Tag Archives: George Orwell

Johanna Laakso: Friends and foes of “freedom”

Johanna Laakso is a professor in the Finno-Ugric Department of the Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft at the University of Vienna. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki, where she also taught until 2000, when she moved to the University of Vienna. Besides her native Finnish, she speaks English, German, Hungarian, Estonian, Swedish, Russian, and French. Professor Laakso is known to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum as Sentrooppa-Santra and is one of our frequent contributors on linguistic topics as well as on politics.  In 2014, at my request, she wrote a post when the Orbán government established one of its newfangled institutes, the Magyar Nyelvstratégiai Intézet (Hungarian Language Strategy Institute). Her article, “Brave New Linguistics,” not only informed us about this institute but also summarized some of the most important developments in the study of linguistics in Hungary over the last couple of centuries.

The Finnish original of this article was published on Professor Laakso’s blog at http://sentrooppasantra.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/vapauden-ystavat-ja-viholliset/

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Mária Schmidt should already be known to the readers of this blog. She is a kind of a court historian of Viktor Orbán, and the general public will probably know her as the director of the “House of Terror” in Budapest, the museum which in a somewhat debated manner shows the Nazi and the Communist dictatorship as two parallel cases. She also played a very visible role in the official programme of the recent memorial year of the revolution of 1956. In her research career, she has worked with the history of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy and the fates of minorities in Hungary in the turmoils of 20th-century dictatorships. She also teaches at the Catholic Pázmány university in Piliscsaba. According to the Hungarian Wikipedia, she was ranked by the Napi.hu portal as the 30th most influential person in Hungary in 2017, which is probably due to her political connections rather than to her academic merits. In the years 1998–2002, Schmidt was officially the counsellor of the Prime Minister, and now she leads one of the new research institutes founded by the government: on its homepage, the XXI. Század Intézet (21st Century Institute) states that its tasks comprise “supporting research on politics and numerous other activities connected to the research of politics”.

These numerous other activities, in turn, obviously include a fresh publication which appeared in early December: the book by Mária Schmidt, entitled Nyelv és szabadság (‘Language and Freedom’). Curious to know what Schmidt, a historian, has to say about language, I ordered the book for my holiday reading, despite certain forebodings. Sadly enough, the reality was even more terrible. In what follows, I’ll try to analyze my bewilderment at Schmidt’s book.

The Enemies: Muslim immigrants, left-wing liberal elite, Soros

The book is a compilation of Schmidt’s political columns and opinion pieces from the last couple of years. These texts do not form a logically ordered whole but mostly repeat the same things with slightly different words. Moreover, they do not attempt to argue or to give reasons. It seems that the goal is simply to hammer the basic ideas into the readers’ heads: who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, what is the real problem in today’s political situation. For the problems, three culprits are identified. First, the “migrants”, especially Muslim ones. Second, the left-wing liberal elites and decision-makers who invite and bring them to Europe, especially the German Chancellor Merkel and her associates. And third, behind all these, pulling the strings – ta-dah, George Soros!

Why “The Man in a Bowler Hat” by René Magritte was chosen as the cover illustration remains a mystery. True, Schmidt’s book does emanate a surreal atmosphere.

The immigrants who flooded Europe in 2015 are, of course, no real “refugees” (menekült), as the “left-wing liberal media” want to call them. In Schmidt’s opinion, they all, as a caste (no exceptions are mentioned), constitute a “mobile intifada”. The “migrants” are violent, they are murderers and rapists, they are men “of fighting age” (katonakorú), they come from “areas controlled by jihadists” (p. 139), they are “militant, combat-trained troops” (p. 132), and their “luggage most certainly is full of weapons, drugs and who knows what” (p. 134). They behave rudely and insolently, even towards the “patient and humane” Hungarian authorities, do not show gratitude for the help they are given, they expect a Western European standard of living without any duties. Their goal, and the goal of Islam in general, always and everywhere, is of course to conquer and repopulate Europe. For Schmidt, Islam is not a world religion with zillions of different interpretations and practices in different environments and traditions (as is the case with Christianity as well) but a monolithic system for terror and world domination. Accordingly, the Muslim invaders do not represent different nations, cultures, or political systems: a herdsboy from a tribal village in Afghanistan and a middle-class urban entrepreneur from Syria are both part of a homogeneous mass of “Muslims”, and behind all of them looms a mysterious power with oil and money.

The flood of immigrants is made possible by the fact that Europe, after losing its national values, has turned powerless, spineless, and unable to defend itself. The words in its languages have lost their meaning, due to the tyranny of political correctness, and the political organs of the EU are held captive by the Marxist elite. What is even worse, this elite has the nerve to criticize Hungary, for instance for harassing NGOs, for closing the archive museum of György Lukács (Schmidt: only because Lukács was a Communist!) or for terminating the newspaper Népszabadság.

As for Népszabadság, the paper of the state-holding party in the party state, it is a shame that even in 2017, there can be members of the European Parliament who dare to position themselves in support of a former Communist paper! As if some thirty years ago people had worried about the fate of the Völkischer Beobachter! (p. 197)

A particularly ferocious attack is directed at Angela Merkel (who, according to Smith, hates Europeans and especially Germans, because of their Nazi past…) and at Germany as a whole: Germany is not only burdened by its Nazi past, but Socialism as well was invented in Germany, Schmidt reminds. The EU, in turn, is in practice ruled by Germany, because Germany more than any other country profits from the EU. Schmidt also plays the Nazi card (“the dream of a unified Europe was already cherished by Hitler”, p. 130), as at the end of the following example, invoking an association to the concentration camp transports:

A normal man or boy will know his duties and defend his wife, daughter, mother, or sister. Only these Germans of today have turned so brain-washed and unmanly that they are not even capable of that. The Merkelian language has by now depoliticized and thus debilitated the whole public discourse in Germany. Not only because it is endlessly tedious and monotonous, but because it lacks any content, because it never says anything, it means just letting out hot air. Merkel let the flood of Muslim migrants invade Europe without showing any need to argue for her strategy or to make her strategy public. The German citizens are content with Wir schaffen das. As if they were merely facing a logistic challenge. These people will arrive here, be collected and selected here, divided into quotas there, and then transported to their goals. If only this logistically oriented mode of action were not so familiar already! (p. 29)

The reason for the weakness of German or, more generally, Western elites is that they have failed in their Vergangenheitsbewältigung, dealing with the past. Schmidt thinks that the Western upper class and intellectuals are clinging to their victim status and guilt. Because “only the victim deserves attention, recognition, and privilege” (p. 48), elites and privileged, well-to-do groups also want to be victims. This gives rise to #metoo campaigns, the collective self-castigation in the spirit of “collective guilt” which is continuously practised especially by Germans, or more generally, the mania of former colonial overlords to blame themselves for all possible wrongdoings the colonized peoples have experienced. (As Schmidt reminds, Hungary, in contrast, has never colonized any country. Of course, one might ask how the Magyarization policies of the Hungarian half of the dual monarchy towards its ethnic minorities in the late 19th century prepared ground for the ethnic conflicts which took place throughout the 20th century. But this is probably not the proper place to discuss these issues.)

This situation, then, creates new opportunities for those interested in “migrant business”. The immigrants are not invading Europe merely out of their own free will or driven by their Islamic ideology, but they are being invited, directed, and transported. This is done by fake NGOs “intertwined with human trafficking gangs”, by diverse human rights organizations and the European Court of Human Rights and other organs of justice, whose actions are causing disaster “like a loose cannon” (p. 133) – because “invoking the state of law means questioning the people’s representation”, it amounts to “juristocracy” (p. 202). For these organizations, human rights are a “rubber concept” which they can “extend and apply at will, depending on each current need” (p. 175). (What “extending human rights” in this respect might mean is not explained in more detail, nor are examples given.) The fake NGOs, in turn, are funded especially by George Soros, the super-villain as shown to the people of Hungary in recent hate propaganda campaigns; Schmidt quite seriously compares Soros with the mighty villains who aspire to world domination in James Bond films.

Both the left-wing liberal elites and the decision-making machinery of the EU are controlled by Soros, Schmidt claims. As evidence for this, she mentions the “gas pipe Socialists” who after or alongside their political career have turned into lobbyists of big enterprises, and – believe or not – the fact that Saturday Night Live once called Soros “the owner of the Democrat Party”. If even the authors of a political satire show “treat this like a fact”, it must be a fact…

Whatever motivates Soros and his buddies to do this (beyond the simple fact of being evil) is hardly taken into scrutiny, no explanations are sought. Is “migrant business” really that profitable? Schmidt does claim that the “migrant business” is based on Western enterprises’ need for cheap labour, but elsewhere (p. 139, for example) she states that the “migrants” are unwilling to work (and unable as well, being largely uneducated analphabets), especially for small wages: they merely expect a comfortable life on welfare.

In any case, alongside the Soros network or the Soros plan there exists even a “Sorosism” or a “Sorosist world view”, probably roughly the same thing as the ideology of the “left-wing liberal elite”. The Central European University was also founded to spread this Sorosist ideology, and there – as in Anglophone universities in general – nobody will be accepted or given the floor who does not agree with “militant Sorosists”… But of course, the 87-year-old Soros is not operating alone, but probably he is being used as a gallion figure by “groups behind him who represent a certain part [egy meghatározott rész] of international speculative capital” (p. 250). Who or what are the people who constitute this “certain part”? No answer is given, but I’m afraid that many readers will find one in no time.

The Heroes: “Populists”, “Patriots” – and especially Viktor Orbán

The opposite to the opportunism and indifference of the “elite” and also the target of the elite’s implacable hate are those whom the elite dubs “populists”.

Populist is what they call a politician who is doing what the voters are expecting from him/her. In other words, a democrat. (p. 14; Schmidt presents this as a quotation from The Spectator, no more precise source is given)

Among those who are called “populists”, especially Eastern Europeans, those to whom Schmidt often refers with the pronouns (“we”, “us”) or inflection forms of the first person plural (“we know”), are particularly dangerous to the Western villains and importers of immigrants. The reason is that these “we” have already during Soviet times learnt to recognize the “Communist, Trotskyist, later Post-Communist or left-wing” (p. 93) method by which the innocent are made guilty and the hostile invaders glorified as heroes. These people, therefore, are immune to the propaganda of Soros and the arrogant Western cultural Marxists, because they still retain their national basic values and a self-respect based on them, which gives them courage.

Courage or audacity (bátorság), in turn, is the central characteristic which Schmidt in one of the last chapters of the book attributes to Viktor Orbán. Audacity is shown, for example, in the campaign to lower utility costs (rezsi), even called “the rezsi fight” (a trick by which especially elderly voters are made happy by seemingly smaller gas and electricity bills). To Schmidt, organizing “national consultations” also counts as an example of audacity, as they are based on the audacious idea that “outside of the elite, even other people can have an opinion which counts” (p. 217). (And this opinion can be expressed by checking a “yes” or “no” box following a suggestive and weighted question.) In general, audacity constitutes the core of Orbán’s political credo:

We should not wonder if these groups, lacking and not understanding any quality, are irritated by Orbán, the freedom fighter. The same Viktor Orbán who on the 16th of June in 1989, at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, on the Heroes’ Square in Budapest burst into the world of politics, being the first one in the whole region to publicly demand free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from the country. This required real audacity, as only twelve days earlier, on the Tiananmen square in Beijing students demanding democracy had been murdered in heaps.

