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Head East, Conservative Intellectual

Endowing a dynamic conservative college, Viktor Orban builds long-term institutional resistance to the academic left's ideological hegemony
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Two nights ago, I appeared with Patrick Deneen onstage at Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), an institute of higher education here in Budapest. I talked about The Benedict Option; Patrick talked about how it intersects with Why Liberalism Failed. We were interviewed by Boris Kalnoky, the esteemed former correspondent for Die Welt who now heads the media department at MCC. It was a serious discussion. This was my first time to go over to MCC in the nearly three months I’ve been in Budapest, but I run into MCC people all over the city, at intellectual events. When an American professor — an atheist and anti-woke leftist — contacted me to ask if he should take a fellowship MCC offered, I told him absolutely, yes. “It’s conservative,” I told him, “but open-minded. You are going to be able to have the kinds of robust intellectual discussions there that you can’t back at your own university.”

Now I see that The New York Times has published a hit piece on MCC. The gist of it is that the government of Viktor Orban has transferred a huge amount of public funds into the college to guarantee its stability even if the opposition comes to power. Excerpt:

On a leafy hilltop in Budapest, a small educational foundation inside an aging, former Communist police building has audacious plans to train a conservative future elite. It is constructing a colossal campus, wooing conservative intellectuals for the faculty and expanding its programs to train 10,000 students across Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.

The price tag is expected to run into many millions of dollars, but money isn’t a problem: The privately managed foundation, Mathias Corvinus Collegium, or M.C.C., was recently granted more than $1.7 billion in government money and assets from a powerful benefactor: Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.

A hero to Europe’s far right, Mr. Orban says he wants to overhaul education and reshape his country’s society to have a more nationalistic, conservative body politic. But his critics argue that the donation is legalized theft, employed to tighten Mr. Orban’s grip on power by transferring public money to foundations run by political allies.

That “far right” smear again. The New York Times, like most Western journalism outlets, is incapable of telling the truth about Orban and his party. They are not “far right.” Fidesz is center-right. Hungary actually has a far-right party. It’s called Jobbik, and it’s openly anti-Semitic — or was, until it underwent some kind of strange makeover, and now says its Jew-hating is in the past. Last December, Jobbik formally teamed up with the left-wing opposition, in hopes of beating Orban in the 2022 race. Yes, the left-wing parties are now formally allied with a party whose stars have called their capital city “Judapest,” and called for making a list of Hungarian Jews who pose national security threats. But please, New York Times, tell us another story about Viktor Orban being mean to George Soros.

To be fair, it really is an extraordinary financial move, and I fully understand why liberals would be angry about it. Here’s more:

M.C.C. is not a university in its own right, but a residential college. It provides special seminars and a dormitory to students, selected after a battery of I.Q. and other tests, who then receive stipends, networking opportunities and exclusive fellowships. Orban critics have labeled the foundation as an institution designed to breed right-wing intellectuals.

In an interview with The New York Times, Balazs Orban [head of the MCC board, and not related to the PM] said that the M.C.C. project was critical for a small country like Hungary, with its history of occupation by foreign powers.

“It’s very important for us to have our own agenda, have our own mind-set, have our own independence, culture,” he said. “We always have to fight for it.”

He was adamant that fomenting “patriotism” among the next generation of Hungary’s leaders was the priority.

“Ideology is not important. Patriotism is,” he said.

But recent articles and podcasts produced by M.C.C. have discussed reading lists or pushed intellectual lines supportive of the government’s antiglobalist message, discussing topics such as patriotism at a time of globalism, or whether political correctness is tolerance or oppression.

That “but” is so telling. “Patriotism at a time of globalism” is a really interesting topic. What does it mean to be a patriot in a globalist world? And isn’t it perfectly fine to question whether political correctness is simply tolerance, or a form of oppression? It’s bizarre that the writer of this piece thinks these are signs of right-wingery.


Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political analyst, said that the changes in Hungary appeared mostly to be about money and power. But he noted that leaders in Hungary and Poland viewed universities as key battlegrounds in their quest to retain power.

“There is a very strong fear that universities are totally lost for the conservative side, that they are totally dominated by left liberals, and getting control of universities is becoming a big priority for these governments,” Mr. Krastev said.

Well, that’s exactly right: the universities are totally lost for the conservative side. All you have to do is look at the US and Europe to see the decline of the liberal university into the morass of the soft-totalitarian ideology of wokeness. With MCC, it seems to me that Orban is trying to give conservative, traditionalist ideas a fighting chance to have some influence over the next generations.

This is priceless in its cluelessness:

Even if the opposition comes to power next year, it is unclear whether they could dismantle the educational foundations or restore universities to their previous status. A future parliament could not change the rules regulating public interest foundations without a two-thirds majority.

Elections lose their meaning if a “deep state, with competencies, assets and revenues given to Fidesz,” remains in control no matter who wins, said Balint Magyar, a sociologist and former two-term education minister who researches post-Communist governments.

