After Viktor Orbán delivered his speech at the Friends of Hungary Foundation on Saturday, I received two e-mails calling my attention to it. One of them included a commentary on the speech by Zoltán Bodnár, former CEO of the Hungarian Export-Import Bank and earlier a deputy chairman of the Hungarian National Bank. Lately, Bodnár can often be seen on TV as the adviser to Gábor Fodor’s liberal party on economic matters.
Bodnár called Orbán’s speech a milestone, akin to his speech in Romania last summer about illiberal democracy. “Any of you who still have doubts about what kind of a society Orbán wants … should listen to this speech.” I searched for newspaper accounts of the event but was disappointed. I couldn’t find any earthshaking revelations in the summaries of Orbán’s speech. Bodnár must be exaggerating, I thought.
Today I know what the problem was. The summary that appeared in scores of Hungarian newspapers was prepared by MTI, the official Hungarian news agency, whose management has a keen sense of what should be left out of their reports. Anything that would create an outcry both at home and abroad must be ignored. And Bodnár was right. Those missing lines would have created an uproar if they had been widely reported.
First, I will look at the speech as it appeared on Orbán’s website. I will concentrate on those sections that were left out of the MTI summary and will also point to the prime minister’s creative use of quotation marks. Second, I will call attention to some very important sentences that were uttered during the question and answer period but were not transcribed for the prime minister’s official website.
What is it that Bodnár and others found more objectionable and more telling than Viktor Orbán’s words about “illiberal democracy”?
Democracy versus autocracy
The main theme of the speech was the necessity of breaking through political taboos that prevent us from finding the right answers to real questions. Instead of listening to our instincts, “we escape to a world of voodoo and taboo away from our own questions, the questions of our own lives.” According to the Hungarian prime minister, Europe is spending its energies on sterile debates about ideology and political systems instead of trying to find answers to such important questions as “how it is possible that while Europeans–including ourselves–value democracy over non-democratic arrangements, the latter are more successful today? Will democracy in the decades ahead–as we would like to believe–be capable of providing good political leadership?” While last summer Orbán simply talked about illiberal democracies, by now he got to the point of doubting that democracy can be a viable instrument of political leadership. While allegedly valuing democracy, he testified to the superiority and even desirability of autocracy over democracy.
Orbán elaborated on this theme: “The European politician is inclined to suppose that the question of political arrangement is of the utmost importance because, if it is solved, the problems of reality are automatically taken care of.” I think this sentence needs a “translation.” In my interpretation, what Orbán means here is that European politicians believe that democracy is the foundation of a healthy society and economic system, but in his opinion that is not the case. Democracy itself doesn’t solve problems, and solving problems doesn’t require a democratic system.
These were the main points that were cunningly left out of the MTI summary that circulated in the Hungarian media.
While I’m still on the main body of the speech, I’d like to point out at least one instance in which Orbán falsified his source. Orbán wanted to prove that small nations actually have an advantage over large ones in this uncertain world and that therefore “Hungary has a real chance to show new ways, new means, and methods for the benefit of the whole world.” What is the supporting evidence for this contention? Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, wrote an article a couple of months ago titled “Are You Ready for the Technological Revolution?” In it Schwab claims that “the defining features of [the new post-post crisis world] is the rapid pace of technological change. It is so fast that people are even referring to it as a technological revolution. This revolution is unlike any previous one in history, and it will affect us all in ways we cannot even begin to imagine…. In this new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.” The message is that countries, regardless of their size, will be successful as long as they respond quickly to technological challenges.
Orbán the technophobe took liberties both with Schwab’s text and with the very notion of citation. He attributed the following sentences to Schwab, putting them inside quotation marks: “The era has ended in which a big fish eats the small one. From here on the fast fish will rule while the slow ones will be destroyed. In this new world nothing will be taboo, we must study and re-evaluate all practices.”
“No” to an intellectual direction that is considered progressive
Finally, let me translate a passage that can be heard on a five-minute video in which the key sentences from the speech were collected. The most valuable part of the video is the one- or one-and-a-half-minute segment from the question and answer period. From Orbán’s answer it seems that someone from the audience must have said something about the “bad communication” of the government as the reason for Hungary’s unsavory reputation abroad. Orbán corrected him. Yes, communication could have been better, but this is not the only reason for the West’s dislike of his government. Here is the relevant text:
There is an intellectual debate in Europe about which way the Continent should be heading. What its mission is. In my opinion we are on the right side of this debate, but it is not a popular one. Today those are in the majority who think that Europe should move toward the fulfillment of individual rights, and that means three things. For example, it would help our individual freedom if we could get rid of our sexual identity. They think it would further the cause of freedom if we could get rid of our national identity. They think that we would be better off if we could rid ourselves of those ideas that stem from being God’s creatures. In this case we could make decisions more freely about life’s questions. But we don’t agree. It is better if we openly admit that. In our opinion, man will not be freer if he removes the barriers imposed on him by being a created entity. [Applause] In our opinion we don’t have to get rid of our sexual identity, our national identity. Here we cannot make concessions even if our reputation suffers. In these questions we can’t lie. The truth is that we don’t agree with the intellectual direction that considers itself progressive.
At least Orbán is honest here, which is something. It doesn’t happen too often. My other correspondent, who shared his reaction with me and many others, wrote: “I’m in despair. What should we do? What can we do? Our leader went mad. I feel sick!”
In the one published reaction to the video I found these words: “It rarely happens that I have to search for words, but it has happened. I looked at, I listened to the mad speech of our leader, and even without a degree in medicine I can say: we are in big trouble.”
What can I add to that? Perhaps I should correct the blogger who thinks that something is wrong with Orbán’s mental state. No, I am convinced that he is perfectly sane and that he believes every word in this speech as well as in many others. They are all variations on the same theme, except the message gets stronger with the passage of time. I wonder when the day will come that the Hungarian people as well as the European Union decide that they have had enough.