There are many model nations around the world that the United States can be said to be emulating in its slide to statism, in particular to fascism, or national socialism. The least likely one is Hungary. Observed from afar, the politics and turmoil of that former communist nation seem at first glance exotic and bewildering, but not much more than a storm in a teacup. After all, this is an eastern European nation more sinned against than sinner. Remember the Uprising of 1956? But once, willingly or not, it steps into the limelight, the confusion that reigns there points to a very familiar pattern, one that is eminently recognizable and emerging here in America.
The trend is tragically poignant if one recalls that the United States was for a long time the model to admire and emulate to discover, establish, and preserve the freedom of the individual.
Compounding the confusion is the ubiquitous fallacy of “democracy.” The common understanding of the term is that it means “majority rule,” and that whatever the majority wants, is ipso facto good. The will of the people is primary, the end-all and be-all of political action and existence. The Founders, however, more specifically the Framers of the Constitution, distrusted if not abhorred democracy, and designed the Constitution to be as democracy-proof as their informed and received wisdom could make it. Benjamin Franklin’s attributed quip at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 about “A republic, if you can keep it,” was not a throw-away line, but an earnest answer to an earnest question, reflecting a wisdom measured in thousands of fathoms, as opposed to mere inches in the stagnant pools of contemporary political savvy.
The Constitution of this republic was intended to define and limit government force, and to recognize and empower the individual to live his own life without interference from majorities, which could only employ government force to attain their ends. Democracies, regardless of their size, agreed the Framers, inevitably collapsed into tyrannies as factions vied for power over one another. The democratic element in the structure of American government was the franchise or vote for representatives of “the people” in the House of Representatives in Congress.
Representatives were originally intended to defend “the people” from the caprices and machinations of the politically ambitious who sought power and privilege, and not to advance one faction’s special interest or prejudice in contests with that of other factions. Should representatives be elected to the House who were the tools or spokesmen of factions, the Senate was intended to serve as an obstructive, sitting committee of nullification against all plots and conspiracies to abridge or obviate individual freedom and to foil the intentions of leagues of larcenists. It was intended to be a state-seated repository of wisdom as a check against populism, grifters, and mob rule.
As we look at Congress today, we might conclude that the democracy-proofing did not quite work. Democracy seeped in through the insulation and began to rot the institution. Not true. The Constitution, sans the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, is basically a sound manifesto. Operator error, and not mechanical failure, is at fault. This is chiefly because more and more Americans forgot what the government and the Constitution were for and demanded their particular messes of pottage. Others did not wish to keep the republic at all, but worked to transform it by stealth, populism, and saccharin bombast into a democracy, that is, to establish a legal and self-perpetuating regime of grand larcenists.
So, we have a “democracy.” Emblematic of the confusion of meanings, for example, is an article by The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum on December 28th, “Jeopardizing democracy in Hungary.” In it she rues recent developments in Hungary, such as the virtual takeover of the government by Viktor Orban. She is worried that Orban’s turn to the “right” bodes ill for Hungary.
Hungary is a fully paid member of NATO and the European Union, a country with functioning political parties and a 20-year history of free elections. Hungary’s transition from communism to democracy has been an unmitigated success.
We can agree with that assessment. Orban is very popular in Hungary. He was elected prime minister last April to replace the corrupt socialist government that ruled the country for eight years. In the past, Orban opposed the socialists’ desire to censor newspapers, radio, and television.
If Belarus is cursed with a leader who is not popular enough to stay in power without violence, Hungary is now cursed with a leader who is too popular – or has too large a majority – and who can change his country’s laws and constitution to keep himself in power without any violence.
That is democracy at work. What are Applebaum’s reservations?
But victory wasn’t enough for Orban, who used his years out of power to plot his revenge against the journalists who didn’t support him, against the chattering classes who didn’t vote for him, and above all against his corrupt and incompetent opponents. Since taking office he has appointed a council to rewrite the constitution, deprived the national audit office of funding and stripped some of the powers of the country’s supreme court. More recently, his parliament passed a set of laws governing the media….A new, state-run media council, composed entirely of Fidesz [Orban’s political party] appointees, now has the right to impose fines of up to $1 million for journalism it considers “unbalanced,” whatever that means.
The council is also tasked with protecting “human dignity,” whatever that means. The law seems to aim to control not just Hungarian media but media available to Hungarians on the Internet or anywhere – a task that is impossible…but that will require the creation of a massive system of surveillance and control anyway. There is even a government-mandated cap on “crime-related news,” which cannot take more than 20 percent of airtime – though the law does not define “crime” or state whether it includes government corruption.
So, how is “democracy” jeopardized by a popularly elected despot? Is this not democracy at work? Is this not the essence of democracy? Is this not how Hugo Chavez in Venezuela gamed the democratic system there? That “massive system of surveillance and control” – think the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration – and how effective they are, not in “combating terrorism,” but in watching everyone and obstructing Americans in their business and pleasure. It also portends the FCC’s initial steps to regulate the Internet here with so-called “net neutrality,” which, as I remarked in an earlier commentary, is a euphemism for neutering speech and the power of ideas.
Applebaum regards Orban’s actions as typical of “right-wing” fascism. She is worried that such a movement in this country will also have the same consequences. About Orban’s regime, she writes:
In fact, the real problem with this government is not its “fascism” but its uncontrolled contempt for its “liberal elite” and its “mainstream media.” This problem is not unique to Hungary. I can imagine plenty of American politicians would love to punish “unbalanced” journalists who oppose “human dignity.”
