Month: October 2009

Hungary’s prosperity index: The Legatum Institute’s findings

The first time I heard about the institute and its prosperity index was in an opinion piece by György Bolgár. I immediately went to the original source, the web site of the Legatum Institute. I found the study fascinating. Legatum defines prosperity as both material wealth and spiritual well being. So the world's most prosperous nations have both a sound economy and happy, healthy, free citizens. The Index studied the situation in 104 different countries that comprise 90% of the world's population. The Index is subdivided into nine sub-indexes: economic fundamentals (meaning a growing sound economy), entrepreneurship and innovation, democratic institutions, education, health, safety and security, governance, personal freedom, and social capital (that is, trustworthiness in relationships and strong communities).

Finland tops the list, narrowly ahead of Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark followed by Norway, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United States, and New Zealand. And now comes the surprise. In Eastern Europe in Legatum's prosperity index Hungary is twenty-seventh, ahead of Poland (29), Slovakia (34), Bulgaria (46), and Romania (48). In the region only Slovenia (20) and the Czech Republic (25) are ahead of Hungary.

What is Hungary's weakest link? It is social capital. And it is not just a bit weak. If one looks at the entire list it is one the worst with a score of 92. Just to give you some idea of how bad that is, it can be compared to Algeria, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Peru, and yes, Zimbabwe that, by the way, is last on the list. (Do you remember that Hungarians' satisfaction with their own lot was comparable on another international comparison with that of the citizens of Zimbabwe?) But this category is the only one that is marked red on the Hungarian "prosperity map." Everything else is bright green with the exception of one yellow bloc meaning "average" and that is "personal freedom." Interestingly enough, "personal freedom" as defined by the researchers at Legatum is also considered "average" in Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Israel, Poland, Greece, and Slovakia, just to mention a few. In fact, Hungary with a score of 48 is doing relatively well, because Greece received a score of 65 and Slovakia 69. One may find it a source of satisfaction that Israel and Hungary are tied with an overall score of 27.

One observation of the Legatum Institute is that "history is not destiny." Highly ranked nations include those with a long history of productive economies, effective and limited government, and social capital, yet several other nations rank high that not long ago were afflicted with poverty, oppression, and unhappiness. In Europe the authors of the Prosperity Index specifically mention Croatia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, countries that not so long ago were controlled by communist governments, with little wealth or freedom.

I assume Viktor Orbán would not agree with these findings. After all, according to him Hungary is like an abandoned battlefield. The country impatiently awaits the Messiah who will make from this poor second Zimbabwe a country like Finland! Well, I will be curious to see what the 2010 Prosperity Index will look like if Orbán's dream of a "national renaissance" actually materializes. 

Ferenc Gyurcsány is back: The Hungarian socialists receive a boost

Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister, after about half a year of silence has returned. And he is his old fiery self. An excellent and inspiring speaker. His reception by the party faithful at a public assembly of the Hungarian socialists was most enthusiastic even before he opened his mouth. Frenetic applause before and after. And he deserved every bit of it because he brought back a glimmer of hope that perhaps not everything is lost. Or at least this was the message he came with.

He asked his audience not "to give up hope and our belief that we are on the right side." He kept emphasizing that MSZP, practically alone by now, represents "national progressivism." The only party that wants to combine patriotism with a steady march on the road that leads the country to western European values. As he put it, "to combine Hungarian pride with the European whole." The Hungarian socialists are the only ones who want to build a country with a strong middle class in the true sense of the word. Here I'm sure Gyurcsány had in mind the often used adjective "polgári," a very difficult Hungarian word to translate, by Fidesz. In fact, Viktor Orbán and his friends fell so completely in love with the word that they incorporated it into the name of their party. The official party name was changed several times, but the latest is Fidesz–Magyar Polgári Szövetség or in English, Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Union. Gyurcsány, and he is not alone, considers Fidesz not at all "polgári." Middle class values and Fidesz don't mix easily.

Gyurcsány tried to arouse MSZP from the stupor the party is in at the moment. He emphasized that it doesn't really matter what the most recent opinion polls show. "We have to find our way to the heart of the people." He warned them that self-criticism is okay in general but that now is not the time to dwell on mistakes. Instead they have to learn to be proud of what they have achieved. (The audience liked that. Applause followed.) They built 500 kilometers of super highways instead of seven. Poor children receive free lunch at school. The Orbán government took away monthly assistance for families with children and instead introduced a system that compensated families through taxation. The problem with that strategy was that the poorest people didn't pay taxes and therefore only the better-off families received the helping hand of the state while the really needy lost. The party must emphasize that today pensioners' income is 30% higher in real terms than it was in 2002. "If we cannot say all that, who will tell the people instead of us?" he asked.

