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What Is Freedom Anyway?

How is Orban's Hungary more free than most Western liberal democracies? The answer reveals how the new totalitarianism works
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That's a screenshot of the American anti-woke leftist Peter Boghossian in Budapest, conducting a free-speech experiment. Watch it here. More on him in a second.

There's a big conference this week in Budapest, about publishing and media, and in conversations with people coming in from western European countries, I hear story after story about how free speech and freedom of expression are being strangled by wokeness there. Meanwhile, I see on Twitter and in the press there are the usual comments about how Viktor Orban's Hungary is a Bad Place, a country of Unfreedom. All it takes is actually coming to Hungary and spending a few days to know that this is propaganda. This week I invited my friend Andrew Sullivan, who is strongly opposed to the Orban government, to come to Hungary and see for himself what it's like. He said he didn't need to, because he's done his research on the place. I didn't press him, but I suspect the research involves reading what right-liberals like Anne Applebaum have to say about Hungary.


Here's a story I've told before, but that casts a certain light on the idea of freedom in the US, versus freedom in Hungary. Two years ago, I visited with an academic who is one of the leading intellectuals opposed to the Orban government. I wanted to know why he didn't like it. He said he believed that the government is far too tolerant of corruption. He also said that he favors gay marriage (Hungary allows civil partnerships for gay couples, but not marriage), and gay adoption, which is not allowed here. But, he said, he does not know where he stands on transgender rights.

The conversation moved on. At the end of our talk, he acknowledged that he can stand in his classroom and say whatever he likes about the government, or anything else in this country, and nobody from the government will bother him.

I told him that in America, this would also be the case -- that the state would not bother you over what you said in your classroom, or anywhere else, under any but the most extreme circumstances. But, I said, if you stood as a professor in many US universities, said you favored gay rights, but hesitated to endorse transgenderism, you would probably face harassment by students and activists. You might even be forced to defend yourself in an official procedure within the university. If you lose, you could lose your job, and then you would have the challenge of finding another job with the stain of "bigotry" on your CV. So you would be well advised not to say anything that offends against these Red Guards.

The professor was clearly shocked. He had no idea that things were like this in the US.

This story draws into relief competing ideas of freedom. What does it mean to live in a country where you have free speech in law, but in practice, you can find your career destroyed by exercising that speech in a way that a militant minority doesn't like? Plus, in some countries -- take Britain, for example -- you can be arrested for exercising free speech in ways that anger that privileged minority. The British police are losing their battle against knife crime and property crime, but they are winning against Britons who pray silently near abortion clinics, or who criticize transgenderism on social media.


This never happens in Hungary. When my friend, the anti-woke left-wing atheist Peter Boghossian, asked me if he should take a fellowship at Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) in Budapest, he expressed concern that Hungary would be hostile to people of his convictions. Not at all, I told him. Yes, the atmosphere at MCC is generally conservative, but the Hungarians are far more "liberal," in the old-fashioned sense, when it comes to discussing ideas. They will be fine with you saying what you really think, and will be eager to debate you. Come see for yourself, I said.

He did, and found that I was right. Again, if the only thing you know about Hungary is what you have learned from the mainstream media, or people within the Washington-Brussels blob, you won't know what you're talking about.

This is why so many people in the West don't get what I mean when, in Live Not By Lies, I talk about this new form of totalitarianism arising among us. They are operating under the old model, in which the all-powerful State is the enemy of liberty. By contrast, we live in a reality in which private actors -- corporations, universities, media, medicine, law, and other institutions -- have cast aside a liberal mindset, and adopted an illiberal left-wing one. And it is one that they enforce ruthlessly against dissenters -- and in many cases, they have the perfect right to do this, under the terms of the liberal order. Nevertheless, it is totalitarian, in the sense that this new ideology wants to police even thought.

I might be wrong about this -- and do let me know if I am -- but on any controversial issue I can think of, you would be more free in Orban's Hungary to say what you really think (whether you are on the Left, the Right, or in the middle) than you would be in any western European country, and maybe even the US. I'm not saying that Hungary is a free speech paradise, but I am saying that despite the propaganda, Hungary is effectively more free than most western liberal democracies. It's something you see very quickly when you come over here.

Here's an example that has nothing to do with politics. Tony Dungy is widely recognized as one of the kindest, nicest men in pro sports. He is now facing a sustained campaign to cancel him for the crime of being a religious conservative. Jennifer Graham writes:

Dungy is one of the most altruistic and genuinely likable people in American culture. A month ago, it would have beehard to imagine anyone less likely be in the crosshairs of cancel culture. But suddenly, there he was, dragged in by an unfortunate tweet about gender identification, and by the audacity of going to the March for Life and talking about supporting “unborn babies who don’t have a voice.”

