And we ALL know about Hungary….

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For many liberals in the U.S., Hungary has become a symbol of everything abhorrent. Just mention Hungary, and you get the eyerolls and the nods–yes, we all know about Hungary, we all know about Orbán. Which is understandable, except that often the knowledge isn’t there, or it lacks inquisitiveness. Many reporters, not to mention laypeople, opine freely on Hungary without knowing Hungarian, studying Hungarian history and literature, or spending time in the country. Even some U.S. reporters living here insist on seeing certain things and not others.

There is far more to the country than Viktor Orbán, both inside and outside of politics. Those who care about Hungary could help by shedding light on–or at least taking interest in–what is happening here.

Earlier this month, for instance, the editorial board and more than 70 staff members of Index.hu, Hungary’s largest independent news source, resigned in protest over the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull. There were large protests in Budapest. The dispute continues, and there is much more to it than may appear. The journalist and fiction writer Sándor Jászberényi–not one to soften or mitigate his words–writes in a Facebook post that the freedom of the press has not died in Hungary–or if it has, it died around thirty years ago, when it became possible to buy out a newspaper in the first place. This is the way capitalism works. Jászberényi blames the protesters themselves to a degree, for not bothering to pay for the news that they want to read. His post has 326 comments at this point–and many more comments can be found in the 327 shares. His point is not that freedom of the press is thriving in Hungary. Rather, if people want it, they have to give something for it. Not everyone agrees with him, but his points are worth considering seriously.

In the U.S., I imagine that some were surprised to learn that Index.hu even existed–that there was an independent press in Hungary at all. Look at news about Hungary from the past four years or so. Only a couple of articles mention Index. The recent mentions all follow the narrative that Orbán is taking over the media (which is largely true but needs more careful analysis–consider, for instance, that many people read foreign news online).

Analyses of Hungarian politics sometimes leave out essential information. An otherwise illuminating article by Sahil Handa, published yesterday on Persuasion, states, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, things have gone from bad to worse. When the epidemic hit, Orbán quickly moved to expand his powers even further. Imposing an open-ended state of emergency, he granted himself the power to rule by decree and made the spread of ‘fake news’ punishable by up to five years in prison. All elections have been cancelled for an indefinite period.” Mr. Handa didn’t mention that the Hungarian Parliament voted on June 16 to end the emergency powers–which officially expired at midnight on June 17. Granted, a new health emergency law has been enacted; many worry that it essentially gives the government continued emergency powers, or at least a mechanism for reinstating them. But it is not the same thing. The point is not to dismiss criticism of Orbán and his party, but rather to sharpen it by making it more precise.

The situation is much more complex than U.S.-based analysis tends to acknowledge. Just about everyone on the left says that Hungary has swung to the far right–but this is not true across the board. In October 2019, Budapest and a number of other cities elected liberal mayors. In December 2019, Gergely Karácsony, the new mayor of Budapest, joined with the mayors of Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw to sign a Free Cities Pact, which promised to promote “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity.” I have seen no articles about this in the U.S. press, except for a piece by the Associated Press. Doesn’t this deserve attention? Or are people committed to equating Orbán with Hungary?

What bothers me is not U.S. liberal criticism of Hungary, but the lack of curiosity about the country, the eagerness to use it as a punching bag. This is giving Orbán part of what he appears to want: first of all, a reason to ridicule liberals for their misrepresentation of the facts, and second, an equation between himself and Hungary. This lack of curiosity is bad for discussion itself; it deflects introspection and touts caricatures.

Moreover, when criticizing politicians or governments, one should also acknowledge things they have done well. No one slamming Hungary bothers to mention that the country takes the coronavirus pandemic seriously, has heeded the recommendations of Cecilia Müller, the chief medical officer, and has managed to limit the outbreak. Restrictions have been lifting gradually. Did Orbán and Fidesz take advantage of the situation for their own political benefit? There are legitimate arguments that they have. Did they also take appropriate measures to protect public health? Evidently so, as did local leaders. To my knowledge, there was no one demonizing the medical experts, no one ranting that the pandemic was a hoax. If such rants exist here, they are rare.

I am not immersed in Hungarian politics. My interests lie elsewhere. But from what I have seen, one of Orbán’s weaknesses lies in his dismissal of all criticism as liberal nonsense and propaganda. Over time, such a stance backfires; people stop believing what the government says, since it’s so formulaic. To gain the trust of the public, a leader must be willing to look at a situation from more than one side and to acknowledge when someone else is right. Journalists can contribute to the public good, in Hungary, in the U.S., and elsewhere, by setting an example.

One can add to all this that there is more to a country than its politics. I have made that point many times, and it’s a large subject in itself. But if you are going to talk politics, look past the surface, be willing not to know everything, be willing to see things that don’t fit your preconceptions, and don’t just repeat what you’ve heard from others.

I made a few minor stylistic edits to this piece after posting it.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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