This is a circumspect allusion, not to Hungary’s “liberal elite” and “mainstream media,” but to her own. Is she expecting to be purged, punished, and fined if a Republican wins the White House in 2012 if she presents an “unbalanced” estimate of the candidate and the party’s policies? And her last remark is odd. It is her liberal elite who would love to have the power to punish those who oppose “human dignity” – whatever that means.
But, why the concern about what goes on in Hungary? Two days earlier, the Post featured an editorial about Orban, “The Putinization of Hungary.”
NEXT MONTH many European Union members may be regretting their system of a rotating presidency. That’s because the gavel will be handed to Hungary, whose populist and power-hungry government has just adopted a media law more suited to an authoritarian regime than to a Western democracy.
The right-wing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban won 53 percent of the popular vote in an election this year but gained 66 percent of the seats in parliament – enough to change the constitution. It proceeded to take over or attack the authority of every institution it did not control, including the presidency, the Supreme Court and the state audit office; the central bank is now under its assault.
There must have been a long line of newspaper editors and writers the day truncated minds were being handed out. Never mind the Post’s confusion about what is or is not a “democracy.”
The joker here is that the European Union, governed by a mammoth bureaucracy in Brussels, is already an authoritarian super-government that lords it over Europe and diminishes the sovereignty of its individual members. So, why should anyone object to someone who has experience in authoritarianism to preside over the E.U.?
Meanwhile, Mr. Orban has overseen passage of two media laws that will put Hungary in a league with Russia and Belarus on press freedom. One puts Fidesz in control of state television channels and all other public media outlets. The second, approved by parliament by Tuesday, creates a powerful Media Council with the authority to regulate newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. The council may issue decrees and impose heavy fines – up to $950,000 – for news coverage it considers “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” Journalists can be forced to reveal their sources, and the council can search editorial offices and require that publishers reveal confidential business information.
But, sirs, that is democracy in action. Is it any different from the E.U. passing legislation that trumps the laws and judicial systems of its member nations?
The New York Times agrees with the Post about what the rise of Viktor Orban holds for Europe.
Mr. Orban’s conservative Fidesz Party was swept into power last April after a surge of resentment against the former socialists. He can change several laws and the constitution because his party holds a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
Here Orban has been deemed a “conservative.” Is this the same as being a “centrist”? Somehow, political leaders who virtually take over newspapers and the Internet through censorship are “right-wing” or “conservative,” while liberal/left political leaders who take the same actions are somehow not “left-wing” or “socialist” or even “fascist.” If they are neither left, right, nor center, what are they?
Viktor Orban is not helpful in finding in definition or a distinction. In April, the Times had this brief item on his own confusion:
The incoming prime minister, Viktor Orban, left, vowed Monday to defend Hungary from the ascent of a far-right party and its black-clad paramilitary branch, which have railed against the Roma community and called the capital ”Jewdapest.” Mr. Orban, 46, the leader of Fidezs, the party that defeated the incumbent Socialists in first-round parliamentary elections on Sunday, said he was unhappy over the rise of the far-right party, Jobbik, which won 16.7 percent of the vote. “No radical party will be allowed to get rid of law and order in this country,” he said. “Democracy in this country is strong enough to defend itself.”
But not strong enough to defend itself against Mr. Orban, if one accepts the premise that mob rule can defend itself against all comers, especially someone voted into office by a mob. In August of 2002, the prime minister was against government control of the news media.
More than 100,000 supporters of Hungary’s former prime minister, Viktor Orban, rallied here today against what they say is a stranglehold on the public news media by the ruling Socialists. Since losing April elections to a center-left coalition of Socialists and liberal Free Democrats, leaders of Mr. Orban’s center-right Fidesz alliance have warned against the risk of a Communist-era press monopoly. “Those programs of Hungarian television that conveyed civic and right-wing values have been turned into government loudspeakers, Mr. Orban told the rally, referring to state-owned broadcasters.
So, the socialists having a stranglehold on the public news media is bad. Eight years later, it is good, but please do not call Mr. Orban and his party “socialist” or “fascist.” They are right-of-center. Or left-of-center. Or left. Or right. Perhaps even centrist. Who knows? If you are a Hungarian journalist or TV news reporter, or even a blogger, you may want to think twice before putting any label on Orban and his party. It might be considered “unbalanced” news and offensive to the “dignity” of the regime.
The whole system of judging political ideologies by false criteria can leave one mentally cross-eyed. Indeed, “polarization” is an art of evasion, of verisimilitude, of using both hands to point in opposite directions. It is an old vaudevillian sight-gag, usually applied when the guilty comic is asked by the straight-man who impregnated the farmer’s daughter.
In America, it is practiced mostly by liberals and liberal publications like The New York Times and Washington Post – that is, by “progressives” – who do not wish to draw attention to the fact that they share the same premises, methods, and ends as their enemies – the “right-wingers” – which is the subjugation of the individual to the collective or the state by direct force, by fiat legislation, and by regulatory decree. There is not a syllogism’s worth of difference between them when it comes to initiating and employing government force.
With that observation, I bid adieu to 2010. Happy New Year to one and all.