Why Viktor Orbán’s Racism Matters in the U.S.

Plus: Is sex sacred?

Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, in black and white
Laszlo Balogh / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Question of the Week

What do you want to know about my views or how I’d answer particular challenges to them? I’ll be on vacation next week, so instead of a normal “question of the week,” I’d be grateful if you took this opportunity to “ask me anything” about any subject of public interest—including but not limited to any subject that I’ve ever written about here at The Atlantic—so that I can accumulate some questions that I will answer in future newsletters.

Send responses to conor@theatlantic.com.


Conversations of Note

Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, is scheduled to address the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Texas this week. If you’ve missed the fallout so far, brace yourself for the latest round of controversy to surround the nationalist leader, who is celebrated as a prescient statesman on parts of the American right––here’s Rod Dreher calling him a Margaret Thatcher to a future Ronald Reagan––even as critics lambast him as a xenophobic authoritarian or even a Nazi-like fascist.

How has the leader of a small Central European country emerged as a polarizing figure in the United States? If you need a bit of background, the case against Orbán and Orbánism has been made ably in The Atlantic by Franklin Foer, David Frum, and Anne Applebaum, who (contra Dreher) sees Orbán as “the man whose career probably best illustrates the distance that the conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher has traveled since 1989.” As for articles that excel in articulating what anyone might legitimately like about Orbán, try Christopher Caldwell’s long profile in the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

The CPAC appearance is even more controversial than it would otherwise be because of a recent speech that Orbán delivered in Romania. The BBC’s reporting was typical:

A member of Viktor Orban’s inner circle has resigned after the Hungarian prime minister spoke out against becoming “peoples of mixed race”. Zsuzsa Hegedus, who has known the nationalist Mr Orban for 20 years, described the speech as a “pure Nazi text”, according to Hungarian media. The International Auschwitz Committee of Holocaust survivors called the speech “stupid and dangerous”. Mr Orban’s spokesman said the media had misrepresented the comments.

As always, reading the speech in full is the best way to understand it. Some press coverage could give the misimpression that Orbán’s remarks were mostly about race. In fact, Orbán covered many subjects at length––for example, his belief that a negotiated peace treaty is the only way to end the war in Ukraine, because Ukraine cannot win, as well as his fears about the precarity of Europe’s energy dependence. But the few paragraphs that touch on race are, indeed, execrable, from the praise of the flagrantly racist book Le Camp des Saints to this racist passage:

Migration has split Europe in two—or I could say that it has split the West in two. One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. These countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples. I could also say that it is no longer the Western world, but the post-Western world. And around 2050, the laws of mathematics will lead to the final demographic shift: cities in this part of the continent—or that part—will see the proportion of residents of non-European origin rising to over 50 per cent of the total. And here we are in Central Europe—in the other half of Europe, or of the West. If it were not somewhat confusing, I could say that the West—let’s say the West in its spiritual sense—has moved to Central Europe: the West is here, and what is left over there is merely the post-West.

A battle is in progress between the two halves of Europe. We made an offer to the post-Westerners which was based on tolerance or leaving one another in peace, allowing each to decide for themselves whom they want to live alongside; but they reject this and are continuing to fight against Central Europe, with the goal of making us like them.

… All we ask is that they do not try to impose on us a fate which we do not see as simply a fate for a nation, but as its nemesis. This is all we ask, and no more … The internationalist left employs a feint, an ideological ruse: the claim—their claim—that Europe by its very nature is populated by peoples of mixed race. This is a historical and semantic sleight of hand, because it conflates two different things. There is a world in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe. Now that is a mixed-race world. And there is our world, where people from within Europe mix with one another, move around, work, and relocate. So, for example, in the Carpathian Basin we are not mixed-race: we are simply a mixture of peoples living in our own European homeland. And, given a favourable alignment of stars and a following wind, these peoples merge together in a kind of Hungaro-Pannonian sauce, creating their own new European culture. This is why we have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race.

