The Hungarian right’s new “Common Sense” voice: Orbán in English translation

I stumbled upon the so-called Common Sense Society and its blog, “Paprika Politik,” completely by accident. A friend and prominent Hungarian civil rights activist, Eszter Garai-Édler, drew my attention to this youthful, cheerful, well-dressed group of thoroughly respectable young professionals, who enjoy research grants and write English-language articles, all about how Hungary finally crossed the Rubicon in 2012, when the Fidesz super-majority passed its new constitution, signalling a bright new chapter in the nation’s history.

“In 2012—after more than 1,000 years of history, Hungary crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, by implementing its first democratically-adopted constitution. This new Fundamental Law has opened a new chapter in the country’s democratic history, the pages of which are being written at this very moment,” remark the contributors of Paprika Politik. “Hungary’s fate depends, ultimately, neither on the national government nor on any foreign government: It depends on the Hungarian people and most importantly young Hungarians,” observe the blog’s editors.

Led by a young American graduate of the Central European University, Marion Smith, the Common Sense Society’s goal is to essentially provide pro-Fidesz youth and conservative American university graduates with a platform to normalize and popularize the Orbán government in North America and in western Europe, funds to further their work and with an opportunity to peddle an often repeated myth in some western right-wing circles, namely: that there isn’t really anything amiss with Mr. Orbán’s regime. Fidesz is simply a victim of the same vindictive liberal and left-wing interests that wield power in the west as well.

Marion Smith, the president of the Common Sense Society in Budapest. Photo: CCS/Facebook

Marion Smith, the president of the Common Sense Society in Budapest. Photo: CSS/Facebook

So who are the Common Sense Society’s articulate, young conservative titans? One of them is a young man called Áron Fellegi, who is apparently an intern at the Society. Mr. Fellegi studied law at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University and served as an intern in Washington, D.C., at the Hudson Institute. (This is an American think tank focusing on foreign policy issues.) The young intern had this to say about the controversy surrounding the removal of a Marx statue from Budapest’s Corvinus University:

The Young Christian Democrats named Marx’s anti-Semitic views as the main reason for removing the statue. But more than anti-Semitic, Marx was famously anti-religious, anti-capitalist, and anti-family (…) There are, of course, still many Marxists, especially in academia, and it is not inconceivable that they would want to erect or defend a statue to their favorite leftist thinker. (…) in a country such as Hungary that has suffered immensely and tragically under a criminal government that Marxism helped legitimize, we can say with confidence that the statue had to be removed. (…) The fact that the intellectual successors of Marx have attempted to force students to pay some indirect honor to the godfather of history’s deadliest ideology is a scandal in its own right. Hungarians know what it is like to live in a Marxist-Leninist state—they experienced it. And they don’t want Marxism-Leninism anymore, not even in the form of a statue.”

Áron Fellegi, an intern at the Common Sense Society. Photo: Linked In.

Áron Fellegi, an intern at the Common Sense Society. Photo: Linked In.

The young Mr. Fellegi is turning to a political narrative which aims to kill two birds with the same stone. On the one hand, Fidesz and its Christian Democratic allies are presented as the primary line of defence against antisemitism. Marx had to be nixed first and foremost because he was an anti-Semite. Antisemitism is, at the moment, deeply troubling to the Orbán government, especially as Hungary chairs the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. But on the other hand, the connection between Marxist philosophy and the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century is linear and inevitable. One naturally leads to the other. And Fidesz is merely defending the sensitivities of those who suffered under the Rákosi and Kádár regimes by calling for the statue’s removal, in contrast to the callous liberal and left-wing intellectuals.

In terms of Marx’s antisemitism, it is worth noting that he was concerned more globally with any form of identification (especially religious or cultural) that was not intertwined with a sense of class identity. “He wanted Jews to cease identifying themselves as Jews first and foremost and instead adopt a more universalist outlook, which would aid their participation in the workers’ movement. Marx saw Judaism, the religion, as a barrier to developing class consciousness,” writes Maya O’Connor.  “The fact that Jews are taught to identify themselves as a race, instead of merely as co-religionists, was what Marx was decrying in this pamphlet, not the fact that there are Jews at all. Marx’s contempt for religion in general is well known, and as a Jew by birth (although his family converted to Christianity) he had an insider’s perspective on the problems that identifying oneself as a Jew presented to the working class movement at the time,” Ms. O’Connor adds.

