The attack on the philosophers has been going on ever since January 8 when Magyar Nemzet claimed that "Heller and Co. researched away half a billion forints." The "political commentators" whom I would rather call "political hacks," with some help from the named philosophers' professional adversaries, showed such ignorance of the world of academe that it really boggles the mind. It soon became quite obvious that the newspapermen writing article after article have not the foggiest idea about what grants and grant applications are all about. I'm trying to imagine a situation in this country in which politicos would attack a group of scholars who received money for the study of the former Soviet Union. There are always people who consider money spent on this or that project a waste. But the academic world doesn't work that way. Although some people might object, there could be very good reasons for studying Persian literature or culture, not only as fascinating areas in and of themselves, but because it might enrich our understanding of today's Iran.
In Hungary grant applications were made and thirty-one were handed out by a jury whose members were unknown to the applicants. Of these thirty-one only six grants were questioned in Magyar Nemzet. What is behind this whole sordid affair? Part of the story might be found in the less than satisfactory situation that exists in the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
I hold strong opinions about the whole structure and functioning of the Academy that was reorganized in 1949 along Soviet lines. It became an institution granting academic degrees, maintaining innumerable research institutes, whose members had all sorts of privileges including monthly salaries. One of my former professors in the intervening years became an academician. When years later we met in the Academy's building, we were chauffeured in one of the many cars belonging to the Academy to the studio of a famous sculptor who was working on the bust of my former professor. And naturally, the driver came and drove us back to town.
I had hoped that with the change of regime these institutes would go back to where they belong, the universities, and that the Academy would once again become what it was before 1949. For one thing, teaching and research should go hand in hand. In addition, in Hungary a peculiar situation developed, especially in the arts and social sciences. After the 1956 revolution professors who took part in the events were fired from their university jobs and often found refuge in the research institutes. Since members of the institutes had no teaching duties, they had more time to devote to pure research. Thus a two-tier system developed in which the professors at the universities occupied a decidedly lower status, often with good reason.
Of course, the privileged group of academicians and the members of the research institutes had a vested interest in keeping the old Soviet-style structure and therefore put pressure on the Antall government to leave the system alone. Although it is a very expensive setup with very few tangible scientific results, the Academy's influence is considerable and its political weight is growing. In the last few years the Academy's leadership became closely associated with Fidesz and the political right. The current president of the academy, József Pálinkás, was prior to his election a Fidesz member of parliament and in the first Orbán government minister of education. Most likely the aged academicians, most of whom lean toward the right anyway, elected Pálinkás in 2008 because they were counting on a Fidesz victory at the 2010 elections. But even his predecessor, Szilveszter E. Vizy, was close to Fidesz and in his capacity assisted the party in all sorts of ways. By now the Academy is an established political tool of the government.
Among the many institutes there is the Philosophical Institute in which a few months ago profound changes took place. The custom until then was that the employees of the Institute recommended someone from among their ranks for the post of director. About a year ago the members picked one of their colleagues who for a number of years worked as deputy director: György Gábor, a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of religion. There was also an applicant from the outside, from the University of Pécs, János Boros, whom the others didn't consider qualified. Pálinkás intervened and, ignoring the wishes of the members of the Institute, appointed Boros who in no time began an ambitious plan of reorganizing the Institute which according to him didn't function well. He complained that the philosophers didn't spend enough time at the Institute, which was not at all surprising considering that the whole Institute consists of two small rooms for twenty-seven researchers. Moreover, the members of the institutes were not expected to work from eight to five on the premises even if there were ample space. People do research in libraries and usually work at home. Boros also complained that some of his colleagues didn't bother to repeat their postgraduate work and attain a Ph.D., introduced in Hungary not a terribly long time ago. Agnes Heller is not a member of the Institute, but it would be mighty strange if someone insisted on her enrolling again in graduate school and writing a Ph.D. dissertation. Then Boros complained that some of the colleagues didn't take formal language examinations. Again, the absurdity of this position is apparent in cases such as Miklós Gáspár Tamás, who speaks Hungarian, Romanian, English, and French fluently and who has lectured widely all over the world.
In brief, the atmosphere at the Institute was anything but amiable. Then on top of everything else a younger colleague and a supporter of Boros while intoxicated made some anti-semitic remarks about Gábor György, who related the incident to Népszava. The young philosopher sued the paper and it was only a few days ago that the courts found Népszava innocent.
Most likely János Boros and his friends in the Institute are behind the attack on "Heller and Co.," but surely without the support of people higher up it couldn't have been launched. Some people think that the witch hunt has Viktor Orbán's blessing. If so, I consider it another political mistake. The attack on the philosophers has reverberated outside of Hungary's borders, as I mentioned a few days ago.
I find it surprising that Viktor Orbán doesn't simply pick up the telephone and tell the media outlets close to Fidesz to cease and desist. But no! Just today Heti Válasz for all intents and purposes called Ágnes Heller a liar. Again with the assistance of a fellow academician, M. István Fehér, apparently a talented philosopher with right-wing leanings. At one point Heller in Magyar Narancs said that she was one of the people who suggested that Fehér become a member of the academy "despite the fact that his political views are far from [her own.]" And here comes Fehér in a letter to the editor of the weekly in which he announces that as far as he knows Heller didn't recommend him for membership. There were three recommendations but Heller's was not among them. Otherwise he received about 75% of the votes but the vote was secret.
How low can you go? And no one says: enough!