Yesterday Miklós Haraszti commented on my post about Viktor Orbán’s “unwanted immigrants.” I considered his contribution so valuable that, with his permission, I am republishing it as a full-fledged post.
First, a few words about Miklós Haraszti, who has played an important role in Hungarian politics. In 1976 he co-founded the Hungarian Democratic Opposition Movement and in 1980 became editor of the samizdat periodical “Beszélő.” In 1989 he participated in the “roundtable discussions” among all the political parties, which eventually led to free elections. Between 1990 and 1994 he was a member of parliament, and between 2004 and 2010 he served as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Currently he is UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus.
In yesterday’s post I translated the twelve questions the Hungarian government will pose to voters about their attitudes toward “economic immigrants,” which in the original is “megélhetési bevándorlók.” The Hungarian adjective “megélhetési” is practically untranslatable for reasons that Haraszti’s explanation of the word and its history makes evident. “Economic” is at best a sanitized translation of “megélhetési.” Without understanding the real meaning of the Hungarian word, we cannot grasp the baseness of Viktor Orbán’s world.
Here I am combining two separate comments by Mr. Haraszti, the second of which was prompted by my remark that to the best of my knowledge it was fairly recently that a Hungarian politician coined the phrase “megélhetési politikusok.” In this second comment we learn about the origin of the phrase.
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Let me add a little linguistics of meanness. Orbán, throughout his anti-immigration PR campaign, and in his 12-point “National Consultation” questionnaire, identifies the refugees as “megélhetési bevándorlók,” which is then translated for international consumption as “economic immigrants.” This is what we find in Eva’s translation. But it is no match for the cruelty of the original adjective, “megélhetési.” Orbán never uses the adjective “economic,” that is “gazdasági,” when he speaks in Hungarian. What his consultation uses, “megélhetési,” is in fact a ready-made hate word in Hungarian political language.
Of course, the questionnaire’s hateful, xenophobic content speaks for itself even with “economic immigrant,” but the reader should know that what the Hungarians get, the original “megélhetési,” means “parasitic, opportunistic, profiteering, sharking” — and means all this in a super-despising way — it simply means a swindler.
Examples: “megélhetési gyermekvállaló” (parents who ‘produce’ children solely for the sake of child welfare benefits) — it means a Roma parent and nothing else.
Or: “megélhetési bűnöző” (a criminal out of poverty) — invariably just means a gypsy.
Or: “megélhetési politikus” — means a corrupt politician. Etc, etc.
The history of the phrase “megélhetési politikusok”
The first political usage of the adjective was in the expression “megélhetési politikusok” (politicians who are ready to serve whoever is ready to pay them). The inventor was Miklós Csapody, ex-MDF, who coined it sometime between 1996 and 1998, the day after the defection of MPs Ervin Demeter and Csaba Hende from MDF. These two decided to move over to the Fidesz benches, weakening the small liberal-conservative wing of the remaining MDF. (The Sándor Lezsák/István Balsai national-conservative wing of MDF had defected earlier.) Csapody severely criticized Demeter and Hende. Ervin Demeter was later rewarded by being appointed minister of civilian intelligence services in the first government of Orbán. After the fall of that government, he was involved (together with László Kövér) in the UD Zrt. private eye wiretapping scandal which was intended to ruin — whom else — his former boss, Ibolya Dávid. The other, Csaba Hende (today minister of defense), became the central Fidesz keeper/financer of the “polgári körök” (civic circles) in 2002, a movement which was Orbán’s Red Guard/Tea Party within his own party in 2002 when he lost the elections and mutineers challenged his continuing leadership.
Csapody’s word, the adjective “megélhetési” as used for politicians, became proverbial, simply meaning “corrupt,” or worse, “fake and greedy.” Typically for Orbán, he now utilizes a term that was famously intended to provoke him and his party.
The word “megélhetési” had existed earlier. It has a liberal origin, it was an invention of political correctness, and I cannot exclude the possibility that Csapody, when he used it against Fideszniks, picked it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make it even more humiliating. Namely, sociologists and lawyers had long used it to describe a kind of petty criminality where the perpetrators (thieves, typically) steal only in order to have something to eat that day. It had been used as an equivalent of “poverty criminality” and, unquestionably, it had an explanatory, attenuating, almost acquitting flavor. Therefore MIÉP, Jobbik, and their Fidesz copy-pasters started to use it sarcastically, ridiculing liberal political correctness, agitating against “those who have kind words for criminals and thereby encourage them.” They started to use it for “Gypsy” as a “politically correct” racist slur. (That is, instead of using Roma, they would say: “there comes a suntanned “megélhetési bűnöző.”) The adjective started to stand on its own as a noun, a biting euphemism for Roma: “egy megélhetési” or “a megélhetésiek,” hitting both the Roma and the liberals.
The story of the word is thus full of surprises. Csapody, when he turned it against right-wing politicians, of course knew about the racist usage of the originally PC adjective. In fact, it was his own PC, modern way of saying “cigánykodás,” which means largely the same. (See: http://www.nyest.hu/hirek/ciganykodas-zsidoskodas-skotsag-bevezetes-az-etnosztereotipiak-vilagaba).
And now Orbán puts his hands on the term and openly uses it in a “National Consultation” to describe any refugees of the East and the South who dare to enter Hungary. Using the adjective “megélhetési” instead of “gazdasági” also means: “Do you want to have more Gypsies, sent along by the EU in order to ruin our nation?”
Addendum: the noun “megélhetés”
I forgot to say what “megélhetés,” the noun, means. Its most basic meaning is “livelihood.” Thus “megélhetési,” the adjective made from it, means pursuing or rather imitating a vocation or a victimhood solely for the material gains of that status. Both mean profiteering, cheating.
One of the beauties of the Hungarian language is that it is easy to create adjectives from nouns and vice versa. So, an English translation that would carry the oddness of Orbán’s vocabulary could have been: livelihood-immigrants or refugees, or even better “occupational immigrants” and not “economic immigrants.”