On Monday, Nov. 7, a sub-committee of the Hungarian Parliament’s committee on cultural affairs was supposed to hold a meeting to review the appointments made to the leadership of Budapest’s Új Színház (New Theater). Committee members representing Fidesz, the country’s governing party boycotted the session. Géza Szőcs, under-secretary for cultural affairs cited other obligations for failing to attend, and neither István Tarlós, the mayor responsible for the appointment, nor the appointee, György Dörner showed up. In interviews on the evening news shows, Fidesz politicians said that they abstained from attending because they did not want to lend their assistance to a campaign-style event.
The New Theater Affair
The controversy surrounding Budapest’s Új Színház (New Theater) began on October 6, with the surprise appointment of far-right sympathizer György Dörner as the theater’s director. The appointment reversed the decision of the committee in charge of evaluating the applications. Only 2 votes in the committee supported Dörner’s application (these were political appointees to the committee, by the Budapest mayor and the Hungarian government, respectively), four expert members of the panel unanimously voted against the appointment.
Once the application was made public, it turned out that Dörner’s appointment was an upsetting mixture of dilettantism and blatant right-wing ideology. Dörner wants New Theater to limit its repertoire to Hungarian plays and conceived of its role as the savior of “Hungarians moaning under the yoke of social liberalism.” Adding fuel to the fire, Dörner’s application named István Csurka, a well-known playwright and politician from the fringes of Hungarian right-wing extremism, as his partner in leading the theater.
The Return of an Anti-Semite
István Csurka is well-known to Hungarians for his anti-Semitism. In the early 1990s, he led a radio show on Sunday mornings, a coming-of-age experience of sorts not only for my generation, but for the young Hungarian democracy too. Both of us were unformed and considerably impressionable back then. On my part, Csurka provoked an investigation into the past, and an occasion to try to make the story of the Second World War become my story as well. Yet the only family lore I was able to elicit was the story of a woman and her family hidden in a basement of one of my grandparents. A few lives were saved, and I was disappointed that the story did not end with a triumphant sense of pride over this beautiful fact. I asked, just to be sure, but all I got was a teary eye and a silent nod of sadness, in memory of the countless lives that could not be saved.
My grandparents did talk more about Hungarian nationalism in response to my questions about anti-Semitism, because in the experience of actual people, the story of Hungarian nationalism and the story of Hungarian anti-Semitism were inextricably linked. As remembrances of all things past usually are, these were precarious reminiscings. After the First World War, many came to derive their identity and self-worth from their dedication to preserving the Hungarian nation, I learnt, and this sense of nationalistic duty drove people to turn against their neighbors. At first, it was clear who the enemy was, but before long, war distorted everybody’s perception, and the ensuing violence was indiscriminate about its targets.
Csurka remains a prolific writer of obscure and insignificant rants devoid of meaning or argument well into the present day. Since his original days of fame, however, very little remains attached to his name. Besides the extreme ideology which he repeats relentlessly, he is a person of petty negativity and cantankerous outbursts. A bitter man who craves attention more than a heroin-addict craves his drug, Csurka’s venom is in his pen, and he just cannot refrain from trying to use it to fix the limelight upon himself.
Csurka is often billed at the time as an important literary figure affiliated with the so called populist circle (the Hungarian word is “népies” – as opposed to the urbanist, the other loosely-organized literary group). Because of his radio shows, I could never think of him as a mere politician or public figure. He was the one who eroded the line between what is acceptable and what it beyond acceptable in public discourse, opening up what he himself knew was a Pandora’s box – and which he wanted opened and revisited precisely because it was a Pandora’s box. To me, and to many of the Hungarians upset today about the case of the New Theater, he will always remain the irresponsible, paranoid and rabid inciter to thoughtless and unfounded hatred. Csurka, to many of us, remains an unacceptable person with significant character flaws.