Yes, people can say that the socialist-liberal coalition did more than the country was capable of. "One can say in hindsight that less would have been more. But that is not a sin. It is only a mistake." Surely nobody is happy that the thirteenth-month pension had to be taken away, but "those should be ashamed who didn't give it in the first place." (Applause.) "One mustn't apologize but must reject all the vile accusations that Hungary is destroyed as if it had gone through a devastating war." Then Gyurcsány didn't mince words: "They are lying! Anyone who says things like that is a scoundrel. The people of this country worked hard all through seven years."

Then came the warning: "Democrats! Awake!" Without mentioning Viktor Orbán's name or that of his party, Gyurcsány made it clear that he foresees a regime introduced by an Orbán-led government where democracy is in danger. Democrats surely don't want a country that is led by politicians who don't utter a word when innocent Gypsies are being murdered. Or worse, they try to find excuses. If "we don't raise our voices, who will?" Moreover, if the opponent is coming from the other direction "we mustn't retreat." According to Gyurcsány, what the other side wants is "to frighten us." But "wake up!" What kind of country will Hungary be where the possible next prime minister after hearing one of his politicians' views about Gypsies, Jews, and gays can say only that "yes, it is awkward. This is not awkward, this is shameful."

"My friends, democrats. You're the last hopes of democracy…. Awake, democrats!. . . Please stick together. Something is awaiting this country that I as a man of the left, an ordinary citizen, a father, a normal Hungarian male must reject. We don't want a world like that…. The struggle against these forces must be organized by us and for that we need collaboration, loyalty, discipline, support of the leadership. Support the party or be quiet."

And finally he praised Gordon Bajnai and his government and asked the party to wholeheartedly support him. "The stake is great! Everybody to the deck! There is a lot to do."

And as he always finished his speeches: "For a democratic Hungary, for the republic!"

The growth of the extreme right in Hungary

There is no question that the most burning issue in current Hungarian political life is the spectacular growth of the extreme right. Political Capital, one of those "independent" think-tanks József Debreczeni wrote about the other day, published a study in Hírszerző dealing with the "causes of the growth of the extreme right."

The authors mention five possible causes: (1) strengthening of a critical attitude toward the regime itself, (2) a shift toward the right in general, (3) growth of belief in a more authoritarian regime, (4) lack of trust in politicians, and (5) growth of societal antagonism.

As usual these categories are nebulous at best. What does "shift toward the right in general" actually mean? This to my mind is not a cause but the result of certain political and social changes. Or, what does "societal antagonism" mean? Perhaps it would have been better to dispense with this list and instead move straight to the details. They make more sense.

There is nothing new in the statement that Hungarian society expected too much from the change of regime. Most people believed that with the introduction of a "market economy" (they judiciously avoided the term "capitalism") Hungary would be an earthly paradise overnight. Just the opposite happened. About 1.5 million pople lost their jobs, inflation set in, and interest rates were sky high. The government tried to tell people that eventually everything would be better, but five years after the change of regime came the "Bokros package" that meant a 17% drop in real wages. Yet it did the trick and eventually life was getting better although living standards were still somewhat below the 1989 level. Between 2002 and 2006 living standards soared, but not because of the simultaneous growth of the Hungarian economy. Most of the goodies the government provided came from foreign loans. The country's financial situation became dire and something had to be done. A new austerity program had to be introduced just at the time that people were expecting further improvements in their lives. As soon as it became clear that people's expectations couldn't be fulfilled, the socialist-liberal coalition's popularity dropped precipitously. Way before the the leaked speech of Ferenc Gyurcsány in which he tried to convince the socialist parliamentary members that their old ways of "economic management," if you can call it that, couldn't be continued. No more raising living standards from borrowed money.

The beginning of real dissatisfaction can be dated to the summer of 2006 when it became clear that another round of austerity measures would be introduced. Admittedly not as stringent as those of Lajos Bokros but even a drop of a few percentage points set off the Hungarian publict hat was accustomed to economic benefits from the state. Their dissatisfaction with the austerity program was translated into disappointment with the democratic regime itself. According to data gathered by the European Social Survey, out of twenty-one European countries only in Bulgaria is dissatisfaction greater than in Hungary. With this general dissatisfaction came discontent with the institutions, the political parties, the politicians, the European Union. In turn there was an increased responsiveness to radical messages. What is especially worrisome is that young people are leery about the benefits of democracy. According to a survey, "Ifjúság 2008," less than fifty percent of young people (between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine) think that "democracy is superior to any other regime."

