Ferenc Kumin’s encounter with Ágnes Heller

Ágnes Heller, the well-known Hungarian philosopher, is once again in the news. This time on account of a brief appearance in a Swedish television documentary on the state of Hungarian culture and politics, with particular emphasis on the extreme right.

Do you remember the case of the liberal philosophers whom the newly elected (and neither liberal nor philosophical) Orbán government accused of embezzlement? That was in January 2011 when the official inquisitor, Gyula Budai, entrusted with “uncovering mass corruption” on the part of politicians and, it seems, philosophers as well, began his investigation. Budai’s efforts bore no fruit. Of about 140 cases only a handful actually made it to court, and most of those ended either in acquittal or in a light, suspended sentence on questionable grounds. Eventually Budai’s position was eliminated and he was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture where his greatest concern is the price of watermelons.

It took a year before the philosophers, including Ágnes Heller, were cleared of any wrongdoing but not before news of their harassment spread far and wide. After all, Ágnes Heller is a very well-known person and her friends and admirers are influential people. Viktor Orbán and his underlings should have known better than to pick a fight with her. She is both pugnacious and scary smart. Moreover, she doesn’t give a hoot about government threats. If she wasn’t silenced by the Kádár regime when she was officially accused of treasonous activities and forced into exile, she certainly will not be frightened by threats coming from an assistant undersecretary entrusted with  “foreign communication,” better described as worldwide propaganda extolling the virtues of the Orbán government and defending it against malevolent attacks.

I’m talking about Ferenc Kumin who as far as I know is still working on his Ph.D. dissertation in political science. I don’t know how he finds time for his studies given his crowded schedule, which also includes a lot of traveling. Only a week or so ago he was in Washington trying to convince Jewish organizations that the Hungarian government’s support of the Jewish community is exemplary. I understand they were not moved. When he is at home he tracks every word uttered by foreign politicians or written by journalists he finds politically objectionable. In addition, he busies himself with writing an English-language blog and, unlike some, he takes his writing seriously. How much of it is written by him and how much is drafted in some Washington PR firm, I’m not sure.

Kumin’s position is new. He is one of those undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries who are attached to the Prime Minister’s office and who have usurped the Foreign Ministry’s traditional role. I just read an M.A. thesis by Lili E. Bayer (Hungary’s Turn to the East, Oxford, 2013) on Viktor Orbán’s “Eastern opening” in which the author found that only 8.75% of bilateral meetings were led by officials of the Foreign Ministry as opposed to 36.25% by the Prime Minister’s Office!

Every summer Hungarian ambassadors from all over the world go home for a meeting organized by the Foreign Ministry and attended by the prime minister, who delivers a speech. During the very first such gathering in 2010, Viktor Orbán strongly urged all the ambassadors to raise their voices every time they noticed any attack on Hungary in the country’s press.

Some of the ambassadors, especially the political appointees, took this advice seriously, perhaps not realizing that such an ambassadorial reaction, either oral or written, is unbecoming the official representative of a foreign country. I suspect that the old-timers in the foreign ministry were not too eager to follow Orbán’s ukase. Among those who took Orbán’s advice to heart were the ambassadors to Vienna and London. They have been very active and as a result, I’m sure, have made themselves singularly unpopular in the countries to which they are accredited. Now it seems that the newly appointed ambassador to Sweden, Lilla Makkay, who is actually a foreign ministry veteran, has joined them and subsequently received the treatment she deserved.

The occasion for the interference by Ferenc Kumin and Lilla Makkay was a half-hour program on the Swedish public television station about Hungary. The Hungarian government considered it to be one-sided because there were a lot of references to the growth of the Hungarian extreme right. Makkay called Kristofer Lundström, the man responsible for the series in which this particular documentary was broadcast, and complained. Moreover, she was annoyed that she hadn’t been consulted before the broadcast of the film. She invited him for a friendly chat at the embassy, I guess in order to enlighten him about the true state of affairs in Hungary.

Officials of Swedish Television (SvT) found the Hungarian reaction peculiar. They looked upon Makkay’s telephone call as “putting pressure” on them. Earlier, before the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it was customary for reporters wanting visas to go behind the Iron Curtain to receive “invitations” by ambassadors. But by now western journalists are simply not accustomed to such heavy handed and undiplomatic reactions. Alas, it was not without reason that Lajos Bokros in his October 23 speech called Fidesz politicians “neo-communists.”

Magyar Nemzet, whose reporters supported the Hungarian government’s efforts to influence the independent Swedish Television, most likely found the Swedish ambassador’s answer incomprehensible: she sent them to SvT if they have any questions or observations. The article that reported on the case called it a shirking of responsibility. Obviously, for them, the true independence of Swedish TV is unfathomable.

Meanwhile Ferenc Kumin decided to get involved in the affair. On his Facebook page–because Kumin is also active there–he wrote an impertinent letter to the highly respected philosopher twice his age. Kumin described Ágnes Heller as a prominent philosopher who, “with a background in Marxist thinking … as her Wikipedia biography points out, has clear political sympathies and antipathies.” Thus Kumin “reached out to Dr. Heller to ask her to join [him] in protesting the Swedish documentary and to clarify some of her statements, which [he] felt were factually incorrect or distorting in the way they depict Hungary.” Moreover, he suggested that Heller quote the current government slogan: “Hungary is doing better!”

Ssource Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Source Hír24.hu / Photo Márton Neményi

Ágnes Heller wrote back. Here is gist of the letter she sent to Kumin. She first thanked him for making her 40 years younger than she is because it was at that time that she was called to account by the Kádár regime for signing a petition alongside counterrevolutionaries. (Here Heller is referring to the  Charta 77 in which about 100 prominent people protested the crushing of the Prague Spring. She was one of the signatories and, if I recall correctly, the only one from behind the Iron Curtain.) She continued: she can give Kumin the same answer she gave to the authorities then. Everywhere, on every forum, she expresses her own views regardless of who is asking her, be it Swedish TV or the Hungarian Kossuth Rádió, that is, if the Kossuth Rádió would ever ask her for an interview. She certainly didn’t quote the slogan “Hungary is doing better” because she doesn’t think that it is true. Finally, she asked Kumin whether he really considers the programs of MTV or MR balanced. What’s going on in those programs is the talk of parrots. She suggested to Kumin: “forget what you hear and occasionally consider that other people’s opinion can differ from yours.”

Yesterday she followed up with an amusing interview on ATV. It is always a pleasure to listen to her. She is delightfully forthright. During the interview she responded to the government’s latest suggestion of jail sentences for investigative reporters who publish audio tapes or videos which turn out to be fakes: “Well, that’s something.” She then stopped for a bit and continued: “this is the last nail in the coffin of the freedom of the press.” I wish there were more brave men and women like Ágnes Heller. Admittedly, she is untouchable. They can ignore her but they can’t silence her, no matter how much they would like to.

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24 comments

  1. The Swedish TV programme can be watched online at http://www.svtplay.se/video/1537178/hur-mar-kulturen-i-det-hogernationalistiska-ungern . This part of the series is dedicated to culture in “right-wing-nationalist” Hungary. There are some strange things – for instance, they call Magyar Hírlap a “liberal newspaper”, and the scandal around Iván Markó’s production is presented in a somewhat odd light. (The spectators are merely told that Markó is the only Jewish artist in his field who is still supported by the government, and without knowing the background one might get the impression that the demonstration in the theatre had an Anti-Semitic motivation… while, if I remember it right, the demonstration was about the complete arbitrariness of lavishing support on Markó while his colleagues are left to starve.)

    But the interview with Ágnes Heller (in English) is definitely worth watching. And there are some other nice interviews as well, like with Róbert Alföldi. Don’t let the Dopeman interview in the beginning scare you off!

  2. Unite all Hungarians, irrespectively to race, religion, politics, to end the fidesz/bayer/orba/vona nightmare.

  3. When the Maffia state started the campaign against the “liberal philosophers”. in order to deflect attention from the fact, that the ruling Orbán ilk became rich by using Maffia methods, it knew very well whom they attacked. Their principle: Mud sticks. Therefore they fling mud at all those, who are independent and oppose the liquidation of liberal democracy.
    Kumin is doing what his masters command him to do. His task is not as easy as it might have looked to him when he took his job, While in Hungary his master is whipping up a fake anticommunism and maintain good relations with Jobbik, tolerate in some fidesz controlled media crude antisemitism and racism, Kumin must convince journalists and foreign public opinion, that the Maffia state is a new type of democracy and that they are fighting antisemitism. Orbán will try to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Probably he will succeed, because in contradiction to his former liberal friends of SZDSZ, Orbán knows Hungary better. Probably the opposition should come out with the slogan “The Orbán Maffia is doing better” “Az Orbán Maffia jobban teljesit” © Karl Pfeifer

  4. Karl Pfeifer is a true talent.
    There is so much truth in his words in comment no. #3.
    There is such a blindness in the Hungary.
    99% of the people reject the uncomfortable statements of Agnes Heller.
    I understand the pain of this 99%.
    They are willingly grabbing the orba/vona shield as a pain killer.
    Their only real chemotherapy cure would the painful Agnes Heller or the even more painful Karl Pfeifer, or the distant Eva Balogh.

  5. I’d recommend taking the time to read Kumin’s blog. It’s a real window into understanding how this regime thinks and why it does what it does. It really shows how to disguise a dictatorship to make it look like a democracy.

