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Saturday, February 11, 2012

What A Sad, Repressed Joke Reveals

Viktor Orbán, the current Prime Minister of Hungary, grew up in Alcsútdoboz, Vértesacsa and Felcsút, villages vaguely in the agglomeration of the industrial town of Székesfehérvár in west-central Hungary. His paternal grandfather had moved to Alcsútdoboz as a farmer after World War II. His father has a college degree as an agricultural engineer and held mid-level managerial positions in the nearby, state-owned mining company; his mother has been a special education teacher, specializing in speech therapy. The family moved to Székesfehérvár in 1977, when Orbán was 14, and he completed his secondary education in a fairly well known high school, in a class focused on English, in 1981. (Here is a a link to Orbán's official Vitae, adorned with a photograph that appears to have been taken before high school graduation.) He attained a law degree in 1987 at the Eötvös Lóránd University in Budapest, and held a number of research scholarships before becoming a full time politician, including the prestigeous Soros Foundation fellowship to spend a semester at Pembroke College in Oxford. His wife is also a lawyer. Given that all this occurred in state socialist Hungary, of course there was no payment of tuition of any kind involved in this story.

The little we know about the mobility path of the Orbán family is of course hardly exceptional: The state socialist system's cracks, inefficiencies and various other contradictions notwithstanding, a fairly large proportion of today's educated strata exist in a one, maximum two-generation removal from the working-class. This is all not only fine; arguably, the legacy of this massive collective mobility is among the greatest contributions of state socialist history to social reality in Hungary (as well as in most other erstwhile state-socialist societies).

What is amazing, then, is that Orbán was able to crack the following joke in a meeting with party activists in the town of Eger last week, in response to a request for an explanation for the rationale behind decreasing the number of tuition-free slots for admissions to law school at state universities from 800 to 100:

"Indeed, it was a mistake to decrease the number of seats in law schools to 100. They should have been cut to zero."

I find this punchline, coming from somebody who is the product of a free educational system, from which he benefited because of his constitutionally guaranteed right as a citizen of Hungary, first and foremost unbelievably distasteful. It is actually quite impossible to imagine in today's Hungary that the son of a mid-level mine employee, the grandson of a farmer, could afford law school tuition.

Be that as it may, if this is how dr. Orbán (in Hungary, law school degrees are doctorates) feels, I'm sure the state Treasury will accept a lump sum repayment of the real costs of his education, from first year elementary to law school, with appropriate interest, of course. And the same goes for his spouse and five school-age children, all of whom have of course benefited from the constitutionally guaranteed citizenship right to a free education thus far.

Second, this hardly appears to be--as his liberal critics tend to put it--a "conservative" man. Nor is he a "populist moderate right wing" politician, as he described himself in an interview with a French newspaper recently. Nor is there much by way of particularly Christian or, for that matter, democratic, content to this idea.

IMHO this remark reveals a rather crude, neolib hack, with a really strong streak of repression, who sells himself to large segments of the public yearning for simple and obvious, small bits of what Colbert calls "truthiness," with a lot of nationalist posturing.

In short, I do very much agree with a recent diagnosis by social psychologist János Rudas: probably the most striking feature of all this gibberish is its inconsistency. That it is not dismissed for lack of coherence, is the interesting fact.

There you have it: the habits of the heart of a self-loathing, repressed post-socialist subject. Not a pretty sight.


  1. On December 6, 2012, the government further reduced the number of tuition-free slots in higher education, this time to 10500, i.e., approximately one-fifth of the total. I really wish my entry had not remained so timely.


cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta