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Disrupting Illiberal Democracy: Gender, Boundary Crossings, and the Possibility of Kinship in Hungary An Interview with Orsolya Lehotai – Page 3 – Barricade

Disrupting Illiberal Democracy: Gender, Boundary Crossings, and the Possibility of Kinship in Hungary
An Interview with Orsolya Lehotai

ZACH: When you say we didn’t go deep enough—in terms of having these difficult conversations within the gender studies and feminist communities?

ORSOLYA: In the Hungarian context we didn’t. And actually, people were running away from queering categories like it’s fire, purposefully ignoring it, and calling it an exaggeration. And saying that queer theory and Judith Butler are too “radical.” This created a very difficult position to be in as well, to create critical dialogue with allies, in a way.

ZACH: As you mentioned earlier, CEU occupies a unique political-institutional position within Hungarian higher education and that—I remember feeling this too—Gender Studies there was held kind of separate even within CEU itself.

ORSOLYA: These perceptions are difficult because what I experienced, especially with the discussions around the Lex CEU protests, is that some people were actually frustrated by the fact that CEU was so strongly associated with gender studies. People started saying, “No, but we have this amazing Network Science department and other departments” to academically self-credit themselves in certain ways. And of course, CEU made statements that “we support Gender Studies” and that was important but…

ZACH: It took them a while to issue a statement…

ORSOLYA: Yeah, it took them a while, and they actually issued a statement later than any other Hungarian academic institutions. And that was also not without trouble. There was noticeably not as much support for Gender Studies as there was for CEU as an entity. I felt like people were to some extent waiting for the “gender cloud” to disappear.

ZACH: I want to go back to something that you wrote in the USA Today article: that gender studies is dangerous for the government because it provides critical thinking tools to understand oneself within systems of power.

ORSOLYA: Against those who want to render you insignificant.

ZACH: Yes. Removing the tools of critical inquiry, reducing the opportunities to question governmental policies, feels to be a large-scale concerted effort that goes hand in hand with the consolidation of state-run media, the billboard propaganda.

ORSOLYA: What I’ve been thinking regarding that is also to dare to question seemingly naturalized categories that are assumed to be real. This is how you are supposed to perform in Hungary. This is how I’m supposed to be a woman, a queer woman. This is how I’m supposed to be a proper Hungarian. Otherwise you’re disposable and questionable. The government uses politicized categories as if they have the same meaning to all of us. But do we really mean the same things? I also want to question whether being a woman, or being perceived as a woman, means the same thing living in the capital, even within its various districts, as it does living somewhere else in a village in Hungary. These kind of categories have different significance in individuals’ lives and how they inhabit them.

What I want to make sense of is why women vote for the government. Why specifically many women actually vote for Fidesz? How can we question why or how people make those choices? How to even question the master’s tools as Audre Lorde essentially investigated the master’s tools in relation to the master’s house? It’s similar with the conservative gay voters who support the government. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to Budapest and the government performed a certain kind of discourse that appears welcoming.1 But, of course, only to an extent. The government also utilizes certain persons so as to demonstrate some faux acceptance.

I’m also interested in certain analytical tools to make sense of us in this position and with one another. And gender studies or feminist politics provide certain analytical tools to understand various possibilities for kinships beyond the woman/man, homo/hetero, nature/culture, body/mind, and human/non-human binaries.  

That’s where the question of affinity comes in. What are the boundaries of that exactly. These thoughts on potential collaborations between various political entities emerge from the events of the opposition and leftist parties working with the far-right Jobbik party. Is this really the way to go? Even some prominent intellectuals like Agnes Heller supported this collaboration in the name of noting that “Fidesz is more dangerous” than working with Jobbik. Is this the only possibility—to turn to existing parties instead of actually imagining other ways of creating platforms and other ways of connecting with each other?

My concern is to find shared spaces to be angry in a way that that doesn’t alienate people, to be angry in ways not based on name calling or shaming.2 Rather, how can we make sense of a productive shame in a way that actually brings people closer to each other by calling upon and confronting regulatory power on bodies by saying: “Yeah, you too? Me too.”

