Thursday, November 19, 2015

Whither democracy?

Romania has a new technocratic government. With politicians either corrupt or assumed to be, there is a logic to that, and the idea of having experts running the various ministries makes a lot of sense (Raed Arafat must be about the longest serving effective actor in successive governments, for precisely this reason).

However, I can't help wondering about that whole democracy thing.  When we elect politicians to high office, we do so based on the policies they espouse, not on their competence.  Obviously hiring the competent has its advantages, but it's not like there is one single approach to education, say, such that hiring an educator to the education ministry is not a political act.

I'm troubled by this, and suspect that there will be a point when people will notice that Iohannis / Ciolan have pretty much made a massively anti-democratic set of decisions, despite the fact that I trust this government to run the country more than any we've had since I've lived here.  If it works, is that enough? 

Monday, August 10, 2015

"Human Rights Fundamentalism": Orban makes it clear where he stands

I was away recently, and while I was away, Hungarian prime minister came to Tusnad (near where we now live) to make a speech at the annual "Tusvanyos" event.  This was the venue last year for the famous speech he made where he argued for illiberal democracy.  This year's speech was not about that but about immigration, and predictably was not exactly liberal or tolerant or even demonstrating any form of human empathy.  
It may be that many people outside Hungary are not really aware of Orban and his views, so I have decided to relay his entire speech here (as translated by Hungary Today, here - a source which is not exactly anti-Orban, and so I think you can take it as a fairly faithful translation of what he said). I have annotated it, not because I really think it needs to be annotated for normal people to see through the rhetoric and see what lies beneath, but well, because this is scary stuff and it needs to be highlighted, and because from what I gather from social media Hungary is currently in the grip of some very serious and very unpleasant anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is being played out very publicly, and will, before long, I'm afraid, lead to worse than simply just angry words. 
So, anyway, here, in full, with annotations in bold italics, is Orban's speech.

