Budapest, 24 November 2018

When most people talk about democracy, immigrants, and politics, I don’t think they’ve ever been an immigrant themselves. I’ve been one in Hungary now for about fifteen months, and things happen there that are just beyond our reality in the West.

This afternoon, I went out in the cold to attend a protest march, the first demonstration I ever attended. The occasion:

“Hungary’s top-ranked university, CEU was founded in 1991 as the country moved to democratize in the aftermath of communism. Founded on the ethos of open society, the university has offered postgraduate courses in such subjects as political science, nationalism and gender studies ever since. Since regaining power in 2010, members of the Orban government — several of whom graduated from CEU — began to espouse “illiberal” values. In March 2017, the government unveiled the “lex CEU” legislation which [aims to force the university to leave the country] and sparked some 80,000 protesters to take to the streets calling for academic freedom.” — The Globe And Mail

If the government succeeds, and it looks like it will, then this will be the first political exile of a university from a European country since the Second World War.

Let that get through for a second.

In some circles, that would not be something to be proud of but, clearly, there are powerful people in this country who are of a different opinion.

These people are wrong. This is a scandal.

I arrived early and noticed that most of the signs were in Hungarian and that a large percentage of the participants was well above student-age, and was speaking this country’s language. This was encouraging. It’s not only students, those who are being forced out, who are standing up for academic freedom.

While I strolled through the expanding crowd (of, at its peak, around a 1000 people), I overheard a conversation. A Hungarian student was telling his foreign friends about an experience he had while commuting on the train from his hometown to the capital:

“If I speak English, there frequently are other passengers who come up to me, look me in the eye and tell me: ‘Why are you such a filthy liberal?’ I despise you.’”

I can’t help myself — I doubt whether this is true. But why would he lie? The anecdote came as a shock. In my experience, of Hungarians in Budapest, they are extremely friendly.

Although I have once, in a bar after a heated discussion, been ‘accused’ of being a “privileged white male” (like my place of birth was somehow my fault) by someone who was tipsy and later apologized, this guy’s story’s encounter has a more cruel taste. It is a cold, ‘rational’ judgment: the accuser really has the expressed opinion — no drinks, no previous argument — and holds it so deeply that he feels the need to approach you — an unknown person — to make that clear.

Call me naive, but I’m at a loss when I try to understand how someone could hate stranger, purely for who that person is or what that person believes.

As we started marching, the atmosphere switched. People shouted louder. Not everyone hid their anger.

In English:

“What do we do when gay people are under attack? We protect them!”

“What do we do when universities are under attack? We protect them!”

Bystanders took pictures. Cars honked at us. There was a lot of police. I wasn’t sure how to feel.

A Hungarian friend lifted his arms and joined the crowd in shouting, in Hungarian

“Free country = free education!”

“How do you feel?” I asked him. He put his hand on my shoulder. I turned my head to meet his eyes. He clenched his fists, the color of his cheeks changed from red to deep red. “Perhaps… Maybe… I hope they will listen.” As if he only now realized it, he suddenly started staring at the ground.

We both knew.

Many signs that I didn’t understand contained two words that needed no translation. The words were: ‘Orban’ and ‘fasizmus’.

The ones that got to me even more, however, pointed out a more concrete threat:

This will not end with universities.”

Something very important is being played out here: what kind of democracy we are going to have in Europe and possibly America in the near future. Orban has led the way with a self-proclaimed “illiberal” single-party state and this could be the future of a lot of countries — look at what’s happening in Poland and Turkey, for example.

As our rector Michael Ignatieff has urged:

“Wake up! Pay attention!”

Like to read?

Join my Thinking Together newsletter for a free weekly dose of similarly high-quality mind-expanding ideas.

Spread the love