I’m almost too stunned to report what happened a couple of days ago on Magyar Rádió. As one commentator rather bluntly stated: a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences lost his cotton pickin’ mind. (If he ever had one.)
Yes, I’ll get to the story, but first let’s go back in time to give a broader context to the story. When Hungary became a democracy there were of course many left-over institutions. At the time I wanted to abolish two and strip a third of its socialist trappings. The two institutions I wanted to dismantle were the Writers’ Union and the World Federation of Hungarians. Looking back, my instincts were pretty good. The Writers’ Union became a gathering of right-wing second-rates. All the really big names in Hungarian literature have long since left this organization. The reputation of the World Federation of Hungarians is even worse than that of the Writers’ Union. Under the leadership of Miklós Patrubány from Transylvania the organization moved as far right as possible. Just lately it was only in the last minute that Patrubány changed his mind about offering a venue for viewing an antisemitic film (made in 1940) that is banned in Germany.
The third institution, in my opinion, needed drastic reorganization. Originally the Hungarian Academy was like all other continental academies until it was restructured to follow the Soviet model. It became a wide network of research institutes and a degree granting body. I don’t know about other disciplines but in my own field the best historians gathered in the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences. They didn’t teach; they were scholars. At the universities the emphasis was on teaching. However, we know that teaching and research cannot effectively be separated. So after 1990 I hoped that the research institutes attached to the Academy would be transferred to the universities, staff and all. Thus research and teaching would be done within the walls of the universities. This is not what happened.
Membership in the Academy, of course, is not just an honor but comes with a handsome monthly salary. I don’t know what the situation is today, but during the Kádár regime members also had all sorts of privileges over and above their salaries. There was, for example, a whole fleet of cars, and members of the Academy could phone in to reserve a car together with a driver to take care of their own private business. I saw this first hand: a former professor of mine took me along to visit a famous sculptor who was working on his bust. (I really would like to know what happened to that bust. He was such an ugly man!)
And then there is the selection process. The number of academicians is fixed: one member must die in order to vote in another from a group of corresponding members. I don’t know what the average age of the academicians is, but I’ll bet it’s not exactly 35. One also worries about the actual accomplishment of the academicians. It seems that the system rewards seniority and connections. If you have the right friends and if you climbed the academic ladder perhaps you will be one of those few who reap some extra income and social status.
Anyway, my old feelings resurfaced when I heard that a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences who belongs to the Section of Biological Sciences, someone whose field is genetics and evolution, could say such stupid things as Gábor Vida did on Magyar Rádió on July 10. I don’t want to exaggerate, but my breath was taken away when I listened to the program called Közelről (Close-Up). The occasion was the news item that a number of people from a green organization called Védegylet (Defense League) resigned because Védegylet condemned the mob attack on gays during the parade. And this is not just any old green organization; it was Védegylet that put forth László Sólyom as a candidate for the presidency. At the time Sólyom was the president of Védegylet.
Gábor Vida was one of the founders who until a couple of days ago was a member of its Advisory Council. So the reporter of the weekly program invited the spokesman of Védegylet and Vida to find out why Vida decided to quit the organization he himself helped to establish. Well, Academican Vida, the geneticist and biologist, didn’t hesitate at all and began an ugly tirade against homosexuals. Among other things he expressed his disgust at the very idea of a sexual act between people of the same sex and compared it to wetting the bed or being unable to hold one’s bowels. And when questioned he didn’t back down. He was drawing “a concrete parallel between the two.” If such an act is a sign of illness then one can understand and forgive it, or if possible try to cure it. “But those who wet their beds will not hold a demonstration and will not demand the right to continue such behavior.” According to Vida homosexuality “poses a danger to mankind … the same way as pedophilia poses a danger.” When the reporter and the spokesman of Védegylet pointed out that homosexuality and pedophilia are two different things, Vida continued: “Let’s be careful because these are not entirely different things. Pedophilia is considered a crime because it is a danger to minors. Homosexuality poses a danger to adults.” At the end he pretty well formulated his belief that attacking homosexuals was a proper way of handling things.
The spokesman of Védegylet managed to say a few intelligent things and expressed his astonishment, and the reporter herself behaved as well as one could expect under the circumstances. The next day the secretary of Védegylet told a reporter that he was horrified listening to the interview and repeated that Védegylet condemns all that Vida had to say. He added that he was utterly surprised by Vida’s attitude because until now they hadn’t had any occasion to get know this side of the man. In addition to Vida three other people left the organization, including Gábor Karátson, honorary president of the organization, because the organization condemned the mob attack on the gays.
Well, let’s go back to the professional competence of some of these academicians, like Vida. How can a biologist, a man whose field is evolution and genetics, be this ignorant and show such bigotry? How did he ever get to the point that someone actually suggested him to be a corresponding and later a full member of the Hungarian Academy? What does it tell us about the whole institution and the professional competence of at least this man? Surely one expects a little more from one of the top scientists of the country.