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Jan 10, 2018 - Zoltán Kovács

Language isn’t the problem. Your bias is the problem

The first days of January offer a good time to take stock and consider some life improvements for the twelve months to come. Many are making New Year’s resolutions, including, it seems, the Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum.

She’s going to avoid, she vowed in a year-end column, using terms like “far right” and “populist” because they just don’t apply any more.

Several years ago, Applebaum took up a place among Washington’s influencers. After several years as a foreign correspondent in Central and Eastern Europe, she came to be regarded as an expert on the region, despite the fact that limited language skills compel her to rely on interpreters and English-speaking sources to follow events. In Hungary, she was seen as a committed anti-communist, and some of her early work made an important contribution to that cause.

But the region has changed a great deal since 1989, even since the financial crisis of 2008, and it seems of late that Applebaum hasn’t kept pace. Her recent writings on Hungary have taken on a lecturing tone, are thin on facts, and conspicuously resemble the talking points of the liberal left publicists. To her long-time readers in this part of the world, she seems to have lost her curiosity for the region and has become just another part of the mainstream echo chamber.

A couple of months ago, just prior to her visit to Budapest, she wrote a piece calling Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a neo-Bolshevik but neglected to explain or back up the claim in what was otherwise a very long column. Calling it irrational, I noted in a subsequent blog post that just a few months prior, she had called Orbán a fascist. As the spokesperson of a democratically elected government, I say both claims are outrageous. As a historian myself, I say that’s the mark of profound confusion.

In this latest piece mentioning Hungary, she makes a New Year’s pledge to stop using phrases like far-right, far-left and fascist to describe democratically elected governments, like mine. These phrases are inadequate, she argues again at length, too weak to describe the actual nature of these governments.

The government of Hungary cannot really be considered far-right or even conservative because, you see, unlike real center-right governments, Hungary “is anti-trade and anti-market, favoring instead a greater role for the national state or..for oligarchs close to the ruling party.”

Anti-trade, anti-market? That’s a silly, uninformed claim. The government of Hungary has brought excessive government deficits under control and is bringing down state debt. We’ve introduced the lowest corporate tax rate in Europe at 9 percent and are approaching record-breaking levels of foreign investment. Our MFA is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, not just foreign affairs, and we’ve aggressively pursued new trade relations and markets. To call this government “anti-trade and anti-market” is spurious indeed.

Hungary is “anti-pluralist,” says Applebaum in another example of torturous logic because Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has packed the courts. Fact is, Hungary’s reforms of the judiciary were thoroughly reviewed by the European Commission and the Venice Commission. We resolved all their questions, and the matter was put to rest. When Constitutional Court members were selected in 2016, Fidesz reached a compromise with the opposition. What’s more, the courts, including the Constitutional Court and the high court, the Kúria, have handed down many decisions that run contrary to what the government and the parliamentary majority wanted. If Prime Minister Orbán was trying “pack the courts” and undermine judicial independence, he has done a poor job of it.

She goes on to fret some more about how these terms “far right” and “populist” are so insufficient but that’s not because the phrases are weak. The problem is her own bias and poor grasp of the facts. Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist, betrayed in her recent visit to Budapest a stunning ignorance of the history of Hungary and lack of knowledge of current events. Instead of the intellectual curiosity that once guided her writing, she let her bias write her articles and that’s the real problem.