We have been so preoccupied with Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the illiberal state that we have paid scant attention to some other important utterances of the Hungarian prime minister. Here I think of his many references to “honest” public discourse replacing what is “politically correct.” “Honest” public discourse often seems to encompass verbal abuse, including in some segments of Hungarian society racist and antisemitic expletives.
Right-wing politicians are pioneers of the art of “honest” discourse. While in opposition Viktor Orbán was a master of the craft. He used his skills to undertake a character assassination of his political foe, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Now that he is prime minister he refrains from the kind of language that was his trademark. He no longer calls his political opponents clowns, no-goods, idiots, adventurers, regents of eastern despotism, and similar epithets; he lets others to do the dirty work. For example, CÖF, the pro-government civil group. Or his old friend, Zsolt Bayer. But topping them is his close friend, László Kövér, president of the parliament, who has inherited his mantle; he is a master of finding the most abusive words when talking about the opposition.
Here are a few choice sentences from the latest Kövér special. On September 26 Kövér gave a pep talk to the Fidesz faithful in Budapest’s District XX. First he talked about the weak and confused opposition whose “members don’t know whether they are boys or girls, often in the strictest sense of the word.” (“Nem tudja, fiú vagy lány” is an expression that means being confused.) One did not have to be there to know that this “witticism” must have been a real hit with the audience. After accusing the owners of utility companies of “stealing money out of people’s pockets,” he moved on to the arch-enemy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is “the total bankruptcy and nadir of Hungarian democracy.” After piling one accusation after the other on the former prime minister, Kövér compared him to “the politicians of the Entente” [after World War I] responsible for Trianon. “In comparison to him Mátyás Rákosi was an altar boy.” And if that wasn’t enough, he called him “the reincarnation of Ernő Gerő,” Rákosi’s right-hand man.
What can come after such verbal abuse? As often happens, physical abuse. This morning Ferenc Gyurcsány was campaigning in Csepel where the opposition actually has a good chance of defeating the current mayor, Szilárd Németh, the face of the utility rate decreases. A man started screaming at Gyurcsány and set out to attack him physically; fortunately the people around the former prime minister managed to restrain the would-be assailant.
The right-wing media naturally follow the “stylistic” lead of the politicians. Heti Válasz (nowadays only Válasz in the online version) decided to transform their formerly stodgy style into one that is more sensational. The articles in its new column called “Rosta” (sieve) have begun to resemble some of the opinion pieces of the far-right Magyar Hírlap. The leading Fidesz paper, Magyar Nemzet, also likes to pile abuse on political opponents. The latest victim of the paper is István Vágó, earlier a television personality, who decided to run for a seat on his district’s city council. Vágó’s program includes a suggestion to convert an empty piece of real estate into a children’s center. This particular building had earlier belonged to the district but was given back to the Catholic Church some time ago. Well, this suggestion was a cardinal sin in the eyes of the editors of the newspaper. Vágó was accused of a Rákosi-like harassment of the Church.
Unfortunately the verbal infection is spreading to opposition circles. An MSZP politician, Tibor Szanyi, who is often described as the enfant terrible of the party, decided some time ago to imitate the right-wing politicians. Recently Szanyi, a member of the European Parliament, got himself into a terrible jam when, as a result of a foolish bet he made, he had to invite a number of “goy bikers” to Brussels. Worse, he did that not on his own money but with funds provided by the European Union for the purpose of acquainting citizens with the workings of the European Union. The media, after learning about the event from one of the goy bikers, ran the story. Szanyi’s answer? He called the journalists rats! Szanyi is currently the leader of the four-member socialist-DK caucus. But not for long. The goy bikers story was too much for DK, and it seems MSZP concurs.
And now we come to the language of a well-known poet turned politician, Géza Szőcs. He started his career in Cluj/Kolozsvár, then worked as a journalist in Switzerland, returned to Romania where he became a politician, and finally ended up in Budapest where he joined the government of Viktor Orbán as assistant secretary in charge of culture. Here is this cultured gentleman’s letter to Hannu Launonen, a Finnish translator of Hungarian literature, who was awarded the Janus Pannonius Prize, a relatively new international award given jointly by the Hungarian government and the Hungarian PEN Club. Szőcs is currently the president of PEN.
In the last minute Launonen turned down the prize. He was not the first one to do so. In 2012 Lawrence Ferlinghetti was awarded the prize but, after learning that the Hungarian government was a partial sponsor of the award, did not accept it. In declining, Ferlinghetti cited his opposition to the right wing regime of Viktor Orbán which curtails civil liberties and freedom of speech. Szőcs was infuriated with Launonen’s decision. And so he wrote an open letter to Launonen.
The letter was described by 168 Óra as “primitive.” But how primitive? Among other things, Szőcs wonders what would have happened if Launonen had decided to decline the prize after he received the €3,000 that went with it, intimating that he might have pocketed the money anyway. He accuses Launonen of “aping Ferlinghetti” and adds that his “gesture’s weight is truly relative.” At the end he claims that any exchange between the two of them is “superfluous and pointless” because on the basis of his behavior Szőcs considers him a man “of infirm character.” What can one say? If Szőcs hadn’t written this “superfluous” letter he could have saved himself the embarrassment of being called a boor.