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The Hungarian Horseradish

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In East-Central Europe, the Hungarians are something of an anomaly. They are not Slavic. They don't speak a Slavic language. Even their origins are hotly contested, as some Hungarian nationalists have challenged the conventional "Finno-Ugric" explanation that present day Hungarians and Finns both derive from older Eurasian tribes. Instead, they argue that the Magyars derive from the ancient Scythians or even the more ancient Sumerians.

The physicists on the Manhattan project had an equally unlikely theory: Hungarians came from Mars. The sheer number of Hungarian scientists with otherworldly capacities -- Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, John von Neumann -- perplexed the envious non-Hungarians. That they found the Hungarian language impenetrable only reinforced their belief in heavenly origins. Even more strangely, this particular argument reappeared in a 2000 statement of a leading member of the current ruling party in Hungary when he said that "While human DNA has two or three spirals within a given length, the DNA of the Hungarian race has nine ... which is identical to the number of rotations of light from the planet Sirius when it reaches the Earth. The cosmic origin of Hungarian intelligence, the Hungarian soul and the Hungarian minds is a result of this fact."

The 10 million inhabitants of Hungary today take pride in the often hermetic nature of their culture. But it can also create a hothouse environment in which outside influences are slighted - or worse -- in favor of the indigenous. Many Hungarians speak other languages and participate in wider political and cultural conversations. But many Hungarians, particularly in the countryside, are restricted to a single language.

"The isolation of speaking this language and reading this media: you think the whole world is like this," observes Bob Cohen. "As we say in Yiddish, for a worm that lives in a horseradish, the whole world is horseradish."

Cohen occupies his own unusual position. He grew up in the Bronx, the son of Hungarian immigrants. In his twenties, on the trail of Yiddish folk music, he established himself in Budapest and eventually became a Hungarian citizen. He has worked as a journalist, a teacher, a musician, and a bridge between Hungary and the outside world. But he has also been a bridge between the vanishing world of Yiddish folk music and a culture brought up on a more eclectic klezmer sound.

"The way I play is different from the way other people play because I basically went looking for what constitutes a Yiddish aesthetic," he told me in an interview in Budapest last May. "Klezmer music is almost 50 percent Romanian. Why is it we play it this way? Who can I ask that is still alive, who can tell me how they danced and how people responded to the music? I'd bring recordings of klezmer music from 1912 to people who were 80 years old and see if it rocked."

Cohen has also watched the cosmopolitan culture of Hungary become overwhelmed by an increasingly narrow nationalism. "I saw in Hungary in 1989 a chance for the new generation to sweep out the old," he recalls. "I thought they were all going to get the Whole Earth Catalog and look at it and say, this is the world that we'll be making. Everything will be a geodesic dome. Here's your free Birkenstocks. That's what I thought. Hungary had been closed off. They couldn't travel or have access to outside media. And now everything was open and they wanted to taste and sample and learn about everything from abroad. People would come up and shake my hand on the street. Then it closed off in reaction. In politics and society here, there's always been this tension between being open and closed -- between being North and South Korea."

The most sensitive issue is the very identity of Hungarians. The far-right party Jobbik has made the identity issue central to its program. "The nationalists want to control what is being taught. One of Jobbik's political points, which is absolutely entertained by Fidesz, is that they will not teach that Hungarians speak a Finno-Ugric language. They say that Hungarians are Sumerians. Jesus was a Sumerian -- I'm not kidding about this! -- Jesus was a Sumerian taken by Jewish slave traders. Hungarians are noble Sumerians or Scythians, not Ugric-speaking people from way up in Siberia. This is what they are talking about in parliament instead of fixing our problems."

The Interview

Let me shift to the foreign policy of the Fidesz government. Orban has indulged in some Euroskeptical language. And there's been some pro-Moscow rhetoric that ruffles feathers in Washington. Is this bluff?