Good morning,
Allow me to welcome attendees at the open university camp. I am glad to have the opportunity to be reunited with Bishop László Tőkés, [Such a shame that one of the heroes of the 1989 Romanian revolution should have sunk to being a puppet for this extremist Hungarian PM] I am pleased to see dozens of my old fellow combatants, and I particularly welcome the Szekler flags I can see. Thank you all for coming. Following my success last year in causing uproar (provoked by my presentation on the end of the era of liberal democracies and the advent of illiberal democracy), this year my task is not an easy one: the bar has been set too high. Having searched through every available dictionary on political philosophy, I drew a blank: I could find nothing that representatives of today’s western ideological mainstream could find sufficiently offensive compared with last year.[I don’t know, Viktor, you seem to have done a good job, in coming up with the vile far-right garbage you’re about to launch into.  Don’t do yourself down so much.  Rest assured you do manage to be deeply deeply offensive most of the time]  And now Bishop Tőkés has just said that at times he finds it hard to keep track, and warned us that we should not overdo the Brazilian-style on-the-ball tricks, because we might trip over our own feet.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A year ago I said that we are living in times when anything can happen, and this is still true today. Who would have thought that Europe would be unable to protect its own borders, even against unarmed refugees? Who would have thought that things would get to the point at which, for instance, the head of the Islamic community in France would publicly suggest that the French State could hand over redundant Christian churches, because there is a demand for them to be converted into mosques? [This by the way is not true, but even if it were, if there are buildings lying empty – as many churches are – why not use them for something else.  There are converted churches all over the place, why would it be a problem?  Oh yes, of course, in the dog whistle world of Orban, this is all code for the idea that “The Muslims are taking over”.]  Who would have thought that the United States was tapping the telephone conversations of German political leaders? This has finally been revealed, and it is not the end of the world. And who would have thought that we Europeans would act as if nothing had happened, and amicably continue free trade talks with a counterpart who probably knows our negotiating positions before we do ourselves? And furthermore, who would have thought that the Americans would deploy weapons in Central Europe, and the Hungarian parliament would find itself pondering the thorny question of whether or not Hungary should sign up to this? And who – other than us – would have thought that by the end of 2014 Hungary would be the second-fastest developing country in the entire European Union?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The uncertainty of the future may even prompt us to consider the nature of the future in a political context – or more precisely, the nature of being able to understand the future. We tend to conceive of the future – or, to be more exact, knowledge of the future – as if we were a captain navigating our ship into the unknown: we are at the prow, with telescope in hand, scanning the horizon for unknown shores. Those with the sharpest eyesight or the most powerful telescope will be first – the first to possess knowledge of the future. It is as if the future stood before us, out there in the unknown, like an undiscovered continent which existed in the real world and was waiting for our approach. But, dear friends, the nature of the future is completely different from this. Its most important characteristic is that it is not fully-formed; indeed, it does not exist at all, and will only occur hereafter. Therefore, there is no point in straining our eyes to see the future. It is better to think of the future as if we were rowers in a race, sitting with our backs to the bow. Like rowers, we can only see what is already behind us, and that which happens to come within our field of vision. We must direct the bow of the boat towards the future, and as the shore unfolds before our eyes, we must deduce the future from that which we already know. In other words, in thinking about the future we are not competing to looking far ahead of us, but rather competing to understand the past. The winners will be those who can better understand the past, and who can come to the right conclusions more swiftly and more courageously. This is the starting-point of political leadership and planning. [Nicely put. Shame you’ve started looking back and pining for the certainties of the 1930s]
Dear Friends,
This is good news, because to understand we need intelligence – we need brains – and across the world nothing has been as intelligently distributed: everyone is convinced that they have a little more of it than others do. If we think about the future of the European Union, and our own future within it, we should first examine the past of the European Union. Despite all our sharply critical remarks, we must point out that the European Union is in itself a great success: in terms of peace, development and welfare. It is nevertheless true that up until 1990, the peace that had endured since World War II was not due to us Europeans, but to the Americans and the Russians, who decided on the affairs of Europe for us; there is no doubt, however, that since 1990 the success we have achieved has been our own success. Whatever problems may weigh on our minds now, this fact cannot be negated – even by events since 2008.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
