The embattled Géza Jeszenszky and Viktor Orbán

Jeszenszky’s troubles are far from over. This rather unfortunate affair is being prolonged partly because of Géza Jeszenszky’s well known graphomania and partly because of the assistance Jeszenszky’s friends offered to the beleaguered historian-diplomat.

The first supportive letter was fired off by eighteen American-Hungarians of a more conservative bent, including Csaba K. Zoltani who occasionally expresses his dissatisfaction with some of my posts and with readers’ comments. That letter didn’t surprise anybody, but when the media found out that three American liberals also wrote a supporting letter on behalf of Jeszenszky the right-wing media had a heyday. Heti Válasz introduced its article on the subject with these words: “Exclusive! A turning point in the affair of the ambassador.” Magyar Nemzet happily announced that “Not just anybody stood up for Jeszenszky.” The signers of the brief letter were Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University, István Deák, professor emeritus at Columbia University, and András Simonyi, Hungarian ambassador in Washington between 2002 and 2007.  Both letters attested to the fact that, although the signers knew Jeszenszky for a long time, they never heard him utter a word that would have indicated prejudice.

Charles Gati, who is a friend of mine, after reading yesterday’s post wrote this letter to me and gave me permission to publish it:

By now everyone who reads your blog must know that you and I tend to agree. You publish some of  my comments, and I keep recommending your blog. Let’s face it: I’m a fan. Everyone interested in Hungary should read you every day — as I do and as I will.
 
This time, with the greatest respect for you, I disagree. There’s no “Jeszenszky Affair.”  I know a lot about his work as an ambassador to Washington and I’m familiar with his scholarship. For some three years we were barely on speaking terms. I’m offended when he reaches out to  primitive emigres in the US defending the Hungarian rightwing — people with whom Mr. Jeszenszky has little or nothing  in common. But at issue now is one sentence in a long book, a sentence that’s both unfortunate and wrong.
 
While you — but not always others — focus on important things (like how Orban has turned a functioning democracy into a semi-authoritarian regime and how he turned Hungary against the IMF, the EU, and the US), suddenly there’s a small furor over ONE SENTENCE in a book published years ago and probably unread. Until someone sought to divert attention from the real issues facing Hungary.
 
I have reason to believe firmly that Mr. Jeszenszky is not an antisemite. I have no reason to believe that he is a racist. I’m convinced that he’s a supporter of Western values. 
 
One sentence doesn’t make a negative “Jeszenszky Affair.” What matters to me and what should matter to all is that Orban has led Hungary away from the paths of pluralist democracy and Western values.
 
Please continue to inform us about these painful issues as you have so brilliantly done over so many years.
As I understand it, István Deák signed the letter for somewhat different reasons. He found Jeszenszky’s exclusion from the meeting that he helped to organize unfair because of a number of sentences that he wrote on the Roma minority’s marriage practices in a textbook eight years earlier. He argued that if that rule had been applied to some Hungarian historians and other intellectuals, they would have not been allowed to enter the United States where many of them taught at prestigious universities. After all, they were supporters of the Rákosi regime before 1956.
I can’t quite agree with that comparison. A lot of young intellectuals, especially those of Jewish background, truly thought that the Soviet system would be able to obliterate antisemitism and prejudice. They also believed in an ideal society that was promised by the communists. Naturally, they were wrong and by 1953-54 they themselves were not only disillusioned but in 1956 they were the first ones to turn against the regime. The Rákosi regime was a brutal dictatorship with everything that such a dictatorship entails. Jeszenszky wrote his primitive lecture notes eight years ago in a democracy and republished it at his own expense a few years later.
The other difference I see is that universities are places for the exchange of ideas. Academic communities welcome diversity and public debate. In fact, they thrive on it. Historians, for example, not only write about the past but constantly debate among themselves about interpretations of that past. So, I think that Marxists and non-Marxists, liberals and conservatives can prosper intellectually in that kind of community. But a research institute that is committed to the equality of minorities can’t really have a participant who writes in a prejudiced manner about an ethnic group.
As for Jeszenszky, he wrote an open letter to the president of Corvinus University objecting to banning the use of his textbook. He claimed that a large majority of the teaching staff is with him on this issue.
For those who care about ferreting out the truth, two of our readers (Minusio and Some1) called our attention to some literature on Roma marriage practices.
Finally, taking my friend Charles Gati’s advice, let’s move on to another, undoubtedly more important issue. Even Magyar Nemzet admitted that Viktor Orbán was under fire today in parliament.

