The Sleight of Hand in Orbán’s July 23 Speech

In response to Viktor Orbán’s July 23 speech at the 31st Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp in Băile Tuşnad, Romania, his advisor Zsuzsa Hegedüs resigned. In her resignation letter, she denounced his assertion that “we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.” (By “we” he means peoples of the Carpathian basin.) She called it “worthy of Goebbels” and “a pure Nazi text.” Róbert Frölich, Hungary’s Chief Rabbi, spoke out against Orbán’s statements as well.

I too am alarmed by the speech: not only by this and similar statements, but by the overall argument, which I will summarize and comment on below. I rarely bring up Orbán on this blog, because my interests and focus are elsewhere. I accept and respect that my colleagues, friends, and students hold a range of views, and I usually find that political arguments only scratch the surface of life. But some arguments tip into dangerous zones, and this speech has done more than tip.

It is cleverly written, with (fairly light) literary and cultural references, a few jokes, and what seems like an informed, logical, sophisticated yet blunt argument (here’s the Hungarian text, and here’s an English translation, from which I will be quoting). The basic gist of the first part is as follows. (Note: except when it occurs in block quotes, anything in italics is my summary, not the exact text):

Although the standard of living has been rising around the world, so has a sense of apprehension and despair. The reason for such despondency lies in the fall of Western civilization: not just ideals, but more recently, material resources. Gas and raw materials now lie primarily in non-Western hands. Those non-Western nations and regions, by the way, have no intention of adopting Western values.

Moreover, the West itself, through ethnic mixing and other changes applauded and abetted by the international Left (including the “troops of Soros”), has turned into something that could be called the Post-West. In fact, the “true West” now exists in Central Europe alone; the rest has become the Post-West. (Here’s the exact quote in English translation: “If it were not somewhat confusing, I could say that the West – let’s say the West in its spiritual sense – has moved to Central Europe: the West is here, and what is left over there is merely the post-West.”)

Before continuing, let’s take a look at this rhetorical gesture. Without defining the West, Orbán proclaims: The West as a way of life is dying. It is falling to the East and the Post-West both ideologically and materially. Only we Central Europeans (at least those who agree with me) are the true West.

This part of the speech contains many other rhetorical flourishes: in some places Orbán says “we” when referring to the entire Western world, or all of Europe; at other times he asserts that Hungary is falling victim to alien post-Western forces (and is thus supposedly the only true “we”):

It is important that we understand that these good people over there in the West, in the post-West, cannot bear to wake up every morning and find that their days – and indeed their whole lives – are poisoned by the thought that all is lost. So we do not want to confront them with this day and night. All we ask is that they do not try to impose on us a fate which we do not see as simply a fate for a nation, but as its nemesis. This is all we ask, and no more.

But what is this West that Central Europe supposedly embodies?

According to Orbán, it is a place of racial purity, where, as mentioned before, the peoples mix with each other but not with other races. It is also a place that wants to stay entirely out of “Western lunacy” regarding gender, gay marriage, etc.:

We are asking for another offer of tolerance: we do not want to tell them how they should live; we are just asking them to accept that in our country a father is a man and a mother is a woman, and that they leave our children alone. And we ask them to see to it that George Soros’s army also accepts this. It is important for people in the West to understand that in Hungary and in this part of the world this is not an ideological question, but quite simply the most important question in life.

But homosexuality is not a fad, nor do all Hungarians think and live identically on this issue. There are gay and transgender Hungarians; there are many who work and fight for greater sexual tolerance within Hungary. Orbán states correctly that Hungarians on the whole love their family lives and traditions dearly, or at least the principles underlying them (families here have problems too). I agree that U.S. gender rhetoric often gets carries away with itself; new taboos against using the word “female” or “woman” have come under ridicule there. But that does not mean that gay or transgender people threaten the family as an institution. If anything, families are stronger when their members do not have to suppress or lie about who they are. (Yes, there are legitimate questions about when and how children should be introduced to issues of sexuality. But Orbán sees no questions here; he sees well-funded radicals trying to ruin Hungarian childhood altogether.)