This myth of young Orbán as the first one who dared to challenge the occupation forces of the collapsing empire has, in fact, already been debunked. Already in March 1989, an agreement with the Soviet Union about the withdrawal of the occupation forces had been made, that is, three months before Orbán’s speech, and in April the first Soviet soldiers had already left the country. The agreement was not yet public knowledge, but the committee in charge of the reburial ceremonies was informed, and they had also discussed the issue with Orbán. The reference to China is also somewhat baffling: basically the same regime which had freedom-loving students shot to death is still holding the power, and recently, Orbán has made demonstrative approaches to the decision-makers in China. But obviously Schmidt trusts her fearless and clear-sighted readers not to draw any further conclusions.

Time for confrontation

A major part of the bewilderment which Schmidt’s book can cause in a reader outside her target group is due to style. Although the text is written for a broad and general readership, an academic author, a university teacher, might be expected to base the credibility of her text on rational and logical argumentation. One would thus naïvely expect neutral formulations which strive to objectivity and avoid a heated, emotional tone. However, Schmidt writes in the style of an agitator in early 20th century. She is not afraid of vulgar and colloquial expressions such as komcsi ‘Commie’, migránssimogató (could be freely translated as ‘migrant hugger’), or mocskos bolsi ‘filthy Bolshie’.

Schmidt’s most essential rhetoric tool is confrontation and one-dimensional highlighting and exaggeration of opposites. Whoever fails to support us and our basic values, whoever dares to criticize something we have done or said is not just positioning herself/himself as the infallible supreme judge of all deeds, s/he is our adversary in all respects and the enemy of anything good and noble. There are no options and no nuances, there are only good guys and bad guys. In politics, the choice is only between unconditional loyalty, “adoration” and “implacable hatred”.

There is a remarkable connection in how, when the USA is led by a God-fearing, conservative and value-based government, the anti-Americanism of the left-wing elite in Europe knows no limits, but when a government representing the opposite values takes over, the same Europeans suddenly start adoring America. (p. 21)

If Western European left-wing politicians criticize the policies of Hungary, this means also implying that they alone are entitled to judge others’ actions. Voicing criticism of the actions of Hungarian authorities means denying the sovereignty of the Hungarian nation. Diversity of values and cultures, cultural tolerance, the usual blah-blah of Western liberals, means hating one’s own traditional culture or a “war on traditional values”: Schmidt seems to think that appreciating a foreign culture necessarily means despising one’s own. Acknowledging the value of third-world cultures or the wrongs which third-world nations have experienced means, in Schmidt’s interpretation, that these cultures are considered “more valuable”. Similarly, speaking of the universal human rights of refugees means demanding “privileges” for “invaders”, speaking of the crimes of colonial rulers means denying “that mass murders ever happened in other parts of the world”, and fostering religious freedom and diversity of religion is, of course, “an attack against Christianity”.

This continuous simplification of a diversity of issues into one-dimensional oppositions gives rise to an endless parade of straw men. The liberals of Europe, Schmidt claims, want to “delete the borders” and make “unlimited immigration” possible. They prohibit and censor: Schmidt has also found a reference to a statement given by the German journalist Claudia Zimmermann in a Dutch radio broadcast. Allegedly, Zimmermann claimed that the WDR channel had instructed its employees to report about the refugee crisis in a positive tone, in line with the German government (WDR has demented this claim, while Zimmermann has retracted her statement and apologized for the misunderstanding). Schmidt’s army of straw men also includes the popular allegation that Western liberals do not condemn violations of human rights or equality if committed by Muslims. No examples, of course, and no evidence.

Moreover: it is claimed that liberal elites want to delete gender roles and genders or sexes in general. A good old strawman is brought forward again: “men should no more be called men, women should not be called women”. Concerning political correctness, one of the last chapters presents a rich collection of urban legends and fake news. Schmidt, as we are informed, is well acquainted with Anglophone universities which now are devoted to the “self-realization” of narcissist individuals in the spirit of the post-truth era. Wishing somebody “merry Christmas” is now automatically considered a hate crime, says Schmidt. A Canadian professor of psychology is threatened by jail after he refused to use neologistic gender-neutral pronouns in referring to persons of trans- or non-binary gender. (Refusing to conform to the university code of conduct also as concerns the use of gendered vocabulary might in principle be a problem even in the light of the new Canadian criminal code, but nevertheless the claims of prison punishment are grossly exaggerated, jurists say). Schmidt also claims that at the SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London, philosophers from Plato to Immanuel Kant have been included into the index of forbidden books because they were white and male; in fact, a demand of “decolonising the syllabus” was presented by students at some point but never taken seriously. And, as you may have heard, at university campuses in the English-speaking world normal relationships between men and women have become impossible, says Schmidt, because male students are so often terrorized by made-up charges of rape or sexual harassment…

Owls and sparrows

Already somewhere in the first part of the book, I found myself scribbling not only question and exclamation marks to its margins but also the letter combination BV as a note to myself. In my head, I kept hearing the Hungarian saying Bagoly mondja verébnek, hogy nagyfejű (‘The owl says to the sparrow that it has a big head’), the equivalent of “the pot calling the kettle black”. Take, for instance, the above-mentioned claim about how German journalists are instructed to report on the refugee crisis. How can Schmidt claim something like this while her own government has turned the state-controlled media channels into a propaganda tube of the Fidesz party and redistributed most of the existing traditional media outlets to certain circles close to the government? Or how does the alleged double standard of Merkel’s Germany, friendliness to the West and coldness towards Eastern Europe, differ from the political “peacock dance”, as Orbán himself has called his European policy?

