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The War on Knowledge

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The Hungarian government is trying to close down Central European University (CEU), an American-accredited university in Budapest founded by George Soros in 1991 to support intellectual freedom and free speech.

CEU’s response to the Hungarian Parliament asserts that the proposed acts are intentionally discriminatory:

After careful legal study, CEU has concluded that these amendments would make it impossible for the University to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Budapest, CEU’s home for 25 years. CEU is in full conformity with Hungarian law. The proposed legislation targets CEU directly and is therefore discriminatory and unacceptable.

This hardly comes out of nowhere. Earlier this year, the government launched attacks on the Hungarian NGO community, looking to root out Soros’s civil society initiatives (mostly supported by his Open Society Foundations). Other watchdog NGOs were also targeted, including Transparency International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Helsinki Committee.

In an interview with RT, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto explained,

We find it very anti-democratic if someone from abroad would like to influence Hungarian voters on whom to vote for…these organizations must be pushed back with all available tools, and I think they must be swept out, and now I believe the international conditions are right for this with the election of the new president [Donald Trump].”

Government friendly press outlets have long been peddling stories about Soros’s ties to the CIA and plans to overthrow the Hungarian government (and many neighboring regimes).

Much of the anti-Soros rhetoric has also drawn on old anti-Semitic tropes. Karl Pfeiffer neatly lays out some of these trends:

Soros is demonized and presented as the source of all evil by the government. The rhetoric used against him reminds me of the anti-Semitic propaganda from my childhood, according to which the Jews were responsible for all of Hungary’s problems, like poverty, ignorance, and landless peasants.

Moreover, the government media portrays Mr. Soros as an agent of the “international finance.” We know that this is a code for “Jews.” You don’t have to be explicitly anti-Semitic, you can be implicitly anti-Semitic – the message is quite clear for mainstream Hungarian society, which has never come to terms with its own prejudices against Jews.

Finally, Soros is presented by the government as responsible for mass migration to Europe. Did the 86-year-old investor really go to Syria and Iraq to politely ask people to come to Europe? This is a worldview deeply rooted in conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.

All of these attacks—threatening civil society NGOs, perpetuating wildly xenophobic conspiracy theories, and now assaulting centers of higher learning—map perfectly onto Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chilling vision of an “illiberal state.”

As we consider the rise of nationalist-populist parties across Europe (and the US), we need to remember to take them both seriously and literally. Once in power, they tend to follow through.

[Disclosure: I’ve spent many summer months working in CEU’s library; it’s become a research home-away-from-home. Of course, this could be taken as further evidence for the institution’s support for “rootless cosmopolitans.”]

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  • Warren Terra

    Lest you think the war on science, knowledge, and politically inconvenient scholarship isn’t happening here: the House Science Committee is at this moment holding a kangaroo-court hearing about climate science that is beyond absurd; in particular, the chair and his chief flack are denouncing the terrible pro-science bias of the country’s mot prestigious journal, Science, which they dismiss as the outlet of a registered lobbying outfit (which is technically true, but it’s a recent development that lobbying for scientific knowledge was controversial).

    Also in the war on science: Trump, who previously proposed a 20% ($6 billion) cut in the NIH for next year’s budget, has now proposed a $1.2 billion cut in the current year’s budget. This is just vandalism at this point.

    • NewishLawyer

      In some ways, I find climate change denialism to be an admission of Climate Change. Still disturbing but to me it always reads: “Yeah this is a problem but I am making oodles of money off the problem and will be long dead before it is really a problem. Sue me.”

      The issue with Climate Change is how much immediate pain do we take for a long-term issue. Kevin Drum came up with a great description of Climate Change being the graduate school public policy problem from Hell.

  • Randy

    We find it very anti-democratic if someone from abroad would like to influence Hungarian voters on whom to vote for…these organizations must be pushed back with all available tools, and I think they must be swept out, and now I believe the international conditions are right for this with the election of the new president [Donald Trump].

    Did he keep a straight face when he said this?

  • Murc

    My understanding is that Hungary basically abolished much of its governmental structure, including an independent judiciary, a few years back, it more or less repealed civil liberties as we understand them, and that it is quasi-illegal to criticize or oppose the party in power. Am I incorrect?

    • sonamib

      There was a political scientist who used to post about it in Krugman’s blog. That’s where I got most of what I know about the awful things happening in Hungary after Fidesz won.

