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Voices from the Goulash Archipelago

Voices from the Goulash Archipelago Thoughts on the Orbán speech

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has made his yearly pilgrimages to Băile Tușnad (Tusnádfürdő in Hungarian) in Romania into opportunities for oracular speeches on the fate of the Hungarian nation and for the West. This is part of his successful attempt to portray himself to the electorate back home and in the Hungarian near abroad, but also for partners in the West and the East, as a visionary statesman addressing civilizational and national decline rather than just another opportunistic politician seeing a line he could cynically use. His forays into ideological dialogue with American and European political forces (through appearances by him and his allies in CPAC in the US and the recent National Conservatism Conference in Brussels) have made him a persona non grata to the European liberal set, but also raised his and his country’s stature in the minds of disaffected Westerners. His recent speech in Băile Tușnad / Tusnádfürdő was erudite and wide ranging, and inspired significant outcry in Europe and, partly, in the US, through his use of racial language in describing Western decline and his hopes for Hungarian continuity and flourishing. Everybody and his mother are either praising or attacking Orbán for this speech and I thought I would briefly throw my hat into the ring, not necessarily for commenting his speech but rather the metapolitical context in which it was made. 

Dancing around the issue 

The racial angle of the speech made more waves than the advocacy for a break with European support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia in favor some sort of neutral stance. This was surprising for me because, like many ideologues in power, Viktor Orbán’s speeches are strong in the descriptive and weak in the prescriptive portions. His soaring rhetoric hides deficiencies in the steps his government can actually take to prevent the ills he conjures up. His invocation of demographic issues among Hungarians and his efforts to correct these issues are disjointed, because the Hungarian government’s extensive economic policies have failed to truly make an appreciable dent in the Total Fertility Rate of the country, which is still quite far below Romania’s (1.49 to 1.72 in 2019 according to the World Bank). He offers no disruptive policy solutions to Western decline, even as he criticizes it for his audience, thereby avoiding having to directly contradict his partners’ and allies’ policies at home. The Russia and Ukraine portion of his speech is the only actionable segment.

Basically, the reaction to the episode amounted to pearl clutching on the part of his detractors, who could moan through the media about his deplorable positions, less by refuting them than by establishing for their own populations, through mood affiliation, that only a bad person would hold onto these convictions. Just like his speech was intended for an audience that already agrees with him, most of them back home, the public Western reaction is also meant for their local population.

This is, of course, a waste of an opportunity to show why their model is superior, if indeed it is, but also an opportunity for obscurantism, the deliberate hiding of facts. The revolution of DNA testing has meant that specialized labs can and do analyze human population, both current and ancient, and their clustering by genetic distance maps very well to the conventional thought on the existence of Europeans, Sub-Saharan Africans, East Asians, South Asians, Melanesians etc. There is an entire Ancient DNA Lab at Harvard dedicated to these studies. By denying the scientific consensus and appealing to scientists turned activists who gatekeep the flow of information from academia to the general population, the West undermines its own arguments and also its policy formulation capability, building policies on already wrong assumptions and courting disaster once their consensus fails, as they are dug “into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science” and “whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims”.

 Even Orbán’s vague allusion to the countries ceasing to be nations because of unassimilated immigration is, though simplistic, also based on existing social science research by authors in good standing, such as Harvard’s Robert Putnam or the AEI’s Charles Murray. The former is a famously progressive sort who has spoken at length about his horrified discovery that diversity leads to weaker social bonds, lower community investment, lower trust in others and in leaders, lower social capital etc. These problems are not just theoretical, they are also empirically proven through a cursory glance at the growing pains of the multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial West, and how the passage of time has only made them worse, whether it is terrorism, the radicalization of second generations, no-go zones, resentment over persistent gaps in achievement, native flight from communities etc.

A better response to the Orbán speech would have been to engage with the arguments, to acknowledge their partial veracity and to emphasize how the Western authorities have addressed or will address these concerns, which their own populations increasingly share. Instead, the Western political class behave like ostriches and then wonder why parties from out of the blue, sometimes run by grifters and extremists trying to perform entryism (entering an organization to change it from within), explode onto the scene riding a wave of popular discontent. American political scientist Timur Kuran has spoken at length about the distance between the population and their elites in views and how speech codes and taboos falsify preferences in politics and policy which then hinders correction and leads to sudden or catastrophic shifts from seemingly small cause – in our case, to festering resentment against foreigners, politicians, the wealthy classes, to voting for populist parties and to revel in the breaking of political norms.

Another source of surprise regarding the speech is how banal it was. Having followed the Trump phenomenon before there was a Trump, through the paleoconservative ideology under the American surface, I had read far stronger stuff in the affiliated websites, publications and books. This is not esoteric knowledge available only to initiates, but a very visible online phenomenon involving a gradual build-up of ideas, attitudes and arguments which only in their later stages become visible as political movements with parties, leaders and agendas. It is the same for Generation Identitaire in Europe, the Alt-Right in the US and the currents which later become the populist wave that led to Brexit or to new parties upsetting previously stable legislatures (like the AfD in Germany). One could excuse the average “normie” for hearing these things for the first time, but mainstream ideologues have much fewer excuses for not having prepared their counter-arguments (or their policy corrections) and for having relied on gatekeepers in academia and in the mainstream media to sweep counterculture discourses under the rug. There, they not only become stronger and more attractive in a Darwinian manner, through constant testing and adjustment, but they are also open to subversion by truly dangerous ideologues, the kind for whom purifying violence is the solution in search of a problem.