It's partially bluff. It's also the traditional third road -- the same that Kadar did, the same that Horthy did. It's this idea of "we the Hungarians." A friend of mine, her mother was the translator for all of Orban's correspondence in a West European language in the first round of Fidesz governance in the late 1990s. "You can't imagine the stuff," she said. Hungary wanted to get into the EU and they were getting loads of Phare development money. For example, the EU wanted the money to go toward building a road in a particular place. And Orban would say, "You insult the pride of the Hungarian people! We do not take orders like this." Actually, we know that they used the Phare money to build the Millenaris (Millenium) center, this big concert hall with a secret TV station, all set behind this mall in Buda. We call it the Milliomos (Millionaire) Center.

The Fidesz people are a piece of work. Like I said, they're C students. They're the Sopranos, not the Gambinos. When Orban was in power and even when he was Mr. Opposition Leader - and he wouldn't disagree with me -- his political ideal in Europe was Berlusconi. He offered Berlusconi amnesty to come to Hungary. They were two peas in a pod.

The attitude toward Brussels is mainly a defense against transparency. Get your nose out of our media, our courts. The lack of transparency protects immense corruption, which we all know about. But the Socialists weren't that much less corrupt -- it just involved their people. That reinforces the classic Hungarian cultural syndrome: normal people don't want to know about politics. I have friends my age, who grew up in the 1980s and are intelligent people, who don't read newspapers. I go on tour with my band for a month or two, and when I'm hanging around our German hotel waiting for breakfast and I have Hungarian newspapers, they don't want to read them. They'd rather watch tennis. This is also their attitude toward the press. All the foreign press critical of Hungary must be in the pay of the opposition: "why else would you write something I don't like?" When Kim Lane Scheppele wrote her piece for Paul Krugman - about the constitutional court issue - many Hungarians said, "She's anti-Hungarian. She's in the pay of our opposition." But why would you spend so much time learning about Hungary if you were planning to be anti-Hungarian? And she doesn't need your pay. She's a Princeton professor -- see how much she makes and how much you're offering.

My son was on a program in high school where the media class was taken to see an old-fashioned local newspaper. My son has learned from me to pick up the paper and count the advertisers to see if the paper is making money. He does that, and he asks, "How do you make money with so few advertisements?" And this older guy, old enough to have been raised under Communism, answers, "The party helps." Which party? In that district, it was the MSP. They too don't want to reform that tradition. Ber toll -- rented pen -- that's what Hungarians call the press. There's nothing of the quality of even Fox News. People don't see why you wouldn't press your argument past the point of prevarication.

This is the Italianization of the media, and it's not just here in Hungary.

Another thing: they don't understand the Internet. There's a plurality of information, but most of it is not going to be in Hungarian. And that which is in Hungarian, and I read a lot of it, is unpaid prevarication. It's just blah-blah versus blah-blah. There are some good websites. But the government has paid for Internet trolls. When suddenly everybody is saying "if you look at the unemployment figures from 1932...," you start wondering where everyone suddenly got these 1932 figures.

Then there was the student demonstration, the second one that took place at the Fidesz headquarters on Lendvai utca near the city park. There was a huge poster across the side of the headquarters saying something like "Bajnai Gordon is being paid by Gyurcsany and the same Socialists as before." Bajnai was the caretaker prime minister after Gyurcsany left. He wasn't a politician, though he is one now. This was basically a troll comment four stories high on a huge piece of canvas!

A couple weeks later student demonstrators tried to occupy the entrance of the Fidesz building. It was a bunch of 20-year-olds wearing keffiyeh, carrying signs, being non-violent. Usually the police comes to remove them. No, the police were told to stay away. By whom? Who tells the police to stay away from the Fidesz headquarters? And they brought in the football hooligans from the rightwing football team as their special security squad to remove the students. Football hooligans had been showing up at these student meetings in the winter, disrupting the meeting by saying, "Why do you want money? We want a football stadium!" One of the main advisors for Orban is Gabor Kubatov, who is a major organizer of the Fradi, the ultras, the guys who like to fistfight. So, when you need to do something, you call Kubatov and he calls in the football hooligans to do what the police can't do.

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To read the rest of the interview, click here.