It is a well-known fact that Hungarian society is deeply divided politically, which to my mind is not so unique as some people in Hungary imagine. There are moments when a country’s population is split right down the middle politically. Seven years ago this was the case in the United States, and the last German elections also showed a deeply divided Germany. But what is unique in Hungary, I think, is the low level of political discourse. And I am not just talking about the ordinary folk. The so-called political elite is no better.
The leaders of the Fidesz in particular excel in the use of language that might not be tolerated in other countries. A few years ago when the young Viktor Orbán called József Antall a liar, people were shocked. Now the use of this verb is considered a mild epithet. Calling the prime minister a criminal is practically an everyday affair. Orbán has called Gyurcsány an imbecile as well.
I am writing from a country whose president is, as a piece I read today said, "not the sharpest knife in the drawer." But the Democratic leadership doesn’t publicly refer to him as an imbecile, though the North Korean government did.
Anyway, in Hungary the right-wing media follows in the footsteps of its political leaders: the Magyar Nemzet, the Magyar Demokrata, and more recently the Magyar Hírlap talk about politicians they don’t like in language that makes me shudder. What kind of journalism is this? Editorials or op-ed pieces are the place for open bias, not news columns. Admittedly, there is no such thing as absolutely neutral reporting, but the goal of any decent newspaper is to cover events as thoroughly and objectively as possible. Take, for instance, the Wall Street Journal. It has one of the most conservative editorial boards imaginable, but its news coverage (at least so far, and one can only hope that the Rupert Murdoch purchase does not change this) is carefully researched and presented with a virtually imperceptible liberal slant.
If the right-wing print media in Hungary conflate facts and opinion, the dregs of journalism are the far-right internet newspapers where anything goes. Taking advantage of the anonymity of the internet, these people throw off any and all societal constraints. I always hated internet forums where, as the famous New Yorker cartoon says, "no one knows you’re a dog." It is easy to hide behind an "identity" and not take responsibility for one’s words. I find that cowardly and contemptible.
But at least most internet chatter has no significant consequences. By contrast, there’s still a radical element willing to cause physical harm to its enemies. A new restaurant opened on the island of Csepel. The owner called it Red Csepel, referencing the working class and social democratic past of the district. In a world where most restaurants fail, the name was certainly not going to help its chances. And then the owner put up pictures of Rákosi, Lenin, and Marx (which he claimed he found funny). What happened the next day? Somebody threw a Molotov cocktail into the restaurant, completely destroying it and endangering the entire building, including apartment dwellers.
Of course, one can debate whether the over-the-top political discourse is a safety valve or an "aider and abetter" of violence. But neither is acceptable.