Mr. Fellegi’s piece could have used some nuance in its depiction of Marx. And, besides, “inevitably” arguments when studying trends and developments in history are notoriously problematic. 

Another young man tasked with the English-language popularization of Mr. Orbán’s common sense “revolution” is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance translator called Joshua Dill. The recent Georgetown University School of Foreign Service graduate is now a “Pannonius Fellow” of the Common Sense Society. Recently, he wrote a piece entitled “What is liberalism? And do we want it?” The blog post was a summary of a roundtable discussion in Budapest featuring not only André Goodfriend, then still chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, but also András Lánczi, the chairman of the Századvég Foundation, a blatantly pro-Orbán think tank. The talk also featured Marion Smith, who doubles as the Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. and–as mentioned above–also as the president of the Common Sense Society.

Joshua Dill has been awarded a fellowship by the Common Sense Society. Photo: Linked In.

Joshua Dill has been awarded a fellowship by the Common Sense Society. Photo: Linked In.

Given the significant disagreement about how best to interpret the principles of liberty and rights, does it make sense for a nation like the United States to promote a particular, often progressive-oriented, vision of liberalism as a core part of its diplomacy? To do so often allows actors like Vladimir Putin to caricature and denounce liberalism generally,” writes Mr. Dill.

Mr. Dill presents another trope that has become quite popular in Mr. Orbán’s circles. Hungarian Orbánites (and Mr. Putin, who is supported by many on the right) are not opposed to liberalism as such, they are merely opposed to the western “variant” of liberalism, which in their mind is beholden to left-wing interests. This is the same line of argument that was used when Mr. Orbán gave his infamous speech on the possibility of building an “illiberal democracy.” The Hungarian regime is not opposed to democracy as such, it merely dislikes western-style liberal democracies, which are plagued, infiltrated and appropriated by left-wingers.

Mr. Dill also told his English-language audience of the positive reception in the room surrounding Mr. Orbán’s  pro-eastern foreign policy. “Many audience participants indicated their belief that Hungary’s recent “Eastern Opening” foreign policy shift represents not only a pragmatic economic policy, but reflects a heightened interest in alternate political models, for example the one represented by Moscow”, summarized Mr. Dill.

Mr. Dill is one of three young men and women to have been awarded a Pannonius Fellowship in Spring 2015. These are fully-funded, full-time  fellowships, which “serve to inspire and equip fellows on both sides of the Atlantic.”

In addition to inspiring and equipping young Fidesz supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, the Common Sense Society sells Századvég publications, employs interns, produces blogs and ruminates in English on Hungary’s first democratic constitution.

Szabolcs Nótin, editor-in-chief of the pro-Orbán Hungary Today online paper.

Szabolcs Nótin, editor-in-chief of the pro-Orbán Hungary Today online paper.

It is clear that Mr. Orbán is placing a heavy emphasis on appearing in western circles as a run-of-the-mill conservative politician, who is criticized and “attacked” by the left for the same reasons that other centre-right leaders also come under fire. His English-language communicators are savvy and articulate.

The online daily, Hungary Today–published by the pro-regime and  taxpayer-funded Friends of Hungary Foundation, is another example of Mr. Orbán’s well-oiled English-language propaganda machine. These young pro-Orbán supporters seem a world apart from the Zsolt Bayers of the Hungarian right. They look and sound professional, are generally in their late twenties or early thirties, are often fluent in English and don’t seem very much different from young, suit-and-tie bespectacled conservatives in Canada, the United States or Great Britain.

Szabolcs Nótin, editor-in-chief of Hungary Today, is a good example of this new breed of Orbánites. Out with the fire-brand preachers of the mystical Hungarian far-right, and in with the soft-talking young professionals and urbanites!