This is why we fought at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and—if I am not mistaken—this is why, in still older times—the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers. Today the situation is that Islamic civilisation, which is constantly moving towards Europe, has realised—precisely because of the traditions of Belgrade/Nándorfehérvár—that the route through Hungary is an unsuitable one along which to send its people up into Europe. This is why Poitiers has been replayed; now the incursion’s origins are not in the East, but in the South, from where they are occupying and flooding the West. This might not yet be a very important task for us, but it will be for our children, who will need to defend themselves not only from the South, but also from the West. The time will come when we have to somehow accept Christians coming to us from there and integrate them into our lives. This has happened before; and those whom we do not want to let in will have to be stopped at our western borders—Schengen or no Schengen. But this is not the task of the moment, and not a task for our lifetime. Our task is solely to prepare our children to be able to do this.

This reminds me not of a “pure Nazi text” so much as Enoch Powell’s xenophobic “Rivers of Blood” speech, which I revisited on its semicentennial. I expect time to similarly disprove Orbán’s predictions.

At Eyes on the Right, Damon Linker’s consistently excellent Substack, he ably sums up why Orbán’s speech is racist in the course of urging Dreher to repudiate his support for the Hungarian leader:

… even in a time of shifting and blurred lines, we need to hold fast to some fixed standards. If a politician delivers a speech in which he combines talk of European collapse with ominous references to the dangers of mixing races and the existential threat posed by Muslim immigration, and then also plugs a book that warns about precisely the same thing in racist terms, he has delivered a flagrantly racist speech.

This isn’t complicated. It’s as clear as day, right there on the surface, and it’s bad.

But it’s also bad that, as you note near the top of your original post on the speech, Orbán is likely to say similar things in his remarks at CPAC less than a week from now, on a stage he will be sharing with Donald Trump, just months before he announces another run for the presidency. You have done a lot to bring American conservatives into alignment with Orbán. He could well say things in Dallas that further embolden racist and xenophobic factions of the American right, bringing their toxic ideas even further into the mainstream.

Is this really what it now means for you to engage in politics as a Christian and a defender of moral truth? I certainly hope not. And if it isn’t, I hope you will soon come to see that you have a unique responsibility to speak out against this darkness—to use your voice to explain why your allies on the right must repudiate the racist and xenophobic anti-liberalism for which Viktor Orbán has now unambiguously made himself a leading spokesman.

To go deeper on this debate, see Dreher’s mixed response and Linker’s concluding thoughts. No surprise that I think Linker, as a pro-immigration liberal and race abolitionist, gets the better of the exchange. I’ll be interested to see if Orbán’s remarks at CPAC alter either of their perspectives.

Debating the Sexual Revolution

Louise Perry, the author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, and Aella, the sex worker turned public intellectual, participated in a high-quality conversation at Unherd. In one exchange, Perry explains why she believes that sex is different in kind from other sorts of human behavior.

She argues:

The idea that sex is like any other kind of social interaction—comparable to working in a factory, to shaking hands, to making coffee, going surfing—I call that, in the book, sexual disenchantment. It’s this idea that comes out of the sexual revolution, that all of the religious, bourgeois, traditional norms of the past had to be done away with. The idea of sex having any kind of special status, let alone sacred status, had to be done away with in order for people to shake off the oppressive shackles of the past. And I think the problem with that idea is twofold. One, I don’t think people believe it in the vast majority of cases. They overwhelmingly don’t behave as if sex is like anything else. There are people who do polyamory well and enjoy it. There are also, on any given platform devoted to discussion of polyamory, people really struggling with jealousy—finding it really, really difficult to suppress that instinct to view sex as being unique compared with other kinds of relationships.

And the problem with trying to pretend that sex is just like anything else: if you can’t have a special status for sex, you also can’t have a special status for rape, which we do in law. We recognise that rape is worse than theft—instinctively, and also in our legal codes. We recognise that sexual harassment has a uniquely harmful effect on its victims.