Ultimately, the greatest gift that the West gave to its opponents, who may be true believers, conmen or simply opportunists, is a monopoly on bringing up certain uncomfortable truths which are otherwise taboo. This raises the stature of those who defy convention (everybody loves a rebel) by bringing up these issues and by mocking those in power for their unrecognized failings. This also has the issue of obscuring the difference between descriptive and prescriptive speech, with people ending up with the idea that the man who eloquently points to their problems must also have the solution for them, which is rarely the case. This is why most -isms that have plagued us in history offer legitimate criticism of the systems they tried to reform of supplant, but many ended up exceeding their vices and injustices once in power. 

The underbelly of the problem 

Some of these observations have, undoubtedly, been articulated by others, as they are easy to make. The biggest issue that I see with the Orbán speech is that it has already become its own form of reactionary cliché that we have heard before, obscuring an underlying issue that remains unaddressed by even the most ardent populist. Many have rightfully pointed out that Hungary is not under threat of being swamped by immigration. Rather, its decline comes from emigration, low birthrates and decreases in the fertile age population. Seen in this context, Orbán’s speech simply undermines ideological opponents in Budapest by linking them to undesirable hypotheticals like mass migration into Hungary and the alienation of rapid demographic shifts. By exposing his adversaries as anti-nationalists, traitors or ideological nutcases, he makes himself look like the lesser evil, despite his own corruption and concentration of power.

The true issue that no organized populist force has touched is that the main problem with countries in Central and Eastern Europe (and in the West, if we discount immigration) is with their own populations. Our age of hedonist consumerism, globalization and constant self-actualization in an environment of invidious comparisons has degraded the lower classes and turned the upper ones into globally-mobile, utility-maximizing cosmopolitans with increasingly fewer ties to their homelands. Charles Murray has spoken at length about the elite abandonment of the lower orders and the measurable impact this has had in the US. This is a recipe for disaster, but no politician can blame The People and survive. He cannot harangue them that they are failing their ancestors and themselves by not reproducing, and they are shirking their collective duty by not staying on to improve their homeland through their personal involvement and their taxes. He can only pinpoint specific groups, either within or outside of the country, to indicate as an “other” and hope that man’s tribal nature leads, indirectly, to greater solidarity, a sense of urgency, and higher fertility. But no Western or Westernized country has yet to achieve a critical mass of such people. Most are still in the phase in which they expect to vote themselves out of trouble.

Men like Viktor Orbán lack the rhetorical tools, the imagery and the memes to properly take their own populations to task that the social contract works both ways. The only developed country that has done so and parlayed it into higher fertility rates for secular people is Israel, and only in the specific conditions of constant reaffirmation of historical trauma, constant exposure to low intensity conflict along ethnic, religious and demographic lines, and constant existential anxiety concerning its neighborhood. This is not something that we can emulate (or should want to), and we must find our own way towards affirming individual responsibility towards the collective as a moral urgency.

The closest we have got in Eastern Europe to flirting with the blame game for our own populations has been the occasional fanning of resentment against national diasporas by local politicians, on the subject of voting in national elections or perceived free riding on the educational infrastructure of the country.

Such blame is obviously not politically impossible, since Western polities have already waged campaigns of humiliation, blame and moral urgency on their populations, but focused on the ruling orthodoxy of tolerance for increasingly varied minorities and niche minority persuasions or issues of personal and collective contribution to climate change.

I see the Orbán speech as a form of misdirection, because the true argument he needs to make, the moral and cultural one, and its true intensity are beyond his current political possibilities. Therefore, he is stuck with fear and resentment of others as a proxy to induce a tribal response that then, meshed with economic policies that alter incentives at the micro level, would lead to higher birthrates, more small-c conservative lifestyles and a growth in the emotive power of non-economic arguments against emigration. 

Ending on a sour note 

I would end this article with a remark on the lackluster response by Romanian authorities to this speech. Firstly, they kept up the dismal fiction that Orbán’s presence in Romania, with its overt electoral importance, is as a private person rather than a head of government, thereby not requiring protests, restrictions or involvement on the part of the Romanian authorities (though some prior consultations did take place for Romanian sensibilities regarding ethnic-based regional autonomy). This has less to do with Hungary than with appeasing the local Hungarian political forces who, through canny maneuvering and a lot of hard work, have turned themselves into nearly indispensable kingmakers for coalitions in Romania’s notoriously unstable politics. This is especially troubling since, as the Romanian Academy’s LARICS group has noted, Hungarian government programs in the formerly Habsburg West of the country go beyond any sort of reasonable cultural ties with local ethnics and veer into trespassing on Romanian sovereignty, including through economic programs (the Kos Karolyi Plan) that do not have any stamp of approval from the national authorities. That Mr. Orbán walks in and speaks his mind as if he owns the place is to be expected, when sometimes not even feeble protests are raised from Bucharest. Secondly, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a tepid response to what was a rousing and well-built speech, by retreating into legalese surrounding bilateral treaties and European values pablum. Other reactions from the Romanian political class amounted to pearl clutching.

Regardless of whether one agrees or not with elements of the Orbán speech, one should at least expect a similarly competent response from the national authorities, either agreeing with him, refuting him or ignoring his ideological flourishes in favor of reestablishing the country line on the abusive nature of Hungary’s relationship to Romania as concerns its representatives’ presence and activities in sovereign Romanian territory. And I would have expected the latter message to be delivered in person by the Prime Minister, the President or the Minister of Foreign Affairs during the summer schools in Băile Tușnad, which have long been bereft of suitable presence from the Romanian authorities to engage in discussions, to present Romanian positions, and to make that event into a true exchange of ideas to improve Romanian-Hungarian relations. The general milquetoast responses from Romanian authorities are a sign of weakness that invite further political, ideological and rhetorical escalation, from our soil no less, and it will eventually result in stronger grassroots reactions from Romanian society, with impact on the comity between Romanians and Romanian Hungarians, which a responsible political class should take steps to prevent from ever occurring.



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