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The Orban Interview

In a long, detailed conversation, Hungary PM lays out his vision in conservative magazine Mandiner
The Orban Interview

Here’s a long, fascinating interview with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, appearing in the conservative magazine Mandiner, which translated it into English. Like Orban or not, it’s well worth reading for a look into the geostrategic challenges facing small countries in this suddenly volatile region. These parts stood out to my American eyes:

In the 1990s it seemed that the United States was the only remaining world power with real global influence, and that it was succeeding in integrating Russia and China into the world order that it led. Looking at developments over the last two decades, what point do you see in talking about a unipolar, US-dominated world order? How do you assess the balance of US-China rivalry so far? 

A change of position is taking place among the world’s top countries. As things stand today, China will soon be the world’s strongest economic and military power. America is in decline, while China is growing stronger. With its ten million inhabitants,

Hungary will need to manoeuvre skilfully in such times.

We’re in alliance with the West, but we also want to develop a beneficial relationship with the emerging new superpower. For policy makers this is a complex task, bordering on the realms of art.

How will this change affect the question of sovereignty?

We know what the world is like under Anglo-Saxon dominance. But we don’t yet know what the world will be like when there’s Chinese dominance. One thing is for sure: the Anglo-Saxons want the world to recognise their position as morally right. For them it’s not enough to accept the reality of power; they also need you to accept the things that they think are right. The Chinese have no such need. This will definitely be a major change in the coming decades.

As an American, it’s unpleasant to read this … but is Orban wrong? What he’s signaling here is a recognition that the Chinese, the rising global power, don’t require allies to remake themselves in China’s image. You might recall me telling you late last summer in this space that Ugandan Catholic legislators told me that China is cleaning the West’s clock in Africa because of this. The West ties development aid to compelling the Africans to adopt pro-LGBT laws and policies, which strongly goes against their local culture. It’s not that the Chinese are more magnanimous; rather, it’s that they only thing they care about is if a country is on their side. But as LGBT rights has become the supreme cause of the Western ruling class, Western governments are trying to impose these policies on countries that don’t want them. If there is an alternative source of patronage, these countries will take it. This is one way in which wokeness is, for us, a national security issue.

In any case, this is the kind of thinking that we’re going to be seeing more of in the decade or two to come, as the balance of power around the world shifts. Orban told his interviewers that for Europe, “The next decade will be about security.”

It will also be about sovereignty. Orban was fairly close with Germany’s Angela Merkel, though they had a fierce row in 2015 over the migration issue. Now Germany is ruled by a left-wing coalition. Mandiner asked Orban about that:

We know the outcome of the German election: the Left, the Greens and the Liberals formed a government. How might these developments affect German-Hungarian bilateral relations?

Reading the programme of the new German government, we have many questions. They’ve declared Germany to be an immigrant country, they deny that society is divided into only men and women, they’re legalising “soft” drugs, they’re hollowing out the concept of nation, and they want a federal Europe. We don’t know whether this programme will actually be implemented, or whether they’ll try to extend it to the whole of Europe. We’d like to conclude a “tolerance agreement” with them, so that on these issues we can go our own way. They don’t have to be like us; but, similarly, we don’t have to become like them.

I hope that leaders in Western European capitals have wised up in the past week since the Russian invasion, and have come to realize that it profits them nothing to push Central European countries, which are more socially conservative, to the wall over LGBT issues.

The Hungarian Parliament last summer passed a law restricting media and education on LGBT themes aimed at children. After being viciously attacked by other EU leaders, Orban is putting the law up to a national referendum on election day. I found an English-language source saying these questions will be on the ballot:

  • Are you in favor of children in public schools being taught about sexual orientations without parental consent?
  • Are you in favor of promoting sex change procedures for minors?
  • Are you in favor of minors having access to sex change procedures?
  • Are you in favor of media content of a sexual nature that impacts children’s development being presented to them without restrictions?
  • Are you in favor of media content depicting sex changes being shown to children?

In putting a query about the referendum to Orban, Mandiner said there are only four questions on the ballot. I can’t find out which one is correct. Anyway, read:

The Government’s decision to hold a referendum on four child protection questions is also linked to family policy. Why is this referendum necessary?

I never thought that it would come to this. If, a few years ago, someone had said to me that one day I’d be proposing that we write into the Constitution that a father is a man and a mother is a woman, I’d certainly have smiled. I’d have said that the purpose of the Constitution is not the confirmation of self-evident biological facts. And now I’m the one who’s initiated this. We can see how quickly even social views that were thought to be stable can change when concerted action is taken by political and economic actors. If we don’t deal with these issues in good time, we’ll wake up one day to find that we’ve been tricked – as was the case with liberal democracy. If we remain silent, if we shrug our shoulders, we’ll be creating a climate in society in which we’ll be the ones attracting strange looks.