The speech is lengthy and intricate. Orbán talks about the war in Ukraine (he claims, among other things, that Hungarians have been “the only ones, apart from the Ukrainians, who are dying in the war” and that they only want peace. He states, in a curious twist, that “Hungary is a NATO member and our starting point is that NATO is much stronger than Russia, and so Russia will never attack NATO.” He goes on to describe the delicacy of Hungary’s position: being bound by NATO obligations but not wanting to become a formal belligerent. He goes on to blame the West (particularly the U.S.) for inciting the war in the first place by refusing to guarantee that Ukraine will never be a member of NATO. He explains how the four pillars of Western policy in the war have failed, so that the West is operating as if with four flat tires. According to Orbán, Hungary has little to no say in what ultimately happens, yet it will continue to press for peace, the only true solution. (He also suggests that if Trump were still in power, the war would not have happened.)

From here, he talks about rising energy costs, rising utility bills, and the Hungarian government’s response; he proposes a long view of the next four years and beyond, up to 2030, when Hungary must be in a strong position if it is to survive at all. He concludes with a call for unity among the peoples of the Carpathian basin:

The motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together. This ambition, Dear Friends, is what propels us, what drives us – it is our fuel. It is the notion that we have always given more to the world than we have received from it, that more has been taken from us than given to us, that we have submitted invoices that are still unpaid, that we are better, more industrious and more talented than the position we now find ourselves in and the way in which we live, and the fact that the world owes us something – and that we want to, and will, call in that debt. This is our strongest ambition.

How on earth will this tiny and beleaguered outpost of “Western values” get its due? Orbán does not explain—but he depicts Hungary and the areas inhabited by Hungarians as the last true Western place on earth, a place that must stay strong (ethnically, morally, economically, geographically) if it does not want to get trampled down. An influx of immigrants would be Hungary’s demise. Racial mixing would be Hungary’s demise. Greater acceptance of gay rights (and the rights of other sexual minorities) would be Hungary’s demise. Greater involvement in the war in Ukraine would be Hungary’s demise. And if greater Hungary were to fall, the “spiritual West” would disappear from the face of the Earth. (Orbán also states in this speech that “Migration has split Europe in two – or I could say that it has split the West in two. One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. These countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples.”)

The sleight of hand is this (among other things): he defines the “spiritual West” only implicitly, and in a way that bolsters his points: the “spiritual West” is no more and no less than what he claims Hungary is and wants to be. From the very start, without acknowledging as much, he writes off a wealth of other definitions and understandings of the West, a wealth of philosophy, literature, art, religion, ways of life.

Moroever, he ignores gradations. It may well be that Eastern powers have no interest in adopting Western values. But many people within their borders do—or combine Western and Eastern values in thousands upon thousands of ways. Immigrants, likewise, hold a range of attitudes. Some are indeed uninterested in assimilating into the new culture. Others are eager to do so. Still others seek to do so while also preserving something of their heritage. The U.S. is a rich example of this. As a teacher in Brooklyn and Manhattan, I saw students and parents grappling with questions of assimilation. I remember a time when I called a parent to ask permission to cast his two sons in the musical I was directing (the junior version of Into the Woods). He hesitated; he wasn’t sure it was an acceptable activity according to Islam, but then he said, “I trust you, teacher. If you think it will be good for my sons, they can be in the play.” A phone conversation like this does not figure in Orbán’s worldview.

I understand that Hungary is in a particularly vulnerable situation at the edge of the EU. If migrants entered Hungary en masse, they would probably, on the whole, be uninterested in staying there, learning the language, and assuming the Hungarian way of life. Instead, they would have other destinations in mind (Germany, France, etc.) but might not be able to enter these countries right away. Hungary really could end up with a difficult situation. But the solution is not to disparage immigrants, insist on racial homogeneity, or treat the EU as the great cultural destroyer. The reality is subtler than that, with more possibilities.