At times there are phenomena which enable us to understand a given era, and which encapsulate its essence. In our lifetimes, modern mass migration is just such a phenomenon. Looking through this window, we can see the whole world. It is by this that the world is framed, and it is through this that we can understand where we are and what awaits us.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let us speak plainly: the intensification of modern-day mass migration is a consequence of political processes. [Primarily inequality, Mr Prime Minister, though you’re about to argue that it’s something else] The countries of North Africa once functioned as a defence zone protecting Europe, absorbing the masses of people coming from Africa’s interior. [Ah, so the reason people are migrating to Europe is because there is no Gaddafi there to repel them? ] And the real threat is not from the war zones, Ladies and Gentlemen, but from the heart of Africa. [Now we’re getting to it, now we’re getting to the core of Orban’s dark heart, so to speak. The heart of Africa. That’s the real “threat”. No more dog whistle racism, this is the real thing] With the disintegration of North African states this line of defence has been spectacularly breached, and North Africa is no longer able to protect Europe from a vast flood of people. As a result, a problem has developed on a truly unimaginable scale. [In fact the vast majority of refugees trying to come to Europe are coming from places like Syria and Afghanistan, but obviously those people are a little too obviously refugees for this point to be made as Orban would like, so we'll just pretend it's the whole of sub-Saharan Africa attempting to march on Budapest] I agree with former President Sarkozy, who said on French television just the other day that the current wave of mass migration is only the beginning. There are one point one billion people in Africa today, more than half of them under the age of twenty-five. According to Mr. Sarkozy, before long hundreds of millions of people will have nowhere to live, and insufficient food and water. [So, rather than focusing on that problem, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, we’re going to ensure that this situation remains.  That about the size of it?] Following in the footsteps of today’s migrants, these people will leave their homelands. [As people have done for centuries. Millennia in fact. As a proud Magyar, Mr Orban, perhaps you might even spot an irony here… but let’s not trouble ourselves with that and move onwards] In other words, what is at stake today is Europe and the European way of life, [whatever that may be] the survival or extinction of European values and nations – or, to be more precise, their transformation beyond all recognition. [Yes, immigration changes the countries that end up hosting immigrants – though it changes the immigrants more – but is this necessarily a bad thing? I think you can argue quite forcefully that it changes the countries that are left behind for the worse. Look at the countries of Eastern Europe. Look at Romania, Orban, the country from which you made this speech. A country that has lost 15% of its population in the last 10 years, that is losing its best and brightest.  Yes, migration is a problem, but not in the way you are trying to scare people about] The question now is not merely what kind of Europe we Hungarians would like to live in, but whether Europe as we now know it will survive at all. Our answer is clear: we would like Europe to remain the continent of Europeans. [Again with the irony. OK, let’s define this European thing. What makes someone a European? How many generations back do you have to go to be one? We all came from “the heart of Africa” at some point] This is what we would like. We only say “we would like this”, because this also depends on what others want. But there is also something which we not only would like, but which we want. We can say we want it, because it depends only on us: we want to preserve Hungary as a Hungarian country. [Hungarian or Magyar?  There is a difference, and it’s an important one. As Pal Lendvai argues in his excellent book, there is a sense of “Hungarianness” which is about inclusiveness and making a nation out of disparate ethnicities, and then there is something other, a “Magyar” idea which is much more about ethnic purity. The distinction is key, though in the Hungarian language there is no word other than Magyar for “Hungarian” in this way, so it wouldn’t exactly come out in translation] It is important to point this out over and over again, although this may appear a cliché in our circles. Yet we must point this out over and over again because there are some who think otherwise. However incredible it might be, and however difficult it might be for us to acknowledge it with the intellectual and spiritual reserves at our disposal, there are indeed some who think otherwise. [Yes, of course there are. No doubt there is some vast global conspiracy even now which is trying to turn Hungary into a country of Uruguayans, or of Seychellois, or something]
The European left, dear friends, do not see immigration as a source of danger, but as an opportunity. The left has always looked upon nations and national identity with suspicion. They believe (and take note of their choice of words) that the escalation of immigration may fatally weaken – indeed eliminate – national borders, and in historical terms this would also constitute the attainment of the left’s as yet unimaginable long-term goal. Although this may sound absurd at first, if we focus in on Hungary, it is likewise perhaps no coincidence that in 2004 the Hungarian left incited animosity against Hungarians in neighbouring countries [Note for outsiders - the animosity engendered by the Orban government in neighbouring countries is FAR FAR greater than that engendered by its predecessor], while today they are ready to welcome illegal immigrants, whom they would greet with open arms. [Christ man. Do you really believe this nonsense? What other massive conspiracies do you have up your sleeves?  The moon landings were faked? 9/11 was a Mossad plot? ] Quite simply these people, these politicians, do not like the Hungarian people – and they do not like them because they are Hungarians. [Oh for fucks sake.  The Hungarian left do not like Hungarians?  Give me a break you ludicrous buffoon. This is pathetic] Similarly, a fair number of centres of financial and political power in Brussels also have a vested interest in erasing national structures, and eliminating national identities. Just imagine, Ladies and Gentlemen, what would have become of Hungary if the left had had the chance to form a government in 2014. [It would be like France, for example, or some other European country in which the soft left had formed the government. It would probably have lots of problems, just as it does now, just slightly different ones. But let’s face it would not have been radically transformed, other than the fact that it wouldn’t be governed by a racist piece of dirt like you] It is a shocking thought, but let us just imagine it for a second: within a year or two, we would not have been able to recognise our own country; we would be like a refugee camp, a kind of Central European Marseille. [Yes of course. I wonder if there was anyone in your audience who actually believed that.  I certainly hope not]
