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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Other Voices, Other Budapests

NYT photographer Stephen Hiltner's lovely illustrated essay about the Hungarian capital criticizes Orban, but dwells on the city's beauty and charm
Other Voices, Other Budapests

A couple of you have sent me this reflective illustrated essay by Stephen Hiltner, an American photographer who grew up in Budapest as the son of a US business executive sent by General Electric to help run its business in postcommunist Hungary. I enjoyed reading it (and was surprised to see my writing quoted), though I don't share Hiltner's politics. I am glad that Hiltner didn't simply rely on American media reports about life in Hungary, but went to see for himself. I just want to offer some gentle pushback on some of his claims.

For example:

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The influence of [Viktor Orban's] autocratic tendencies has also seeped into the country’s civic and cultural life, leading to the expulsion of a liberal university and affecting the leadership and offerings at theaters and museums.

I sensed some of the troubling undercurrents within minutes of my arrival, when László, on our drive from the airport, began echoing Kremlin-friendly conspiracies about the war in Ukraine, which have been widely disseminated via the state-owned media and pro-government news outlets.

Well, hang on. It is certainly true that you can find conspiracy theorists among the Hungarians, and on state-funded Hungarian media. This is regrettable, to say the least. What I would remind you, though, is that what sounds to Americans like "conspiracy theory" might -- might -- be an alternative opinion about the war. I have had conversations in Budapest with Hungarians who are honest to God conspiratorial wack jobs. I have also had conversations in Budapest with Hungarians who have fact-based, well-reasoned dissents from the standard US-NATO narrative about the war. I don't mean to carry water for the conspiratorialists, but only to remind you that not all Hungarian dissent from the US-NATO pro-war line is necessarily conspiracy thinking. PM Orban's recent critical remarks in Transylvania analyzing the war are a model of foreign-policy realism, and ought to be seriously considered.

About the "expulsion of a liberal university," the Hungarian government did not expel Central European University. CEU chose to leave in part -- "in part" because there is still a CEU campus in downtown Budapest -- because it did not like government interference in its business. You might call that a distinction without a difference, but it's an important point. In a must-read 2019 essay in Claremont Review of Books, Christopher Caldwell wrote somewhat sympathetically about what Orban was doing. Here's a part of the essay touching on the CEU controversy:

The government began harassing the CEU by punctiliously enforcing regulations that had heretofore been ignored. As the 2018 election season heated up, anti-Soros ad campaigns began running on billboards and streetcars.

Orbán was very worried about the role of foreign money in his country’s politics. Some have mocked him for this. But obviously, when the most powerful country on earth has just brought its democracy to a standstill for two years in order to investigate $100,000 worth of internet ads bought by a variety of Russians, it is understandable that the leader of a small country might fear the activism of a political foe whose combined personal fortune ($8 billion) and institutional endowment ($19 billion) exceed a sixth of the country’s GDP ($156 billion), especially since international philanthropy is (through the U.S. tax code) effectively subsidized by the American government. An early version of the Stop Soros law proposed taxing foreign philanthropies.

In smaller countries, the political nature of NGOs’ agendas was not as apparent when liberal governments were in power. It became obvious when a nationalist government ruled, and NGOs came to help (or to stand in for) opposition parties, the way the judiciary did in Italy and the United States. The Anglo-Hungarian philosophy professor George Schöpflin, a member of the European Parliament for Fidesz, was mystified by the CEU’s reaction to Orbán’s campaign: “Why did it never appeal against the education law to the Hungarian Constitutional Court?” he asked. But Hungary is not the plane on which such multinational charities usually operate, and for a mere nation to claim jurisdiction might seem presumptuous. The European Union was the real controlling legal authority that charities had to worry about. Over the winter, CEU announced plans to move its headquarters to Vienna, although these plans appear to have been put on hold.

That was 2019. Viktor Orban understood well that George Soros, the founder and chief funder of CEU, has an agenda to de-nationalize Hungary, one that is diametrically opposed to the kinds of values that Orban and his Fidesz Party believe in. Viktor Orban grasped that Soros was training a new generation of Hungarian elites in his ideology. You sometimes read that the Orban government "banned" gender studies in Hungary. Actually it simply pulled funding and accreditation for gender studies degrees. Is that a "ban"? Is the distinction important? The point is that academics are not accustomed to the people who pay for their universities telling them what to do. Orban quite correctly understood that gender studies programs are a hive of radicalization -- radicalization that inevitably leads to the kind of moral horrors we now see in the United States, with hospitals juicing minors with cross-sex hormones and even surgeries to change their sex. He did not want that for his country.

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Similarly, he grasped that in a small country like Hungary, a rich billionaire who runs a top-flight educational institution could capture the elites for his globalist agenda within a generation. Soros's agenda would mean the end of Hungary. Is maintaining Western-style standards of "academic freedom" required, even at the risk of national suicide? Orban thought not.

Besides, it is a sick joke to hear Americans gripe about the lack of academic freedom in Hungary, when we call all see plainly that many American universities have been entirely captured by the woke left, and are de facto eliminating academic freedom (e.g., by compelling professors to sign on to DEI loyalty oaths). The ruin of American higher education is happening despite the state's non-interference in curricula.

