 elections was unable to garner even that minimum. Nevertheless the party's weekly, "Magyar Forum" (http://www.miep.hu), continues to be readily available at newsstands throughout Hungary. Furthermore, the party is also able to express its views through a variety of other associated print and electronic media, and not least through sympathetic publishing houses such as "Magyar Haz" (Hungarian House) and "Gede Testverek" (Gede Brothers).

Another Hungarian work that shows a direct link between theories of primacy and extremism might also be cited: "Was Christ a Jew?" (by Ferenc Zajti, 1999) recycles the old argument that Jesus could not have been a Jew as no Jew could have been so noble and generous. The author "proves" that Jesus in fact must have been a child of Scythians enslaved by Jews and furthermore shows that Scythians must clearly be the ancestors of modern-day Hungarians. Here the link between primacy, superiority, and anti-Semitism is unmistakably evident. Before leaping to conclusions about extremism in Hungary, however, one should recall the repeated publication in the United States of: Henry Ford's "International Jew"; the infamous tsarist policy forgery (see Burcev [1938]), "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" (Nilus, multiple editions under a variety of similar titles); and "The Turner Diaries" (Macdonald/Pierce, 1990) which was found with Timothy McVeigh at the time of his arrest (Kotz and Popkin, 1999, p. 200). Sadly, all of these books with the exception of "The Turner Diaries" are also available in Hungarian. Indeed, despite a law explicitly banning the publication of "The Protocols" in Hungary, I was able to purchase the book at a subway stop in Budapest in December 2001.

The difference here is not in content but rather the share of the market such works enjoy and the prominent place they are given in the market. As is the case of pornography, there is a mutually reinforcing reaction between the dissemination of such views and their adoption by certain sectors of the public. Thus the widespread and party-driven (as opposed to market-limited) dissemination of hatred may have a long-term effect on society, and the widespread distribution of such theories can evoke resonance among those who may never otherwise have been exposed to such social pathologies (on crowd psychology and social pathologies, see: Bauman, 1991, pp. 166-200; Canetti, 1992; Le Bon, 1972; MacKay, 1980; Rubin, 1990; Trebjesanin, 2000).

And this is why racist theories from the West, disseminated by the wealthy Western diaspora, present a threat to the fledgling democracies of transition countries. This is why theories such as those spread by the same ethnic-Serbian American mentioned above, Ratibor M. Djurdjevic, are significant. Djurdjevic has "published some thirty books in Serbian.... The same story recurs, with variations, in all of them: Western Europe and America are today governed by 'Judeo-bankers' or Judeo-masons', descendants of the Pharisees who over three centuries (the 18th to the 20th), have succeeded in dividing the West from Christianity" (Colovic, 2002, p. 204).

In such an environment, then, the results of a non-representative survey of secondary school students carried out in Budapest and Belgrade in 2000 are hardly surprising. In that survey some 13 percent of Hungarian youth and some 30 percent of Serbian youth believed that over the centuries their own nations have given birth to the greatest number of saints. Some 33.8 percent of Hungarians and some 48 percent of Serbs felt their own nations had the most geniuses per capita. And some 22 percent of Hungarians and 21 percent of Serbs believed their own country had the most Olympic gold medals per capita (Weaver, 2000, pp. 58-59). Sadly, the author was unable to gain funding to carry out the survey in a Western country as well, which would have highly improved the chances of discovering whether the Hungarian and Serbian samples were to any extent "deviant" or merely fit within a general international norm.

The editor in chief of one of Hungary's outstanding weeklies bitterly commented on the situation in Hungary after a decade of democracy: "[C]ontrary to the widespread misconception, in Hungary no proper press market has been established. By 'proper' press market, I mean that eventually a newspaper should be maintained by its readers, both directly, by paying money for the copies, and indirectly, as data on the audience and reading are determinative in regard to advertising. Hardly any part of this scenario has been realized.... Advertising receipts...are still, or even more than before, the result of political affiliations and subsequently the publisher is a key figure...who is more committed to his own economic and political interests than to authentic information" (Kovacs, 2001, pp. 139-140).

Indeed, in his survey of journalism throughout the region, Peter Gross has noted that: "Worse yet, journalists in the region believed, with their Hungarian colleagues, that freedom of the press meant 'freedom to write anything without attention to truth and privacy.'" (Gross, 2002, p. 105)

The Hungarian editor previously cited went on to finish his bleak picture of the press in Hungary: "[E]ven though, as we know, there are no Russians [in Hungary] any more, there is no Brezhnev, no Warsaw Pact. There is something else now. With the exception of a few fanatics, there is sinecure and acquaintanceship" (Kovacs, 2001, p. 146). In short, while the country is no longer under Soviet occupation, market reforms have not yet led to a fully autonomous press. Instead of the old single-party-line, the press (with some outstanding exceptions) now serves party and corporate interests.

To close, Popper identified a pattern of thought that can pose a threat to democracy and liberty. But theories of linear descent from ancient peoples appear to arise from the logic of the nation state itself and as such are likely to remain with us for some time to come. Pathological theories arising from this logic are bound to arise. But to publish and widely disseminate pathological theories arising from this logic in countries with relatively weak markets and media there is no need for popular support or a market. All one needs is a little cash or a little influence. Herein may rest one of the differences between "established democracies" and countries still struggling with "transition."

(The author would like to express his gratitude to Irena Sumi for her helpful critical comments, and to Michael Shafir for his editorial finesse.)

(Eric Beckett Weaver is a junior member of St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford, where he is carrying out comparative research on the extreme right in Hungary.)

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