Look at this totalitarian jackass:

I appreciate the shout-out here from Graham:

As Rod Dreher, author of “The Benedict Option,” has written, “American Christianity is entering a new era — one in which religious faith is no longer a given; one in which a creeping ideological totalitarianism is hostile toward traditionalists who dissent from the claims of today’s progressive brand of politics.”

The hostility with which Dungy has been treated over the past few days should be a wake-up call for religious conservatives who believe that “post-Christian America” lies in some hazy, distant future. In fact, right now we live in a society in which “evangelical Christian” is seen by many people as a synonym for “right-wing zealot” and “hate-filled bigot.”

Meanwhile, as the Dungy controversy was playing out, you could find religious conservatives bickering with each other on “controversies” ranging from Beth Moore’s dislike of Jonathan Edwards to the Rev. Tim Keller’s tweet saying there’s “nothing more important” for a Christian to do than read the Bible all the way through every year. It’s not quite fiddling while Rome burns, but disturbingly close.

She's right. As some of these people from western Europe here in Budapest for the first time this week are learning, it takes coming to Hungary to see with greater clarity how much liberty back home has been taken from people by soft-totalitarian governments. As far back as 2017, this is what you could not say in the Spanish capital, Madrid:

A Madrid judge banned a bright orange bus emblazoned with an anti-transgender message from driving through the Spanish capital on Thursday on the grounds that it was discriminatory and could provoke hate crimes.

“Boys have penises, girls have vaginas. Don’t let them fool you. If you’re born a man, you’re a man, if you’re a woman, you will continue to be so,” read the message across the side of the bus, which has been parked outside Madrid since Tuesday.

Here in Budapest, you can say that. You can also say the opposite -- though not in schools, or in media aimed at children and minors. Who is more free? Really, who?

And why is it that even in countries governed by ostensibly conservative parties -- the United Kingdom, for example -- liberties continue to be extinguished by the spread of this soft totalitarian woke ideology, and governments do little or nothing to stop it? That is not how things work in Hungary, thank God. Come and see for yourself.

BTW, I wish I had been able to hear Marguerite Peeters' presentation yesterday. This is exactly what I'm talking about -- why this totalitarianism is "soft":


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Chris Karr
Chris Karr

Will you report back how free Boghossian feels when he tries to set up and fund a print media company that's critical of the Orbán government? Playing Q&A games in a park is penny-ante stuff.
schedule 1 year ago
    Chris Karr
    Chris Karr
    You might also suggest that instead of interviewing randos in the park, Peter should set up some time to talk to Szabolcs Panyi about how "free" he feels:

    "When Szabolcs Panyi learned, in the spring of 2021, that the Pegasus spy software had been installed on his smartphone, the Hungarian investigative journalist knew it wasn't just a case of eavesdropping. The software does more than simply intercept phone calls: It can access all of a smartphone's data, and can even switch on the microphone and camera without being noticed."

    "'I felt as if they had broken into my apartment and office, bugged everything, put hidden cameras everywhere, and were even following me into the shower,' he said."

    "Panyi is an editor at the Budapest-based investigative online media outlet Direkt36. He is one of several dozen people who have been monitored — illegally — by the Hungarian state using the Pegasus spyware. Its intended targets are serious criminals or terrorists, and these people were neither. They were monitored because their research or political activities meant they were an inconvenience, or a threat, to the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban."[1]

    I miss the days when this blog was a useful voice against digital surveillance.

    schedule 1 year ago
      John Phillips
      John Phillips
      Pot, meet the kettle. You've got some nerve being an American and lecturing about some other government surveillance of its citizens.
      schedule 1 year ago
        This is a piece extolling purported Hungarian freedom. The poster above gave a concrete example of how Rod may not be right about that. That does not take "nerve". It's not like Chris is some government censor being a hypocrite about some other government's misdeeds. He's just an ordinary American pointing out that the grass isn't any greener just because everyone trampling on it is speaking Magyar.
        schedule 1 year ago
Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
If you want to be a slave are you allowed to become one by your own freedom of choice? Pretty much, you're even encouraged to in this world where sin is an obsolete concept. But that sure is a lot like one vote, one time. After that, where will your freedom come from? Who will set the captive free?
schedule 1 year ago