There is a lengthy story to tell about how this impression of him got established over the years – not the least of which is how he survived the scandal of being a spy for the secret police during Communist times. What I would prefer to show by an example, instead, is just how willing and earnest he is in turning things to his advantage. On October 22, a protest was held outside of New Theater against Dörner and Csurka’s appointment. For reasons that are beyond me to understand, Csurka’s weekly magazine Magyar Forum wanted to put a bit of a spin on the story and claim that those who demonstrated against him and Dörner were Nazis. Csurka’s paper therefore photoshopped pictures, which his co-workers had taken, without proper attribution, from hvg.hu and népszava.hu, (both of these are media outlets that serve as object of abuse in Csurka’s other writings for their leftist views).
The end product shows István Márta, New Theater’s director of the last 13 years, in a nazi salute:
On another photograph, Vilmos Hanti, president of Hungarian Resistance Fighters’ and Antifascists’ Alliance, who was wearing a crossed-out swastika during the protest is wearing a swastika.
Left alone, Csurka is unpleasant – he seems to have a reflex-like rejection of anything life-affirming in this world – but he is less troublesome, because he is constitutionally incapable of getting along with anyone. This included, as I recently noted with satisfaction, similar characters of his own ilk. In recent years, Csurka exerted considerable effort to bestow his spite on Jobbik, the Hungarian far-right party whose leadership he mentored in 2006. At that time, during the first stages of Jobbik’s public reception, the political alliance between Csurka’s party MIÉP and Jobbik could not secure more than 2.2% of the votes.
It is an ironic twist of fate that we can credit the rise of Jobbik with Csurka’s marginalization. At least Csurka has been a minor character in Hungarian public affairs in recent times since the far-right vote (as well as the radical militant sentiment) coalesced behind Vona’s party. If there is any reason or rhyme in the Dörner-Csurka appointment, other than the fact that cultural wars always help to divert attention from the government’s scandalous handling of the economy, it is because governing right-wing party Fidesz may have thought it beneficial to split the extreme-right into two contending parties. Rather than leaving him alone, they decided to build up Csurka against Jobbik.
In Csurka’s own characterization of the affair, what’s taking place in the attacks against György Dörner and himself is “organized, unscrupulous and racially determined,” so much so that he would not have believed had it not happened to him directly.
Thus begins a lengthy account of Csurka’s views on the current state of theater, in which Csurka is ranting triumphantly over the takeover at the New Theater. Regarding the controversy, Csurka thinks that the public merely shrugs its shoulders about it. Not because there is no breadth to the publicity afforded to the opposite side, he adds, but because the problem behind this affair is so negligible.
“People do not know and do not understand what it is about. They repair, plow, weave, or perform surgeries, study and teach. They work. They know that there are theaters, there is opera and operetta, there is cabaret – or that there was? – and sometimes they bring themselves to attend one or another. In this part of the audience, there is no adoration, because the theater does not sound their voice. They cannot change this, because they plow, repair, weave, teach, perform surgeries, and with this they keep the theater.”
I quote this part of the article in length, because it should provide a sample of the writing and its most important features. The pathos and the flatness of the language (from one of the greatest figures of 20th century Hungarian literature) should be evident, as well as the character of Csurka’s specific kind of populism, which is a romanticized yet condescending relationship to his dear people. On the one hand, his people plow and weave and repair, on the other hand, they find it hard to bring themselves to a cultural event, because they are so caught up in their everyday life.
“The situation is quite different with the Jewry of Pest. Years ago, Jewish journals and their own statistics already showed that there are orders of magnitude more academic degrees, jobs that are good and of higher status, and greater incomes among the Hungarian Jewry than among the non-Jews or Christians. … It was to compensate against this that some governments tried the numerus clauses and other measures.”
Csurka then goes on to describe Hungarians, who, whether or not they had anything to do with genocide, suffered a historic fate after the German invasion of Hungary. “[T]he historic class of leadership, Teleki, Horthy, Bethlen” was the first made to pay for the genocide during the second world war. They were then followed by the national middle class next, and, eventually, after 1956, by the Hungarian workers and peasants.
For example, the personal story of Sándor Márai remains unwritten along these lines. Márai is not the only one: “There is plenty of material” to write about. “But nothing is written, because everything is suffocated by social liberal cultural politics … and the Ascher Cafe.” Named after Tamás Ascher, internationally recognized theater director and President of the Hungarian Academy for the Theater Arts, and defined with outstanding concreteness as “the leadership of certain theaters,” the Ascher Cafe symbolizes social liberal cultural politics which discriminates against the fact-based Hungarian plays of Csurka’s liking.