I remember, exactly a year ago on the March 15 holiday, the Hungarian joke party Two-Tailed Dog Party3 [Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt, MKKP] made an alternative békemenet, which is this pro-government organized so-called “peace march” introduced by Fidesz in 2012 that is, in reality, about promoting exclusionary politics as the only means for “caring” for “us.” So the Two-Tailed Dog Party did an alternative peace march along with other opposition parties to commemorate the March 15 revolution. On this event and then on other consecutive ones, there was a person who was holding various flags—maybe you’ve seen it, the image went viral—the Hungarian flag, the EU flag, the rainbow flag, the Roma flag, and the far-right flag, all on one pole. (laughing) I remember being frustrated and thinking, “What is happening? How do we make sense of this?” This kind of gesture feels to me like this weird American free speech discourse that says, “Oh you can be a Nazi, you can be this, you can be that, it’s all your right.” Is this really what we want to go for? For me, no, I don’t want a rainbow flag to be with the fucking far-right flag!

For me, that post-ideological notion also indicates the crisis of the opposition, and how the nongovernmental opposition has a savior complex and they’re waiting for a leader. This assumes that this leader whom they are waiting for already exists, instead of actually thinking about organically producing a leader. To actually make efforts within a community to produce political personnels, having the assumption that leftist populism requires a leader, and if we think that populism is the way to go. On the left, that is a current discussion—whether you need a populistic leader or not…similar to the current Bernie Sanders-slash-other politicians who might prove effective in trumping Trump and right-wing populism. We have similar discussions in Hungary, too. The opposition accepts basically anyone, previous Jobbik members, etc. as a potential leader against Fidesz. It just feels so desperate…I mean, honestly, who wants to be among desperate people? (laughs)

ZACH: I’m curious now with regards to the state of the left wing as you see it in Hungary. What is the state of the opposition to Fidesz at the moment?

ORSOLYA: The Left, especially the Hungarian Socialist Party or even the Green Party, could not give a politically charged answer or political program that would be outside of the realm of Fidesz. They are reactive and do not create a program or any kind of ideas that could go beyond the boundaries and categories set up by Fidesz. They are in a defense position so that they can only respond to what Fidesz says or does, which in this way constantly confirms Fidesz and their agenda setting. I feel that as long as they don’t go beyond Fidesz’s boundary and create a new paradigm, like in terms of discussing who constitutes “us” that would not be fundamentally built upon a logic of the other, which they still do—until that happens, they’re not going to have productive and inclusive resistance against the current government.

ZACH: It strongly struck me in some of your writings that that you’re interested in developing a political imaginary, or some sort of action, that would not be programmed by Orbán’s playbook, where Fidesz wouldn’t set the rules of engagement.

ORSOLYA: Yes, something that disrupts. You could see that when the opposition went right in his face in December. He was not confronted meaningfully for years with an actual Hungarian journalist’s question. Especially not in the parliamentary setting where he feels the most empowered and acts like a little lord. He felt so uncomfortable, he did not know how to respond. He was nervously laughing, that was all that he could do. What kind of reaction, or distance, does that produce for the audience who is looking at that mediation? He was so uncomfortable. I loved it. Making him uncomfortable is one really good way to go. When you confront people like Orbán, they are forced outside of their learned-by-heart playbook that they repeat over and over again and for some time they don’t know how to respond. It shows that this guy is not invincible, that he is not the magician whom he is fetishized to be by both sides. He’s just an arrogant man. (laughs)

ZACH: When people try to describe Orbán, there is this proliferation of signifiers: crony capitalist, a state capitalist, a soft fascist, authoritarian, neoliberal authoritarian, kleptocrat, ethnic-chauvinist, etc. I wonder if you think this difficulty to name Orbán’s mode of governance corresponds to the difficulties of there being a large-scale effective opposition movement? Do you think such naming struggles are useful? Do you find it useful to apply “fascism” to Orbán?

