A Country for Old Men

October 2014 protest in Budapest against the Orbán government.
Photograph: Ronan Shenhav
This was recently published in the Boston Review. 

Last September an article on the front page of a leading Hungarian daily began, "The story of the ever-deepening refugee crisis is taking ever more unexpected turns." A prominent Hungarian intellectual and former dissident, György Konrád, had come out in support of the efforts of the Hungarian government to build a wall to keep out newcomers and to cast them as economic opportunists rather than political refugees. In another corner of the Hungarian media, pundits were citing passages from The Final Tavern (A végső kocsma), a 2014 book by Holocaust survivor and 2002 Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who passed away last month. In the book, Kertész was sharply critical of liberals' welcoming attitude toward Muslim refugees and migrants. His and Konrád's statements were registered with incredulity in the liberal press and with undisguised relish on the right.

Anyone who has followed the serpentine trajectory of Hungarian politics since the controlled collapse of state socialism in 1989 might be forgiven for throwing their hands up in confusion. For more than two and a half decades, Hungarian political life has been a story of reversals. The party of the Young Democrats (Fidesz), founded in 1988 by a few-dozen college students, has mutated from a member of the Liberal International to the torchbearer of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe. Hungarians who once described themselves as liberal, including the current prime minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán, have shed the epithet. Already in 1994, Orbán favored replacing it with "free-thinking." Twenty years later, his metamorphosis was complete when he wondered whether being part of the European Union was an obstacle to the reorganization of the state into "an illiberal nation state within the EU."

Orbán's liberal critics are quick to insist that he was never one of them. Plucky anti-communist dissidents who trumpeted individual liberties against the paternalistic and overweening socialist party-state merely looked liberal to many Western liberals. But conservatives, too, found soul mates in dissidents, generalizing their anti-communism into a wholesale censure of the left. In short, everybody loved a dissident. It was the left-leaning poet W. H. Auden who helped to bring dissident poet and later Nobel Prize–winner Joseph Brodsky to the United States in 1972; another poet and powerful intellectual force of the U.S. neoconservative movement, Peter Viereck, brought him to Mount Holyoke College in 1974. For every dissident who fulfilled the Western liberal fantasy, there were as many who fulfilled at least part of the conservative one, from union leader and Solidarity figurehead Lech Wałęsa to the Czech playwright, philosopher, and president Václav Havel.
If it was not the dissidents themselves who changed, what explains these reversals? And why has the migrant and refugee crisis in particular become so symptomatic of a crisis of liberalism?

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