The extreme right began to flourish in this environment of discontent. While in 2004 perhaps 6% of the adult population belonged to the group, today, according to Political Capital, the extreme right has about a 13% "market share". This growth has a lot to do with the weakness of civic society. Again, according to the World Value Survey, Hungary and Bulgaria are at the bottom of the list as far as the activity of civic organizations is concerned. There is also a general suspicion about the democratic institutions, and one cannot even blame the Hungarians. It is enough to see the work of the prosecutor's office or the activities of the courts. One can hear constant complaints about the lack of law and order, often due to endless legal wranglings over the letter of the law. The police accordingly don't quite know what is lawful and what is not.

Intolerance has become stronger in the last few years than ever before. Or, it is also possible that while a few years ago people didn't think that it was acceptable behavior to make anti-Gypsy or anti-Semitic remarks in public, today there are no such compunctions. I found a chart in the study comparing political anti-Semitism in seven countries especially interesting. Participants were asked to agree or disagree with two statements. The first was that Jews have too much power in the business world; the second, that Jews are responsible for the recent global economic crisis.Political antisemitism The brownish colored column shows the percent of positive responses to the first question, and the grey measures positive responses to the second. Hungary has the highest values, followed by Spain, Poland, Austria, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Finally, one mustn't forget about Jobbik's "genius" in building a mass movement. Surely, Vona and his friends hit the jackpot when they decided to make the Gypsy question the central theme of their propaganda. Anti-Gypsy feelings are strong and widespread. According to some studies perhaps 85% of Hungarians find the Gypsies an undesirable ethnic group. In addition to adopting a successful central theme, Jobbik also managed to create an institutional network. A great help in this regard was another of their brainstorms: the Hungarian Guard. With the help of the Guard Jobbik could pose as not so much a party but as a civic, grass roots movement. Before August 2007, that is before the establishment of the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik had practically no local chapters. As soon as the Hungarian Guard appeared on the scene Jobbik spread like wildfire, and by now it can boast almost 180 local chapters. In its membership three groups are overrepresented: young people, villagers, and inhabitants of the northeastern counties of Hungary.

The authors of the study do not predict long-term success for Jobbik. Once an extremist movement becomes a party and participates in the political processes its weaknesses are exposed. Soon enough it becomes obvious that it doesn't have instant remedies. That the movement's simplistic answers to complicated issues don't work. And then comes the disappointment of their followers and a waning of their popularity. This was the case with the Arrow Cross Party after 1939 and MIÉP after 2002. It may also be the fate of both Jobbik and Fidesz.

“Democratic humbug”: A critique of Hungarian “political scientists”

Today I look at a highly charged criticism of Hungarian "political scientists" by József Debreczeni, one of my favorite political writers. For months I hadn't seen or heared of him and I felt deprived. It was only a week ago that he showed up again on "A tét" (The Stake) on ATV. It turned out that he was busy writing a book on Viktor Orbán. A second one. The first came out in 2002, shortly after Orbán lost the elections. The first book wasn't uncritical, but since then Debreczeni's opinion of Orbán has changed so radically that he obviously felt that a "revised edition" was in order.

Debreczeni has always struck me as a very moderate gentleman, and therefore I was somewhat startled when I saw the title of the article in the original. For this post I intentionally mistranslated the title as democratic "humbug" in place of the original "horse shit." Somehow I didn't think that the original title would look too good on The New York Times list of recent articles on Hungary! But from the original choice of words one can sense Debreczeni's utter frustration at reading and listening to "these young so-called political scientists who keep repeating the empty phrases of their profession."

I myself have often complained bitterly about the Hungarian version of political scientists. "Political science" in English means "a social science concerned chiefly with the description and analysis of political and especially governmental institutions and processes." A political scientist usually teaches at a university and writes academically vetted articles and books. American political scientists don't show up every second day on television or in the newspapers. By contrast, the garden-variety Hungarian political scientist is in fact nothing more than a political commentator.

Hungarian political scientists are often very young, almost straight out of college. Debreczeni calls them "the plastic political scientists" who try to dissect politicians' moves from a totally utilitarian point of view. No value judgment enters their conscience. As Debreczeni says, if these guys had been around at the time of World War II they would have measured Hitler and Churchill by the same measuring stick. They don't care a whit about morals, honesty, decency. They claim that if a strategy works, it is the correct strategy.

