What is in good taste and what is not?

Yesterday, to my utter astonishment, Gábor Fodor was a guest on ATV’s Pont 7, a Sunday night political program. I was surprised because, let’s face it, Gábor Fodor as a political actor is passé. Gone and almost forgotten. He was briefly chairman of SZDSZ at the time the party began to disintegrate. Fodor very badly wanted to become the chairman of his second party (he started his career in Fidesz), but some important members of SZDSZ were afraid of Fodor. They were certain that he would spell the death of the party. As it turned out, they were right.

My feeling is that Olga Kálmán, who is conducting the interviews in the absence of András Bánó, was desperate. In the silly season when almost all politicians are on vacation it is hard to find someone who would agree to spend Sunday night in a television studio. So came Gábor Fodor.


I must say that I have never liked Fodor. First, I can’t stand his sugary style of speaking. Even when he was saying things I agreed with, I was turned off. Because Gábor Fodor was an important person in Hungarian politics at one time I wrote about him quite a bit. The last time, more than a year ago in February 2009, was when he, as newly elected chairman of SZDSZ, decided to play the honest broker between Ferenc Gyurcsány and Viktor Orbán. He invited them to negotiate with him.

Viktor Orbán accepted Fodor’s invitation for a meeting, Gyurcsány didn’t. I don’t know what Gyurcsány thinks of Fodor, but I have the feeling that Fodor isn’t exactly one of his favorite people. Orbán and Fodor, on the other hand, are very old friends. They were even roommates in college at one point. Fodor was one of the founders of Fidesz and stayed in the party until he decided that the people around Orbán were fairly shady characters and that the money received from the sale of a building the party received from the state was spent in questionable ways. Moreover, by then Orbán had begun to shift to the right which didn’t sit well with Fodor.

The two good friends parted because Fodor mistrusted Orbán and in turn Orbán mistrusted Fodor whom he labelled a traitor to the cause and a spy for the SZDSZ leadership. In turn, I think there were some people in SZDSZ who didn’t trust Fodor precisely because of his Fidesz background and his earlier close ties to that party’s leadership.

I must say that Fodor’s performance on Pont 7 surprised me. The champion of liberalism showed a surprising degree of tolerance toward Viktor Orbán’s dictatorial tendencies and his less than democratic leadership style. He reminded me in his choice of words of Gábor Török, a political scientist who, like all Hungarian political scientists, tries to convince the world that he is totally impartial and that the opinions he expresses are absolutely independent of any party preference. Of course, there is no absolute impartiality and although Török tries very hard to sound balanced, he is considered to be closer to the right than to the left.

Gábor Török is a hard-working guy who wrote more than 200 blog posts last year, and he has enough clout that parts of his analyses appear in several newspapers with a note that the complete text is available at his web site. Thus, I imagine he has quite a readership. I usually take a look at his analyses myself. On July 25 he wrote a piece entitled “Farewell to democracy?” In it he argued with Gábor Halmai, a constitutional lawyer who was burying the constitutional state that was born in 1989-90. In Török’s opinion democracy is not threatened by Viktor Orbán and his men, though even he had to admit that there have been some questionable Fidesz practices since the elections. He explicitly mentioned the changes introduced in the election law pertaining to local elections. “Undoubtedly the way it was handled was not elegant.” Then he moved on to the election of judges to the constitutional court. According to our impartial political scientist “undoubtedly the procedure was not in the best of taste.” In the case of the appointment of a Fidesz party hack to head the State Accounting Office, according to Török “the majority could have been more gallant.”

His choice of words amused me and I stored them in my head with the intention of using them when an appropriate occasion arose. Then came the interview with Gábor Fodor that suddenly brought Török’s blog to mind. Fodor’s favorite phrase when criticizing some of the Orbán government’s legislative actions was “a question of taste.”

Fodor’s concept of liberalism is an odd one. He thinks that as a liberal he cannot pass judgment on “someone else’s value system.” If one took this seriously, one couldn’t criticize antisemitism, racism, national socialism, fascism, bolshevism, Stalinism, or any other value system. Surely, this is a very odd stance and therefore Fodor’s assessment of the performance of the Orban government is, in my opinion, questionable.