We know that meeting a bear in the woods is no laughing matter – and neither is a parliamentary election. [Ha ha very funny. Mr Comedian. Nice Szekely gag there. Good work. Always nice to play to your crowd.]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Here must note that the upsurge of migration is also related to the fact that some people see the West’s human rights fundamentalism [Oooh, nice expression, and one that begins to get to the heart of your vileness, Viktor: “Human rights fundamentalism” A belief in human rights is a form of fundamentalism now is it? I’m guessing there are certain humans you’d like to argue don’t have the same rights as others, are you?  We’re getting there, aren’t we?  Back to the 1930s, I can see that’s where you’re going with this] as an invitation, regardless of the reasons they have for wanting to leave their countries. Because naturally there are genuine refugees, but there are many more who are merely seeking to enjoy the benefits of the European lifestyle. [This is bollocks, mate.  You’re presenting these people as mad holidaymakers. It’s a huge wrench for people to leave their homes, a huge trauma. You must know this, enough Hungarians have done this, have become economic migrants because of lack of opportunities and a desire for something better for their children. It’s not about a “lifestyle” it’s about desperation. ] As this many people would never be able to enter the territory of the European Union legally, more and more of them are accepting the risks associated with illegal immigration – and more will do so in the future. And as the European Union only has principles, but no genuine sovereignty (for example, it has no border guards), it does not know how to handle this new situation.[For once I agree with you.]  Brussels is unable to protect the people of Europe from the flood of illegal immigrants; [“flood”. Hmmm] in the words of a former German finance minister, “The problem with Europe is that it keeps kicking a can up a hill, and is surprised to find that it keeps rolling back”. The European Union started out as an economic alliance, and later also became a political alliance; today it needs to act as a sovereign power, but in order to do so it needs to further reduce national sovereignty. As the old Budapest joke has it: at first they set off in the right direction, but they couldn’t keep to it; then they set off in the wrong direction, but this time they kept to it perfectly.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The mission of the European Union led to genuine long-term solutions to genuine problems: peace instead of war, a common market instead of separate markets, inclusion for the poor instead of exclusion. The European Union was pragmatic, and also relatively flexible; hence its unique organisational solutions. But it is obvious that something has gone wrong, and Europe has become an ideology instead of genuine solutions. Europe no longer concentrates on the problem, but merely considers whether a given solution weakens or reinforces its own closed system of ideologies. [Again, I actually agree here. I may have to have a good hard chat with myself if things go on like this. In my defence I suspect we perceive the closed set of ideologies that represent the EU’s problem somewhat differently] Europe has become an ideological obsession; if something is reasonable and successful but strengthens the sovereignty of a nation state, it is to be discarded – indeed, it is seen as an enemy, and the more successful it is, the more dangerous.[Ah yes, we do disagree. Phew.] This is the essence of the Hungarian story. [I have no idea what this final rhetorical flourish here is supposed to mean]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What we Hungarians do is successful, beyond doubt, but it is not in accord with Brussels’ ideological concepts; in other words, it does not weaken Hungarian national and state sovereignty, but reinforces them – and from this point of view it is to be condemned. [Well, when it’s about enacting proto-fascist media laws, then I think they have a point]This is why the European Union is unable to resolve the crisis in Greece, which is a practical problem calling for a practical solution.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We Hungarians have a vested interest in a strong European Union, and take the view that successful solutions make Europe strong. European mainstream political and intellectual forces believe that Europe will be strong if it is somehow forged into a United States of Europe. Looking at our continent from this perspective, we Hungarians are Europe’s Gaullists. The fact that there are no individual bodies of separate nationhood within the United States is a function of its nature, rather than its structure. Therefore we must not imitate this aspect. By contrast, the nature of Europe resides in the fact that it is composed of nations; in other words, attempting to create a United States of Europe is a crazy idea. America is not made great by the fact that there are no nations within it; America is made great by the fact that it is able to come up with successful solutions. Therefore, if the European Union wants to be successful, it must find its own viable solutions. Whether it will be able to do this in the future, we do not know; but we do know that it has fallen short of this since 2008, ever since the beginning of the economic crisis. Since 2008 people have formed the impression that the European Union is doing the same thing over and over again, yet every time expecting a different outcome.[Another paragraph with which I can find little to disagree]
