Dysfunctional: What Happens in Hungary Stays in Hungary

It is not merely of quaint sociological importance when people come to entertain the notion that it constitutes “treason” – a betrayal of the nation – to discuss Hungary’s domestic politics internationally.

Children from a dysfunctional family background soon learn that it is in their best interest not to tell strangers about the abuse they suffer at home – “outsiders” could never understand their situation anyway. But when an entire nation bonds over the secrets of their life at home – so much so that they get upset about open discussions one might conduct with non-Hungarians concerned about the state of democracy in their home country – the problem is quite a lot more serious. Once an entire society is convinced that it is their obligation to put up a happy face about the plight of their domestic politics, we might as well start to look out for the personality cult that is soon to follow. Such unquestioning and unwarranted complacency about the domestic hierarchy signals that it might be impossible to improve such level of blind deference by democratic means.

To be sure, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister understands fully well the potential this might hold for his political future. He is the master manipulator of the sentiment that – as they like to say in a US city which made much better use of the same slogan – what happens in Hungary must also stay in Hungary.

In fact, Mr. Orbán leads by example when it comes to presenting a different face at home for his own supporters and to the international community abroad. Six months of being in the spotlight of European politics made his proclivity abroad for feigning allegiance to principles he denounces at home well known. Celebrating a national holiday in Hungary, for example, in March of 2011, he likened the European Union to the Soviet Union and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, while posing during the plenary session of the European Parliament as the EU’s rotating president where, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Orbán acted as “graciousness personified”: you would have mistaken him for an ardent advocate of European integration.

Instead of saying, however, that Mr. Orbán plays a complex game of duplicity, I should probably say that a basic dichotomy structures his and his followers’ view of the world. They imagine themselves living in a world divided into two separate realms. One of these is Hungary. It is not simply a country – it is a nation and a family. One’s loyalty must remain with this community, and one’s identity should always be framed by one’s standing in such a society.

Then there is the unknown, unpredictable and consequently hostile realm on the other side: whatever is beyond Hungary’s borders. To mitigate the threat that such an environment might pose to the home, and to the extended family occupying the home, one must remain true to the ideals of a home even while – especially while! – abroad. Nobody shall discuss that father gets a little too punitive or that goods are enjoyed only by those who utter no word critical of him. There must be absolutely no mention of father’s excesses and abuses or of  the fact that he is somewhat arbitrary on certain matters. Okay, there might be a thing or two to be critical about in Hungary. Nevertheless these views are not to be shared with the strangers! This of course is not to say that anyone in Hungary is prevented from speaking their mind, not at all. But just like Mr. Orbán knows that the safety and the unity of the nation requires a game of pretend in front of the internationals, the family also must obey completely different behavioral norms while consorting with the enemy – with those who do not belong to the tribe, and who would not understand anyway.

I am of course not talking in the abstract. A great example to demonstrate these sentiments at work is a report prepared by Hungarian public television channel 1, which goes as far as to question the moral standards of “liberal left-wing” intellectuals willing to share their critique of the home country with foreigners. Dating back to April of 2011, the report tells the story of panel discussions held in Sweden and Germany with the participation of well-known (and much maligned) intellectuals Ágnes Heller, Miklós Tamás Gáspár and György Bolgár.

Both at the Swedish event, co-organized by the Swedish Academy and the Swedish chapter of the International PEN organization, and at the annual conference convened in Berlin by die Tageszeitung, Hungarian patriots brought out signs to protest their compatriots and disrupted the events by shouting “hazaáruló” (traitor) at the panelists.

The result: a perhaps too intense domestic dispute unfolded in front of the international audience already concerned about the polarization of political life in Hungary – which seems to be the foremost reason why deeply disconcerting political developments in the country seem impossible to contain. Yet nothing tops the clever way in which the Hungarian public television’s reporting on these events strung the details of the event together into a piece intimidating that nothing less than the devil itself was afoot at these two forums.

“[Hungarians living in Sweden and Germany] wanted to ask questions about what they thought were biased presentations that damaged Hungary’s reputation,” the anchor of Az Este, news magazine of the public television station, introduced the story “but they could not put substantial questions to the participants. … Liberal opinion-molders travel abroad more and more frequently,” continues the story. The tag-line They Attack the Hungarian Government Abroad shows up several times during the narration at the bottom of the screen. “They do not lecture to Hungarians living abroad, but to the foreigners – in this case, to the Swedes and the Germans,” the voice-over adds. “A coordinated left-wing campaign is being conducted against Hungary: it has been going on for months and this is one of its culminations” adds a man interviewed outside of the event in Berlin.

The treason trials of the 1950s were not without their science fiction elements either, but the absurdity of the “crime” is a bit more poignant in this case because, rather than imposed from the outside, this state of paranoia appears to be self-afflicted. This is more than a little spat about patriotism, and it goes beyond the mud-slinging about treason. The sentiments aroused in these protesters is something way more primitive and wile.

There are families who do whatever they do just as well in the public as within the four walls of their privacy. Some families own up to their inner tensions, to the disputes they sometimes have, and to the divisions that sometimes cloud over their domestic life. Hungary, however, is a dysfunctional family, and nothing proves this more than their hush-hush attitude about what takes place at home. Mr. Orbán is a patriarch loved and protected by his people. All decision-making belong to him. All others are infantilized in relation to him.