      What is a real shame is that the European People’s Party (EPP), which federates the christian-democrat parties, doesn’t kick Fidesz out for being authoritarian assholes.

      • sonamib

        Sorry, I changed my comment midway through writing it and it doesn’t make sense as a reply to you, Murc.

        Well, uh, from my recollections what you’re saying is right. You only forgot to mention the strengthening of police power, though that might be covered under the weakening of civil liberties.

  • This sort of thing is happening in Israel as well – not to universities, but absolutely to NGOs and human rights organizations. “Funded by foreign interests” has become the fig leaf behind legislating left wing bodies out of existence – despite the fact that most right wing groups, and indeed the ruling party and personal coffers of the prime minister, are practically groaning with foreign money.

    • CP

      Yeah, there is what seems to be a universal double standard there of “everyone knows leftists are traitors, but our internationales are perfectly legit and on the level.”

      It’s not even recent or “it’s okay as long as they’re fellow white nationalists/right wingers/wev.” In the war on terror years, I kept waiting for someone, in the rising tide of Islamophobia, to point out that the Saudis owned a massive stake in NewsCorp, or… pick your nefarious tie with the Saudis; they’ve had over half a century to get pretty well entrenched in Washington. But no. As long as you’re on the right side of the aisle, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing literally everything you’re accusing the other side of.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        There are numerous anti-Islamic/right-wing groups that have reported on the Saudi interest in NewsCorp and alleged influence on Fox News. They just don’t get much mainstream media attention because obviously Fox News isn’t going to report something like that about itself.

        See, e.g., http://www.clarionproject.org/analysis/interview-diana-west-saudi-influence-fox-news

        https://stop-obama-now.net/saudis-own-obama-fox/

      • BiloSagdiyev

        I think it came up around the time FOX News was railing about the A-rabs winning contracts to run our port facilities. Perhaps The Daily Show brought up the background on who owned FOX News.

        • CP

          As I recall it, a few people have brought it up just to highlight the hypocrisy, which is, of course, correct. But it never became big on the right, even now when Fox is increasingly dismissed by true purists as too liberal and compromised.

    • Anna in PDX

      That’s fascinating and disturbing because I have been following similar issues in Egypt for decades. I worked in an American nonprofit there from 1999 or so to 2006. There was a lot of agitprop in the government press as well as the “yellow” journalism press there about foreign government donations to civil society organizations. When I was still there, this was still the Mubarak regime, they raided the Ibn Khaldun center which was a sort of democracy promotion think tank thing, and arrested some people we knew personally and had had in our training classes. It is really frighteningly easy for a government to make aid programs look suspicious and unpatriotic.

      But I always thought that Israel was not even in the same ballpark as to this sort of heavy handed propaganda, and am a bit distressed to find out that I’m wrong.

      • CP

        I’m curious – who were the foreign governments that they scapegoated in Egypt as being behind this infiltration?

        • Anna in PDX

          The US but also there were others, I believe Sweden was mentioned and maybe Japan

          • CP

            Ah.

            So basically another one of those “it’s okay when we do it” hypocrisies, given how much the Egyptian government itself receives from the United States…

            • Anna in PDX

              Right, similarly to Israel I would say.

          • los

            THE SOROS. It’s always THE SOROS behind Everything.

            /s!

      • humanoid.panda

        But I always thought that Israel was not even in the same ballpark as to this sort of heavy handed propaganda, and am a bit distressed to find out that I’m wrong.

        This is relatively new development in Israel. Basically, the Israeli left,such as it is, had been moribund for at least a decade, and the Israeli right still hadn’t implemented any of its promises. Which means they need someone to blame. Initially it was the legal system, but it had been defanged. So, they moved to foreign agents and/or Obama.

  • dogboy

    I like to think of it as UEC- Universitas Europae Centralis.

  • Cheerfull

    There is a taint and purity focus to this type of thinking – anything funded by Soros is tainted by Soros, that is really remarkable. It overlooks all questions of why something is being funded and what actual difference it makes to the product to look purely at proximity. Someone like Soros becomes a disease vector instead of a person.

    By contrast it would not bother me so much if Trump was financially supported by Russian oligarchs and chetniks if it weren’t kept so mysterious and it wasn’t so reasonably clear what they were seeking in return and how they were using the support to change

    • Cheerfull

      Sigh, no edit button – …how they were using the support to change U.S. and world politics.

