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"Almost nobody seems to care"

In an interview, philosopher G. M. Tamás tells PEN/Opp why freedom of speech and democracy are in decline in his home country.

Credits Text: Daniel Gustafsson March 13 2018

G. M. Tamás is a philosopher and public intellectual. He writes primarily about political and aesthetic questions and has been published widely in international media. He is known for developing the concept of post-fascism.

For this issue of PEN/Opp we have gathered texts, both non-fiction and fiction, about the state of freedom of speech in Hungary. Some of them point to the fact that on one hand anyone can speak freely, on the other hand, that the channels of expressing this right is highly limited – the state has gained control over both public service and most of mainstream media. How do you view the state of free speech in Hungary right now, with just a month to the upcoming elections?

– The problem is what the centrally organised media conglomerate in Hungary does have to say and what it does say. Which is nothing else but the most savage racism and ethnic hatred. Everybody who does not agree is branded a communist, a closet homosexual, a paid agent of ‛Abroad’ (Ausland) or the flunkey of a nebulous ‛global shadow power’ that bears distinctly Semitic features. Mostly the face of George Soros, of course.

All this results in bewilderment, hatred and fear. About one half of the population finds this grotesque, risible and fearsome, but does not do – and what is worse – does not say anything about it. You’ll find ‛opposition intellectuals’ if you’re a foreigner who will tell you how disgusted they are but in the remaining, relatively free opposition press they won’t say anything, citing ennui and disenchantment with ‛politics’ as if racist madness and dictatorship would be identical with emancipatory, egalitarian, feminist and, in general, freedom-loving politics. Good politics and bad politics are the same, liberty and tyranny are both political, thus despicable.

Especially, hardly anyone dares to challenge audibly the Orbán government’s anti-immigrant paranoia which is at the centre of everything. (While in fact there are practically no refugees on the Hungarian national territory.) There is a tragi-comical ‛election campaign’ here now and none of the major ‛opposition’ parties says clearly that they are against this. All have solemnly promised that they will keep the anti-refugee border fence at the Serbian frontier and all are against the EU refugee quotas. And this is, although only to a lesser degree, true of the whole Central Europe

Press freedom is relative. During the second world war, the Budapest social democrat daily, Népszava [The People’s Voice], was censored but published, while hundreds of thousands of Jews were dragged in broad daylight on the streets of Budapest to their deaths – the theatres, the cinemas, the cabarets were playing, the football championship went on and popular magazines offered young Christian girls good tips for a successful technique in flirtation and the latest in fashions. So? – We have, I am told, excellent poetry readings and experimental film festivals, daring books are being published (though fewer titles, and circulation numbers are more modest) while Syrian and Afghan refugees are starving and suffering and waiting endlessly at our borders and almost nobody seems to care, even a little.

When visiting Hungary, one cannot avoid the weight of how the government broadcasts its message now even in the physical environment, through giant billboards all over towns and countryside. I have visited Hungary regularly over the last twenty years, and for me this development is unparalleled, and renders the landscape a slightly absurd air. How do you, as an intellectual, cope with this, seeing and hearing these messages everywhere, every single day? Or do you just look the other way?

– It is not only the billboards, it’s the press and the flyers in my mailbox and the radio when I am searching for good music. But I don’t care. And I don’t care because nobody cares or people, at most, are laughing. This is an irresponsible and superficial country. It is they, my fellow citizens, who horrify me, and the schoolchildren who are yelling ‛migrant, migrant!’ at one another when they are playing catch in the park. It is the 80 percent of my compatriots who are anti-immigrant and anti-Roma, it is the 40-50 percent who are homophobic and anti-Semitic who are scary, not the billboards. For billboards, you need only money and the complicity of pliant local government. And I am not looking the other way, I am fighting, although with less and less hope and, frankly, I am getting tired of these quixotic efforts myself.

The opposition papers call racism ‛idiotic’ and ‛boring’. Hence, it is vulgar, it is in poor taste to protest. ‛And, let’s be realistic, Muslim immigrants are a headache, now be serious, old man, and forget all those sentimental bromides about human rights and about the brotherhood of man (not to mention sisterhood).’ We all know that self-censorship is more dangerous than censorship. Laughing at fascists while failing to disagree in substance is nothing. And this is what is happening.

Gergely Nagy writes in a text about the art field, that Budapest is a kind of bubble, where funding is scarce, but a limited free art life exists. How would you, as an academic and writer, reflect on Budapest as an intellectual bubble?

– Budapest is an intellectual bubble, but this was so that even before 1989 regardless of so-called censorship; today there is a free art and intellectual life as well which is quite vivid but by no means inventive. And our pride, irony. You have any number of manifestations bursting with cynicism, bitterness, parodic verve and self-mockery, quite entertaining, granted. But this is only the obverse of the official pathos which is being found ridiculous and bizarre, and this is no challenge to the Right, let alone a match for it. It is too little, too late.

I used to be, to a certain extent, part of this ‛bubble’ scene myself, but as I am unable (not unwilling) to smile and to be amusing, I somehow drifted away, unwelcome. So, this ‛Budapest bubble’ is a sign of life but it would take a little moral and intellectual effort to make it subversive and really critical. Even in Vienna – certainly no model for anti-fascists – when one of these far right cabinet members said that he aims at ‛concentrating’ undesirable foreigners, the echo of this word (reminiscent of concentration camps) was enough to send tens of thousands of Viennese onto the streets in protest. In such cases, our opposition politicos would say, oh, let’s talk about the health service instead. Or about corruption. Never is heard a dissenting word. Although – and this is the supreme joke – this is not forbidden.

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