To be clear: I have no intention to demand that Hungarians stop being loyal to their family. My intention is to point out is that some of these (at this point rather ordinary) events betray a patriarchal sentiment, and that this sentiment, perhaps more than any of the legal transformations we have seen taking place in Hungary, is a grave threat. It is a grave threat because it structures Hungarian society in such a way that it willingly accepts an Orbán-style regime. Put differently, it is something to point out because a considerable section of Hungarian society seems to be willing to lose their rights and freedoms to this autocrat-to-be because they found a new patriarch in him. This is a serious situation because, if this is the case, the Hungarian people are complicit in shaping their fate in this manner.

What is patriarchal power? It’s the idea that the legitimacy of one person’s rule derives from the family model, in which a head of household is the single decision-maker for a group of persons usually connected by a familial sentiment or a feeling of belonging in an intimate and exclusive community. It is the rule of one person that presupposes some kind of a natural hierarchy, and which, in answer the question of why one must accept the directives of the patriarch, supposedly natural hierarchies are invoked. Should those not work (but for Hungarians these seem to suffice) patriarchal powers turn to justifying their rule in terms of hierarchies imposed by violence (i.e. why does the son obey his father? why does the slave behave his master? why does the wife behave her husband? You should obey the government for these same reasons).

Patriarchism (and there is no doubt that nationalism is just a modern version of this political tradition) is in this way antithetical to the modern democratic ideals. It is a tradition which cannot be reconciled with democratic principles because democracies answer the question of why one needs to obey quite differently. In a democratic society, one obeys the government because the government was legitimately formed. It was instituted by persons who are equal in nature, and who for this reason have equal rights. The problem, therefore, is how to make sure that the government does not rule its people arbitrarily. Quite to the contrary, the focus in patriarchal societies is on what makes it acceptable for the patriarch to rule arbitrarily. On the part of the people, the main preoccupation is on why must find a way to accept these excesses of power.

The greatest irony of the story above is that the “liberal left-wing” intellectuals whose presentations were interrupted by these protesters are internationally recognized authorities on political philosophy. They have taught generations of non-Hungarians about democracy’s vulnerability to political transformations akin to the ones they are now witnessing in Hungary. Though under attack, the irony (and the tragedy) of this staged demonstration of the political equivalent of “father beats us,” “father rapes us,” but “please make sure that nobody besides us knows anything about this” probably did not escape them.

As far as the protesters’ actions are concerned, these philosophers could probably offer them at least ten different ways of proving that neither a legitimate political government, nor a noisy group of protesters can prevent one’s free expression or limit one’s freedom of speech. The report in fact shows (but does not mention) a written statement put out after the event had taken place by the organization behind the Swedish protest, in which they are the first to admit that the purpose of their questions was to “correct” the panelists’ distorted or mistaken views. 

In a healthy community, no one needs to be questioned over what he or she may have said to strangers. What proves without a single doubt that a community’s sense of belonging together is genuinely felt in its individuals is the security that no amount of sharing ideas with persons outside the community could possibly be damaging to their unity. Betraying one’s home country, on the other hand, presupposes a home country that is thoroughly autocratic in its outlook – not only in its political organization, but in the minds of its people as well.

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You can watch the clip [in Hungarian only] at:

(longer version)

(short version)

Look for such editing techniques reminiscent of Stalinism as, for example, the way in which the statement “some thought that the sole purpose of these events was to damage Hungary’s reputation abroad” (around 0:06) becomes the opinion of “all Hungarians living in Sweden” (0:37). Another example: at first the presentations are said to have been considered one-sided by “some members of the audience (1:34), but because we do not see anyone other than these few, the suggestion is that indignity over the presentation was the reaction of the entire audience. Look for whether you see the audience listening or quiet – in every single shot they are in disarray.

This entry was posted in autocracy, democracy watch, hazaárulás, Hungary, közszolgálati médiumok, Viktor Orbán, Western criticism of Hungary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dysfunctional: What Happens in Hungary Stays in Hungary

  1. Peter Paul MARKOS says:

    I do like this article a lot not just because of what attempts clarifying, but also for what it omits. The success of Prime Minister Orbán György in Hungary is not the result of only his particular brand of management style, but the lack of proper management style and talent of those who preceded him for years. In the minds of ordinary Hungarians the group of the inept or unqualified seems to include the writer of this very article written to criticize the Hungarian Parliamentary system. The dilemma I see here is simple, those who criticize present day Hungary didn’t develop the proper background or credentials within Hungary proper to dish out such criticism. No doubt the writer of the article has legitimate concerns, but the acceptance of those concerns is seriously and damagingly overridden by the lack of confirmed legitimacy of such attitude by the writer. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy stated in Berlin that he is one of the Germans of isolated West Germany he postulated a very important position, and mutatis mutandis Mr György Orbán does the same thing for all Hungarians, whether living in Hungary proper or not. I am convinced that the writer of the article has some basic understanding of this fact and should be able to address it and not avoid it.

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