Hello from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where I will be giving a Live Not By Lies talk tonight. I had never been to this small city, and boy, is it ever a jewel. I can’t wait to come back. Driving down from Hungary yesterday, I found northern Slovenia, with its hills and mountains, breathtaking. And the old city at the heart of Ljubljana is like a fairy-tale version of a Middle European city. If you’re in the city this evening (Thursday), come hear my speech at 7pm at the publishing house, Družina, at Krekov trg 1. Here I am there this morning with Andrej Lokar, who translated the book:
I was just having lunch with some Slovenian folks, and getting a read on the situation here, politically and culturally. Slovenia, they say, is very much on the Left. Last night, in my welcome dinner here, my hosts told me that after the fall of Communism, most of the apparatchiks and their networks remained in place, only now they were posing as liberal democrats. This is not uncommon in the former Soviet bloc countries. Ryszard Legutko, the Polish philosopher and statesman, has written about how that works in Poland. Whenever you read in the Western media about right-of-center governments replacing judges, keep in mind that they are often replacing judges that were holdovers from the Communist era.
Today, our group was talking about how outmanned conservatives are in this country. Because the Left has held the government for so long, and holds a commanding position in almost all the institutions of civil society, and because state funding of private institutions is normal here, government money goes to pay for left-wing cultural organizations. Recently the Left in Hungary and elsewhere has been raising hell over Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s decision to move a big chunk of public funds to cultural and educational organizations of the cultural Right. The thing outsiders don’t understand is that it is normal for the state to subsidize cultural and educational organizations. It’s just that the Left run almost all of them, everywhere, and left-wing partisans see this as in the natural order of things.
My friend and colleague John O’Sullivan and I were explaining to our Slovenian hosts that in both the UK and the US, the only institutions where conservatives run things are institutions of the state. This is a remarkable thing when you think about it. The left-wing parties have traditionally been the party of government, while the right-wing parties have been the parties of society. That has more or less flipped.
I mentioned to a conservative writer here that a couple of Hungarians told me that if Orban had not engineered the takeover of a number of Hungarian press titles by his friends and allies, there would be no conservative media presence at all in Hungary — this, even though conservative voters are a majority. Whenever you hear people on the Left demanding government intervention to guarantee “equity” — meaning equal outcomes — remind them that that is pretty much what Viktor Orban did with the Hungarian media landscape. I should say that I have serious misgivings about the media operation Orban pulled off, but the de facto monopoly the Left has on the media, especially in a small country like Hungary, tempers my criticism. Orban is far more realistic about the world people on the Right actually live in, I think.
Which brings us to this write-by-numbers Atlantic piece on how the 2022 election might be the last time to stop Hungary from turning into an Orban autocracy. It’s typical of the coverage you see in the Western media: no interest at all in trying to understand the nuances of the issues in play. It’s all Magyar Man Bad. As I have said repeatedly, if you come to Hungary with an open mind, and spend any time, you may not come away thinking pro-Orban thoughts, but you will come away realizing that the situation here is far, far different from the picture you see in the Western media.
For example, here’s this from the Atlantic piece:
[Opposition coalition leader and Budapest mayor Gergely] Karácsony told me (via an interpreter) that, for a long time, opposition parties simply couldn’t overcome their deep-seated political differences. It wasn’t until after Orbán’s third consecutive victory in 2018, by which point his consolidation of power was well under way, that they began to take the idea more seriously.
Nowhere in this Atlantic piece do you learn that the opposition coalition includes the Jobbik party, which until the day before yesterday was openly anti-Semitic, with some of its leaders referring to the Hungarian capital as “Judapest.” Why does the Atlantic writer not care to point that out, or to ask Karacsony how he and the other left-wing politicians justified getting into bed with open Jew-haters? I don’t expect that magazine’s readership to favor Orban, but shouldn’t they at least be interested in learning why he remains popular in Hungary, after 11 years in power?
The fact is, it is nearly impossible to write favorably about Orban in the Western media. A conservative website commissioned a piece from me last week making a case for Orban. I talked about his faults, but also about why, on balance, he is on the right side of the most important issues. I made several requested changes, but the website’s top editor still spiked the piece. There are some things that just cannot be said on the Respectable Right™. I’m telling you from unhappy personal experience: do not be so sure you can trust conservative Anglo-American conservative publications to tell the truth about Hungary, or the European Right in general.
Happily, The Spectator is not one of those publications. Here, from its Cockburn columnist, is a fantastic rebuke to that pathetic Atlantic piece. Excerpts:
Blasting across Cockburn’s email feed recently was a new piece from Yasmeen Serhan for the Atlantic, titled ‘The Autocrat’s Legacy.’ The piece is about the unfathomable wickedness of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. He’s the autocrat.
Orbán doesn’t stick his opponents in jail or ban political parties or rig the votes in elections. He’s a much deadlier kind of authoritarian: the kind who wins elections but believes wrong things.
‘Orbán doesn’t follow the classic authoritarian playbook of jailing opposition politicians, arresting journalists, or violently cracking down on protesters, as is so often the case in places such as Russia or Belarus,’ Serhan writes. So, in other words, Orban is not an authoritarian. He’s just a guy who wins elections.
What, then, are the Magyar Monstrosity’s offenses against the noble goddess of Democracy? Well, he expanded the franchise and gave the vote to more people. Wait, isn’t that a good thing?, you ask. Fool! Orbán is letting ethnic Hungarians who live abroad vote in their homeland’s elections. That’s very undemocratic, unlike letting in 10 million illegal immigrants and then amnestying them for the express purpose of remaking the electorate. That’s empowering.
