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An Exiled Hungarian Historian’s Stark Warning for Israeli Progressives

The Hungarian historian Andrea Peto was forced into exile following the rise of the Orban regime. There’s a method, she says, by which illiberal forces seize control of a democratic country

Por Ayelett Shani. Haaretz, Feb 3, 2023 I am a Hungarian historian who deals, one could say, with the dark sides of history. The history of extreme right-wing movements and extremist movements in general, history of the Holocaust and of gender. I am a professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University. When the university left Budapest, in 2018, and moved to Vienna, I moved with it, so I am now what’s known as a “political migrant.” The change of regime in Hungary affected your life directly. As a professor of gender studies at CEU, I was adversely affected in three ways. First, my academic field, gender studies, was simply removed from the accredited study list, with no prior consultation. Second, the university was compelled to relocate to Austria in order to preserve its academic freedom. Third, I myself was forced to resign from the Accreditation Committee in Hungary, after the committee’s president demanded that I withdraw an article which had already been peer-reviewed and was about to be published in a German academic journal, History of Science and Humanities, because it was critical of academic corruption. [The article deals with the impact of the illiberal regime on accreditation for higher education in Hungary and Poland.] By the way, in the end it was published as written and became the most widely read article in the journal. Indeed. This paradoxical recognition actually created a political opportunity for me to share my ideas with the broad public. Life in an illiberal country might be easier in some senses, because it’s clear what’s right and what’s not, who your friends are and who your enemies are. Of course one also needs a certain resilience – the ability to tolerate the manner and the process by which values, institutions and even relationships that are important to you are emptied of content and are systematically destroyed.

That method, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself terms it, is “illiberal democracy.” I wonder how those two terms can be reconciled. Orban makes use of this vague terminology as part of a deliberate political media strategy of blurring and obfuscation. Liberal democracy has been challenged for several decades in different countries and contexts. In each country, the process is specific to the national context, the consolidation of illiberalism is happening by the constriction or abolition of the system of checks and balances of the judiciary, the curtailing of academic and media freedom, and the banning or restriction of gender studies as a discipline. It’s a script prepared in advance. Just like a manual. The state is effectively captured by a group, and these explosive ideas are creating an illiberal offer that’s gaining wide public support.

What is the explanation for this popularity? I want to quote [Bertolt] Brecht, who in 1935 wrote the essay “Writing the Truth – Five Difficulties.” He argues that progressive forces lose not because we are not right, but because we are weak. I think this is a significant point for everyone who wants to understand the success of illiberal ideas. First, we need to understand why we are weak. What are the inherent weaknesses in progressive ideas, and in the institutional structure of democracy?

We are seeing that it’s easy to hijack democratic principles and structures for the purpose of undermining democracy. One can also see strategies shared by regimes with this goal: seizing control of the media and the judiciary, building a whole, separate, parallel ecosystem. The [Polish] sociologist Weronika Grzebalska and I wrote an article about the “illiberal polypore state.” A parasitic-mushroom illiberal state. The mushroom grows on a tree trunk and uses the trunk’s resources to survive. It has no [independent] existence of its own. Accordingly, it uses ideas, sources and the infrastructure of the “tree” on which it grows. It does not destroy the tree, but allows it to continue to exist so that it can go on exploiting everything it has, for its own benefit. In the same way, the illiberal state exploits the democratic infrastructure, because it has nothing of its own to offer. The weaknesses of democracy enable the illiberal polypore state to thrive, grow, seize control of the infrastructures and empty them. An illiberal polypore state utilizes, absorbs and empties of content the democratic institutions – while leaving the framework intact, like the way the empty shell of the walnut remains whole even after the nut itself has been eaten. After emptying the existing institutions, the next stage of building the illiberal polypore state is building systems that are parallel to the existing ones.

What are you referring to? Governmental systems? In my field, which is higher education, the illiberal state started to take control of all public higher education resources and to divert them to new institutions of learning that serve their ideological and political goals. As a result, the existing institutions, namely the public universities, are left impoverished, and their activities are restrained to a hollow type of existence. The illiberal state doesn’t ban higher education, as it still needs the empty shell; the same happens with the media, the judiciary, the health system. The illiberal state creates a new language of hate and fear. All the issues of state or politics are communicated to the public as matters of life and death. There are no longer professional discussions of policy matters. Andrea Peto

I think that in Israel, the example of the media is the most blatant, at least for the time being. At the same time, Israel still has the resources that allow for economic resilience, as institutions and individuals can exist outside government control. By the way, these are also the spaces that will be the coming target of the illiberal offensive. The second method by which the illiberal state operates is to create a new language. Their language of operation is hate and fear. Using this language, all the issues of state or politics are communicated to the public as matters of the utmost urgency, of life and death. When everything is a matter of life and death, there are no longer professional discussions of policy matters, there are only personalized attacks, threats and dangers. Everything is a threat. Everything is a danger. Everything is personal. Sounds familiar. Yes. Every supposedly political discussion is emptied of its content, and every person who argues against this is delegimitized. Every concept is hollow. Empty. Including the word “democracy” itself. By the way, in contrast to Orban, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not talking about an illiberal democracy. He is supposedly a democrat, a liberal. He is taking control of the judicial system in Israel in the name of democracy. There are actually two interpretations of illiberalism. One assumes that illiberal politics is driven by ideology and values, and therefore all kinds of glittering names are conjured up for it, such as “illiberal conservatism.” The second interpretation is that illiberal politics is pragmatic, that the aim of its ideology, values and modus operandi is only to remain in power and weaken its opponents. That also solves the enigma of how illiberal people are sometimes capable of promoting contradictory goals, or of sliding easily from one position to another. Illiberal pragmatism makes it possible to “hijack” every type of discourse and use it for whatever purpose is convenient. To the people collaborating in this, it’s clear what is expected of them, and why. The illiberal politicians know very well what they want. Progressive politicians have to confront this challenge before it is too late. From the perspective of pragmatic illiberalism, nothing is important. There aren’t really any values. There is no interest in the possible implications for those outside their own circles. So, if I need to give one good piece of advice, it is: Be careful. Choose the struggles you take part in and which offensives you respond to, because public debates of this type are just a cover-up, and the discourse around them only feeds the polypore. That is how discussions are normalizing previously non-normal discourse.