    • CP

      It would definitely bother me.

      Part of what’s annoyed me about this whole Russian mess is that given Trump’s openly stated views on Putin and related issues, it shouldn’t even matter whether or not he was money laundering for Russian oligarchs/gangsters or whether or not Putin tried to infiltrate his campaign, or whatever. He’s a guy who’s announced again and again to all who’ll listen that he’s a huge Putin fan while at the same time announcing that he was angry at, and considering reducing assistance to, longstanding democratic allies that’re right in Putin’s line of fire. He’s a guy who openly, on national television, asked the Russians to hack his electoral opponent for him. Nobody like that should get anywhere close to the White House even if they were clean as a whistle – a Democrat certainly wouldn’t have.

      • Cheerfull

        Well I was trying to draw a parallel and maybe it doesn’t work, I have no particular reason to object to any actual policy I am aware of with Soros, and to particularly to the extent he simply funds operations that continue on their own, there really is no reason to object. Putin and friends are as you say different and somebody who shows affinity for them even without being clearly bought by them, should not be president.

        I still am struck by those, though, who seem to think it as unchallengeable that the fact that money earned by Soros somehow helps some group somewhere seems to make that group, necessarily, a tainted thing.

  • CP

    Lastly,

    Moreover, the government media portrays Mr. Soros as an agent of the “international finance.”

    I do find it (darkly) funny that George Soros is portrayed everywhere in the world as a force of Wall Street and American capitalism, except in his home country, where he’s instead believed to be plotting a communist takeover.

    • sonamib

      Well, Jews manage to be somehow stereotyped as both greedy bankers and evil communists. Antisemitism isn’t a very very consistent worldview.

      • Origami Isopod

        Bigotries in general are not consistent worldviews. “They are incompetent, stupid, and lazy” often co-exists with “They’re going to take all our jobs/money/women!”

      • CP

        True.

        To the extent that there’s anything intelligible behind it, I think it’s that fascists (and/or the people drawn to prejudiced, tribal-centric worldviews more generally) aren’t big on economics in general, and therefore on economic-centric ideologies (i.e. both communism and capitalism). “They’re all Jewish plots!” is an easy way to dismiss them and categorize them in terms that do make sense, to them.

      • Another particularly great irony here is that Soros in fact started out in politics with anticommunist activism (he was a major backer of Solidarity in particular). It’s as if his critics don’t even know anything about him.

        • CP

          Inconceivable!

    • Dennis Orphen

      Love, American Style Triangulation, Fascist Style

  • Jack M.

    “Illiberal state.” I think I just heard some hard-right-wing pundits wish very loudly that they had come up with that term first.

  • Melissa Byrnes

    Update: there’s now a petition in support of CEU for anyone interested in signing.

    • cpinva

      Ms. Byrnes, I don’t mind signing the petition (for what my signature is worth), but I do have a question: why do they need my home address, along with my email addy, for me to do so?

  • cpinva

    I don’t know that I’d describe the current Hungarian gov’t as “populist”, more like “nationalist”.

    ok, this kind of threw me, as one of the reasons the gov’t is passing this legislation:

    “◦require CEU to open a campus in the state of New York.”

    is there someone in the Hungarian national government who really, really, really wants to see Les Miz on/off broadway, but can’t afford the plane ticket? so, they concoct this plan, to force CEU to open a NY branch, this person is hired as an instructor there, with all moving expenses (including airfare) paid. they then just have to come up with the $100 + parking to go see the show. because honestly, that’s the only reason I could come up with, for the government wanting CEU to do this.

    • sonamib

      This raises the question : how is populism defined exactly? I think I’d go with :

      – It’s a political movement that adopts popular positions which are not endorsed by mainstream politicians (EU-hatred, let’em drown policy wrt to immigrants, etc.). Note that these positions don’t need to be majoritarian, they just need to be under-represented.

      – They have no hope of actually delivering on what they promise.

      – They try to blur right/left distinctions, even though some populisms clearly originate from the right and others clearly from the left.

      Something else I’m missing? And does this apply in any way to Hungary? (Not rhetorical, I don’t know).

  • Origami Isopod

    Relatedly, Alex Jones just called Soros "the head of the Jewish Mafia."

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