Many of you may perhaps remember that the first country needing a rescue package after the 2008 crisis was not Greece, but Hungary. Yet since 2010 we have succeeded in reducing the debt to GDP ratio, making Hungary one of the few Member States where this has happened. If we want to evaluate and appreciate the efforts of the Hungarian people on their merits, we should cast a glance at Greece. We are proud to have repaid our debt to the IMF ahead of schedule, and only a small tranche of European Union aid remains to be repaid, which we will do when it falls due at the beginning of 2016. Remember that Hungary never requested any debt relief or rescheduling. Some may see this as a weakness, while to others it is a virtue; I belong to the latter group. And all this has happened against a background of growth in Hungary’s GDP which has been outstanding in comparison with other Member States. It is something rare in the history of the Hungarian economy, my dear friends – and nothing short of unique in recent decades – that the economy’s external and internal balance indicators are improving in tandem, and the economy is also growing at the same time. Meanwhile we have succeeded in correcting two earlier errors: we have done away with retail foreign currency loans, and thus prevented a financial collapse; at the same time, we have succeeded in renationalising a number of previously privatised strategic assets which constitute a core element of Hungary’s national sovereignty. [I’m not familiar enough with Hungary’s economy to comment on any of this. I suspect that there is a great deal of spin here, but I could be wrong]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When I said that illegal immigration is like “the ocean in a drop” – in that it encapsulates the whole world – I was also referring to the fact that from it we can deduce the most important tasks facing us in the years ahead. We must now talk about four issues which will become priorities throughout Europe in the period to come, and which will constitute the bulk of our tasks here in Hungary.
The first such question is the problem of national identity. Thirty years ago, many Europeans saw the answer to European social problems in so-called multiculturalism. In our circles I do not need to spell out the difference between “multi-ethnic” and “multi-cultural”. [I think you probably do, Viktor, as I suspect I know what you mean by the sentence, and even possibly what you therefore think of as “our circles”] Today, however, increasing numbers of people see multiculturalism not as a solution to problems, but as the cause of them. [Ironic that this speech should be made in Transylvania, which for centuries has been a multicultural society] Over the past thirty years several European countries have decided to welcome masses of people coming from places with different civilisational roots. I do not believe we should pass judgement on this experiment; in fact I think we should not even allow ourselves to state our view on the outcome of this experiment. All we can say – but we have to say it firmly, having seen the results elsewhere – is that we do not want to repeat this experiment on our country; this is something that we have the right to say. [Hang on. You don’t want to say anything about the results of this “experiment”, but you do not want to repeat it?  Is that saying nothing about it? Interesting verbal gymnastics there, Mr Orban. And in referring to it as an "experiment" it implies that there are some social scientists sitting there saying "I wonder what would happen if we invited millions of people to come and tried to integrate them", as opposed to there being a period of migration which governments responded to, just as they have always done. ]
Another question that we must tackle openly and plainly is that there is a clear correlation between the illegal immigrants who are flooding into Europe and the spread of terrorism. [Bollocks. Utter utter bollocks].Interestingly, this is obvious in English-speaking countries, but many others deny it. [OK let’s look at European terrorism. I’ll even go with the mainstream view of what constitutes terrorism to make it simple. The IRA, ETA, Red Army Faction, Baader Meinhof gang, Chechens, etc, etc. None of them in any way whatsoever related to immigration. The July 7th attacks in London? Carried out by British people (Though, since we all know what Mr Orban is getting at here is the idea that it is non-white skinned people that are the problem, he will no doubt see that attack as verifying his point). The 11-M attacks in Madrid are actually the only ones that I can think of carried out by immigrants]. Only recently, a senior public security official from the United States pointed out in Hungary that the correlation between these two factors is clear.[It must be true then. A single unattributed source said so] It is undeniable that we are simply incapable of screening out terrorists from such an enormous mass of people.[Just as it is undeniable that it is impossible to stop any form of crime before it is committed. Which is to say undeniable but completely facile at the same time] Ladies and Gentlemen, we must agree with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who says that we shall not be able to resolve this crisis unless we stop these people right at the outset, when they are about to leave their own countries [Who are "these people", Viktor?  Come on say it. Perhaps “In our circles” you don’t need to spell it out]
The third problem which we shall have to cope with – after multiculturalism and terrorism – is a problem which is economic in nature. Western experience shows that illegal immigrants contribute to rising unemployment. This fact has become particularly obvious in the period since 2008, when the European Union has been struggling with an ongoing economic crisis, and when for most European countries (because not every country is Germany), this high rate of unemployment represents one of the main sources of tension. The arrival of new waves of people in countries with already high unemployment rates results in even higher unemployment. This is as simple as one plus one equalling two. [ Well, yes and no. You are explicitly referring here to “illegal” immigrants – I’m not comfortable with any human being referred to as “illegal”, but anyway – and those people do not show up on the figures. They cannot get legal employment anyway, and they cannot receive benefits.  So, what exactly is the proof of this rise in unemployment? Migration does cause stresses in employment, but through unscrupulous employers hiring people for low wages rather than other reasons primarily. It sounds logical what you’re saying, but in fact you’re trying to trick the audience here]