Aella counters that treating sex as sacred has costs and doesn’t work for everyone. She argues:

I agree that for some sections of the population, sex is treated very seriously, and in others, it’s not. My guess is that people are much more flexible along the spectrum than you might think. I worked at a factory—terrible hours—and then I escaped into sex work, and eventually into prostitution. After I did this, I was shocked that people had placed so much meaning on sex, in a way that prevented me from escaping terrible jobs to begin with. Because I didn’t go straight into sex work because of that meaning that people placed on it. And then when I did, I was like: “Fuck that, that meaning that people loaded up on to sex, prevented me from living basically my best life.”

I know a lot of other sex workers who feel the same way. And I’m not saying that everybody should. I also know some sex workers who tried sex work, and they were like: “Shit, I can’t not have the meaning here.” My overall issue here is: people are pointing more of a laser eye at the non-standard, non-normal, deviant types of sexual approaches than they are at the conservative, socially-accepted ones. You’re correct that a lot of polyamory discussions are talking about jealousy issues, but monogamy also has dead bedroom problems. Both are relationship structures that require some sort of negotiation of your desires, and what you can achieve in your life. Both of them have pretty severe downsides. As a sex worker, I see a huge amount of the downsides in monogamy, from men who come see me because of failures in their monogamous relationships.

ScandaNATO

Should the United States support the membership of Sweden and Finland in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Senator Josh Hawley explained why he will vote no on their membership:

Finland and Sweden want to join the Atlantic Alliance to head off further Russian aggression in Europe. That is entirely understandable given their location and security needs. But America’s greatest foreign adversary doesn’t loom over Europe. It looms in Asia. I am talking of course about the People’s Republic of China. And when it comes to Chinese imperialism, the American people should know the truth: the United States is not ready to resist it. Expanding American security commitments in Europe now would only make that problem worse—and America, less safe.

President Biden disagrees:

Finland and Sweden are longtime, stalwart partners of the United States. By joining NATO, they will further strengthen our defense cooperation and benefit the entire Transatlantic Alliance. Together with our NATO Allies, the United States will maintain its robust exercise activity and presence in the Baltic Sea region. While their applications for NATO membership are being considered, the United States will work with Finland and Sweden to remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security, and to deter and confront aggression or the threat of aggression.

Provocation of the Week

In an essay on “the necessity of getting out of movements—even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us—when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do,” Wendell Berry muses on the role of language and the need to take care that words continue to signify what they started out meaning.

He writes:

The worst danger may be that a movement will lose its language either to its own confusion about meaning and practice, or to preemption by its enemies. I remember, for example, my naive confusion at learning that it was possible for advocates of organic agriculture to look upon the “organic method” as an end in itself. To me, organic farming was attractive both as a way of conserving nature and as a strategy of survival for small farmers. Imagine my surprise in discovering that there could be huge “organic” monocultures. And so I was not too surprised by the recent attempt of the United States Department of Agriculture to appropriate the “organic” label for food irradiation, genetic engineering, and other desecrations of the corporate food economy. Once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean, it becomes impossible to mean what we say. When “homemade” ceases to mean neither more nor less than “made at home,” then it means anything, which is to say that it means nothing. The same decay is at work on words such as “conservation,” “sustainable,” “safe,” “natural,” “healthful,” “sanitary,” and “organic.” The use of such words now requires the most exacting control of context and the use immediately of illustrative examples.

Real organic gardeners and farmers who market their produce locally are finding that, to a lot of people, “organic” means something like “trustworthy.” And so, for a while, it will be useful for us to talk about the meaning and the economic usefulness of trust and trustworthiness. But we must be careful. Sooner or later, Trust Us Global Foods Inc., will be upon us, advertising safe, sanitary, natural food irradiation. And then we must be prepared to raise another standard and move on.

Remember, I’ll be off next week, but Up for Debate will return after that––enjoy these summer days!