ORSOLYA: I personally have difficulties when the Hungarian opposition calls Orbán fascist or a neo-Nazi or any other alternative of these. I find that problematic because it doesn’t go deeper than just mere name-calling. This is not to say that certain comparisons cannot be made, or that there aren’t some norms according to which we can say that someone or something is not democratic, that this or that is authoritarian, or fascist. I do think that there can be space for using these terms, although they’re used non-consequently and there are many confusions about their deployment. Historical references can be useful, but if we just transport certain concepts to describe the various ways a regime is currently organized, then that takes away the force of critique and contestation in the present. Going back to the past evokes all kinds of terrible affective responses. And people know what that means. I’m also not a big fan of some leftists who call Orbán a communist, specifically when they use this signifier of communism only to designate that he is pro-Russian. Of course, they do this because he identifies as anti-communist, and they assume that that would insult him. But it doesn’t give us the complexity of the system and how it’s connected in the present with other states and with other regimes. I feel that it’s an easy way out of meaningfully discussing what’s happening.

Protests are a whole different scenario, saying things like “Nazis go home,” because then you have the possibility, a different way to confront people, resist and speak to power. The opposition to some extent still has that capacity to confront the government even though they do have limited possibilities. In terms of media presence they just need to deploy new and creative, and nevertheless critical tools.

I think that this is the exact moment—the last hour—when you can confront the government. That’s why I keep referring back to last December. I felt like that was kind of a start. Of course, we’ll see how that goes. Right now, with the new parliamentary session it doesn’t really happen. And we’re seeing a sole focus on elections, and procedures. Elections are important, and are coming up in May, but that just re-creates this weird notion and distance that politicians care about their position, or short-term goals, and not really about what’s happening on an everyday basis.

I do think that we need to think about how the past and the present are connected together. And how they are using the historically created othering of groups, or othered groups, that provides an easy way out of having even self-reflection of how we got here and what’s next. I keep debating this because it does have a political weight and a moral disposition to say “fascist” or “populist.” And when I say that they shouldn’t be called fascist, I don’t care if it’s theoretically accurate or not. It’s not about that. It’s more about what kind of affective response it creates from pro-government voters, who we want to better understand and open up space for contestation.

ZACH: Because it has an alienating effect?

ORSOLYA: Yes, that goes back to the politics of shame and understanding how can we make sense of doing that. I don’t think that we have to be super friendly to people who want some of us to die or disappear. But at the same time, structurally, we cannot ignore those divides that exist and are created, and we cannot ignore the dangerous allegiances of different groups. Somehow we should develop the creative capacity to seek different tools to apprehend what is happening. And also to find the subversive capacity of making fun of it to some extent. In some way irony is dangerously missing from Hungary and that’s what the Two-Tailed Dog Party does. They use the same discourses and images that the government does, but locating them in a very random context and with exaggerated nonsensical content. They blur the lines between the nonsensical reality that the government has created and their obvious lies through satirical interventions. Humor is also a certain way of practicing self-care that helps one to exist and find sustenance in this specific political context, and that can ultimately bring more people together through understanding that these are shared struggles that we face on an everyday level.

  1. In May 2018, Yiannopoulos gave a taxpayer-funded lecture at the invitation of the pro-Orbán government foundation “Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society [Közép- és Kelet-európai Történelem és Társadalom Kutatásért Közalapítvány, KKTTKK].” Steve Bannon also spoke at taxpayer expense during the May 2018 Visegrad-4 conference in Budapest entitled “Europe of the Future.” Hungary previously courted the US Far Right by hosting the 2017 World Congress of Families (WCF) summit, an anti-LGBTQ US-based Far Right Christian group that champions the “natural family” with anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, and anti-reproductive rights discourse. They have wielded direct political influence in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Russia. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies the WCF as a hate group.
  2. Orsolya Lehotai, “A szégyen politikája a baloldalon: aktivizmus másként? [The policy of Shame on the Left: Activism Otherwise?],” Mérce.hu, last modified April 4, 2019, https://merce.hu/2019/02/04/a-szegyen-politikaja-a-baloldalon-aktivizmus-maskent/.
  3. A satirical political party that uses absurd tactics to counter the government’s anti-immigrant and nationalist policies, such as placing animal candidates on election ballots as well as countering the government’s anti-immigration billboard campaign with their own campaign with messages such as “Sorry about our Prime Minister” and “Did you know? Over one million Hungarians want to relocate to western Europe.” Started as a street art campaign, the MKKP recently qualified for state campaign funding.