Some people make things happen; some people watch things happening; some people don’t know what’s happening.” This old saw hacked into my head upon reading the Manifesto signed by “30 Pro-Europe Intellectuals,” informally sub-titled in many media reports, “Europe is coming apart before our eyes.”
It soon became clear that these 30 Pro-Europe Intellectuals are among those who don’t know what is happening. “The idea of Europe is in peril,” the Manifesto begins. “From all sides there are criticisms, insults and desertions from the cause.” But it does not explain what this “idea” is or how the “cause” might be defined. The final sentence references a “challenge to liberal democracy,” as though the word “liberal” could bear the weight of the document’s quite preposterous insinuations.
If they do not know what exactly they favor, these intellectuals know well what they oppose: “populism” and “demagoguery.” “Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes,” they lament. It soon becomes clear that what we have here is not “30 Pro-Europe Intellectuals” but “30 Pro-European Union intellectuals,” an entirely different kettle of drummer boys.
Some of the signatories are well-known: the novelists Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Milan Kundera; the notorious journalist Eugenio Scalfari; the playboy philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of the Manifesto. They count themselves “European patriots” and preach about the need to lift Europe's peoples “above themselves and their warring past.” But what they really defend is the oligarchy of Brussels bureaucracy, which has for many years threatened to asphyxiate Europe. Their Manifesto is a party political broadcast on behalf of the European Union, specifically in the context of its European Parliament elections this coming May.
These intellectuals sarcastically dismiss Europeans’ current craving to “reconnect with their national souls.” “Abstractions such as ‘soul’ and ‘identity’ often exist only in the imagination of demagogues,” they declare.
In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us. Urgently, we need to sound the alarm against these arsonists of soul and spirit who, from Paris to Rome, with stops along the way in Barcelona, Budapest, Dresden, Vienna and Warsaw, want to make a bonfire of our freedoms.
So soul, it appears, may exist after all without benefit of demagogues—or perhaps the demagogues are both generators and assassins of soul? The intellectuals mention the “new crisis of the European conscience that promises to tear down everything that made our societies great” but do not elaborate on the nature of “everything.” They drop the names Erasmus, Dante, Goethe, and Comenius, but nowhere in the document does the word “Christian” appear. The failure of the E.U. project is causally related to Europe's retreat from its rich Christian heritage. That retreat has left a vacuum that economics, liberalism, and materialism have failed to fill. A bogus liberalism has attacked and all but destroyed the three fundamental pillars of human society in Europe: family, Church, and nation. Yet all three are capable of resurgence at any moment. Early signs of such resurgence are what scared the E.U. intellectuals into print.
In the end, they descend to reductio ad Hitlerum, referring to “a challenge greater than any since the 1930s.” They employ the term “populism” as a hypnotic trigger-word to demonize those who are different in outlook. “Populism” was once merely a synonym for “popular,” signifying a connection to the people, for the people, with the people. Almost no one speaks of “the people” these days, and for good reason: The people present a problem for the elites, who have reintroduced the concept of “populism” as a handy pejorative synonym for “democracy”—which for obvious reasons they cannot so readily condemn.
Of course, the word is intended to invoke the image of a seething, foaming, raging rabble. But there are all kinds of mobs, including “intellectual” mobs. These intellectuals have issued no statements condemning #MeToo mobs, pro-choice mobs, LGBT mobs, or common or garden Twitter mobs seeking the scalps of holdouts from the latest “liberal” demands.
None of these writers and intellectuals can be deemed to have exalted in his or her work any entity rooted in what they defend that is even loosely to be called Europe. Of all the books published under the names of the thirty, perhaps only Ian McEwan’s Atonement might be counted as a great European novel.
Interestingly, the signatories make no attempt to plead innocence on these charges: “Our generation got it wrong,” they admit. “Like Garibaldi's followers in the 19th century, who repeated, like a mantra, ‘Italia se farà da sè' (Italy will make herself by herself), we believed that the continent would come together on its own, without our needing to fight for it, or to work for it. This, we told ourselves, was ‘the direction of history'.”
Indeed: The direction of history, as Havel noted, is the quintessential totalitarian idea. Those among the European intelligentsia who did not actively participate sat by and permitted the birth of the fundamentally totalitarian idea that doing what you pleased could sustain a civilization—thus enabling the destruction of the European peoples through the slaughter of innocents and the diversion of human desiring. When this created the inevitable demographic crisis, the intellectuals left their inks in their inkwells. When people who did speak out were silenced and ostracized, they again kept their pens in their sheaths. They are more right than they believe about getting it wrong.
The failure of the “European project” has therefore also been a cultural, artistic, and philosophical failure. Michel Houellebecq aside, Europe in the era of what is called “the European Union” has had no great cultural iconographers capable of summoning up its spirit and essences, and Houellebecq does not flatter it. It is arguable that there never was a united art or literature of Europe, and that only Christianity served to create the impression that there was.
The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once observed that, although each part of the American continent feels different from every other part, there is also a pervasive American essence. Europe is not like that. What became “The European Union” was never articulate about itself in cultural terms, but instead resorted to a language and logic of materialism and secular democracy, which writers and artists failed to plumb, bypass, or otherwise negotiate.
The bureaucratic nature of the E.U. has led it to treat culture as irrelevant and non-essential, soul as some residual anachronism, identity as a problem, and faith as something to be “tolerated” at best. In the absence of a cultural and spiritual vision, economics became everything and, inevitably, nothing. In its headlong dash to fulfill its aims in that idiom, the E.U. destroyed the European peoples’ hopes and finally demanded that they lie down and die.
What the thirty intellectuals call “Europe” was never a convincing replacement for the nation-states of the eponymous continent. Nothing made this clearer than the failure of the post-1960s arts establishment to create an art or literature that might serve to unify the nations of Europe into a common home. Now the intellectuals seek to cover their tracks.
It will take more than moral blackmail or virtue-signaling to put things back together again. A revolution is happening across the free world. It is not a revolution of the “Right,” “alt-right,” or “far right,” but a revolution from the concrete center, from the places where working people live and work to build, fix, paint, and clean the world as their antecedents did for thousands of years. It is fundamentally a reaction against lies, intimidation, official stupidity, and political correctness. It is already sweeping Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Sweden, and the countries of the Eastern bloc. It is at the back of Brexit and Donald Trump. It may not be an “intellectual’ movement, but it is a movement rooted in a deep and ancient intelligence—the intelligence of the human heart—which has beat for several thousand years at the center of the greatest civilization the world has ever seen.
The people of the West are stirring in their slumber. Yes, Europe is coming apart at the seams, but not in the ways the E.U. intellectuals divine. What they call “the bonfire of our freedoms” has already happened, and the people who make and fix things are building a new Europe in the ashes of the old.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.