Viktor Orbán under fire / Magyar Nemzet

Perhaps the most telling encounter was between Tamás Harangozó, a young MSZP member of parliament, and Viktor Orbán. Harangozó reminded the prime minister that in the 1980s he fought hard against the dictatorship but since then a lot changed. “Soon enough there will be no dictatorship left that [Orbán] didn’t visit…. He seems to entertain a pathological attraction to post-communist dictatorships.”

Orbán’s answer was that he “didn’t struggle against the dictatorship but against people who maintained that dictatorship and these people were your comrades [actually párttársak].” He went even further and objected “in the name of all people that members of a party that is the successor to the former communist party is lecturing us about democracy.” What makes the encounter worth parsing is that Orbán insisted on clarity of speech before he explained his relationship to the dictatorship of the old regime.
Harangozó, who was born in 1979 and thus was ten years old at the time of the regime change, was quick to retort. He claimed that Orbán with this answer admitted that his only problem with the dictatorship of the one-party system was  that “it wasn’t he who sat in Kádár’s chair.” He continued, saying that the prime minister has no moral authority to lecture him when his government and party are full of former MSZMP members and agents. Harangozó called Orbán’s attention to the fate of Berlusconi.
I’m sure that Orbán wasn’t happy to be reminded of his former friend Silvio Berlusconi who may (though probably won’t) end up in jail if his appeal fails.
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72 comments

  1. An :
    Re: Jano and concentration camps… maybe it’s worth going back in history a little longer.
    “The earliest of these camps may have been those set up in the United States for Cherokee and other Native Americans in the 1830s; however, the term originated in the reconcentrados (reconcentration camps) set up by the Spanish military in Cuba during the Ten Years’ War (1868–1878) and by the United States during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902).[6]”
    Note, concentration camp does not necessarily mean extermination camp. Read the full article on Wiki for a start.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment

    This is good stuff, An. Enjoy solid scholarship.

    I agree on concentration camps not being extermination camps–wholly an innovation of the nazis.

    Along the lines of correct terminology…no one should use the term ‘holocaust’ for anything other than what happened to 6,000,000 jews during the 2nd war.

  2. Charlie: I just explained how I think it could have been read, but my apology still stands. (Even though apparently in general Hungarians can’t apologize…) I love England, you love Hungary, I agree, close the file.

    Some1: I wasn’t sure if you in particular did I felt that you were implying it. Again, I’m sorry if I read you wrong. I want to emphasize that I think Jeszenszky has to apologize, there’s no disagreement about that between us. I just don’t want him to apologize for even raising the topic and thus render any further research into this area impossible by making it inherently non-pc and racist.

  3. petofi :
    But couldn’t unpalatable facts still be true?

    That’s not the point here. There are many other closed communities with increased number of genetical disorders, like some Amish communities (100 tombstones with only 5 family names on them in their cemetery).

    The problem is the context and the way Jeszenszky reacted to it.

    I see a clear parallel here to how Romsics handles his “relevant facts”.

  4. Jano :

    Some1: I wasn’t sure if you in particular did I felt that you were implying it. Again, I’m sorry if I read you wrong. I want to emphasize that I think Jeszenszky has to apologize, there’s no disagreement about that between us. I just don’t want him to apologize for even raising the topic and thus render any further research into this area impossible by making it inherently non-pc and racist.

    I agree, but I am not sure that Jeszenszky is the right person to talk about this subject as he does not have the knowledge or the sensitivity to bring this subject up on an objective way. I am also not sure in what context such studies can be discussed, since it is not only a Roma phenomena, but as you have also mentioned exist in other “groups”. (I use groups as Royalty is not a religion or a race.) “The House of Habsburg was infamous for its inbreeding. The closely related houses of Habsburg, Bourbon and Wittelsbach also engaged in first-cousin unions frequently and in double-cousin and uncle-niece marriages occasionally.” So, are we afraid of our kids marrying into any of these families?

  5. Some1: Yes, Jeszenszky is absolutely the wrong person to talk about this as he is evidently unable to even write a “jegyzet” that satisfies elementary scientific standards.

    I’m also not sure about the right context, but the big question is how do we integrate the Roma culture into our modern society preserving as much as possible while some things like inbreeding, or the forgiving attitude towards crime (that comes naturally from a historically “outlaw” culture) obviously have to go. I think one of the greatest thing about racial integration in the US is that black people didn’t have to give up their culture and therefore the fusion we call US culture today was created. (Even though I know that at certain places the process is far from being over).