In its more malicious sense, “Ascher Cafe” stands for a group of people accused of conspiring to exploitatively further their own self-interest while not even being worthy of membership in society. It has all the classic characteristics of a cabal: Csurka says that it “stole, used up, and placed in off-shores, on the Cayman Islands or Ciprus” everything. Tamás Ascher, this “boss of the Cafe, the great director, the Ashkenazi Jew who with all certainty must have originated from a family from Odessa” even directs in Los Angeles.
The metaphor extends, however, to liberal democratic sentiments in general. Treating every single individual with “all the attributes of the perfect dignity” to be afforded to human beings may seem right, but it leads to an atomization of society, Csurka says. When every single person is considered to be autonomous, collective values and norms are eroded (though presumably only those collective values would be eroded that are incompatible with the respect for the fundamental dignity of person which founds the notion of human rights – but that’s just my own way of putting a red pen to Mr. Csurka’s writing).
For this reason, the naive belief in consensus must be rejected, because the so-called liberal consensus is “carefully designed,” for the sake of maintaining “a society of exclusion.” Activities assuring such a pre-meditated and conspiratory outcome practically amount to an industrial output, Csurka adds, such as influencing via the media, or marketing and public opinion surveys.
In this way, it seems that what Csurka seems to offer is a fact or reality-based theater, as opposed to the “sensuality” and the “taste” which characterizes the art of the Ascher Cafe. The idea seems to be that non-fact based creativity can only lead to hegemonial domination. Speaking of the hegemony of the Jews in particular, there is a “hegemony already one hundred years old,” Csurka clarifies for us at some point, a hegemony of which, being the playwright he is, he immediately offers a story.
“From the agencies that participate in this [hegemony-making], it would be right to be reminded of feudal tenure. These are independent, greatly influential organizations of a feudal character,” says Csurka. But feudal tenure – asserted here about the elite of liberal society – might be just a slight bit of a projection on Csurka’s part: what he probably means is his own means of obtaining a theater for himself in Budapest. Because the praise he piles on his superior is nothing less than serf-like. The minister of NEFMI for example (NEFMI stands for the Ministry of National Resources, which includes cultural affairs) becomes a “good-willing, level-headed, trustworthy and wise man,” in Csurka’s characterization. Feudal it especially is given his change of heart since his “domestication” as the government’s own far-right extreme.
Csurka’s views about liberal democracy, about professionals internationally recognized, about mistaking a self-glorifying myth of the past for actual facts: these are returning themes in Hungarian politics, and, if said in isolation, there were nothing scandalous about them. If he were to limit himself to these, Csurka could very well become the prophet he so desperately longs to be. After all, this is precisely how Viktor Orbán has become the prophet of the 2.7 million voters whose vote he now interprets as the mandate to break the hegemony of democracy in Hungary.
On these points, Csurka’s rhetoric does not at all differ from the official governmental rhetoric. Just because the government’s politicians stop a step short of Csurka’s conclusion, that doesn’t mean that they are not fellow travelers on the same ideological plane. To the contrary, Viktor Orbán & co. are building on the same psychological manipulation and cultivate the same kind of distortion on which Csurka’s “art” thrives.
We also cannot say that themes more particular to Csurka – the condescending populism, the paranoia of foreigners and outsiders, or his extreme inability to formulate an argument without contradicting himself – are limited to his political circles. Hungary’s government has built a new regime on this type of moral exceptionalism, where the rules could be bent to one’s own advantage, and reality can be distorted to whatever fits one’s daily purposes.
Csurka is a Fidesz recruit. They appointed him. And it is their political style not to mistake and right the wrongs of one’s actions. In the Parliament on Monday, without reaching quorum, the sub-committee could not even approve their agenda for the meeting: to discuss Dörner and Csurka’s appointments. As Gergely Karácsony of the opposition party LMP summarized the situation, this appointment is indefensible, because not even those responsible for the decision come to its defense. In the meantime, and in the limelight he craved center stage, now as the official darling of the government, Csurka gloats triumphantly.