Commentary

“When They Come For Me, That’s Where I Draw The Line”

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

–Martin Niemöller

Appeasement is the idea that if I just let it happen for a while and choose to accept the justifications supplied by the perpetrator – it will eventually stop. That if I play for time amidst the rise of an alarming trend – it may just go away. It is not just a concept of international relations – it also happens in everyday life. Its stages are:

  • Accept the excuse of the perpetrator
  • When the excuses dry up, supply your own
  • When it becomes impossible, start looking at the crime from a different angle. Maybe it’s not a crime.
  • Take the perpetrator’s perspective. Understand why he is doing it. There is a cause in his childhood? It serves his staying in power? Oh, OK then.
  • Start enforcing the will of the perpetrator (optional)
  • When they still come for you, act surprised that they didn’t appreciate your efforts of whitewashing them and tolerating them. Who would have thought?

to-do-list

We have all seen this behavior – at least in countries where silence, complicity and cowardice promise to pay at least a short-term dividend. People see what’s happening, but instead of standing up or raising their voices, instead of voicing condemnation, they choose to stay silent, they rationalize the government’s abuse of power – or readily lap up the official excuses provided.

Political labels serve to confound – not to be taken seriously. Labels are more attractive than politicians – small wonder politicians work hard to identify with a political label as branding. When on government, they may carry out the exact same policy as their opponent would have done – just with a different excuse. A label-conform one. Anyone can give a policy measure a conservative-sounding as well as a progressive-sounding justification. Easy. The voter’s responsibility is to judge the measure for what it is. Now that’s hard.

There is no conservative party in Hungary. Yet, conservative-thinking citizens project their favourite label on Fidesz. And Fidesz helps them to. Voters readily swallow and repeat back the conservative-sounding excuses Fidesz supplies for thoroughly authoritarian and populist moves. Many decent people parrot inane excuses about Fidesz’ authoritarian power grab, the kleptocracy, the nationalization of industries, of agricultural land, and putting it into crony hands, and other, thoroughly un-conservative policies.

This is why it is news when a Christian-conservative Fidesz voter, who lives and breathes what Fidesz wants from her, comes out as disappointed with her idol, Orbán. (And sadly, this is why the opposition reacts with exasperation and a predictable choir of sarcastic told-you-sos.)

Diána Ürge-Vorsatz, professor of CEU, made the news when she posted a desperate outcry on Facebook about her employer being expelled from Hungary. She expressed her views about the damage Lex CEU does in great detail. She wrote that her dreams were shattered. To her surprise though, her conservative family and friends (whose jobs are not threatened yet) still only repeat back to her the Fidesz mantra for Lex CEU: that laws must be kept even by CEU. Others told her that they fear being blacklisted.

Such willing blindness, sad cowardice, deaf ears and loud chanting of the party line is a daily experience of everyone who is not an uncritical supporter of Orbán.

Then she backs up her statement with the usual Christian credentials that should have nothing to do with anything: that she is a dutiful mother of seven, that she spent 20 years raising them, that she sends them to religious schools. And despite all this, she managed to carve out an internationally acclaimed scholarly career as a climate expert – thanks to the ultra-liberal, female-friendly and genderist policies of her employer, CEU (which flies straight in the face of Fidesz’ thoroughly women-to-the-kitchen party line).

Apart from the loud eye-roll of mothers everywhere in the country, she met an angry and sarcastic backlash by columnists asking where she was when the livelihood of others were taken:

  • Fishermen who are not allowed to fish for a living anymore.
  • Owners of news stands and small shops who went out of business after tobacco retailing was nationalized licensed into the hands of local Fidesz loyalists.
  • The entire tobacco production, sale and marketing industry were nationalized licensed into the hands of Fidesz cronies.
  • When the advertising industry was nationalized licensed into the hands of Fidesz cronies.
  • When actual farmers lost their lands to the same few cronies countrywide – who couldn’t tell a cucumber from a carrot, but wanted the EU-subsidies per hectare.
  • When the entire geographical names committee was let go because they disagreed with the government’s intention to rename the airport.
  • When chancellors of every non-sheltered university were replaced for political purposes.
  • When the education system was centralized and dumbed down to a ridiculous degree and teachers were fired for political views or even personal reasons because local loyalists were now in the position to abuse their powers.