And finally let us also mention a subject upon which political correctness in Europe has enforced a guilt-ridden silence. According to police statistics in western countries, those states with large numbers of illegal immigrants experience dramatic increases in crime, with a proportionate decrease in public safety. [OK now we’re getting to it.  Immigrants are criminals. ] Let me cite a few examples as food for thought. According to UN statistics – not statistics from the Hungarian government, but from the United Nations – Sweden is second only to the southern African state of Lesotho in terms of figures for rape. [And? You’re blaming this on immigrants? This is loathesome stuff, Orban, absolutely loathesome. Sweden has perhaps the widest definition of what constitutes rape of anywhere. If Sweden is prosecuting more men for rape than anywhere else, this says positive things about Sweden, frankly.] According to a 2013 British parliamentary report, the number of Muslims in British prisons has tripled over the last fifteen years. [Muslims are more likely to be imprisoned by the British state? It may be true, but there may be more than one reason for that. In addition the number of muslims in Britain as a whole may have tripled in that time period so in fact this may actually be saying nothing at all] In Italy, one quarter of crimes in 2012 were committed by immigrants. [If this is true, and I wonder whether it is, where did those immigrants come from?] And the list goes on.[There is a thorough analysis of this whole paragraph of the speech here ] 
In summary therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, we can say that illegal immigration is equally a threat to Hungary and to Europe. It is a threat to our common values and to our culture, and even to our diversity. [Like “diversity” is a concern of yours, Viktor] It is a threat to the security of European people – a threat which undermines our ability to cement our economic achievements. For as long as it was able, Hungary attempted to enact measures which took full account of its neighbours’ interests. Hungary has found itself in a trap, however, as not only must we reckon with ever more waves of mass migration from the south, but countries west of us have expressed the intention to return to Hungary those people who have already passed through our country, after previously entering it illegally. We are therefore under pressure from both the south and the west. The truth is that we are unable to endure this.
The question of mass migration is a question of common sense and morals, a question both of the heart and the mind; as such, it is a question which is extremely complex and profound, and one which provokes strong emotions. [Indeed. It does provoke strong emotions. Compassion among some, and hate among others] Societal questions like this can only be tackled if we identify points on which we can all agree as a community. This was the purpose of the Hungarian national consultation on immigration, the official outcome of which I would now like to share with you. As part of the national consultation, by 21 July one million two hundred and fifty-four completed questionnaires were received. We sent out eight million questionnaires, and more than one million have been completed and sent back to us.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
From these completed questionnaires we may conclude the following. More than two-thirds of Hungarians see the issue of the spread of terrorism as relevant to their own lives. [When asked specifically about terrorism? Not much of a surprise] Three-quarters of them believe that illegal immigrants are a threat to the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians. Four-fifths of Hungarians think that the Brussels’ policy on immigration and terrorism has failed, and that we therefore need a new approach and more stringent regulations.[Is this actually what was said, and in response to what question? All seems a bit dodgy to me] In contrast to Brussels’ lenient policy [I thought you said Brussels doesn’t have policies?], four-fifths of Hungarians encourage the Government to adopt stricter regulations to curb illegal immigration: regulations allowing us to detain people who have illegally crossed Hungarian borders, and to deport them within the shortest possible time. [Camps? Hmm, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It is the 1930s in your head after all] And according to eighty per cent of those who completed the questionnaire, illegal immigrants should cover the costs of providing for them during their time in Hungary. [So Syrian refugees who have lost everything, their homes, their families and their lives need to pay for their own incarceration?  How exactly are you going to enforce that?  Come on, let’s hear this, it’s got to be good.] Tough words, a firm stance – but this is the Hungarian stance. And finally, the most important response, which takes precedence over all others so far, is that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians – ninety-five per cent of those who completed the questionnaire – think that we must focus support on Hungarian families and the children they can have, rather than on immigration. We can clearly see that the Hungarian people have not lost their common sense. The results of the consultation therefore show that Hungarians do not want illegal immigrants, and do not share the intellectual derangement of the European left. [Hang on a second, there is a lot of inconsistency here. Europe has no policies, yet it’s in thrall to its own policies. The attitude of the EU towards immigration is driven by whom? The European left?  Despite the fact that very very very few of the EUs members have a left wing (or centre left) government? How has this "derangement" gained such traction?] Hungary has decided, and this is how the Hungarian people have decided. This means that we want to remain a safe and stable country, a united and balanced nation in the uncertain world which surrounds us. Because though I may be right in saying that in the world today anything can happen, I am perhaps not wrong in believing that, in contrast to this, none of us want Hungary to be a country in which anything can happen. [Just to remind you one more time, Viktor, as you obviously had forgotten by this point, you were making this speech not in Hungary, and the vast majority of your audience were not in fact residents of Hungary. It’s tricky I know to remember these things, but you seemed to imply earlier that national borders were something you cared very deeply about]
Thank you for your attention.
And thank you, Viktor for your clear and overt message of hate and racism.  In some ways I would rather you nail your colours to the mast in this way than be all secretive about it, like the UK government. But you do scare me, because you do control the media in Hungary and you do have a lot of power, which means that we may indeed be returning to the 1930s as you would clearly wish, in which you are no longer bound by "Human Rights Fundamentalism" and can proclaim certain humans to be lesser and therefore fair targets for your detention camps, and your forcible repatriation and whatever else you might be planning. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Walls of Disappointment