Gosh, you mean that it’s possible for a deep state of committed ideological partisans buried deep inside institutional bureaucracies could stymie the policies and initiatives of a democratically-elected political leader they oppose? Say it isn’t so!

It seems to me that Viktor Orban sees how this game is played by the left, and is determined to do his damnedest not to lose, and not to see his country and its institutions absorbed by the leftist, globalist borg. The Times story points out how in Poland, a similar new institution of higher education was recently launched to train conservative, traditionalist-minded lawyers and others. I think this is all great news! Poland and Hungary are not going to sit back and let happen to their countries what happened to US and European higher education, and how it has poisoned society with totalitarian ideas spread to institutions. These two Visegrad countries are fighting back. It’s a David vs. Goliath story, for sure. Good on David!

This Times piece is a classic example of how to journalists, especially elite journalists, don’t see their own profound biases, and think that events and structures in the world that favor their own prejudices are simply naturally occurring processes. It doesn’t seem to occur to the reporter, Valerie Hopkins, that in the US and elsewhere in Europe, vast sums of public monies go to established universities to promote liberal causes and leftist values. Nobody notices. Nobody cares. It just strikes liberals as in the natural order of things.

It’s like that in the media. Among US journalists, you often hear bitter complaints about the bias of Fox News, and sometimes you hear expressed a grudging belief that the existence of Fox means there is balance in the American media. This is because journalists are so overwhelmingly liberal that they can’t perceive how far to the left, and how unbalanced, their viewpoint is. I’ve written before about a study, now over 20 years old, by two professors at Baruch College, who demonstrated that the US media did a good job of reporting on the rise of the religious right as a force within the Republican Party, but missed entirely the parallel rise of the secular left as a force within the Democratic Party. Their thesis was that the media didn’t see what was right in front of their eyes because to them, it was only natural that secular liberals would grow more dominant within the Democratic Party. It wasn’t news; it was nature.

Again, I don’t deny that the MCC thing is a real story. What ticks me off is the one-sided nature of the piece, the facts that complicate the narrative. In Hungary, based on voting trends, more than half of the population is conservative. I am told by Hungarian conservatives that the universities here are like universities in every other Western country: heavily dominated by the left. If you have eyes to see, you have watched over the past twenty to thirty years Western universities give birth to radical, socially destabilizing ideologies that are now, in the US for sure, convulsing society. You have also watched universities grow ever more progressive. Look at this data-driven analysis showing that conservative professors barely exist in US academia anymore. 

You have also seen academic culture shift from being liberal, but striving for balance, to being militantly leftist, considering fairness to be a strategy through which the vice-ridden try to corrupt the people. Knowing that college-educated people set the tone for society, especially among the elites, you would be a fool not to see that the radical imbalance of political and cultural perspective within the universities is going to have a massive effect on the direction of your country. If you’re a Hungarian conservative, and you see the US tearing itself apart over racial identity politics and gender ideology, and you see that as a nightmare scenario for your country; and if you further see that your country is despised by most of its western European neighbors over its social conservatism, which those same neighbors would dearly love to eradicate — well, what do you do?

One strategy might be to use public funds to found a training college that gives conservative viewpoints a fighting chance to be heard among the young. It’s a good bet that at least half of those kids, whatever their own political and social beliefs, come from families that lean conservative — families that pay taxes, and who may well wish that their children could get a college education without being indoctrinated into wokeness. You might actually consider that endowing an institution of higher education where your kids will be guaranteed to get a real education should Western wokeness conquer established Hungarian universities to be a good expenditure of public monies. But you are not the kind of person that a New York Times reporter is going to bother to talk to.

I’m not saying that what the Orban government did with MCC is necessarily good (though I believe it is); I’m just saying that if you are The New York Times, and you are going to write a report on it, you have an obligation to at least attempt to explain why the government is doing this. There is always more to any story about Hungary and its politics than Magyar Man Bad — but the Western media never get this. I have been so grateful for my time this summer here in Budapest, because it has helped me to see that.

At that MCC event the other night, we had a reception after the interview on stage. I raised a glass and thanked my host. In my remarks, I pointed out how two years ago, after speaking at a Budapest conference on religious liberty, I was in a group of speakers invited to meet with Viktor Orban. I expected it to be a quick meet-and-greet photo op. Instead, he took all of us — maybe fifteen people, from around the world, into a meeting room and discoursed intelligently for about ninety minutes, in flawless English, about all kinds of social and political issues. He answered all our questions. He ended by saying that he hopes that conservatives will come to see Budapest as their intellectual home. I thought it was a nice gesture, but only that. However (I told the MCC crowd), having been here in Budapest for three months, and having seen from the outside how many conservative professors — and not just conservative professors — MCC has brought in from all over the world for visiting fellowships, to talk with students and with each other, I have seen that the Orban government is making good on that idea. For that, I said, I am grateful.