It is hard to ignore and explain away all this – unless you really want to. It is very unlikely that all these individuals deserved the loss of livelihood just because they worked in certain industries. That they can be expected to just go and build up another livelihood elsewhere or in another industry – because some oligarch’s economic interest is clearly above theirs. (Pardon, because of whatever Fidesz said these measures were for.)

It is great news when someone finally sees the discrepancy between the label and the thing. That Orbán is not conservative. And it should be easier to come out for those who finally dare to disagree. But it is hardly surprising that earlier victims are not kind to her. After all, anyone can see that something is wrong, when they come for them personally.

But Ürge-Vorsatz was not the only one trying to ignore and appease – until they came for her livelihood, anyway. The hope that the abuse of power will somehow avoid us – or the false hope that we can lick hard enough to stay in the favor of the regime forever – is universal.

CEU itself was curiously silent when state-funded universities’ academic autonomy was defeated with politically appointed chancellors. Likewise, CEU was silent when Corvinus was under attack because Orbán didn’t like economists (or whatever – we will never know why).

Even when he was asked about Lex CEU, its rector, Michael Ignatieff said:

“I’m not in politics in Hungary. I have no challenge to offer to Mr Orban’s rule. I have one objective: leave us alone; we’ll leave you alone.”

— Freedom Fights for Survival in Hungary – The Atlantic

Sounds noble, but this “Live and let live” principle is clearly broken in Hungary. And it wasn’t exactly broken yesterday. It wasn’t just broken when CEU was attacked. It has been broken since 2010.

Back in 2010, the same thing played out among banks. They stayed compliant with Orbán’s political motives, hoping that Orbán wouldn’t charge them with special taxes. He did. Then they complied in the hope that those taxes would be lifted. Neither really worked.

Or take commercial television channels. German-owned RTL Klub has been broadcasting reports about cute animals born in the zoo for years as daily news – in the hope that Orbán will leave them alone if the stay away from politics. It didn’t work. When they fought back a hostile takeover and were struck with a blatantly targeted media tax, it was long overdue to start reporting on politics in Hungary.

It’s a good thing they eventually started. It’s a horrible thing they thought they can stay out of politics in a country where The Party has explicitly expressed its desire to politicize everything, take over banking, media, retail and the energy sector, and redistribute wealth to Hungarian cronies. In a profoundly un-conservative manner.

Today, universities sign petitions in support of CEU. Their faculties sign them, to be precise, because their chancellors are frantically trying to disassociate the institutions from anti-Orbán petitions. They were put there by Fidesz for a reason and they may see their budget dwindle, or worse. From where they are standing, those petitioners are merrily listing themselves as opponents of Orbán’s regime.

Ürge-Vorsatz wasn’t the only coming-out this week. Katalin Lukácsi, a little-known Christian democrat left her party, calling Lex CEU the last straw. Her interview about her break-up was very sincere – and an important insight into the world view of her former colleagues who desperately want to believe that whatever is happening is still somehow conservative, even Christian.

She mentions, for instance, that in her party, “illiberal” is interpreted as “anti-SZDSZ” (referring to the long-defunct liberal party everyone loves to hate) and a revenge on liberals who used to treat conservatives badly. With this excuse, Orbán’s “illiberal nation” speech is just a hip, conservative revolution. Nothing sinister that may come for people like us…

She has not been cynical enough. She thought that she was building something good and she was trying to influence events she disagreed with: such as the takeover and closure of the biggest opposition daily paper, or the way the migrant issue was handled. Her exit from the party raises the question how many are trying to stand up for their principles within the party. Probably not many. The system of clientelism makes it very improbably that someone who benefits doesn’t give something  in return.

Freedom in Hungary may be fighting for survival, but fighting for mere survival and only when it’s directly threatened seems to be the surefire way to lose. Appeasement never worked – and never will.

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