Debreczeni divides these so-called political scientists into two camps. There are institutions that are financed by parties. Századvég (Fin de siècle) and Nézőpont (Point of view) by Fidesz; Progresszív and Republikon by MSZP and SZDSZ respectively. Then there are the so-called "independent" ones: Vision Consulting, Political Capital, and Méltányosság (Equity). These three are not really independent either because they live off the marketplace, i.e. they sell their wares to parties in need of political advice. The "independents" are the tightrope walkers, the balancing acts. If they say something less than complimentary about Viktor Orbán, let's say, that he is a populist, then immediately they have to say the same about Ferenc Gyurcsány. If Orbán is an authoritarian type of politician, the "Führer"-type (vezér in Hungarian), then Gyurcsány must be the same.

These are the "boys" who, according to Debreczeni, are neither fish nor fowl. What these young people don't want to recognize is that Hungary fell victim to "political fundamentalism." I myself wrote about Orbán's penchant for using religious terms for political ends. American commentators have talked quite a bit about political fundamentalism in the Bush White House. The chief trait of political fundamentalism, just like its religious variety, is an ideology that thrives on simplification. Debreczeni claims that the appearence of this political fundamentalism is responsible for the dramatic changes that have taken place on the Hungarian political spectrum. Debreczeni believes that if these "political scientists" would begin to take this political fundamentalism seriously, their whole "plastic see-saw" between the two poles would collapse.

Debreczeni claims that the appearance of Jobbik came in handy to these "plastic political scientists." Suddenly they didn't have to worry about the balancing act between right and left. They could easily label Jobbik as extreme right and so suddenly Orbán and Fidesz became "the moderate force." But, Debreczeni continues, there is a bit of a problem with this interpretation because if Orbán and Fidesz are moderates then why doesn't the party chief condemn Jobbik? According to Debreczeni such a condemnation is unimaginable. It would be too much to ask the tiger to denounce the predatory nature of the jackal! Pretty strong words, but I am inclined to sympathize with Debreczeni's position.

But then came the European parliamentary elections where the extreme right received 15% of the votes. According to the logic of these youngsters Jobbik's results at a democratic election made the party legitimate, nay, democratic. Debreczeni adds in parentheses that following the same logic one must consider Hitler a democrat. At first blush I really thought that Debreczeni was exaggerating here. Surely, no "political scientist" could say such a stupid thing. But this morning I heard the same assinine comment from one of these people in the new "Ma reggel." Jobbik is a democratic party, said János Betlen; even the argument that Jobbik doesn't recognize the Hungarian Constitution didn't seem to shake his confidence in this idiocy.

According to Debreczeni, SZDSZ's institute, Republikon, came up with the following wise observation: Jobbik is "anti-liberal in the extreme, questions our constitutional arrangement and the market economy, yet it is a democratic party." How is that possible, Debreczeni asks and we can ask with him. "What kind of expertise is necessary to arrive at such absurd results?" Apparently "the boys of Republikon" were split on the issue into two extreme groups. One claimed that Jobbik was a democratic party while the other contended that it was a fascist party. So they had to come to some kind of consensus. "Jobbik doesn't question the existence of multi-party democracy … although at the same time … it is sharply against the existing constitutional arrangement." Again, Debreczeni doesn't understand the logic of it. (How could he, since it is utter nonsense?)

But that is nothing. The youngsters at Republikon–and keep in mind that this is allegedly a liberal think tank–continue: "Jobbik doesn't dispute majority rule based on free election" but "they would like to revive an electoral system that doesn't guarantee universal suffrage." At this point Debreczeni can only say: "This boggles the mind!" That is bad enough, but the young geniuses of Republikon go on and list all those characteristics of Jobbik that clearly prove that Jobbik cannot be considered a democratic party. For example, they have made no secret of their goals: if they form a government they will introduce censorship and will close two of their least favorite television stations and raze their buildings to the ground. "Jobbik is an illiberal party that wants to establish an authoritarian democracy … and it would narrow the guaranteed rights introduced at the time of the change of regime."