    All I know is that we can’t let the hard right monopolize (and feed on) the minority question any longer and the public discussion has to be taken back to the grounds of reality. Which of course means that there has to be a public discussion about this in the first place with scientist and liberals playing a pro-active role.

    “So, are we afraid of our kids marrying into any of these families?” As far as my knowledge in genetics go, the if mom and dad are non-related, the correlation of genetic defects in the two parents DNA is close to normal, so there’s not much increased risk for the grandchildren as long as the son/daughter-in-law is ok. But I’m not exactly sure. (Of course, I know what you meant, and the answer is no, this is no excuse for being afraid of a roma family member)

  6. Some1: THe fact is that Jeszenszky’s unfortunate comments fuel the fire of the Jobbik.
    THe fact is that a professor should know better then to generalize.
    THe fact is that he still not apologized but he still does not make the same comments about Hungarian nobility. Good enough?

    No, it isn’t. The last argument smells of Fidesz, if I understand it correctly. And a professor should generalize, it’s his job. Concerning tactics: I’m afraid it’s not this Jeszenszky, but our smug moral censuring that is grist to the Jobbik mill. Very few in Hungary understand what you’re talking about.

    So, kick the likes of Zsolt Bayer in the ass, but apply the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Don’t play with racism. Let’s hope we can hold on to our principles when the going gets rough. Otherwise, don’t flaunt them like a peacock.

  7. Leo :
    Some1: THe fact is that Jeszenszky’s unfortunate comments fuel the fire of the Jobbik.
    THe fact is that a professor should know better then to generalize.
    THe fact is that he still not apologized but he still does not make the same comments about Hungarian nobility. Good enough?

    No, it isn’t. The last argument smells of Fidesz, if I understand it correctly. And a professor should generalize, it’s his job. Concerning tactics: I’m afraid it’s not this Jeszenszky, but our smug moral censuring that is grist to the Jobbik mill. Very few in Hungary understand what you’re talking about.
    So, kick the likes of Zsolt Bayer in the ass, but apply the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Don’t play with racism. Let’s hope we can hold on to our principles when the going gets rough. Otherwise, don’t flaunt them like a peacock.

    Unfortunately until the general moral standards do not hold up in Hungary, a wrongly placed comment can and will flame the fire. Jeszenszky should know better, and that is lest I expevt from smart people and from scholarly people. His job is not to generalize as you say, since that what makes the difference between a crook and an educated person. A crook makes it sound like he knows what he is talking about, but a scholar does know what he is talking about. According to Jeszenszky’s own admission, he did not truly researched the subject. According to Eva “When pressed, Jeszenszky made some vague references to an English language article in a medical journal that he couldn’t read in full because it wasn’t available in its entirety on the Internet. By the second interview he came up with another article that was published twenty-five years ago; it was a very limited study of twenty Gypsy families’ marriage habits.” I am sorry that is inexcusable.

  8. Petofi: “what if the contention is true? Is one still a racist for saying what is demonstrably true?”

    Good question. I think it depends on what the purpose of the statement is. Of course there might be “truths” that are difficult to accept if you consider people to be equal etc. And yet it depends on why some statements are being made. Suppose it were true that there are more marriages between cousins among Hungarian Roma than between say US citizens of Asian origin. To state that can have a number of intentions, e.g. to indicate the backwardness, immorality, genetical deprivation or whatever else of the Roma population, all of which is certainly not meant neutrally. What if this were instead of the mentioned reasons a consequence of the living conditions that they encounter in Hungary, where they are generally expected to stay within their own community and where they simply cannot become “ethnic Hungarian” (ie European, and WITHOUT traces of the “half-Asian” influences in Hungarians). So in my impression, it must be possible to state “truths” (and these should indeed be facts and not impressions that we consider only too natural – because everybody else also repeats that permanently), but it is acceptable only if this is not meant as a degradation of the people affected. And that is a very thin line.

  9. “…it depends on what the purpose of the statement is.”

    Good point!
    Actually, the only valid point in the discussion, the secondary question comes only afterward.

  10. Thank you some1 and Éva for responding to my questions. So they stopped Milla and Bajnai from nominating candidates and from protesting. I’m sure there will be ways around it, but it just seems so petty from them.