A situation may arise in which we who defend the traditional institution of the family are portrayed as the enemies of freedom. Things must not come to that. We must mount the defence in good time. The advocates of the “open society” attack the nation and the family, and then weaken our identity with mass migration. Now they want to make our children unsure of themselves. We must not let this happen! Hungary is a free country, and all adults can live as they wish. But our children must be protected from gender propaganda, and the best way to do this is through a referendum.
Amen to that. Imagine having a conservative leader who fought for families with courage and conviction. Contrast this with George W. Bush, who had Karl Rove cynically arrange for gay marriage initiatives to be on state ballots in the 2004 presidential election to juice voter turnout. Then, when he was re-elected, Bush gave weak, pro forma support to the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which died in the Senate. Instead, Bush, true to GOP establishment form, spent his political capital on a failed (thank God) attempt to privatize Social Security.
What’s interesting, and what you pick up from reading the whole interview, is that Orban’s defense of the family on questions of sexual morality is part of a broader push by his government to incentivize family formation. The Fidesz government has an array of tax policies to make it easier for Hungarians to form families — this, to combat the grim fertility rate, which is below-replacement.
Orban is pretty frank about how nothing major will change for Europe until one of the core states of the European Union elects a national conservative government like his. Even if he wins:

We shouldn’t overestimate our own importance. Our victory won’t be enough to achieve a conservative turnaround in Europe. The conservative, Christian democratic approach will be battling against a headwind until the moment when at least one of the EU’s founding Member States steps onto the same path as us. Until then, the intellectual and strategic confrontation between the Left and the Right will be presented as if it were merely a dispute between the Western Member States and “new” ones in the East – which missed out on Western development and are unreconstructed hayseeds. This narrative can be dismembered by getting the first founding Member State on our side. Being good border fortress warriors, we can hold out for a long time, but this will only result in a real victory if we find partners.

Orban is still trying to explain what he meant by using the term “illiberal democracy” to describe his governing philosophy:

The consensus among analysts is that the last twelve years will enter the history books as the Orbán era. Earlier you’ve called your policies “illiberal”, but you’ve also talked about Christian liberty, and now you use the term “conservative renaissance”. If you had to characterise the last twelve years ideologically, what term would you use?

It’s no accident that this lexicon is so variegated. People like us lost the language wars in the early 1990s, and since then we’ve not only failed to find our bearings, but also our language. In the first third of the 20th century, European democrats clearly identified the common enemies to be fascism and communism. Thus the two otherwise competing democratic tendencies – liberal and conservative – joined forces against the common enemy: the fascists and the communists. We cast aside our intellectual differences and joined forces to fight totalitarian ideas. And in 1990 we won. The liberals woke up first, realising that once the common opponent had been eliminated, the old competitive order would be restored: liberals on one side, conservative Christian democrats on the other. In order to gain a competitive advantage, they’ve created their doctrine: democracy can only be liberal. Since then the conservative side has been fighting a rearguard action, and its lost momentum has allowed the doctrine of liberal democracy to become the dominant view. Since then we’ve been trying to come up with a competitive counter-narrative: Trump said “America First”, and I talk about illiberalism; but really we’re just looking for positions from which we can competitively challenge the liberal doctrine.

He goes on to explain how the whole concept of “liberal democracy,” in the traditional sense of the term, has been hollowed out by the Marxist march through the institutions and the minds of left-liberals. When ordinary Christian ideas and concepts have been marginalized within democratic discourse as “illiberal,” all bets are off, he says. I’m not going to quote Orban’s explanation, because it’s long, yet it is well worth reading, because the very same processes are hollowing out our political discourse in the US.  He says:

This is the trap the liberals find themselves in. We could call this “woke”. Sooner or later we’ll have to face up to the fact that, opposing the Christian democratic camp, we’re no longer dealing with a group espousing liberal ideology, but with a group that’s essentially Marxist with liberal remnants. This is what we have in America today. For the time being the conservative side is at a disadvantage in relation to the Marxist, liberal camp. But in this duel we must pick up the gauntlet.

One more passage:

Recently Mandiner alone has interviewed conservative big guns such as Rod Dreher, Yoram Hazony and Niall Ferguson. In the past, there was no such interest in Hungary, yet today they’re coming here, researching and intellectualising, and they’re open to Hungarian conservatism.