So we have a new concept: illiberal demoracy. What kind of democracy is it that limits people's political rights, that limits the freedom of speech or assembly? "Democracy is either liberal or it is no democracy," says Debreczeni. Republikon's study of Jobbik includes this sentence: Jobbik "in place of destructive neo-liberalism wants to introduce a value system based on Christian teachings." For Jobbik "national identity and Christianity cannot be separated." That is political fundamentalism. Again, Debreczeni emphasizes that democracy must be secular because otherwise it is not democracy. Political fundamentalism presupposes a monolithic structure in which anyone who opposes the religiously ordained political system is an enemy representing Evil itself. That person cannot really participate in politics because his activities are harmful to the people. Here we are talking about "a moral life-and-death struggle." In this world view people expect moral guidance from the politician. Debreczeni thinks that this description fits Orbán perfectly. "Who doesn't recognize Viktor Orbán in this portrait? Only those who don't want to. For example, Republikon and all the other institutes. They studied Jobbik scientifically and found it to be a democratic party."

The final straw for Debreczeni was this quotation:  "In the opinion of the authors of the present study no one can be called antidemocratic in a democratic regime simply on the basis of rhetoric." Debreczeni's comment: "Boys! You can eat your science!"

Language of hatred: The voice of the Hungarian right

Tamás Bauer, former SZDSZ member of parliament, political analyst, and professor of economics, last week on the ATV program "A tét" (The stake) said something memorable and very true. He told the audience that in fact he feels sorry for Oszkár Molnár, Fidesz member of parliament and mayor of Edelény, because he most likely doesn't even realize that what he says about Jews, Gypsies, and gays is unacceptable in the civilized world. After all, Bauer continued, this is what he hears day in and day out in the right-wing media–Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Demokrata, Magyar Hírlap, HírTV, or Echo TV. The voice of hatred can be freely heard from politicians as well. And not only from Gábor Vona or Krisztina Morvai. Tibor Navracsics, Péter Szijjártó, and the party chief Viktor Orbán also use language that in some other countries would be deemed unacceptable. Fine, some could say, surely one must admit that Jobbik's language is worse than that of the Fidesz politicians. Yes, but it is a question of degree only. It is a continuum, as Tamás Bauer rightly pointed out. Navracsics or Orbán may not use the exact words Gábor Vona did in connection with Tibor Draskovics, the minister of justice and maintenance of order, but the meaning is the same. Civility has become an unknown category.

It doesn't matter how we slice it. That language was introduced by Fidesz already in the early 1990s and since then the politicians of the Young Democrats have only fine-tuned the "style" acquired during their university years. Or perhaps even before: at home. As if these young people's natural development stopped by entering politics straight out of college. As if they didn't quite manage to grow up. When college graduates enter the work force they must learn to get along in that work place community. They have to learn what to say and what not. In brief, not to alienate colleagues. By contrast, a Hungarian politician, especially if a member of Fidesz, must attack. Must find weaknesses on the other side. Must criticize everything and use stronger and stronger language in order to call attention to himself. The bigger the noise he makes the more successful he considers himself. Say something outrageous and it will be reported everywhere in the media. Consequences? Irrelevant as long as it is considered to be a successful strategy.

What about the journalists of the right and the extreme right? They take their cue from the politicians and go even further. If Gábor Vona, screaming on the top of his lungs, can use the familiar in referring to the minister of justice and suggest that he be pilloried, if he can ask his followers, preferably those with the flu, to spit on him, what should we expect from the so-called journalists of Magyar Hírlap? Especially if the person by nature is inclined toward vulgarity, aggressiveness, and hatred. I'm sure that almost everybody thinks by now–at least those who know the list of contributors to Magyar Hírlap–that I'm talking about Zsolt Bayer. No! I'm talking about László Szentesi Zöldi.

The first time I encountered him was on Nap-kelte, the television program Fidesz accused of partiality toward the socialists and liberals. Szentesi Zöldi appeared occasionally on a segment within the program called Kereszttűz (Crossfire). The format was the following. The anchorman was flanked by two journalists and all three fired questions at the invited politician. Normally, the program's producers tried to pick journalists from opposing sides. One day Szentesi Zöldi showed up and I found him aggressive and very unpleasant. I said to myself: where did they find this fellow from the far-right? Well, I soon found out where he is spreading the gospel. In the infamous Magyar Hírlap that by today in no way differs from the Nazi, anti-Semitic Internet rags like kuruc.info or barikad.hu. Szentesi Zöldi's eyes burned with hatred when he encountered politicians from the other side. And because Fidesz boycotted the program, he hated all those who faced him in Kereszttűz.

Szentesi Zöldi wrote an opinion piece on October 19 in Magyar Hírlap. The occasion was an open letter signed by a number of liberals and moderate conservatives that appeared a few days earlier in Élet és Irodalom. The letter was addressed to the current head of MTV (Magyar Televízió). The signatories to the letter complained that Gábor Vona was invited by the staff of the new show, Ma Reggel. They found it unacceptable that Hungary's public television allows Gábor Vona to broadcast to a wide audience his extreme, racist message.