“Owls and sparrows” together with diverse logical somersaults of similar character can be found on almost each and every page of the book. For example, Schmidt sneers at the Western elites who whine about their sufferings, without seeing the central role of ritualized self-pity (“boo hoo, our nation has suffered more than any other people in the world”) in Hungarian patriotism ever since the 16th century. The Western Marxist elite (?!) is accused of still concealing and downplaying the crimes of Socialist systems – but this is also done by the Orbán government, which still refuses to publish all the names of collaborator agents in the Kádár era. (According to the historian Krisztián Ungváry, this is already a tradition in post-transition Hungary; different governments have chosen to keep the names secret in order to be able to use the data for political blackmailing.)

The Western Marxist elite, says Schmidt, “will not tolerate debate, open discussion, arguments” (p. 182). Instead of critical thinking, they will repeat mantras and readymade formulations sent in from Berlin (as from Moscow in olden times), because “it is much easier to incite hatred and excommunicate all those who ask and argue than to invest effort into tinkering with the answers” (p. 74). Does it ever occur to Schmidt that this excellently applies to the campaigns against immigration and George Soros as orchestrated by the Hungarian government in the last few years, or to the way in which Orbán and his government avoid all questions and criticism from the opposition? In analysing the programme speech of the rector of the CEU (or “Soros University”), Schmidt points out that Rector Ignatieff will not bother to investigate the flaws of Communism separately but bundles it together with Stalinism – the same accusation, although in the other direction, has also been presented to Schmidt’s own “House of Terror”. And if Merkel’s Wir schaffen das! is an empty and void slogan, not saying anything about what and why (p. 248), in what respect is Orbán’s Magyarország jobban teljesít (‘Hungary performs better’) any better?

Moreover: in criticizing the “immigration business” Schmidt wonders what will happen to the migrants’ countries of origin, as they lose their educated young people to Europe. (Elsewhere in the book, she states that contrary to the expectations of Western liberals, most refugees are illiterate barbarians unable to get integrated.) Now this is a question we could ask of Hungary as well, considering the current exodus of educated and young people which has already led to shortage of trained labour in many areas, not only in the health care system. Schmidt can, of course, make sarcastic allegations to the behaviour of Jean-Claude Juncker, “the leader of Europe who is in a very good mood already before noon”, and the notorious unclarities around his taxation. But take Viktor Orbán, who is also known for seldom refusing a good drink, with his rumoured mental health issues and with the dense cloud of suspicions of corruption surrounding him, his family and friends – is he any better?

In Austria, the decades of “red-black” (Social-Democrats and Conservatives) coalitions did lead to stagnation and “pillarization” of society on the basis of opportunistic party membership, but how can Schmidt criticize the role of party membership in recruitment or allocation of state funding in Austria, considering how critical media in Hungary has been almost completely silenced and the holders of numerous positions and offices owe maximal loyalty (and silence) to the ruling party? And when Schmidt writes about the Western elites who have ended up “lightyears away from those who do not belong to their circles, so that they will not understand each other any more” (p. 103), I must think of the strange charity action by Zoltán Balog, the minister for human resources, four years ago: Balog took 40 poor children to a posh restaurant to eat a fancy meal including, among other things, goose breast in calvados sauce.

And in general – Schmidt, as populist politicians and speakers in general, can rage against “elites” or the “upper class” without noticing that she herself, as holder of high academic and political positions, as a protegée of decision-makers, a businesswoman who a year ago bought the weekly paper Figyelő for 240 million forints, is irrefutably a member of the elite as well. Schmidt also confidently condemns the style and behaviour of today’s “left-wing elites” (“they lack good manners and refined style, they do not offer a model”, p. 154), obviously without asking herself how this relates to her own writing style.

The worse for the facts

Schmidt not only exaggerates and sets up strawmen, she also brazenly presents some completely untrue statements. In general, her pamphlet texts seldom argue, present facts or source references, but where there are references to facts or figures, these are sometimes modified or do not correspond to truth at all. For example, in Sweden, she claims, the Muslim immigration has led to a dramatic increase of rape and violence (in fact, the high rape rates in Sweden are due to the high readiness of victims to report these crimes – in contrast to many other countries – and very wide criteria of “rape”) and more than 15% (p. 59) – or “close to ten per cent” (p. 140) – of the population are Muslims. I don’t know where her figures come from, but this looks like a decimal error. According to the statistics of the central organ of religious communities in Sweden, the membership of all Islamic communities in sum amounts to some 140,000 people (less than 1.5% of the population). The Swedish Wikipedia gives inofficial estimates up to 400,000 but notes that these are based on the country of origin or on personal names and will not help to exclude secularized ex-Muslims or people of other affiliations (for instance, Christian immigrants from the Near East).

Some statements arouse the suspicion that Schmidt is relying on extreme right-wing alternative media with their alternative facts. (As for the so-called mainstream media in Germany at least, Schmidt claims that it has by now deserved the Nazi term Lügenpresse, ‘press of lies’.) At least one such source is mentioned by name: the German Udo Ulfkotte (1960–2017), a political journalist who after the turn of the millennium increasingly published on the alternative fora of extreme right-wing and racist circles. Similar sources are probably behind Schmidt’s statement (which I find difficult not to call a brazen lie) that Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in the Austrian presidential elections of 2016 was “rigged” (p. 152). In fact, there is a vast body of research and reporting on this issue.