As for the family, it is already changing in Hungary, with no help from “Soros troops.” Many young people in Hungary—by which I mean people in their late teens through early thirties—yearn for a more open and flexible way of living. Not all women want to be housewives. Not all men want to be served by their wives. They (women and men) want partnerships, cameraderie, friendship, shared interests, joint projects. Some might not want to marry. And many (though not all) young people, whether heterosexual or otherwise, believe that gay people should be accepted and treated with dignity. Young people have a wide range of beliefs, attitudes, feelings on these issues, but they see that this range exists. Orbán denies this range by asserting the existence of a single Hungarian view. Today, especially among the young, there is no such thing. Hungary is far more diverse (ideologically, personally, even ethnically) than Orbán recognizes.

But he resolves this by writing off the Hungarians who don’t fit his model. According to his logic, such people are international leftists, Soros troops, etc., not true Hungarians. They are not even true Westerners! The true spiritual West, according to the speech, survives only in those who will defend the Hungarian peoples from the dogma and distress of the surrounding world. As proof that he represents and understands the true Hungarian view, he would likely cite the fact that the Hungarian people keep voting for Fidesz. But this conceals a more complex situation: Fidesz itself is not monolithic, and not everyone who votes for Fidesz does so enthusiastically, in full agreement with its official ideology. (Never mind gerrymandering, media bias, etc.)

All this said, Orbán is right about some things: bleak times are here and ahead, materially and otherwise. Hungary (and the rest of the world) may well be in serious trouble. The idealistic, spiritual, and quotidian West may well be under siege. But one way to uphold and protect it is to recognize gradations, complexities, contradictions, depths, infinities. No country can be summed up by its leader, no group by its skin color or ethnic origin, no person by others’ judgements, no future by strokes of simplistic prediction.

I made edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

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4 Comments

  1. Andrew James Chandler

     /  July 29, 2022

    Thanks for this. I had just started a fortnight’s holiday when I heard about this speech, even more twisted than his previous pontifications. As usual, he shows his ignorance of ‘Western’ history and culture. Back in the UK, watching the Commonwealth Games, it’s great to see how my home city of Birmingham is welcoming the world. I’ve never been prouder of its multi-cultural heritage and traditions. I refuse to be branded as one of ‘Soros’s troops’ because of Orbán’s childish grudge match with his erstwhile sponsor. I had my own motivations in coming to live and work in Hungary in 1990, and I think we have every right to criticise Orbán’s mischaracterization of European liberal values. His values are those of the village pump!

    Reply
  2. Michael in Seattle

     /  July 29, 2022

    Thanks again, Diana.

    The Nationalist Authoritarian script doesn’t vary much, does it? Is Bannon writing his material? And “Soros” is the gift that keeps on giving.

    There was an extensive article in the July 4th(!) issue of The New Yorker about the love affair between the American Conservative Union and much of the GQP and Orbán.

    Reminding us “Hungary has a population comparable to Michigan’s and a G.D.P. close to that of Arkansas…” it asks “Does Hungary offer a glimpse of our authoritarian future?”

    Some of us will try to avoid that fate.
    Regards.

    Reply
    • Andrew James Chandler

       /  August 6, 2022

      Reading the new book on Soros, I was surprised by the extent of Trump-Bannon involvement in Orbán’s attack on Soros from 2016. I had always assumed that something went wrong in their relationship during Soros’ sponsorship of his term at Oxford, leading to a personal vendetta, but it turns out that the ‘script’ was, and still is, a CPAC one. Otherwise, how does one explain the tastelessness of a continuing attack on a 92 year-old Holocaust survivor and philanthropist by a Hungarian PM with a two-thirds majority?

      Reply
  1. Orbán versus Soros: Whose Values? -The Continuing Confrontation. – Andrew James

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