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 brush 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.

Politics Are Not All of Life

There are people who, upon learning that I live in Hungary, immediately ask, “What do you think about its turn toward the right?” I then have to explain that the country is not monolithic, that there is much more to it than Orbán, and that people like Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the opposition’s potential candidates for the next national election, stands for something markedly different from him. But I would go even farther and say that politics are not all of life, that you don’t have to get riled up over politics to live thoughtfully and conscientiously, and that you can find meaning and relative freedom (whatever freedom is—Gyula Jenei has a remarkable new poem on this topic) in other things, without being any more escapist or selfish than most humans out there. Granted, politics cover many areas of life and involve most of us at some point, whether we like it or not. But even so, we don’t have to get caught up in them beyond what is necessary or in our nature. Nor do they make us virtuous.

“But look at what’s happening around you!” people will yell. Yes, but there are many things happening around me. Only some of them could be called political. The over-politicization of life is a prison in itself. Many writers and others have resisted the pressure to turn everything into a political statement, to go around with banners and slogans.

In the thirty or so years since I first read Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I have often returned in my mind to this passage (in Part 2, Chapter 2, about Karel’s mother, here in the translation of Michael Henry Heim):

But the defect in her sight seemed to explain something much more basic: what was large for them was small for her, what were stones for them were houses for her.

To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly. One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in the garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective—a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Kundera does not make this the last word; this is still close to the beginning, with much to follow. Nor is Karel sure that his mother is right; he just realizes that the answer is not as simple as he had supposed.

That is what I have learned over time, too. This does not mean that politics should be ignored, or that it’s entirely possible to do so. There are some issues, such as Covid, hunger, and global warming, that can only be addressed by countries and individuals together, through concerted work and lucid language. In that sense they are political. There are also times in our daily lives when we have to take action on behalf of a person or principle. That, too, could be considered political. And we all have political duties of one kind or another, at one level or another, from voting to taking part in work meetings. (Workplaces have their own political systems.)

Nor do we have to be uniformly political or apolitical throughout our lives; we go through changes in this regard. I cared intensely about politics, as usually understood, in my late teens and early twenties. After that, less so. I came to distrust and resist the pressure to be political on other people’s terms. Even more than that, I came to dislike the judgments that went along with such pressure. But I have been outspoken on education and other issues, over many years, and have received both praise and flack for this.

What do people know about each other, really? Someone who seems apolitical may actually be doing more for others, and more to improve the surroundings, than someone who jumps into every political argument. Or ther reverse could be true. It is not always obvious, and our judgments are often based on meager information.

There’s a need for people who take up political causes, make political arguments, run for office. But if everyone were doing that, or if those doing it all did it in the same way, we’d end up with a dreary and dangerous world. People have different inclinations, different things that delight and intrigue and trouble them; all these things have a place, as long as they do not harm others. So let there be room in life for the ferns at the top of this post, for the poems being read at festivals this summer, for the things that are hard to say, for the struggle, late at night, with a math problem, or for the rush of a musical idea.

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.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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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