The second round of the Austrian presidential elections in 2016, which Van der Bellen narrowly won against the right-wing populist (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer, had to be repeated due to “irregularities” or what some would call typical Austrian sloppiness. In some electoral districts, postal vote envelopes had been opened too early, unauthorized people had been present at the counting of votes or observers had signed protocols without reading them. However, these were mostly electoral districts in the countryside where Hofer had won the vote, so that election fraud in the sense of really manipulating the votes would have required an incredibly cunning precision work. In fact, no evidence of manipulation of votes was ever presented, nor did the mathematical analysis conducted at the University of Michigan find any indications of fraud. Hofer and other FPÖ functionaries never presented any official and explicit accusations, but with continuous insinuations, they maintained suspicions of fraud among their supporters. Although Hofer admitted his defeat after the repeated election, the belief in electoral fraud continues to live on some right-wing populist fora, and Schmidt presents it as follows (this is also a nice example of her style):

Also in the Austrian election of 2016, they [= the left-wing elite] made fools of themselves. With organized fraud, although by a very narrow margin, they managed to get a typical Western politician elected, a representative of everything that we find impossible to accept or digest. A man with a Commie past [Van der Bellen has publicly admitted having voted for a Communist candidate back in his youth, at a local election – J.L.], a freemason, who later tried his luck among the Greens, now an “independent” candidate gathered to his supporters, perfectly naturally, all public figures from the past of Austria, to testify to the hopeless stagnation of the country’s political life. The left-wing liberal elite of Austria, which used to seize and still seizes every opportunity to lecture us, is still trying to hide the fact that the election had to be repeated due to organized and massive frauds and irregularities and international observers were invited for the new election round. This was an unprecedented election scandal in Europe. I hereby declare myself available as an observer, and if needs be, I can also give a short informative lecture on the importance of the integrity of free elections.

Language, freedom, and democracy?

The closing chapter is authored by Márton Békés, research director of the 21st Century Institute, a young historian already well known on certain right-wing fora. The chapter starts with these words (italics as in the original):

This book creates a home in the language. It deals with political freedom as an extension of freedom of language, and it restores the original meaning of words. While reinstantiating the meanings of concepts which already seemed to be disappearing, it will realize a conservative revolution and restore their origins. (…) The author joins Orwell in declaring: one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.

Nevertheless, I don’t really understand what Schmidt’s book has to do with language. To me, it doesn’t seem very probable that Schmidt or his afterword author Békés have even read George Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English language” (1946), from which they quote. In his essay, Orwell chastises the stupidities of political language use of his times: pretentious diction, vague and meaningless formulations, stale or crippled metaphors… He also gives insightfully chosen examples of different types of stupid texts – and the fourth of them, an excerpt from a contemporary Communist pamphlet, shows a haunting resemblance to Mária Schmidt’s writing. Similar pathetically serious attempts at sarcasm with scare quotes (“the best people”), similar exaggeratedly emotional, yet worn-out attributes, similar political or quasi-religious lingo which, in effect, serves to alienate anybody not devoted to the author’s cause. Just read the following example and compare it with the excerpts from Schmidt’s book given above.

All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Schmidt and Békés are not attempting to bring about “some improvement”; they are merely seeking the “right” language. Like many non-linguists they naïvely believe that each word has its “true” meaning, that is, the meaning that “we” use (and that who belongs to “us” and who doesn’t is a similarly self-evident issue). “Freedom” means freedom in our sense of the word, “corruption” is something that “they” have but “we” haven’t. And the political credo of our leader is based on “courage”, because we have decided to see things that way. This has nothing to do with the facts that this “courageous” leader has already long ago stopped giving interviews to other than his own trusted journalists (not to speak of risking a public debate with a political adversary), that he will answer an opposition politician’s unpleasant question by simply wishing her merry Christmas, or that he can have the protocols of debated political decisions declared secret (as in the case of the Paks nuclear power plant deal).

Freedom is an often-used decoy for freeing a people of its freedom, as the Finnish humorist Olli (Väinö Nuorteva) wrote already decades ago. There is nothing new in questionable uses of the word “freedom”. More interesting questions arise in connection with the concept of democracy or – this term surfaces a few times in this book – “majority democracy” (többségi demokrácia), which Márton Békés in his afterword connects with the concept of majority-rule democracy in the sense of the American right-wing politologist and philosopher Willmoore Kendall (1909–1967). But I will rather leave this to politologists. As a linguist, I’ll return to my own business, silently wondering how a university teacher and a professional scholar can produce – even in a book written for a general readership – such shallow text which seems to shun all rational argumentation.

December 28, 2017

George Soros and George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein

Ever since April 1, when thousands of hard-hitting Jobbik billboards appeared all over the country, a poster war of sorts has been going on in Hungary. The Jobbik campaign by all accounts irritated Viktor Orbán to no end, so he made sure that in the future he will not have to face billboards depicting him as a common thief. After some difficulty, Fidesz smuggled in an amendment to an otherwise innocent enough bill about “community image” that forbids political advertising at any time other than a few weeks before national and municipal elections. Of course, the government will be able to post “informational material” anytime it deems necessary. Which is practically all the time. One poster campaign ends, the next begins. This has been going on for over a year.

I must say that the thousands of posters and billboards, which are everywhere one looks, don’t do much for the “community image” or “beautification of the cityscape,” but apparently people on the spot have become inured to them. In the last few months there have been billboards on “More respect for Hungarians,” “Let’s Stop Brussels,” and “Hungary is a strong and proud European country.” Now they can enjoy a new 5.4 billion forint campaign with thousands of billboards featuring an enormous picture of George Soros. In small print the text reads: “99% reject illegal immigration” and in large letters: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!”

The first thought that popped into people’s heads when confronted with the billboard was the person of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, who was the principal figure in the programs of the Two-Minutes Hate in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of these people was Gábor Török, a well-known political scientist, who quoted at some length from Orwell’s famous novel:

The sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were – in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State.