Naturally, The New York Times hates that. Fine, let them. Every conservative professor and every conservative student on American campuses knows exactly what’s going on here — what the Times cannot and will not see. Every one of them understands how besieged people like us are on US campuses and within US institutions, and how scared we are in most places to speak out, for fear of being harassed and professionally ruined. They do things differently at MCC. As I said to the anti-woke leftist prof headed over here, there is a more open atmosphere of debate and intellectual inquiry at MCC than at the university from which you are coming.

This matters for the long-term direction of Hungary, and of the West. Budapest really is becoming an intellectual capital of the Right — and because Viktor Orban doesn’t care what The New York Times crowd thinks, the institutions he has created are going to last even when the day comes that a progressive government comes to power, and flush with EU cash, sets out to transform Hungary according to the malign Brussels vision. What’s happening on many US and European university campuses — the consolidation in power of aggressive leftism — is one version of the postliberal future; what’s happening here in Hungary an alternative version of the postliberal future. If American and western European universities were still places where old-fashioned liberalism was in control, there would not be nearly as much of a need for places like MCC, and it would be a lot harder to defend what Orban has done here. But we don’t live in that world, and haven’t for some time. Orban is fighting the battle that’s actually in front of us, and using his power to secure a foothold for patriotic, traditional Hungarian conservatives in a world where all the power in the Western world is stacked up against them.

You can’t expect The New York Times to understand that. But American conservatives, especially those in academia, can. Maybe they should be grateful to the Times for alerting them to the fact that some political leader, somewhere, is doing more than lamenting the total domination of higher education by the forces that despise tradition. Maybe they should look into what MCC has to offer, and come over to help build a network of intellectual resistance to the present and coming soft totalitarianism. In America, conservatives just talk about how nice it would be if someone would do this. In Viktor Orban’s Hungary, they’re actually doing it.

UPDATE: The NYT and most other liberals, especially within the academic establishment, still operate on the false premise that universities are neutral institutions. They used to be, more or less, or aspired to be. They no longer are. The liberal freakout over MCC is a version of the dynamic that conservatives are so used to: any challenge to progressivism’s discourse hegemony is treated like an intolerable outrage. For example:

Liberals: “Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. Trans. Traaaaaaaaaans! Gay trans gay trans! Trans gay! GAAAAY!”

Conservatives: “Gay? Trans?”

Liberals: “BIGOTS!”

Orban understands the game. He refuses to play it by the left’s rules.

Let me suggest another way to look at it. The formation in the US of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), using state money, was a necessary response to the inability of black people to get an education at segregated institutions of higher learning. The parallel is not perfect, obviously; there are no laws prohibiting conservatives from being educated at liberal universities. But legality aside, it is increasingly difficult for conservatives (and others) to get an education that is not saturated with woke ideology. And we know perfectly well how intimidating conservative professors and students find campus life in many places. Black students could not go to school at white universities in the American Jim Crow era; conservatives do not face that kind of discrimination today. But conservatives do face the de facto and systematic exclusion of their ideas, convictions, and perspectives from campus life. Under conditions like this, the use of public money to launch an intentionally conservative institution of higher education can be defended as using state money to increase intellectual diversity.

One more thing. I’ve written here before that you cannot understand anything about Orban and his popularity with Hungarians without understanding the profound concern Hungarians have about sovereignty and survival. I did not understand this until I came to Hungary. The Treaty of Trianon, which concluded World War I for the Hungarians, dismembered their country. They lost two-thirds of their historic territory. Slovaks, Romanians, and others who lived under Hungarian rule were grateful for the treaty, which transferred lands in which they were dominant to them, taking them away from Budapest. But Hungarians experienced this as a savage wound. I’m not taking a position on the justice of the treaty; I am simply pointing out that it continues to exist as a festering wound within the Hungarian psyche.

And then, of course, they endured forty years of occupation by a foreign totalitarian power.

Hungarians like Viktor Orban and their supporters see the European Union as a foreign power that seeks to rob their country of its sovereignty. They are a European nation, and want to be part of the EU. But like many conservatives in other European countries, they rankle at what they regard as EU overreach and interference in their internal affairs beyond the scope of what the confederation permits. Orban reacted so strongly in 2015 to the EU’s decision to open the floodgates to migrants — a decision backed with money from Orban’s great enemy, billionaire globalist George Soros — because they see migration as a direct threat to their sovereignty and survival as a people. Orban and those who support him quite rightly recognize wokeness, the successor ideology to liberalism, as a direct threat to Hungarian sovereignty and survival. They know that they are not going to get a do-over here. They are watching what is happening in the US and Western Europe, and are determined to do what they can to save Hungary from the fates of the rest of us.

You get none of this in the NYT report. You get none of this in any Western media report about Hungary. But it’s true, and it’s important. Orban is a complicated man, and it’s fair to criticize him for this or that. But “Magyar Man Bad” is an absurd caricature.

UPDATE.2: Peter Boghossian, the anti-woke liberal atheist philosopher, messages me to say:

In fact, universities must fall if we are to preserve what’s left of the republic. That’s not hyperbole.