This is now normal...

Theater Director Fired for Orbán-Critical Private Email

It is not surprising that the director of a state-financed organisation fires someone for speaking ill of Orbán. What is new is that they admit it in writing as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Rarely do I get the opportunity to present a case of politically motivated vengeance that is nicely put in writing for every wannabe apologist to see. This is such an occasion.

‘Chicken Head’ by György Spiró is a grotesque tragedy set in communist Hungary. It was written in the 1980s – and scheduled to be performed at the Hungarian Cultural Institute (HCI) in Paris yesterday. The day before the performance, however, it was cancelled because the director sent a government-critical invitation in a private email to her friends.

The fact that the cancellation happened is unsurprising. What is new is that the head of HCI Paris, János Havasi, admitted the politically motivated cancellation and defended it as if it was the most self-evident thing in the world. In the official statement of the Institute he confirmed that he got a call from the foreign ministry and that he had cancelled the performance because the private letter sent out by the director, Bea Gerzsenyi, had ended up in the hands of someone at the ministry.

Taking government money and expecting to be allowed to criticize the reigning government is something only first world people can think of doing – but Gerzsenyi had lived in France for 10 years and so she thought it was normal.

“I forgot how Hungary was like. Living in France for so long I was used to somebody saying their opinion and nothing blows up.”

She was’t even criticizing Orbán publicly – she added her comments to the private invitation she sent via email to her contacts. (She didn’t send it to journalists or politicians.) One of whom had promptly forwarded the message to the foreign ministry (long live rats!) and the backlash was prompt.

The HCI didn’t even pretend that the cancellation had any other reason, it is so normal in Hungary these days. They could just issue the usual blatant lie, blame it on the weather, the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, and I would have had a hard time proving that the political dissent and the cancellation were related. And Orbán’s countless foreign apologists would have had every excuse they needed to lecture me that 1) it didn’t happen, 2) but she deserved it anyway, and 3) that I am just trying to discredit the poor, freedom-loving Orbán-system.

But the HCI (based in Paris!) thought it was appropriate to admit that they performed petty political vengeance over a private email. “We have even provided her with free accommodation” during rehearsals, reads the statement.

And to make things even more absurd and comical, the head of HCI said to journalists that

“I couldn’t afford the performance to turn into an anti-dictatorship celebration”

Did this guy just call Orbán a dictator in his righteous lecture? This will surely go into the next Spiró play.

I can actually believe that HCI staff genuinely doesn’t understand anymore that it’s not something you can openly admit. But they have been under this regime for 8 years now – a long time for institutional memory, and even longer for individual backbones – they don’t know what’s normal. Maybe they never knew what was normal because they haven’t been working there pre-Orbán.

The network of Hungarian Cultural Institutes have been completely restaffed (and renamed Balassi Institutes) shortly after Orbán came back to power, right around the time he got around to fire the entire diplomatic establishment and replace them with loyalists, who are still learning what diplomacy was all about.

The HCIs in particular are going into great lengths to follow orders – and second guess them when there aren’t any. Being paid by a country that is touchy about its reputation (but boastful about its culture) while not having to live in it is a privilege that a few of its citizens can get their hands on, and they get it for their loyalty, nothing else. And they know it. If you ever meet them, you will get a completely different picture of Hungary, one that is full of freedom and success, and is unfairly mistreated by “communists” around the world. Because that will make you go ‘a-ha’ and nod your head off.

(This is why I wrote about the naivety of believing a state secretary or an ambassador over a poor, struggling dissident. You are just so impressed by yourself for meeting a state bureaucrat, that you believe them more than an ordinary mortal. And they give you their spin on autocracy.)

Time and again I hear stories about artists, filmmakers and public intellectuals who have been shunned or uninvited by HCIs because of their political views or reputations. And artists living outside of Hungary tend to be vocal about the autocracy at home, so they rarely qualify for a spot on HCIs program.

As of Gerzsenyi, she received the classic new authoritarian treatment. New illiberals are smarter than the new public opinion and they know better than to use physical force and jail. That would be costly anyway. Teaching people that they are helpless is cheaper and breaks them on a deeper level.

Gerzsenyi lost her job. She can prove that it was for political reasons, and in that she is much better off than thousands before her. Others are not so lucky. They have to live (and find new employment) with the stigma of having been fired. If it was for good reasons, it is bad for their future employment. If it was for political reasons, it is even worse because no one dares to hire a dissenter. Employers have a business to run and they know that such a move would make them a political target – even if they don’t have state subsidies to rely on. But they probably do (like the entire Hungarian theater scene) because Orbán made sure of it that every sector is completely exposed to him – for subsidies or for not getting harassed. And make no mistake, there are plenty of clients (bureaucrats, taxmen, apparatchiks) in the system who have nothing to do but sniffing out and voluntarily going after even the smallest player who dare to think differently. Rats and collaborators get a treat for it. Even if the treat is just keeping their jobs.

The person who forwarded the email and possibly an employee at the foreign ministry who cracked down at the dissident have, no doubt, strengthened their positions in the system. No opportunity for brown-nosing and working towards the leader shall be missed because there is nothing else you can contribute. There is no such thing as good work (for the people), only loyalty (to the leader) under illiberal regimes.

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Featured image is from the Facebook post in which HCI Paris announced the cancellation of the play. The guy on the photo is the playwright. 

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