Undoubtedly, many in the west will take the Common Sense bait.  Those of us who have been consistent in our critiques of the Orbán government’s authoritarian practices, its duplicitous communication, its flirtation with antisemitism and racism, its systemic corruption and its illiberalism have an obligation to “unwrap” this bait and cast it out to sea.

11 Comments

  1. They all look like caricatures of the caricature that Michael J Fox played when he was young (“Alex P. Keaton”). But everyone knew that was a spoof. These polyester patriots are trying to play it with a straight face. Some of them may even be true-believers — though most of them,exactly like their role models and handlers, are no doubt shallow and cynical opportunists. (It will be especially interesting to see how their Putinism plays with their global constituency… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_P._Keaton
    http://lichnosti.net/photo_47807.html

  2. This is a very well written expose of the Fidesz’ propaganda campaign aimed at the North American Hungarians and financed by public funds amounting to several million dollars annually distributed by Mr Fellegi from NY City. Much of this diatribe falls on sympathetic ears since many Hungarians in the USA and Canada are off-springs of fascists and nazis who emigrated in 1945-46 and 1956-57 denying their past and thus entering illegally.

  3. Pierre Divenyi says:

    Christopher, your exposé of the Common Sense Society and Orbàn’s English-language taxpayer-funded propaganda machine is most welcome. Actually, you should devote regularly a few paragraphs to debunking, one by one, arguments that the mostly North-American Hungarian expats read in those junk publications. They remind me of Rupert Murdoch’s media of misinformation that the U.S. population swallows believing that it is the truth.

  4. At least Orban created and forced something into the tightly assembled political and social structure of his reign that has a potential to slip out of his control. Wants to prove his intellectual superiority with a road roller and even that is driven by others. I’m not sure a crime syndicate can be kept functional without establishing a balancing inner power or kind of highly cooperative special squad. I haven’t seen any of that kind. Instead he is fostering a team to supply the world with the same sleeping aid he feeds his countrymen with. Now he is turning to the outside world only to find himself in an antagonistic problem, soon or later he will need people who are smarter than he in order to do the job, which is a potential weapon that can jeopardize even his own power, or get the same old yes-men branch that won’t be able to compete out there. The road roller is getting bigger, more powerful and will need someone to navigate who is better than Orban.
    How long will it take until his new baby pets get bored being fed from his nursing bottle and want to go to the kitchen to cook something for themselves on their own?
    ————-
    “Undoubtedly, many in the west will take the Common Sense bait….”

    I think those who normally would take the bait might not be overly significant players and those who are actually addressed by Orban would only take the bite if they can reach deep into his purse and will not be shy to charge a nice sum for letting it go. That’s what he’s been doing, he’s been paying for his propaganda and has already lost a lot of money gambling with it.
    And there are always unpleasant cracks in the sidewalk he will trip on.
    Like this piece you wrote Chris. Kudos.

  5. Christopher Adam says:

    Thanks for the comments, Stevan, Pierre, Richard and Karl!

    I very much agree that we need to publish more of these exposé-type pieces in English. I am afraid that even some decision-makers in the West sometimes buy the smoke and mirrors. The Canadian government is a prime example of this. In contrast to Washington, Ottawa has issued absolutely nothing by way of critique, when it comes to the Orbán government’s policies and authoritarian measures. And this can’t really be explained purely by the fact that Canada happens to have a Conservative government, as we have seen how outspoken some Republican senators have been in the past year.

  6. András Gollner says:

    The language of deception practiced by Maffia States like Orbán Viktor’s, is sophisticated and is not restricted by national boundaries in an increasingly global, and wired world. Fidesz has based it’s entire political strategy on the use of this language at home and abroad. I welcome this initial article by the Hungarian Free Press. Watch these pages for additional revelations.

