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?