I assume one can argue whether Vona should be invited by a public television or radio station to propagate his hateful message but certainly not the way Szentesi Zöldi did. First, he complained about not being familiar with all the names. Fine, there are those who sign everything but who are all those others? "I gather they counted even the fingerprints of the atttendants of public toilets in order to achieve the necessary number." A good beginning! Szentesi Zöldi gleefully notes that the liberals have pretty well disappeared from Hungarian political life. Then he continues: "But, after all, what do you want, you liberals?" The "you" here is the familiar form that is supposed to belittle people Szentesi Zöldi doesn't like. He then accuses these inferior people of wanting to forbid the propagation of the ideas of people whom they don't like. "That is what you whisper, scream, babble. Tomorrow, let's say, you would forbid the use of the Hungarian language, the flag, the national anthem, or the bocskai? Everything that bothers your refined taste?" Bocskai was a uniform favored by right-wing students in the 1930s.

Well, that wasn't quite enough for Szentesi Zöldi. He continues. "We endure your hypocritical mugs here, so perhaps you should be able to listen to a program you don't like." Can one sink lower? Oh, yes, one just has to continue reading Szentesi Zöldi. He calls the signatories sons and daughters of those people who "were beating into a pulp" the "enemies of the people" in the 1950s. Not only were the fathers of these intellectuals sadistic communists but the sons and daughters actually thought that they were superior to "us." "You thought that we were country bumpkins who couldn't read or write." But while these liberals were full of themselves, Szentesi Zöldi's kind "were getting ready, they were working." And "by today, we, thank you, are doing just fine." Szentesi Zöldi's people are watching how these liberals are retreating "snarling with furtive hatred."

Everybody is on their side, claims Szentesi Zöldi. Workers, students, peasants, intellectuals–the whole of Hungary. Not on Fidesz's side but on the side of those who are represented by Magyar Hírlap and  Echo Televízió. All these people want to know "what will happen after you." According to Szentesi Zöldi, a national renaissance. And what will happen to the liberals? Szentesi Zöldi doesn't spell it out exactly, but whatever the extreme right will do to them will not be pleasant: "you will depart with a stomach ache." And to make it perfectly clear what he means, Szentesi Zöldi adds: "I wouldn't want to be in your place."

This is how they think and write. Let's hope that Szentesi Zöldi's menacing words are no more than idle threats.

Hungarian lament by S.K.

My post last week has elicited quite a few rebukes.

The general tenor of criticism was, on the one hand, that the situation is not grave enough to justify my assessment, and on the other, by being as tough as I was, I am actually stooping to the same level as my mark, Fidesz.

Well, fair enough, if it engendered such reaction in my critics, the posting was probably more radical than was expected based on the facts.

I am not prepared however to accept the criticism yet without explaining my reasons.

It was not that long ago, in the 1930s in Hungary, when in the throes of the great depression, under economic and political pressures, there finally gelled a modest, but valuable middle class. It was small, quite parochial, and strictly urban, but exactly because of the multitude of pressures, it was also resilient and immensely valuable. The constituents of this small middle class were not so much business people, but mostly corporate bureaucrats, public servants, teachers and generally people of modest means, with civilizatory impulses. Although the rate of unemployment was staggering, pay for those lucky enough to work was modest and the “things” that a middle class person could do was limited, nonetheless, this was an incredibly fertile period culturally speaking.

Some of the best art, literature, the best theater, and the best music practically ever was conceived and propagated in Hungary in those years. Families often gathered to play chamber music. Marvelous literature was coming from every direction. More and more theaters were opened and were full every night. Cabarets and coffee houses everywhere, newspapers by the dozens serving every possible taste, and large companies of families and friends were roaming the forests and hills around Buda in the spring and fall for picnics and outdoor entertainments. My parents were this kind of people.

The organized middle class didn’t stop at the family level, there were countless organizations, social and professional, clubs for artists, journalists and all manner of other professions, for example acrobats, providing ample field for interaction.

The communist takeover of the country in 1948 put all that into deep freeze, but the people didn’t change, only the circumstances did. It was nearly impossible of course, to speak openly, social organizations were expropriated, just like industry and businesses were, and while those willing to howl with the wolves remained members of these instruments of state control, the others, like my parents, withdrew into private life hoping for the best. Although the postwar economy was barely bearable, the old civic habits never died; food was rationed; yet families still went out for picnics and concerts and the theaters were still full despite the heavily tilted, Soviet-influenced repertoire. The children of the frozen middle class still received their extracurricular music lessons, fencing and athletic training. The middle class prevailed, albeit reduced in numbers, and outlasted the forty-five years of oppression.