Indeed, Soros has become Viktor Orbán’s Emmanuel Goldstein. Naturally, those who read Török on Facebook—and he has close to 50,000 followers—wanted to refresh their memories of Orwell’s book, which had been available in the Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár (MEK). But as of today the Hungarian translation of the work has been removed for copyright reasons. I know this sounds suspicious, but from what I read on the subject MEK might have made the book public without properly checking the copyright status of the book.

Almost all commentaries on the billboard itself start with the observation that the message makes no sense. I disagree. For me it is crystal clear what the creator of this particular political message had in mind. It is a different matter that the message is based on false information and premises. The first problem is the unspecified 99% who say no to illegal migration. It gives the misleading impression that 99% of the whole population voted against allowing refugees to settle in Hungary, when the reference is actually to the so-called “national consultation” in which, according to the government’s own admission, only 1.4 million people participated while 7.1 million people stayed away. As for Soros’s last laugh, I think the message is that Soros wants Hungary to be invaded by millions of Middle Easterners and Africans. Once this task is accomplished, he will have a good laugh. But the present-day Goldstein will be stopped by the brave government of the 99%.

This new anti-Soros campaign elicited some vehement reactions. One of the strongest came from Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance and currently chairman of a small opposition group called MoMa, who called the campaign “anti-Semitic propaganda based on lies = fascism.” Albert Gazda of Magyar Nemzet claimed that Orbán’s system is totally void of value, ideology, and ideas. He simply wants to remain in power. All his political moves are subordinated to this end. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish religious communities, reacted cautiously to the poster and what’s behind it. In his opinion the poster campaign creates troubling thoughts in the Jewish community, but this was not the intention of the creators of the campaign. But, he added, the posters themselves may prompt anti-Semitic reactions in certain segments of society, which is something that should be avoided.

Heisler in that interview expressed his doubts that the government can be persuaded by Mazsihisz or any other group to stop this particular campaign because, for one reason or another, this Soros bashing at top volume seems to be a very important goal of the regime. Here a few examples from yesterday and today. Híradó reported that “Lajos Bokros admitted that he gets his money from George Soros’s university.” Sure, he is a professor at Central European University. “His money” is actually his salary. Bokros’s designation of Orbán’s political system as fascism elicited an answer from the Government Information Center: “Lajos Bokros is a member of the Soros network; he is paid by Soros; he lives on Soros’s money.” János Halász, undersecretary in charge of culture in the prime minister’s office, described Bokros as someone “who is simply George Soros’s political mercenary.”

Because of the upcoming Budapest Pride this weekend, a favorite topic on Lőrinc Mészáros’s Echo TV has been homosexuality. Yesterday three right-wing women discussed the dangers homosexuals pose to society. In no time George Soros was accused of pro-homosexual propaganda through NGOs he supports. It is time to recognize that George Soros’s activities are an open attack against families, they warned. Magyar Idők reported this morning that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, also sponsored by George Soros, is giving “sensitivity training” to judges when “dealing with migrants, homosexuals, and other groups living at the periphery of society.” Once the paper found out about these activities, one of its worried journalists contacted the Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH), which reassured him that of 3,000 judges only 106 signed up for the sensitivity training.

Tamás Fricz, a so-called political scientist who has a regular column in Magyar Idők, found an article by Bálint Magyar titled “The EU’s Mafia State” published in Project Syndicate, which is, as he put it, “Soros’s own internet site.” Soros also called Orbán’s political system a mafia state and therefore, says Fricz, it is worth looking at these two people’s relationship. Magyar is described by Fricz as an ultraliberal who is against such traditional values as family, churches, and nations. Thus, “Magyar is one of Soros’s favorites.” After this introduction, Fricz accuses Magyar of being the secret agent of Soros who has been publishing book after book spreading the bad name of Viktor Orbán and his government. “Bálint Magyar is a good boy in the eyes of members of the global elite because he is working for [them] against his own country and therefore he gets lots of candy.” Soros has been in such close contact with Magyar that he “by now goes so far as to call the Orbán government a mafia state.” And now Magyar got the opportunity, I guess granted by Soros, to publish in Project Syndicate. The country must defend itself against the network to which these people belong. The fact is that Project Syndicate does receive some money from the Open Society Foundation, but it is funded by many other foundations as well, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is not Soros’s publication. As far as the description of the Orbán regime as a “mafia state,” by now this phrase is so widespread that any kind of mysterious connection between Soros and Magyar is outright ludicrous.

Origo, which practically overnight became a far-right publication, occasionally outdoes Magyar Idők in hate mongering and spreading false news. This time it attacked László Majtényi, president of Eötvös Károly Intézet (EKINT), for organizing all the Soros-funded NGOs under his own EKINT. Majtényi is also a trusted man of Soros, claims the paper. The truth is that Majtényi met Soros three times at large gatherings where he didn’t even have a chance to talk with him. According to Origo, George Soros is also relying on his son Alexander who was in Budapest lately to use NGOs as their instruments against the Hungarian government. Most of these connections described by the government propaganda machine as sinister are based either on nothing or on distorted facts. When reading these concocted stories, one really does have a feeling of total unreality, very much the same way as when one reads about Goldstein in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There have been a few reports of defacement of some of the Soros posters where someone has scribbled the words “büdös zsidó” over his face. (“Büdös” literally means “stinking” but perhaps “filthy” would be a better match here, so “filthy Jew.”) I find such an outcome almost inevitable. This might be especially uncomfortable since Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit Budapest in two weeks’ time. At the Israeli request Péter Szijjártó already had to recant Viktor Orbán’s statement that Miklós Horthy was an exceptional statesman. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government wasn’t pleased given Horthy’s indisputable role in the Hungarian Holocaust. In fact, Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party, wrote an opinion piece in The Times of Israel in which he insisted that “if Viktor Orban doesn’t personally and fully apologize, Prime Minister Netanyahu should cancel his visit to Hungary.” And now we have reports about the defacing of the Soros posters. It’s hard to imagine that the propaganda gurus didn’t anticipate such an outcome.