Hungarian air sets you free. And freedom is a great attraction. They’ve experienced first-hand that at home they cannot say what they think. The Western liberal hegemony – which is gradually becoming Marxist – at best tolerates ideas that differ from its own – and in certain places doesn’t even tolerate those. This phenomenon is very strong in the Western academic world, and you can also read specific examples of it in Mandiner. I should note that Gáspár Miklós Tamás wrote about this ten years ago. The point is that over there you find hegemony, but in Hungary there’s pluralism.

Hegemony always threatens freedom, especially intellectual freedom. Pluralism, on the other hand, always opens up space for freedom, because it finds pleasure in the fact that we can discuss serious issues with one another, even from very different points of view. In pluralism we see this as beautiful and we enjoy it. Hegemony sees this as a threat, persecutes it and makes life increasingly bleak and grey. So freedom and the diversity that comes with it are a great attraction. And today there are very few countries where conservative Christian democrats can express their opinions as freely as they do in Hungary, surrounded by interested members of the younger generation. So to those unfortunate intellectuals I could say that Hungary remains for them.

Read the whole interview. 

On that final point of Orban’s, here’s a link to an essay the cruelly embattled Princeton professor Joshua Katz wrote about his recent visit to Budapest. Katz, you’ll recall, is the top Classics scholar whom a mob is trying to drive out of Princeton because though he’s not a conservative, he dared to stand up to an attempt to force race ideology onto the curriculum, and into the life of the university where it doesn’t belong. I wrote about it here. Katz has been savaged on campus by fellow academics, colleagues, and some students. In his New Criterion essay this week, Katz wrote:

I recently returned from beautiful Budapest, where I spent a week as a guest of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, an educational institution that was the subject of a hit piece in TheNew York Times last June. The reasons the Gray Lady disapproves are clear enough: mcc has received lavish funding from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s socially conservative government, is unabashedly elitist in courting top students, and has as the chairman of its board of trustees a close adviser of Mr. Orbán.

To speak frankly, I hesitated before accepting the invitation. While some of my friends are fans of Mr. Orbán and his party, Fidesz, others are vehemently opposed. They think of the prime minister as a dictator, objecting to his overt nationalism, desire for tight borders, supposed anti-Semitism, distaste for the new gender orthodoxy that has so rapidly swept over the West, and seeming friendship with Donald Trump (and, of particular concern since my trip, Vladimir Putin).

In truth, though, I didn’t hesitate for terribly long. For one thing, two socially and politically very different friends told me they were going to be at mcc at the same time: the philosopher Peter Boghossian, who is a staunchly atheistic man of the Left, and the writer and journalist Rod Dreher, a staunchly religious man of the Right. Furthermore, as a longtime professor of ancient languages at Princeton University—a 501(c)(3) entity that has an endowment of nearly $40 billion and receives substantial government funding each year despite self-flagellating claims of being guilty of systemic racism (in which case it is arguably in violation of a number of Civil Rights statutes)—I hardly feel in a position to criticize the way a country I barely know spends money on education.

Nor do I have a fear of association. There are surely lines I would not cross, but with both Peter and Rod enthusiastic, I wanted to check out mcc for myself. And so in I went to what Rod ironically calls “Magyar Mordor,” a land that self-respecting American liberals and some establishment conservatives as well have been primed to view with suspicion.

More, about the MCC conference:

[W]hat I saw at MCC was what American universities used to be like and what all institutions of higher learning should still aspire to be: fora where the wise and the curious transmit and absorb knowledge and, when circumstances are propitious, move us ever closer to an understanding of ideas that elude our easy mental grasp. During the week, all of us engaged in real conversation about tough issues rather than blindly accepting the orthodoxy du jour—or, for that matter, criticizing said orthodoxy without providing arguments against it. We did this on stage and we did this in the breaks, over cherry strudel. Profound disagreements might not have been resolved, but at the end of the day, there were handshakes, drinks, and good-natured banter—the better to return to the differences the next morning.

The final public event was a “fireside chat” between Peter and Rod. They began by discussing the recent appointment of Sam Brinton, a nuclear engineer and lgbtq activist, to a post in the United States Department of Energy. As readers may already know—there has been a great deal of press about this—Mx. Brinton, who uses the pronouns “they/them,” is a gender-fluid member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a group of men who dress as flamboyant nuns), a practitioner of a fetish known as pup play, and, more generally, an activist for kink.

In brief, Rod believes that Mx. Brinton, though qualified for the job, should not have been appointed, for one thing because they deliberately “provoke people into having ‘conversations’ about lgbt matters . . . , [which] amounts to bullying.” Peter, by contrast, believes there is no cause to object. The two of them duked it out in front of a rapt audience, with the conversation skillfully moderated by the mcc chairman, Balázs Orbán, a charismatic lawyer and political scientist who is, confusingly, unrelated to his boss, the prime minister. It may surprise you—certainly it surprised me—to learn that Balázs, though sympathetic to Rod on some points, on the whole sided with Peter. Sooner or later, the conversation will appear on YouTube, and I recommend you watch it. It is a model of civil and spirited disagreement.