The euphoria of 1989-90 was not only similar to that of 1956, but it was more intense and more universal. At the same time it was completely devoid of violence, more typically gleeful. The bastards were all on the run, the source of oppression itself, the “great” Soviet Union was heading for the exit, beaten and humiliated. The middle class, true to its tradition, was standing by to take over; writers, journalists, even rabbis and priests were entering parliament, ready to do finally what was yet undone, the organizing of civil society.

The first “civic” government, that of József Antall, hastily embarked on restoring the prewar anomalies of the society, smuggled back the aristocracy and clergy into the positions they never again were supposed to occupy and from which they were barred by law and by horrendous collective experiences. No wonder that when Viktor Orbán stood in Parliament and accused the fumbling government of lying, there was some sympathy towards him. This was a seminal moment. Not only was it open defiance in the face of authority, but also the breaking of tradition of civility in Parliament. There was nobody at the time to point out that abandoning civility is detrimental to civic society. It was downhill ever since.

The ravages of time and the intentional destruction of civility by Orbán and Fidesz continued ever since. The willful works of this uncivilized crew of blowhards, undermining the little that was left, augmented whatever destruction was not carried out by the economic decline. The philosophy of Fidesz rapidly proved to be the abandonment of the traditional nineteenth-century liberal, patriotic, ethos which most of society looked up to as exemplary, instead it became a mere technique to wrench power from anybody who had it and wrest it by whatever means to themselves, regardless of the consequences.

Fidesz, the “new voice” of present-day Hungary, has realized from the beginning that they have no excuse to be in the “power business” unless they apply every trick ever invented to grab that power. They had no principles to adhere to, they cared not a wit whether it was helpful or harmful to the country, they boldly pressed onward to the unchartered territory that, as it suddenly turns out, is not as unchartered as it seemed before. In fact those ignominious predecessors, Mussolini and Hitler, have very well chartered it.

Building a power basis on the basest and lowest instincts of the population, making policy out of nothing but the craving of power and negativity did not serve the country at the time of the anti-reform referendum, for example.

The meager forces of resistance, those small islands of civic virtue, the intelligentsia and the business class, have little to hang onto. They can either join, and perhaps benefit from the deception, as did the German oligarchy at the time of Hitler, or try to resist at the risk of its own peril.

Except for a handful of people courageous and intelligent enough to understand this some years ago already, there is nobody left to resist and protest. Even the authorities, whose job would be to enforce the law, are cowering in the face of the onslaught. Just witness the farce surrounding the statue of the “Turul” in the twelfth district of Budapest, the recent personal clear-cutting in the public television, or the ludicrous dithering about the Hungarian Guard. Need we say that all these manifestations of institutional cowardice are ample proof of the absence of civic society and its presence anywhere? The courageous handful are feebly protesting and the rest is meandering between fear and hope.

That fear and hope is the source of the criticism I received for my last week’s posting; perhaps if we don’t call a spade a spade, they will not notice us, we shall go on for another day. This was the attitude of the communist era as well. For some it did work, for others it was no help at all. Eventually everybody was intimidated, abused and ultimately robbed.

So, my conciliatory friends, you just go on relying on those fine distinctions and precious attitudes, hoping that the upcoming trials and tribulations of the impending Fidesz government will turn out to be not quite as bad as it could be, but I am telling you, it will not only be as bad, but worse than you can imagine. There is an almost hundred years long period of experience and the Fidesz has already done things worse than ever expected, and they haven’t even grabbed power yet. Pretty soon however, “the black soup” is on its way.

So what, you might say, what’s the big deal?

Oh, well, there will be no chamber music played at family gatherings for some time to come. How long can that time be, you ask. Well, if the predictions of Orban are any indication, how about twenty years?

Can you afford it?

A recent debate: What did the Hungarians want in 1956?

Open debate, sometimes going on for weeks on end, was a favorite pastime of scholars in the Kádár regime. Because political debate was out of the question, the practitioners of the genre often went to great lengths to debate some minute point of literary analysis or some historical fact. Someone not long ago called these discussions pseudo-debates. Debates about nothing or at least not about important things. This way one could pretend that there was a lively intellectual life in a country where important issues couldn't be discussed. One could certainly have huge fights over the meaning of Mohács but one couldn't debate Hungary's role in World War I, Trianon, the Hungarian role in the Holocaust, or Hungary's steadfast support of Hitler's Germany. To this day Hungarian society has been paying a heavy price for these omissions, resulting in widespread ignorance of twentieth-century Hungarian history.