July 5, 2017

Modern Hungarian Newspeak

Two days ago the internet news site vs.hu got hold of a 13-page list of words that are deemed unsuitable for use by the management of the Ministry of Human Resources. The list covers all the fields this mammoth ministry is responsible for, from education to culture and health as well as religious and family matters. The initial response was hilarity, but those people who found this list funny may have forgotten about George Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984, the purpose of which was “to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.” The main purpose of this list was to banish concepts by eliminating the words that refer to them.

Obviously, the political leaders of Hungary are not bothered by the striking resemblance between their list and the notorious Newspeak of Orwell. Actually, I would be surprised if Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry, ever read the book. He is old enough to have received his education during the Kádár regime, when Orwell’s works were on the list of forbidden books.

Since we are talking about language, specifically about semantics, on occasion I will have a difficult time explaining the subtle or not so subtle differences between the original word for a concept and its suggested replacement. Let’s start with the easy ones. “Tuition” does not exist. There is no suggested alternative. Employees of the ministry are simply supposed to repeat: Hungary has “tuition-free higher education.” Of course, this is an outright lie. About half of the university and college students pay a steep tuition fee. Or, here is another easy task: “reform” is out. In its place they suggest “structural reconstruction, “fine tuning,” or simply “implementations.” The word “szegény” (poor) is a word this regime does not want to see anywhere. “Poor settlement” is out, and instead ministry employees are supposed to say “underdeveloped settlement.” And now we come to a concept change that will be difficult to explain. A “poor person” is no longer poor but needy (rászorult). Why “rászorult” is better than “szegény” I’m not quite sure. Perhaps because “szegény” indicates a level of permanence whereas a needy person’s situation might be temporary? Instead of “szegénység” (poverty) there is another suggestion besides “rászorultság” (in need)–“nélkülözés,” which literally means something like going without; the dictionary definition is privation, indigence, need. Instead of saying “to decrease poverty,” from here on we should talk about “societal convergence.”

The word “segregated” is to be avoided by all means possible, although we know that most Gypsy children attend segregated schools and that most Roma live in villages which for all practical purposes are segregated. To get rid of this word/concept was too great a task for the wordsmiths of Balog’s staff. The best they could come up with was “peripheral,” as in “peripheral settlement,” or even better “kiszorult,” which means superseded, driven out, supplanted. What these words have to do with “segregation” or “segregated” is beyond me.

Interestingly enough, the word “work” (munka) is not a favorite of the regime despite its claim to be building a society based on work. “Voluntary work” becomes “voluntary activity.” Well, perhaps work must always be something you are paid to do, but then what about the work women do in the home? Do they no longer have to work, just be active? The word for domestic violence, which in Hungarian is family (családi) violence, is out. Instead, they are to talk about violence among people who know each other (kapcsolati erőszak). A “sokgyermekes család” (a family with many children) should be called “többgyermekes család” (a family with more children), I guess because there can never be too many children in a family.

Instead of “Kulturkampf” we ought to use “discussion of values.” Why “idősödés” is better than “öregedés” I wouldn’t know. Both mean “aging.” “Equal opportunity” seems to be a dirty word too. The government is offering only an “opportunity for equality” (esélyteremtés). Some will presumably have more of an opportunity than others. “Equality” in general is troublesome in their eyes. “Equality of the sexes” is frowned upon. One should say “societal equality of women and men” or “more harmonic cooperation between women and men.” For these politicians the ideal is still a woman who stays at home and looks after her husband and children. Sexual differences for them override any abstract notion of equality.

Instead of “people” in the sense of “Hungarian people,” we should always talk about the Hungarian nation (nemzet). Instead of “society” (társadalom) we should use “community” (közösség). The difference between these two concepts is obvious. A community is tied together by a special fellowship and identity while members of a society are not so linked. Perhaps this is a more explicit way of banishing people who are not like-minded from the community or, at best, relegating them to the periphery.

Let me mention a few real oddities. One is the word “vak,” which should be used instead of “világtalan.” I don’t know what will happen to the saying: “Vak vezet világtalant,” meaning “blind leads blind.” We also learned that “stadium” is a word to avoid. Instead it should be called a “sports complex” or “sportcsarnok used for many functions.” Oh, yes, let’s stop calling the nation’s attention to the fact that the prime minister of the country has been spending taxpayer money, a lot of it, on football stadiums.

Perhaps the most surprising suggestion is to avoid the word “Jew, Jewish” (zsidó). The ministry suggests that we go back about a hundred years when, as I mentioned in one of my comments on the 1910 Hungarian census this morning, the followers of Judaism were described as “izrealiták.” This is an old-fashioned and nowadays never used word. It denotes only religion, not ethnicity. There are few practicing Jews in Hungary, so I assume the rest of the Jewish community has just lost its identity.

szegeny

There are so many Hungarian literary allusions to poverty and poor people in both concrete and figurative terms that bloggers couldn’t help making fun of the suggestion to rid the language of the word ” szegény.” Yes, perhaps if we banish the words for “poor” and “poverty” all those poor people, all four million of them who live in “underdeveloped settlements” and attend “peripheral schools,” will simply disappear. And, by the way, Hungary will no longer have a Roma “minority” (kisebbség). It will have a “Roma nationality” (Roma nemzetiség), which I don’t think will make their situation any better. For example, they will no longer get “compensation” (kártérítés), as in the case of the victims of the serial murders, but will receive only “mitigation of damages” (kárenyhítés).

I think other ministries should get on board. Just think of all the words that could be eliminated–words like corruption and lying on the one hand and democracy and free speech on the other.