  7. CLASH OF FREEDOM-FIGHTER STEREOTYPES

    The strategy, then, for unmasking the shameless cant of Orban’s besuited cadre of “Common Sense” shills is a relentless, evidence-based exposé of both Orban’s Putinism (which is so starkly at odds with the stereotyped biasses of the patriotic expats he is wooing) and his gob-smackingly gluttonous corruption. The nonstop flow of symptoms of his ruinous misgovernment will just keep growing too, despite the misinformation with which he will keep trying, increasingly unsuccessfully, to mask it. (If and when Jobbik’s time comes, its Putinism will do them in too, even if they manage to keep their neo-nazi savagery under wraps.)

  8. Charlie London says:

    These young whippersnappers are still wet behind the ears.

    Instead of looking into other wordly democracies, they try and export their ‘commocracy’.

    Hungary is still, yes still, in the transition between communism and true democracy having stalled during Orban’s watch at the ‘let’s-get-rid-of-the-statues’ phase and are still clearing up the barricades.

    Kossuth square is still being mucked around with and there is so much more room available in Statue Park.

    When Kim Il Orban moves into Buda Castle – just a little bit of trouble with the dodgy finances at the moment, but the EU will eventually divvy up – his faithfulorate will commission many more statues of Dear Leader Orban – which will eventually end up in Statue Park.

    (It’s well worth a visit! To a Westerner it’s just inconceivable that so much time and effort was spent on iconoclastic ideology.)

    Yes these arrogant whippersnappers aren’t interested in improving, and adopting true democracy and importing a modern outlook and outward looking liberal narrative. They are just wanting absolution for their ‘commocracy’.

    I’m a bit suspicous of the reliance on the spiky-hair-jelled Szijjato haircut uniform.

    So democracy delayed yet again.

    Poor poor Hungary.

  9. Dr. Habil. Andras Fodor says:

    Many thanks for the article. I am glad that you, Christopher is finally willing to open your other eye.

    Allmost all the comments are disgraceful and disappointing.

    Göller can not write about anything but on his own disappointment, why Orbán did not accept his previous courtship.

    Karcsi London is not a reliable person. We might consider everything he declares as low phase.

  10. Charlie London says:

    Listen up Fodor (2)

    This is my last direct post to you – so you can have the pleasure of the last ‘word’.

    Every post you post betrays your ignorance, but more starkly, betrays your ignorance of contemporary Hungary.

    You deny the health system is on it knees – the envy of the world you suggest and the doctors too.

    You seem to think I am anti-Hungary and a liar to boot.

    You are wrong. Quite wrong. So ignorantly wrong.

    Where do you post from? If it is from Hungary then you live in a bubble – or haven’t been there for some while. Just like some of my neighbours in a little village outside Gyor.

    (My partner and I went to vote (against Fidesz) knowing it was against a tsunami of support for Orban. It was protest vote to show the villagers that someone dared -and had the courage – to vote against the corruption and Mafioso that are the Fidesz party.)

    (Of course I can’t vote, not being a Hungarian, but I symbolically put the cross in the DK coalition box for my partner – and photographed the ballot paper. Why? Because when Orban’s ‘commocracy’ crumbles, not one Hungarian will admit to ever having voted Fidesz. I know the Hungarian psyche that much at least. It was sickening to see the Orban-mania and excitement for him in the village, people pumping the air with their fists and shouting “Orban” and “Fidesz”. The Gyor constituency, as bent as Szijjarto and the CEO of Quaestor – was the second highest vote in the country after Vacs)

    Your country, your mess.

    Now what’s this ‘Doctor’ business Fodor?

    For someone so ignorant how can you have a doctorate?

    I think I know.

    I think it’s one of those DIY doctorates that Pál Schmitt has? Remember him? The papers published samples of his handwriting – very juvenile with hilarious spelling errors!

    Did you know that not one university in Hungary appears in the top 500 of the world’s universities? Not one!

    ELTE comes in at about 560. Your best university.

    Apparently many Hungarians claim false doctorates -like Elena Ceaușescu did, remember her?

    So maybe better to remove it eh?

    It will narrow the incredulity gap between implied intelligence and the reality of what you write.

    For my part I won’t read you anymore.

  11. Pingback: Hungary Today responds to HFP article: The pro-government foundation does not receive public funds

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