  6. Orbán is inciting populist passions that are eventually going to consume his own régime. The question is who will come after: the democratic opposition or Jobbik? I suspect that the forces of anti-democratic authoritarianism could thrive amid the political wreckage that he leaves behind him.

  7. Heller claims now that the Swedish TV quoted her out of context. As an aside, Heller convinced A.J.P. Taylor, British historian, that 1956 was anti-semitic and basically a counter-revolution. No wonder she is not as popular in Hungary as Eva would like her to be.

  8. I don’t know who the Orbanist’s PR people are in Washington and London but if I were regime, I would be asking for a refund.

    The regime’s image in W Europe comes across exactly as it does in Hungary- a bunch of vindictive, constantly angry, thuggish, paranoid, ignorant bumpkins.

    The kind of abusive nonsensical discourse that might work with Great Unwashed bunch of far-right racist nutjobs who read Magyar Nemzet or who watch HirTV doesn’t work with the typical consumer of a media site in a democracy. It doesn’t work with their governments or movers and shakers. Are the Orbanists seriously that thick not to realize that simple and obvious fact? What are (the extremely well-paid) PR companies telling them?

    BTW, check out Ferenc Kumin’s twitter feed, 300 odd followers. We set a parody one up for our dog a couple of years ago and ended up with 500!

  9. Karpathian Kleptocracy

    Joe Simon :
    Heller convinced A.J.P. Taylor, British historian, that 1956 was anti-semitic and basically a counter-revolution. No wonder she is not as popular in Hungary as Eva would like her to be.

    And what Heller said was true: The 1956 uprising was an amalgam of different forces, some of them genuine anti-dictatorial freedom-fighters, but far too many also the kind of primitive bigots whose current successors are Jobbik, and for whom “communist” was synonymous with “Jew” and vice versa.

    And the reason Agnes Heller is not popular in Hungary is because that mentality still prevails in Hungary today (as well as in the irredentist Hungarian “diaspora”).

    And Heller is right that Fidesz is not anti-semitic: Fidesz is less primitive that that. It is opportunistic, self-servingly manipulating the anti-semitism, anti-scoialism, anti-europeanism, irredentism and all other petty populist sentiments to ensure that it is re-elected and can consolidate its kleptocratic power.

    The slogan “Hungary is Doing Better” is true too: Fidesz is doing better at deluding the populace by manipulating their self-delusions — perhaps better than any other autocracy on the planet, with such a delusion-prone populace.

  10. Anyone who would like to know more about Ágnes Heller should read her book, written with János Kőbányai, entitled Bicikliző majom. I especially recommend the chapter on the 1956 Revolution and her role in it. Not surprisingly he and I moved around in the same ELTE circles except by then she was teaching while I was a student.

    I normally refuse to engage in any kind of verbal exchange with Simple Simon but I can’t let that lie to stay unanswered. Let us see what Heller says on the subject on p. 129. “I personally didn’t encounter any anti-Semitism, although I was told that there were people who made anti-Semitic comments (zsidóztak).” And she adds that in a free society one cannot be forbidden to say nasty things about others, except those who do it are anti-Semites.

    So, I very much doubt that Heller said anything to A.J.P. Taylor about the anti-Semitic nature of 1956.

  11. Kleptocracy Is Local

    oneill :
    The regime’s image in W Europe comes across exactly as it does in Hungary- a bunch of vindictive, constantly angry, thuggish, paranoid, ignorant bumpkins.
    …Are the Orbanists seriously that thick not to realize that simple and obvious fact?…

    The regime does not and need not care about extra-territorial opinion. It just needs the local electrorate. The protests to Sweden and to Heller are not for foreign consumption, but for domestic consumption — i.e., precisely for the angry, paranoid, ignorant bumpkins. The regime itself is not really paranoid (though Orban himself may be); they are just opportunistic spin-masters…

  12. Stevan Harnad: “And what Heller said was true: The 1956 uprising was an amalgam of different forces, some of them genuine anti-dictatorial freedom-fighters, but far too many also the kind of primitive bigots whose current successors are Jobbik, and for whom “communist” was synonymous with “Jew” and vice versa.”

    While I agree with what you say here I still doubt that Heller would have said that to A.J.P. Taylor. I don’t have time to find out whether they even knew each other. I don’t even know whether Taylor ever said something like that. But we mustn’t forget that historian Éva Haraszti became Taylor’s third wife and I have the feeling that it was Haraszti rather than Heller who is the source of the story. Here is a line from her obituary (The Guardian 2005): “she was not tempted into the revisionism of those who supported the 1956 upheaval, always claiming that “there was never the slightest question in my mind that the events of 1956 in Hungary were counter-revolutionary,” the view of many historians, including Alan Taylor.”

  13. Eva S. Balogh :
    While I agree with what you say here I still doubt that Heller would have said that to A.J.P. Taylor.