András Bruck’s new encounter with George Orwell’s 1984

Before the holidays I wrote two posts dealing with different interpretations of the system Viktor Orbán established in Hungary in the last three and a half years. Now I offer yet another analysis, this time by András Bruck. It appeared only a week ago in Élet és Irodalom.  Bruck is one of the most astute, and most radical, observers of Hungarian political life. His conclusion is that all those on the left who claim that Hungary is still “a kind of democracy” are kidding themselves. Bruck makes no bones about it: he considers Orbán’s Hungary a dictatorship pure and simple. His essay, which I summarize here, deals with the similarities between George Orwell’s nightmarish Nineteen Eighty-four and Orbán’s Hungary today.

Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four were on the list of forbidden books in Hungary until the mid-1980s, but a few people did manage to get copies already in the 1960s. I personally received requests from friends to bring them along in either 1967 or 1968. It seems that Bruck managed to get hold of a copy only sometime in the early 1980s. He was disappointed. The book was about “a different bad world” from the one in which he lived. While making love he felt neither fear nor hatred. He didn’t consider the three famous slogans of Ingsoc, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH appropriate for Kádár’s Hungary.

This spring he found his copy of Nineteen Eighty-four in the bottom of a box: “it lay there like a skeleton but this time the dead came to life.” Bruck reached the conclusion that “every word of that book from the first to the last is about this sick, deformed regime in which, just like in the novel, the binding agent of power is lying.” Everything  means the opposite of what it is officially called. The Manifesto of National Cooperation is the document of national division; the Peace March is actually a battle march, just as in Orwell’s book the Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war. The leaders of these marches are the messengers of hatred, men like Gábor Széles, Zsolt Bayer, and András Bencsik.

Today’s government party has its own Emmanuel Goldstein–Ferenc Gyurcsány, the number one enemy of the people whom it is a patriotic duty to hate. Many of those who are the loudest in his condemnation know nothing about him just as Julia, Winston’s lover, doesn’t have the foggiest idea who Goldstein was.

In Orbán’s Hungary words have lost their meaning. In his world “Hungarian ownership” actually means handing property, factories, land to his own family, friends, and minions. To be national and Hungarian means to agree with his and his government’s decisions. If he says that Hungary’s economy is the most competitive in the region, it means that the country is sliding downward. When he says that everybody in Europe is envious of us this means that everybody is horrified at the changes that have taken place in Hungary since 2010.

Orwell 3

Hungarians are often amazed at Orbán’s temerity when they hear that he is capable of saying one thing one day and on the next its exact opposite. But in Orwell’s novel Winston Smith wonders how it is possible that one day the announcement is made that the chocolate ration was reduced to twenty grams and the next day people are told that it was raised to twenty grams. “Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it.”

Then, Bruck quotes a few sentences from Nineteen Eighty-four that he finds appropriate:

“If the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered.”

“The fabulous statistics continued to pour out of the telescreen.”

One “should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It doesn’t matter whether the war is actually happening.”

“To change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.”

“The proles are not human beings.”

“The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred.”

Bruck finds all these in Orbán’s system. Even anti-Orbán analysts don’t understand the nature of the system. They simply refuse to acknowledge that there is dictatorship in Hungary. “But if you deny it you must act as if there is democracy or in the worst case it is a mafia state.” After the disgraceful speech Orbán delivered on October 23 in which “he tossed half the nation in front of a coming train” left-wing analysts on ATV had barely anything to say. “They analyzed. They know and declare that there is no morality and decency in the world of politics and if cannibalism would bring votes then it is the good politician who would chew half an arm right there in the studio.”

Winston Smith, although well versed in the system of Ingsoc, understood how the regime operated but “he didn’t understand why.” In Hungary the left-wing intellectual elite, very much like Smith, can’t understand why Orbán hamstrings the schools, why he drains all the assets of the banks, why he creates hatred, why he makes the lives of the poor even more miserable, why he appoints all those half-wits to important jobs, why he isolates his country, why he turns to the dictators of the tundra, why he wants to see his political opponents in jail, why he takes others’ money, in brief why he is behaving like a dictator. Surely, Bruck continues, all this is not done only to let the mafia state move money more easily from one oligarch to the next. Was all this barbarity introduced only to make it easy for one company to get all the tenders offered by the state? Clearly, Bruck doesn’t believe in the theory of the mafia state.

The answer to Smith’s question about the “why” of the Orwellian state comes from O’Brien: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” Bruck here says, “At last! Someone at last said it. In the depth of my soul I wished for such a sentence. So besides the sheer wanting of power, besides the psychology of the totalitarian mind, there is nothing else…. there is no ideology, no vision, no ideas about the future.”

In order for a dictatorship to function one needs consciously created ignorance, which goes together with the falsification of history. According to Bruck, Orbán and Fidesz began by falsifying the history of the first twenty years that followed the regime change. Then they rewrote the history of 1944, and on October 23 they began the falsification of the history of ’56. Winston Smith says in 1984 that “if the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened–that, surely, was  more terrifying than mere torture and death.” Or later: “And if all others accepted the  lie which the Party imposed–if all records told the same tale–then the lie passed into history and became truth.” After all, Bruck adds, a new historical institute is already planned whose name will be Veritas. Perhaps in a better future it can more appropriately be called the Institute of Mendacity. “What else is waiting for us? A few more years and we won the battle of the Don. And not one Jew was deported because the governor didn’t allow it…. Not even the present is taboo anymore. Only recently the prime minister announced that there was no revolution in 2010 when he himself earlier said that there was one, which was endorsed by parliament.” O’Brien has something to say about this also: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

Bruck bitterly concludes his essay with these words. “So, luckily we don’t have to worry because the prime minister himself denies that there was a revolution in Hungary while the whole Hungarian left denies the existence of dictatorship. So, it seems all is well.”