That sounds even more familiar. It’s Netanyahu, from time immemorial. And even more so since the establishment of the current government. The judiciary. LGBTQ rights. The discussions are empty and the intentions are camouflaged behind slogans, smokescreens and diversion of the discourse. I can’t respond to that specific statement, because that is your assumption. But I will say this: Progressive politicians need to learn how to do politics well. Because it’s simply not enough to say that you are the good one in Hungary. Before the elections [in 2022], the dominant topic of the campaign was whether children below age 6 should be protected from sex reassignment surgery. But that procedure is prohibited in Hungary in the first place, and has never been performed there. The election campaign, then, was not about the real problems of Hungary, which is one of the poorest countries in the European Union, but about a proxy topic. Not resisting is always easier. In the short term, it also pays off, more than resistance does. The changes usually occur gradually, with the aid of those who do not resist. Who are silent.

Families argued heatedly over dinner about who has the right to decide on gender reassignment in preschool-aged children. Is it the right of the state? Of the parent? Of the child? These are not genuine debates, they are proxy issues that were intended to replace real discussions about important policy issues.

A lot of propaganda. Gaslighting. Narratives that were carefully constructed across years. Governments that are not liberal do not really govern. That is, they don’t govern the country based on experience, expertise and policy. Every policy question is resolved by creating another crisis. If there is no crisis, they create one, in order to be able to avoid or to hide the fact that they don’t actually have plans, ideals, values or a moral yardstick. Every crisis needs an antagonist, and that can be anyone, because illiberal pragmatism can turn anyone into the enemy: migrants, LGBTQ people, academics, gender studies or George Soros.

Yes. The Israeli right is obsessive about everything related to Soros, no less than Orban is. It doesn’t truly matter who the enemy is. Transforming a person or a group into an enemy has nothing to do with views or deeds, and of course no consideration is given to the personal consequences for those people who are turned into enemies. Like rainbow families. Choosing the enemy is connected exclusively with the modus operandi of these illiberal governments: to create hatred in order to rule. Members of the European Parliament wearing gags over their mouths, demonstrate against the Hungarian media law during a speech Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on January 19, 2011.Credit: GEORGES GOBET / AFP If so, we in Israel have all the ingredients. They have already been placed in the pot. The flame is high. Let’s see what comes out. Don’t despair. That is exactly how the illiberal polypore state works. It draws on and absorbs the energy of others. The question is, what can be done?

And the answer is? First of all, it’s worth reading the extensive literature that exists about this political phenomenon. It is not rocket science to forecast what will happen, according to the illiberal script. We saw it in action in Brazil under Bolsonaro, in Rwanda, Turkey, Russia. It’s clear who the actors are. What the implications are. How it works at the global level, no matter that the playing field is of course the national level. The inspiration and the ideas are global. The strategy is global. There are international institutions that are geared toward this. One of them is located in Budapest, it’s called the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. It’s an institution that has sucked so much money from the Hungarian taxpayers and from the impoverished public education system. An institution that’s intended to consolidate illiberal knowledge and language. The lecturers there get higher salaries than at Harvard, and they are tax-exempt. There are Israelis who have gone there. The things that will soon apparently happen in Israel, such as putting limits on the Supreme Court, have been tested there. They have organized a conferences. They have been examined and tested by other intellectuals from Hungary, China, the United States, Germany. It’s just like the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in 1930s Moscow, where future communist leaders were taught, and trained in how to take over the world. Don’t despair. This is how the illiberal polypore state works. It draws on and absorbs the energy of others. The question is, what can be done?

The feeling is that it’s all happening fast, that the opponents and the opposition are lagging behind. It starts with the publication of lists of enemies of the nation, control over the funding of NGOs and opposition parties, and in the end, demonstrations will also be banned. The illiberal regime not only destroys existing organizations but also establishes organizations, institutions and nonprofit groups of its own that are not critical by nature, and that employ loyal commissars. We have seen this script play out in full in Russia, and in part in Hungary and Poland. The progressive forces appear to be sleepwalking. They are doing politics for a reality they think exists, not the existing reality. Progressive forces need to be not [merely] reactive, but more proactive and more critical, precisely in the places where they think they see things as they truly are. They need to learn from the experience of other countries and to apply creative political imagination.

In another interview, you said that the people who make dictatorships work are not the politicians but the ordinary citizenry. My academic work deals with cooperation or lack of resistance; historical research of the way things happened during the Holocaust, in the period of communism. Not resisting is always easier. In the short term, it also pays off, more than resistance does. The changes usually occur gradually, with the aid of those who do not resist. Who are silent. I learned this not only from my research but also from personal experience. As a historian, I was interested in the way dictatorships work and how they succeed in persuading citizens to cooperate with a regime that acts again their own interests in the long term. But it was truly heartbreaking and depressing to be a witness to this self-betrayal in my own country, where colleagues are imposing censorship on themselves, just so they will not have to confront this system of lies. And even so, I understand them. They have bills to pay, too.

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