Fodor divided the Orbán government’s activities in the last two months into two neat piles: “mistakes” and “questions of taste.” The thoughtless announcements about the economy belong to the category of “mistakes.” Passing legislation on dual citizenship just before the Slovak elections was also a mistake. Enacting a law that would change the electoral law governing local elections was also a mistake because it restricted the political activities of smaller parties. Interestingly enough, Fodor said nothing about breaking off negotiations with the IMF and the EU.

Under the category of “questions of taste” Fodor places such antidemocratic moves as the election of judges to the constitutional court or the way the president of the republic was selected by the prime minister. A rather odd stance from a liberal. When one hears Hungarian politicians talking like Fodor did yesterday, one despairs. What kind of a liberal can dismiss decidedly anti-democratic moves as mere “mistakes” or  “questions of taste”? It is especially worrisome to hear these words uttered by a former chairman of SZDSZ, a party that was considered to be the most forward-looking and democratic party in the country.

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Gábor Fodor’s approach to liberalism is very recognisable. It is the same that makes leftish LMP supporters tolerant of Trianon Memorial Day. As the thinking goes, if we have our gay parade, then they can have the opportunity to flagellate themselves over Hungary’s lost terroritories and the Crown of St Stephen, if this is what makes them happy.
Of course, what they don’t properly appreciate is that their authoritarian opponents are not similarly tolerant of their own ‘with it’ opinions. It should be perfectly justifiable as a liberal to be intolerant of intolerance, however, liberalism is now sometimes taken to a logical extreme that nullifies the very values it stands for.

Eva S. Balogh

PassingStranger: “It should be perfectly justifiable as a liberal to be intolerant of intolerance, however, liberalism is now sometimes taken to a logical extreme that nullifies the very values it stands for.”
Very well put.


Possibly the problem with liberalism is that it becomes incoherent when taken to its logical conclusion.
What should a hypothetical liberal government do about Trianon Memorial events, ban them not because they threaten freedom but because they are symbolically important to those who wish to threated freedom?
John Stuart Mill’s ideas about allowing anything that does not cause harm to others sounds good in theory, but in practice harm can be very difficult to define.
It is my opinion that the main problem with Hungary is not a lack of a viable liberalism but rather the lack of a viable conservatism along the lines of the Burkean strand of British, American or even German conservatism. The right wing is Hungary is not really right wing at all but nationalist. It suffers from the flaw of believing in the utopian power of theories and the consequent need for the scapegoat when the theory does not work out in practice.
There is the historical material there from which such a conservative tradition could be woven but nobody has really tried yet.


Eva — Gabor Torok’s use of the words ‘elegant,’ ‘taste,’ and ‘gallant’ when discussing political maneuvering reminds me that Hungarians often say, ‘we live in an operetta country,’ i.e. Hungary is like a night at a Lehar operetta, ‘ez egy operettorszag.’ The language reflects that saying perfectly.


@David “The right wing in Hungary is not really right wing at all but nationalist. It suffers from the flaw of believing in the utopian power of theories and the consequent need for the scapegoat when the theory does not work out in practice.”
Well said.


But David, such a ‘Burkian’ right-wing can surely only exist in a synchronous relationship with a radical and reforming left-wing with genuine popular support and enthusiasm for large-scale changes. Both of these inclinations exist in definition to each other, and both are very weakly expressed by current political forces in Hungary, and to a certain extent have also collapsed in Germany, Britain etc. It’s therefore not surprising that the right-wing in Hungary seem to – knowingly or unknowingly – bear more relation to French-style Gaullism.

Halász Péter

Dear Eva! I would like to write e-mail you, but couldn’t find any, i have read on galamus, you had studies about hungarian foreign policy between 1919-1921,i would like to ask about it. thanks.
halász péter


While I find the election of the president by the prime minister more than distasteful, this is one thing I am not sure Orban can be faulted for. The president is elected by the parliament, and if a party has the overwhelming majority, its leadership elects the president. What other party would do something else?
The problem seems to be with the system.

Paul Haynes

GDF – but was it not Orban and Fidesz who created that part of the system in the first place? (most other parties.groups being in favour of a president elected by the people)
To my mind, the weakness of the President’s position in the Hungarian constitution is one of its main flaws.