    You may well be right that — if anyone said it to Taylor at all — it may have been someone else. It is in any case true that the 1956 uprising was a decidely mixed bag, ethically and ideologically. All uprisings no doubt attract a certain quota of miscreants and misfits, but this one I think had more than its share, because of the (still) prevailing primitive, punitive mentality in Hungary, so well expressed by Jobbik, and so well manipulated by Fidesz (along with the signature Fidesz FUDuendo that they used against Heller and other critics in the philosopher affair and countless times since. Miserable failure abroad, but a spectacular success on the receptive Karpathian homeland soil…

  14. PainHU :
    Karl Pfeifer is a true talent.
    There is so much truth in his words in comment no. #3.
    There is such a blindness in the Hungary.
    99% of the people reject the uncomfortable statements of Agnes Heller.
    I understand the pain of this 99%.
    They are willingly grabbing the orba/vona shield as a pain killer.
    Their only real chemotherapy cure would the painful Agnes Heller or the even more painful Karl Pfeifer, or the distant Eva Balogh.

    I am not sure about the 99%. Many Hungarians feel the reality, but it needs courage in Hungary to say the king is naked.

  15. The reasons of the “events” of October 1956 (decision of the MSzMP in December 1956)

    0. [this is missing from the party document for some reason :-)]
    internal power struggle inside the Soviet Communist Party.

    1. Clique of Rákosi & Gerő, from the end of 1948. [left-wing deviation from the true path]
    2. Imre Nagy & Géza Losonczy [right-wing deviation from the true path]
    3. the counter-revolution of the Horthy fascists, Hungarian capitalists & latifundium owners
    [Hungarian class enemies]
    4. international imperialism [international class enemies]

    http://mek.oszk.hu/01900/01937/html/szerviz/dokument/msmphats.htm

  16. Joe Simon :
    Heller claims now that the Swedish TV quoted her out of context. As an aside, Heller convinced A.J.P. Taylor, British historian, that 1956 was anti-semitic and basically a counter-revolution. No wonder she is not as popular in Hungary as Eva would like her to be.

    Simon is confusing as they say in Austria the Grenadiermarsch with the Radetzkymarsch, the first one is a noodle dish the second is march music.
    The Holocaust denier David Irving, the darling of Hungarian nazis around Loránt Hegedüs jun, wrote a book about the revolution 1956 with the assitance of the Kádárregime and tried to make out of the revolution an antisemitic uprising which it was not. This is not to deny the fact that there were antisemitic incidents. Irving came 1985 to Hungary when Agnes Heller and her husband were already exiled.

  17. “The regime does not and need not care about extra-territorial opinion. It just needs the local electrorate. The protests to Sweden and to Heller are not for foreign consumption, but for domestic consumption — i.e., precisely for the angry, paranoid, ignorant bumpkins.”

    Steven,
    Yes and no.
    Of course part of it is for their simple supporters back home (“look how rude we are to those nasty furriners”). I sincerely believe that part of it is a genuine knee-jerk reaction to any kind of criticism- they simply can’t help themselves

    And whereas those boorish non-sequiters work with their intellectually challenged supporters in Hungary, they really don’t have the requisite level of non-awareness to realize it doesn’t serve them any purpose abroad. In other words, if your policy re foreign criticism is to simply abuse your opponents you don’t need a fancy PR agency to help you?

  18. The thin-skinned paranoia probably comes from Orban, personally. But the thick-skinned Fidesz cadres really don’t care a fig about external opinion, just internal pragmatics. Surprisingly, the pannonian petty-patriot mentality is so pervasive that even the expat “diaspora” hues to the party line Fidesz exports via its embassies, consulates and “cultural” stunts. Makes you wonder whether they ever assimilated democracy, even living abroad… (One prominent exception to Fidesz indifference to foreign opinion is the obvious — and successful — recent efforts to project the image of being dedicated opponents of anti-semitism. That’s the most cynical spin of all — but again, just pragmatics.)

  19. It was Eva Haraszti, also a historian, who influenced AJP Taylor concerning 1956. It was my mistake.

  20. We visited my wife’s relatives in Eastern Hungary – the town looked really poor compared to Hévíz or Keszthely …

    now back to the topic:

    Népszabadság today had an article on A Heller’s book – sorry I forgot the title and of course I couldn’t read that article. Generally the paper seems to be very critical of Fidesz – which is probably nothing new.

    And back to OT (or not ?):

    I was really happy that they read Népszabadság and watch ATV and the brother-in-law told us a story about plans for the new motorway M4 which include a kind of detour especially for the lands of someone in the family of Orbán’s wife. I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand all of it – but he was very angry that the government will spend millions of €s on something totally unnecessary – like the Felcsut stadium which he also was very angry about …

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