  11. Eva S. Balogh :

    An :
    @Leo: Lousy scholarship that feeds into existing prejudice against the Roma…. that makes it racism in my book. The fact that Jeszenszky does not see this as an issue (i.e. making unfounded claims that portray an ethnic group in a negative light), only strengthens the suspicion that the statement is based on his own attitudes toward the Roma, and not on some kind of scientific evidence.

    The lousy scholarship is only the corollary of the racism expressed in the text. In my first post on the subject I decided to concentrate on the scholarship because I found it appalling.

    You’re both right, Ladies!
    Yesterday I posted a comment on the original thread, detailing some of his remarks.(I was about to write here too, but having a crash instead)
    I’ve read the first part of Jeszenszky’s ‘Theme 9’, and let me tell you, it stinks!
    Let alone the lousy scholarship, the whole textbook lacks a clear structure, while impregnated of strongly biased opinion and the overwhelming desire to polish and rectify the Antall era and it’s actions regarding the subject..

    However, the biggest problem is what Paul summarize quite well:
    “For me, the problem with such works is not so much an occasional clumsy sentence, it is the underlying racist assumptions. Assumptions we don’t even notice because we take them for granted ourselves.”

    So, contrary of Mr.Gati, in my opinion there is not only “ONE SENTENCE” what went wrong, but a whole person, and it doesn’t really matter, if his actions dictated by his government or his personal conviction – it’s wrong!
    Having read his response – “I don’t have to take back my words.”- I have no the slightest reason to excuse him, as opposed to many prominent person.

    One more tidbit – I came to remember:

    http://www.origo.hu/itthon/19991123megbelyegzett.html

    As a response, one of the brightest brains of the time, the comic Géza Hofi reflected like this:

    Yo should listen from 16.15 -18.20 about the subject, and it goes on in Hungarian.
    To those few unfortunate (pun intended!) who doesn’t yet have the lingo, a few lines:

    “Hogy egy ilyen ember hogy lehet nagykövet, tudjuk. Hogy egy ilyen ember milyen demokrata, azt tudjuk a levélből. De amíg élek, nem tudom megérteni, hogy egy ilyen ember hogy lehet Géza!!! ”

    – I guess, it goes approximately like this:

    “That, just how such a man could be Ambassador, we know. That, that such a man what kind of Democrat, we’ve learned trom the mail. But as long as I live, I do not understand, that how such a man could be called Géza!!!”

    Altogether, don’t forget, that it has happened 12(!) years ago.
    Nothing – OK., not much – is new under the Sun…

  12. UJ LATOKOR :

    Counter opinion. Jeszenszky just published an article in ES, on the Romsics affair.
    His decency can not be questioned.

    My friend, a beneficiary of the Wallenber protection act, iives in Oslo, and knows Jeszenszky well. The verdict is: He is a decent guy.

    Let us forget his unfortunate words on the Gipsies. Let us hear from Roma sociologists what the task is.

    http://www.es.hu/jeszenszky_geza;a_veszkorszak_mint_kettos_tragedia;2012-10-03.html

    The problem is that one cannot forgive those unfortunate words.

  13. UJ LATOKOR :
    Counter opinion. Jeszenszky just published an article in ES, on the Romsics affair.
    His decency can not be questioned.
    My friend, a beneficiary of the Wallenber protection act, iives in Oslo, and knows Jeszenszky well. The verdict is: He is a decent guy.
    Let us forget his unfortunate words on the Gipsies. Let us hear from Roma sociologists what the task is.
    http://www.es.hu/jeszenszky_geza;a_veszkorszak_mint_kettos_tragedia;2012-10-03.html

    You know, If I don’t believe in something, something isn’t in my mind, there is no chance on Earth that I would write it down, let alone publish it.
    In case, that it was someone else, say, a ‘shadow writer’ who actually responsible for this ‘Theme 9’ crap, then, – if I was a ‘decent guy’ – I would take a blame, stand up and say: sorry, folks, I screw up, it wasn’t what I meant – instead of the obnoxious and arrogant ‘I don’t have to take back’ my words’, that’s what a ‘decent guy’ should have done.

    I recommend you to read at least page 272-273, and say it again, this time loud: “Géza Jeszenszky is an excellent scholar and a decent guy” and notice your own reactions…

    Having lived in North Europe quite a few years, I dare to tell you, that they take discriminatory gestures quite seriously. There is no tolerance toward people who even hinting that ‘you know, how it is with these…’ let alone such rude and ungrounded statements like
    “The reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other.”
    – and it’s only the most appalling of his sentences.