To Hiltner's point that Orban's government is interfering with the offerings at Hungarian cultural institutions and museums, once again we see that the Left simply cannot abide the fact that anyone would question them and how they run things. These institutions have been strongholds of the Left for many years, despite being funded by Hungarian taxpayers. I once asked a knowledgeable Hungarian about this, and he told me that all the Orban government has done is compelled these institutions to be more ideologically diverse. Is there something wrong with that, especially given the fact that the Hungarian taxpayer funds these things? As Caldwell pointed out in his piece, it's standard operating procedure in other European countries for ruling parties to put their own people in charge of cultural institutions. It's not like Viktor Orban is an outlier.

I tell you this to challenge the received narrative in the American media. The situation in Hungary is far more complicated than they would have you believe. You can still believe that Orban has done the wrong thing, but you need to understand that the facts paint a more complex picture. It is perfectly normal in a democracy for the voters to hold state-funded institutions accountable, through elected representatives, for their activities. It feels like harassment if you've been used to operating with no restrictions at all for a long time.

The other day, some California-based antagonist on Twitter told me that Hungarians have no choice but to support their government. This is absurd to anyone who has been to Hungary. I'm glad Hiltner wrote this passage:

If Hungary has become the European Union’s most defiant state, then Budapest has become Hungary’s most defiantly liberal enclave — to the extent that short-term visitors to the city might easily miss the signs of a tense political environment.

The opposition parties are noisy. Protests are commonplace. In part as a response to the passage of recent anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation, the Budapest Pride march has drawn huge crowds in recent years, and L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly venues are on the rise. Even the existence of progressive community centers — like Auróra, a social hub that offers a bar and a concert venue and has rented office space to N.G.O.s that focus on marginalized groups — suggests a kind of political and intellectual tolerance.

And yet behind many of the organizations that are out of step with the ruling party’s politics is a story of instability — regarding funding, legal protection, reputation. According to a 2022 report by the Artistic Freedom Initiative, Hungarian artists and institutions that oppose Fidesz “find it increasingly difficult — and some speculate even futile — to earn state support without yielding to governmental demands and thus compromising their artistic or personal integrity.”

I advise you to read that AFI report. It says, "In Hungary, the past decade has seen a gradual escalation of government oversight and control of the arts and cultural sector." Well, hang on: this is normal in most European countries. I remember back in the late 1990s, interviewing a well-known French film director about his very dull new film, which was government-funded. He told me that he only made movies for his friends, and he didn't care what others thought. You can do this if you have friends in the Ministry of Culture, which plays a dominant role in French arts funding.

My point is not to defend specific actions by Fidesz regarding arts and culture organizations. I can't possibly know enough about them to say, one way or the other. My point, though, is to assert that it is by no means beyond the pale for a government to engage in oversight of how state funds are used in state-funded organizations. The real objection of critics, it seems to me, is not that the state is exercising oversight, but that the state has values that clash with the knee-jerk leftism of the arts and culture community. Unlike conservative American politicians, Viktor Orban takes the culture war seriously, and sees no good reason why the government should subsidize without question an arts and culture industry that attacks the values of the people it expects to pay for their own abuse. As I see it, the right standard should be one supporting artistic diversity and quality, not a monocultural diet of leftist agitprop.

I was doing some reporting in Washington in the early 1990s when funding for the National Endowment of the Arts was a controversy. At the center was agency funding of a sadomasochistic performance by HIV-positive artist Ron Athey, who, in his stage show, cut designs into the back of an assistant, pressed paper towels on them to soak up the blood, and sent the blood-soaked towels out over the audience, via a moving clothesline. The point of the performance was to -- try to say this with a straight face -- attack complacency in the face of the AIDS epidemic. It was pointless trash, a waste of taxpayer dollars -- but the arts community squealed like stuck pigs when Republicans in Congress questioned why the taxpayers were funding such meretricious garbage.

All I'm saying is to keep all this in mind whenever you hear journalists and others complain about how Viktor Orban has clamped down on artistic freedom. Maybe he has -- and maybe it makes perfect sense.

I really hope you'll read Hiltner's essay, and savor his beautiful photographs. The man really loves Budapest, and anybody who loves Budapest is all right by me. He quotes an older liberal Hungarian expressing sadness that Hungarians really want the Orban system. While I don't share that old man's views, of course, I appreciate that he recognizes that the system wasn't forced on anybody, that Hungarians voted for it four times. And I appreciate that Hiltner included that quote. That's something you don't often see in Western media reports about Orban's Hungary: that like it or not, Orban represents a majority of Hungarians, who are not urban, globalist liberals. But if you are an urban, globalist liberal, you can live just fine in Budapest. More than just fine. As the anti-woke left-wing atheist professor Peter Boghossian found out in his tour there, there is far more freedom of expression in Budapest than in woke precincts of American cities. Unlike in the US, the Left there is still more or less liberal.

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Giuseppe Scalas
Giuseppe Scalas
Orbán is doing what is best for Hungary, no doubt. History will be kind with him. Unless it will be written by Arabian historians.
schedule 1 month ago
    JON FRAZIER
    JON FRAZIER
    I suspect that Orban will be one of those conflicted figures like Richard Nixon (though for very different reasons) of whom both good and bad things will be noted.
    schedule 1 month ago