Cockburn goes on like this, pointing out that the kinds of things liberals and progressives hate about Orban are the kinds of things they do all the time. Here’s the kicker:
More than ever before, Western elites simply equate democracy with their own power. In a time when Western power seems shakier than ever, they tell the public that democracy means they are the only acceptable choice to lead. So, who is really putting democracy in peril?
This is exactly right. Patrick Deneen makes the same point here:
The same people who keep saying “democracy” is under attack. Note well, when they say “democracy,” they mean “liberalism,” and believe it should be imposed by any necessary means. https://t.co/yz9D0CiDwS
— Patrick Deneen (@PatrickDeneen) July 8, 2021
Yes. The thing about Viktor Orban is that he fights, and he often wins. That, and he knows exactly the kind of people he’s facing. He knows that when they talk about “democracy,” they don’t mean pluralism and diversity; they mean woke autocracy. Ask yourself: why is it the European Commission’s business to threaten Hungary in this way because its democratically elected parliament voted to impose popular standards on sex education for children, and children’s media? If the Hungarian people — who are not very religious, but who are socially more conservative on sexual matters than Western Europeans — don’t like it, they can vote them out next year. It is no more the business of Europe how Hungary educates its children, and governs their media exposure, than it is the business of Hungary how any other European country does so.
In the US, we have seen woke oligarchs who run major corporations undermine democracy by threatening economic punishment of states whose legislators vote for social policies that they (the oligarchs) dislike, even though these policies have nothing at all to do with business. These oligarchs are not accountable to any voters, yet they use their immense economic power to fight democracy, when the democratic outcomes are not to their liking. It’s a sham, and the way the EU and the Western media treat Orban’s Hungary reveals what’s really going on.
American conservatives should pay attention. I can’t say it often enough: Orban is not a saint, and his Hungary is not the Athens of Pericles. He is certainly fair game for criticism, as any politician is. But the criticism thrown at him is often in such bad faith. You should know this. What’s going on in Hungary has a lot to do with the way the Left gaslights conservatives back home in America.
In the Atlantic piece, prominent liberal Orban critic Peter Kreko is quoted harshly slamming the Prime Minister. I interviewed Kreko earlier this summer. He’s an academic, and a really smart guy. I liked him. I told our mutual friend that I wanted to meet an Orban critic who was not hysterical, and he recommended Kreko. It was a good choice. I learned a lot talking to him. But as I have mentioned in this space before, one thing Kreko said at the beginning of our interview was that he hates the Orban government for banning gay marriage and gay adoption. But, said Kreko, he is not so much in favor of transgender rights claims. I told him this was the general liberal opinion in the US ten or fifteen years ago.
Toward the end of our interview, he said that despite all his problems with the Orban government, he can stand in his classroom in Budapest and say whatever he wants, and never have to worry about the state retaliating. I pointed out that the same thing is true in the US: the state won’t bother you. But if you said in your classroom that you’re a full supporter of gay rights, but not really on the trans train, you would be loudly condemned by your students, who would report you to the college administration. That administration would probably fire you, and your name would be so tainted in American academia that you might never work again. So who, I asked, is more free? An academic in Orban’s Hungary, or an academic in Biden’s America? If you are a social conservative, chances are you would rather live in Orban’s Hungary than in Ursula van der Leyen’s Europe. But you wouldn’t have the slightest clue about that from reading Western media coverage.
This is the kind of question that no Western media people ever ask. They simply assume that Hungary must be a fascist-adjacent state. They have no interest at all in exploring ways that Hungarian life and culture are more free than American life and culture. If they did so, they would have to face their own left-wing illiberalism. And that is more than they can handle.
UPDATE: Peter Kreko e-mails to say:
I can also recall our nice discussion with Rod Dreher early June. I really did enjoy the conversation, and I was happy that our joint friend introduced us to one another. We found many points on which we agreed and others on which we agreed to disagree. But I always like to talk to intelligent people with different viewpoints. But I have to make some remarks here to clarify my position.
Rod was right that I was criticizing the Orbán government for the rejection of gay marriage and gay adoption (I did not use the word “hate” though) – but also for the rhetoric of the governmental side against the LGBTQ movement, which follows the playbook of Andrzej Duda. Since then, the homophobic regulation disguised as a “child protection law” that has just come into force — and which is more restrictive in terms of sex education than the Russian original — have just strengthened my critical opinion. I did not recall saying though anything against “transgender rights” throughout the discussion. Also, what do we mean by transgender rights? This is a nuanced question with many aspects. But talking about specifics I clearly disagreed, for example, with the government’s ban on legally changing one’s gender which passed in the parliament in 2020.
And yes, the article correctly states that I said that I can teach freely at the state-owned University to which I belong. Of course: the limits of professional ethics and the very broadly defined values are expressed in the Code of Ethics in my University. I also said during the discussion, though, that I am fortunate, and that my university, ELTE, is exceptional. It is one of the last universities that remained out of the transformation process that most Hungarian universities recently underwent, which put them into private foundations and placed a Governing Board at their top. These boards include governmental loyalists and acting politicians – which is a dangerous move against academic freedom. Also, considering the fact that the government chased away CEU from the country, and leading government-financed opinion-leaders express that Western Universities are not welcome in Hungary, we can see that the state really poses a threat to academic freedom in some ways – even if I do not experience that personally.
I also said that during my one-year-long stay in the United States teaching at the Indiana University as a Fulbright Scholar, and during the dozen or so guest lectures at other US universities and colleges, I have not met with manifestations of cancel culture. This, of course, does not mean that they don’t exist, and I think we agreed with Rod that freedom of speech at the universities should be defended by threats coming from any direction.
I appreciate Peter’s writing in, and if I have misrepresented his views in any way, I apologize. I will go back and listen to the recording of our interview to see precisely what he said about transgenderism. I’ve been meaning to write a piece based on that interview, but haven’t gotten around to it. Now is a good time to make good on my intention.