    If you are around here, why don’t you take a look at that old article, what I posted above?
    I certainly give some assurance, just how ‘decent guy’ dear Jeszenszky is…

    To me he is an example product of the post-communist era.
    Being a fierce anti-communist and having close family ties can propel your carrier quite a long way, even if you happen to be a mediocre scholar. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind, if he only would engage himself in ‘diplomacy’, just keep quiet, please, and have a nice day!

    However, this textbook is simply a low quality excuse for a scientific study, nothing better, and the really sad part of the story that this has been taught, quoted and referenced all over.
    I hope, you like this part, because I definitely do not.

  14. UJ LATOKOR :
    Counter opinion. Jeszenszky just published an article in ES, on the Romsics affair.
    His decency can not be questioned.
    My friend, a beneficiary of the Wallenber protection act, iives in Oslo, and knows Jeszenszky well. The verdict is: He is a decent guy.
    Let us forget his unfortunate words on the Gipsies.

    No can do. He should apologize. Not Gati, not you, not his Mama … He.

  15. Eva S. Balogh :
    By the way, would it be possible not to change one’s “internet name” every time!! It is becoming rather tiresome.

    I think that you can set the

    Mutt :

    UJ LATOKOR :
    Counter opinion. Jeszenszky just published an article in ES, on the Romsics affair.
    His decency can not be questioned.
    My friend, a beneficiary of the Wallenber protection act, iives in Oslo, and knows Jeszenszky well. The verdict is: He is a decent guy.
    Let us forget his unfortunate words on the Gipsies.

    No can do. He should apologize. Not Gati, not you, not his Mama … He.

    I so agree wit you. It would be so simple to say something like he has chosen unfortunate words that he did not support with the background and context that would of been expected from a professor on such sensitive matter. His works and the following response contributed to support the reasoning on ethnicity and nationality questions of some of those groups who he does not agree with and wants to distance himself from. The subject matter in this context would of required further studies and a more wholesome approach from his part.
    If he cannot bring himself up to this, he is as lousy as it gets.

    Based on the link UJ LATOKOR provided, let me quote from Jeszenszky:
    “A pontos tényeket kevesen ismerik, és sokan nem is akarják azokat elfogadni, ha ellentmondanak addigi ismereteiknek, (tév)eszméiknek.”
    “Lehet úgy fogalmazni, mint Gerő András, hogy nem a múlttal, hanem a jelennel kell szembenézni. ”

    “The exact facts are only known be a few,, and many people do not want to accept them, if they conflict with their knowledge to date, or with (mis)conceptions.”
    “We could say, just like Andras Gero did that it is not the past but the present we must face.”
    Well then lets put aside Jeszenszky’s previous works and look what a heck he just wrote and in what context, an for that he owes an apology.

  16. A quote from Jeszenszky:
    “engedtessék meg nekem feltételezni, hogy a mi kormánykoalíciónk pártjai jóval hitelesebben képviselik a nyugati civilizáció, a nemrég még lekicsinylően polgárinak nevezett demokrácia, mind a maradisággal, mind a radikalizmussal, mind a szocializmussal szemben álló és szép magyar kifejezéssel szabadelvűnek nevezett politikai eszmék, nem utolsósorban pedig a magyarság nemzeti értékei és érdekei iránti elkötelezettséget, mint a tisztelt ellenzék sok tagja. (Nagy taps a jobb oldalon. Felkiáltások az SZDSZ és a Fidesz soraiból: Pfuj! Ütemes taps a jobb oldalon. Az SZDSZ- és a Fidesz-képviselők és az MSZP-képviselők egy része kivonulnak a teremből.)”

  17. London Calling!

    For those who don’t ‘have’ Hungarian – Google’s best effort:

    “Allow me to believe that our kormánykoalíciónk parties are much more faithfully represent the Western civilization, more recently disparagingly citizen’s called democracy, and the left and vitality, both radicalism and socialism contrasting and beautiful Hungarian phrase liberals called political ideas, not least the Hungarian national commitment to the values ​​and interests as much a member of the honorable opposition. (Great applause from the right side. Exclamations of the Free Democrats and the ranks of Fidesz: Phew! Rhythmic applause from the right side. SZDSZ Fidesz and the MSZP members and some members leave the room.) ”

    Regards

    Charlie

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