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Ethics, Hungarian Style

A new grammar-school textbook offers another scary lesson about the Orban government. by Balint Szlanko 18 September 2013

Viktor Orban’s Hungary is a place where ludicrous fairytale policy proposals rub shoulders with an increasingly scary reality. Take, for example, a new textbook on ethics, recently installed as a mandatory subject in grammar schools.


Co-written by a lunatic called Ferenc Banhegyi, whose history textbook for 14-year-olds was already removed from the curriculum in 2000 for pushing one-sided historical views, the ethics book is a sickening example of the paranoia and xenophobia rampant in some circles of the Hungarian right.


Some of what Banhegyi wrote went too far even for the benighted authorities. An early draft of the ethics book stated that “Hungarians are one of Europe’s most open and hospitable people. This was the case in the thousand years from the reign of King St Stephen [the founder of the state] until in the early 20th century, when the lost war and the many peoples we had welcomed destroyed the country.” (Italics mine.)


Those “many peoples” are the mainly Slavic “minorities” who actually constituted slightly more than 50 percent of the population in pre-1918 Hungary, who were sometimes violently suppressed, and who had their national and cultural rights largely denied by the famously open and hospitable Imperial and Royal government. After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these ungrateful people went on to found their own states.


The bit about destroying the country was edited out after some members of an opposition party got hold of the draft and raised a stink. However, the book as published and distributed to schools still says this: “There is no reliable system of values anymore. Young people live as they like. This might seem simple but in the end leads to chaos and is the source of all conflict.” (It’s a struggle, by the way, to translate these sentences into English because the original Hungarian barely makes grammatical sense.) Banhegyi also states that “the biggest act of the brave man is martyrdom,” which is like something lifted from a Hamas pamphlet.


If this were not enough, check out what he wrote in his 2004 ethics textbook, mercifully not made mandatory then, about Hungary's short-lived communist regime after World War I: “The leaders of the Commune of 1919 were Jews and they are responsible for the deaths of many people.” In the same book he wrote that Roma, a significant minority in Hungary, “immigrated from India and spread throughout the world; prejudice and their own mentality caused them to end up living in the poor parts of towns and villages.”


Just what the kids need – as if anti-Semitism and distrust of the Roma aren’t sufficiently widespread. It’s one thing that Banhegyi’s books are trying to press a conservative system of values on children (although in a modern liberal democratic state the government is supposed to be neutral in such matters). But they also reek of a paranoid worldview full of conspiracies against Hungary. The culprits? The Jews and the Gypsies, of course.


So what else is Orban teaching his country? His latest proposal is to make it illegal for providers of public utilities (such as water, gas, and electricity) to make a profit. Orban’s social populism has always been prone to excess, but this lunacy easily surpasses everything he has so far come up with. He has already forced service providers, by statute, to lower their charges.


Doubtless the main motive here is the quickly approaching election of 2014. Orban will say and do anything it takes to win. But if companies are not allowed to make a profit, why should they be in business? Why should they invest in the upkeep and development of the gas, water, and electricity network? Why should they bother? Out of the goodness of their hearts? At what point will we be offered free beer?


Has Orban completed his transformation from a petty right-wing autocrat into an out-and-out communist? “No one will again turn an extra large profit to the cost of our people. The era of colonialism is over,” he said in parliament last week. Colonialism? Imagine what the endless repetition of these idiocies must be doing to his brain. To our brain. With the thick cloud of ignorance that surrounds these most basic matters anyway in this country, it is quite possible to get away with this stuff.


And in the meantime, this sad little Eastern European autocrat, a feudal lord in all but name of this dusty country on the peripheries, gave away his daughter in marriage. Poor Rahel and her man, a board member of a unit of one of Orban’s favorite companies, Kozgep – a building contractor that somehow keeps winning big state-backed public tenders. (And reportedly turned a profit of 10 million euros last year, a huge sum here!)


The wedding was Hungary’s pathetic answer to the birth of the British royal baby, complete with slavish media coverage.


It gets worse. The road outside the church where the wedding was held, and the village road where the bridegroom’s family lives, were repaved just before the wedding. Who paid for this? In the former case, we have not been told. In the latter, the taxpayer: the works were ordered by the Ministry of National Development. When two opposition activists went and wrote “royal wedding 2013” into the still-soft pavement outside the church, the police took them away and charged them with vandalism.

Balint Szlanko
 is a journalist in Budapest.
 His most recent book is about democracy.
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