Dispatch from Budapest
Notes on a conversation with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán
Two of our number (the authors) were invited speakers at the recently concluded MCC Feszt—a three-day cultural, intellectual, and musical festival in Esztergom, Hungary. An ancient city dominated by the Primatial Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Adalbert, on a high hill above the city center, Esztergom was Hungary’s first capital and remains the primatial see. The sold-out festival drew over thirty-two thousand people, the majority of them students, and featured speakers that included the likes of William Dalrymple, Richard Florida, and Radek Sikorski. No staid affair, the Feszt’s musical acts rocked Esztergom till three or four every morning.
On the day of our arrival we learned that we had been invited to an early-morning discussion the following day with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, along with a diverse set of international speakers from the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden and Israel. In a room at the Karmelita, Prime Minister Orbán met with our small group for two hours, speaking with remarkable candor and openness on any topic and question that we put before him. Everyone in the group not only was astonished about his willingness to spend so much time (making his next meeting quite late) and to speak so openly with a group of international academics, but above all emerged with unanimous respect for his remarkable analytic and even philosophical depth.
Unlike most American politicians, Orbán is utterly frank—acknowledging his losses as well as victories, frankly sizing up the relative importance of Hungary on the world stage, and simply speaking his mind. We witnessed a genuine tour de force of political analysis and vision, a quality almost wholly absent in today’s American political class. When you understand Hungary’s geographical place in the world—a linguistic island in the middle of Europe—you realize that Hungary cannot afford anything less.
The first question was expected, in the immediate wake of his much-discussed speech in Tusnádfürdő: what had Orbán meant when he spoke of the undesirability of “mixed races” in Europe?
Orbán expressed at once consternation over the obvious efforts to misread what he had actually said, and some regret that his words had not been chosen with more cognizance of how those who oppose him would eagerly misinterpret them. As he has clarified many times before and since, the word faj (race or kind) for a Hungarian meant not biological or ethnic particularity, but shared identities that are formed by culture and “civilization.” It was in the same sense that Pope Francis has also used the word “race”: a worldview shaped by a cultural inheritance, one that is in no way determined by, or linked to, racial characteristics related to one’s DNA.
This sense of “civilization” or “culture” is reflected in the examples that Orbán used to illustrate his meaning from the passage in the speech. There, he stated,
And there is our world, where people from within Europe mix with one another, move around, work, and relocate. So, for example, in the Carpathian Basin we are not kevert faj [lit., “a mixed up kind”]: we are simply a mixture of peoples living in our own European homeland. And, given a favourable alignment of stars and a following wind, these peoples merge together in a kind of Hungaro-Pannonian sauce, creating their own new European culture. This is why we have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of kevert faj. This is why we fought at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and—if I am not mistaken—this is why, in still older times—the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers.
The three examples given were “clashes of civilizations”—and, specifically, Christian and European victories over Ottoman invasions of Hungary (the Battles of Belgrade and Vienna), along with the victory of the Franks against Arab forces at Poitiers, the victorious army led by Charles Martel (grandfather of Charlemagne, described by one biographer as laying the groundwork for the European Union). The outcome of each of these battles was to secure and strengthen a Christian European civilization, and all of its attendant developments that we today rightly recognize and even celebrate as “Western.” Had any one of these battles had a different outcome, Europe might today be constituted by a fundamentally different tradition—and, quite plausibly, would have given rise to none of the inheritances of the West that even Orbán’s critics treasure, including constitutionalism, republican citizenship, rule of law, and a host of political and cultural inheritances based on the imago Dei.
Orbán’s critics focus on the word “race” in the hope of easily dismissing his stated concerns about the current trajectory of Europe. By accusing him of racism (in its biological understanding), they are able to muzzle questions that they are not themselves willing, much less capable, of asking or addressing.
A core commitment of liberalism is to minimize or altogether eliminate the idea that culture is fundamental and inextricable part of our human identity. After all, culture is an unchosen inheritance—a way of being in, and perceiving, all aspects of our world. Liberalism is premised on the idea that we are naturally free individuals, autonomous beings that can construct from our free choices how we exist in the the world, how we relate with other humans, our relationship to the natural world, how we understand religion and even God. When liberals speak of culture, they prefer the language of “multiculturalism”—that is, a relativist assumption that holds all cultures to be equal (and ultimately a matter of indifference) as well as secondary to our primary self-understanding as individuals. Under liberalism, cultures are transformed into a marketplace of choices—food, clothing, music, religious “preferences” in forms such as yoga and Eastern meditation. Liberalism expects that all who enter within its orbit will hold this preliminary view of culture as a secondary attribute, effectively demoting their own cultural inheritance in favor of a primary allegiance to liberal anti-culture. Nothing works so fast to dissolve the rich tapestry of human civilization as liberalism does. Hungarians, it is clear, value being a small part of that rich tapestry, and they wish to remain there—as Hungarians.
Orbán recognizes the incoherence of the liberal view: Europe has opened its borders to a large number of migrants who do not embrace the liberal view of “multiculturalism.” Migrants from Islamic origins are not “cultural relativists,” but gladly enjoy the liberal toleration that allows them to gain a foothold and, increasingly, numerical superiority in the democracies of Europe. Orbán notes that the nations of Europe are now “post-Western,” places that no longer recognizably reflect a distinctive European cultural inheritance. By contrast, the nations of eastern Europe are now the bearers of Western civilization, and in the speech, Orbán asked the leaders of “post-Western” Europe (i.e., nations in the western part of Europe) to extend toleration to the nations of the West (i.e., eastern Europe) to live, pass on, and protect the distinctive tradition that the post-Western nations have abandoned. The West has moved to the east; in the west, it has ceased to be the West.
During our discussion, in a frank and entirely spontaneous moment, Orbán demolished any of the tendentious efforts to tag him as a “racist” in the American sense. Asked for his view of the possibility of reversing trends in the “post-Western” Europe, he offered a pessimistic assessment. Because culture is the product of its people, the current displacement of a European culture with one likely to be increasingly dominated by Islam is not likely to be reversed. He said, however, that he had more hope for America.
Why? we asked.
“Because of the Mexicans!” said the prime minister of Hungary.
Immigrants have historically assimilated to, even while enriching American culture, he noted, rather than changing its fundamental basis in Western civilization. Hispanic Americans are Western and Christian, with strong family values and, according to Orbán, they will be able to maintain the basic cultural and political forms of the American tradition.
To be sure, Orbán is to the right of contemporary progressives who pretend that culture, religion, and civilization don’t matter when considering immigration. Under the assumption that all humans can become “multicultural” by embracing a primary viewpoint of mandatory indifference, they falsely believe culture is ultimately a voluntary and chosen identity that can be easily discarded in favor of another tradition, a bricolage, or none. Yet their openness to Hispanic immigration actually bolsters the Western, Christian tradition that they regard as irrelevant and even anathema.
Orbán is, however, to the left of many contemporary American conservatives who have been deeply suspicious of Hispanic immigrants. So long as immigrants share the basic civilizational commitments of the places they are joining, they are likely to strengthen and bolster its social fabric. Yes, their numbers should be controlled by law and intent—border sovereignty is essential—but “racial” (i.e., biological) considerations are not relevant. What is relevant is whether new members will embrace and reflect the culture that they are joining. For this reason, Orbán expressed great hopes for the future of America, which he thinks is de facto more similar to Hungary than “post-Western” Europe in its preservation of a coherent culture—even if its current elites are incapable of recognizing this rather rich irony.
While this was the most striking observation he shared with our group, other topics he discussed also bear mention, available to our paid subscribers:
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