Unfortunately, though there are no longer political constraints, the days of pseudo-debates are not yet over if one can judge from an exchange between István Deák, professor emeritus at Columbia University, and István Gereben, a 1956 émigré and well-known oceanographer living in the United States. The debate is over the life of Béla Király who died recently at the age of ninety-seven. Because István Deák knew Király well after Király escaped from Hungary, he wrote a fairly lengthy obituary in Élet és Irodalom (July 17, 2009). In it he tried to draw a balanced but on the whole favorable picture of the general turned historian. Deák makes it clear, even if implicitly, that he doesn't agree with all of Király's interpretations of modern Hungarian history or his sometimes forced explanations of the motives behind the many twists and turns in his career. But Deák finishes his obituary by saying that he knows that Király's conscience was clear. He was convinced that "all his life he served the interest of his country." Deák adds that "unfortunately he was incapable of self-criticism."

I can't possibly recount, even in an abbreviated form, the life of this "most colorful personality of our age" as Deák called him. I knew Béla Király personally and have my own opinion of him as a scholar and a man, but before 1993 or 1994 I never realized how controversial he was. The right-wingers I encountered on the Internet considered Király a turncoat. My feeling is that the liberals didn't know what to make of him either. After all, as a professional soldier he swore allegiance to Ferenc Szálasi and served in his army until March 29, 1945, when he managed to get over to the Soviet side only to be imprisoned instead of being greeted with open arms. After 1945 he joined the communist party, was imprisoned in 1951, and released only in September 1956. During the revolution he was the chief of the Hungarian National Guard.

After the change of regime, Király moved back to Hungary and became a member (independent) of parliament from his birthplace, Kaposvár. A few months later he joined the SZDSZ caucus. His political career was short. After four years he left politics but later showed up as military adviser (2000-2002) to Viktor Orbán. Another new twist in his career.

But let's go back to the debate between Deák and Gereben. In response to Deák's balanced obituary István Gereben, whom I considered to be a moderate man, lost his cool. What I found interesting was that Gereben's problem wasn't Király's serpentine career; he got hung up on only one thing. In 1983 there appeared a series of interviews conducted by Michael Charleton in the Encounter and, along with Milovan Djilas and Leszek Kolakowski, Béla Király was interviewed. Charleton asked a question in which he assumed that the revolution was against "the communist government." Király protested and claimed that "we didn't fight against the communist party." Imre Nagy was a communist and remained a member of the central committee of the newly formed MSZMP. Király claimed that the Hungarian uprising was not an "anti-communist revolution."

Charleton didn't give up and pressed on: "There were 200,000 people demonstrating…." Király apparently interrupted him: "Yes, but not against the communist party. They were demonstrating for democracy and against totalitarianism." To prove his point he called Charleton's attention to the sixteen points of the university students. These points demanded reforms within the communist party. Gereben found Király's words "sickening."

István Deák answered in a brief note entitled "Black and white." In it Deák very rightly points out that those who took part in the revolution had diverging ideas. Not everybody wanted to overthrow the socialist regime. He suggested that Gereben read the transcript of the Petőfi Circle, the speeches of Imre Nagy and Zoltán Tildy, and the memorandum of István Bibó. And his last sentence: "Gereben doesn't seem to know the dilemmas and contradictions of history, politics, we may even say, of life. His simplifications are unacceptable."

A few days ago Mária Ormos, who herself was an eyewitness although not in Budapest but in Szeged, said that as long as people who participated in the events of the revolution are alive there is no hope of reconciling the different perceptions of the 1956 Revolution. To me neither Király in the Encounter interview nor Gereben in his outburst in ÉS captured reality. The revolution began as a movement for reform and for "socialism with a human face," but as time went on other forces surfaced. What would have happened if the Soviet troops didn't return we will never know, but I suspect that Hungary would have seen multi-party democracy decades earlier.

It would have been wise of Gereben to let Deák have the last word, but in the bad habit of endless Hungarian debates he continued. He claimed that in this case there can be "no nuanced opinion." Well, there has to be. A slice of the whole isn't the whole; one opinion doesn't silence other opinions; a single perspective can't describe a complex event. Black and white thinking isn't only a problem for the human psyche; it can distort a country's history.