Do you understand how remarkable this is? Such a conversation—a simple exercise in free speech on a controversial topic—would be nearly unthinkable on any progressive (read: in many ways, regressive) American college or university campus today. If it were to be scheduled, “traumatized” students would put the administration under tremendous pressure to cancel the event; if it went ahead anyway, there would be heavy security; and you could count on more than a handful of students (and perhaps some faculty members) to show up and shout down the speakers, or worse. None of this happened at the putatively illiberal (read: in many ways, classically liberal) mcc. And I like to think that none of this could happen at MCC, though I admit I failed to imagine the appalling condition in which America’s educational establishment would now find itself. Clearly, constant vigilance is required to prevent any institution from becoming woke-ified.

Read it all. I hope you will come to Hungary and see for yourself what it’s like. It’s not like what you read about and hear in our media. The universities in Hungary are much freer places to speak than most of the universities in America. You won’t read about that in our media. But it’s true.

At this conference in Madrid where I’ve been late this week, the estimable French scholar Chantal Delsol, who is a friend of mine, gave a talk in which she said that my talk about our culture in the West becoming “totalitarian” is wildly overstated. I didn’t hear this myself, because there was no English translation for Delsol’s lecture, and my French isn’t good enough to have followed her. But several scholars came up to me throughout the afternoon, after her talk, to tell me what she said. Most of them added that she really doesn’t see what’s happening. Well, I’m not going to criticize Prof. Delsol without knowing precisely what she said, but I don’t see how it is even a question but that we in the West are becoming more and more totalitarian in effect, even if we aren’t following the classical model of totalitarianism (meaning, top-down one-party state control). If you have one ideology controlling all the major institutions of a society, and that ideology is rigidly intolerant of dissent, then despite the fact that the society in question has formal guarantees of free expression, there’s a term for that: soft totalitarianism.

Viktor Orban gets it. I would say that he would not put up for one second with the kind of garbage that happened this week at the University of North Texas. But then, Hungary is a country where for the time being, even the Left would not undertake that kind of woke-fascist behavior. It remains to be seen if Texas lawmakers care enough about defending free speech and free expression to hold UNT responsible for protecting the right of students to hear speakers. If America can’t defend these principles in Texas, it can’t defend them anywhere. Hungary, however, can.

UPDATE: A priest friend writes:

I was struck by the observation that the Anglo-Americans want countries to acknowledge that they are morally right whereas the Chinese just want acknowledgement of the reality of power.

It reminded me of my seminary experience. I used to tell guys that a conservative seminary administration was preferable to a liberal one not because one was necessarily better than the other (that would depend on particular points), but because the conservatives just demanded obedience whereas the liberals demanded agreement. This, I maintained, was because conservatives had no problem admitting they were wielding authority/power whereas the liberals hated authority and had to hide from themselves that they were exercising it–they were only being reasonable. Hence, the conservatives were largely satisfied with external conformity, but the liberals demanded assent (and they would be infuriated if you said you were conforming out of obedience because that revealed their exercise of raw power). The conservatives want your body; the liberals demand your soul.
When the ill-liberal left, for example, demands acceptance of gender ideology be enshrined in national and international law, it’s about requiring openness, but when a family or nation refuses to allow their own children to be subjected to that ideology it’s an abusive use of parental or governmental authority.  See how it works? We’re not authoritarian, we’re just right.
Particularly ironic that the ill-liberal left simultaneously holds that the meaning of reality is socially constructed, yet insists on calling their opponents wrong or inhuman–as if there were an objective standard by which reality and ethics can be judged.  What they mean, by their own ideology, is merely that they are culturally dominant and have arranged society to marginalize those who disagree. Well, Putin’s answer is that he aims to construct an alternate narrative by force. Other than name call what can the ill-liberal left do unless they are prepared to wield power to impose their narrative?
Interesting. Every exercise of morality is an exercise of power. That can’t be denied. But what Orban says (in light of this priest’s observation) is that every exercise of power by the Anglo-Saxon world has to be justified morally to neutralize the squeamishness Anglo-Saxons have about using power for its own sake. The priest indicates that in seminaries, this is a liberal thing, not a conservative thing. Viktor Orban says at the nation-state level, it is a habit of the Anglo-Saxon mind. I wonder, though, if it’s not more accurate to say, regarding geopolitics, that it’s a product of the modern Western mind — that is, the classical liberal mind. After all, agree with him or not, Orban is good at exercising power, but he always has a justification for it, because that is what people expect.
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