Lumme. I haven't posted here since the day I made it clear that Victor Ponta would win the presidential election. What a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. I'm very familiar with being wrong, but in some cases I'm delighted to have been so.

Anyway, moving on...

Last weekend a travelling exhibition visited Csikszereda. It is called Walls of Silence (or Hallgatás Fala in Hungarian). It's purportedly an exhibition about the years of Communism in Romania and the 1989 revolution. It has been displayed in Brussels and in various locations around Romania (I think, though I can't find much detail on when and where.)  The website of the exhibition is here:  - though you will note when you try and open the English version of that site that, despite it claiming to have one, it doesn't. The same happens with the Romanian version.

Anyway, along we went, to see what it was like and to also educate our teenage daughter on some things that might be new for her regarding the period pre-1989.  It was a series of poster panels, depicting various aspects of post WWII life, of the events of Timisoara and beyond in 1989 and then various post 1989 events.  There were a couple of videos too, such as an interview with Tőkés László made on Hungarian TV before the revolution in Romania.

Now the first thing that struck me about this exhibition is that it was in two languages. But these two languages were not, as you might expect, Hungarian and Romanian, but rather Hungarian and English. There was no Romanian at all (well there was a sort of sort of take away pamphlet in Romanian, but the exhibition itself was in just the two languages). An exhibition about Romanian under communism and the Romanian revolution, on display in Romania. But not in Romanian.  It just struck me as needlessly and wantonly provocative.  Obviously in Csikszereda the vast majority of people who visited it would be Hungarian but some Romanians at least would be interested (and indeed the guest book featured an angry comment in Romanian),

The exhibition itself was OK for the most part, at least in terms of the section pre-1989 and the revolution itself.  The focus was very much on Tőkés, and it seems that he, or his people, somehow were behind the exhibition, so it felt a bit like the Tőkés show, but obviously his role in the 1989 revolution was fairly big and so he deserves to be included in such a thing. But then there were two sections that really jarred a bit.  One was a large section documenting all the awards and medals he has been awarded around the world in regards his role in the 89 uprising, which then concluded with a long section on how some Romanian politicians last year had tried to have one of his national medals withdrawn because of his Hungarian nationalism. There was no mention of what kind of nationalist actions might have triggered this, and while I fully believe that whatever he has done since should not detract from what he did to actually win that medal in the first place, the lack of any form of explanation was slightly troubling.

That was a minor quibble, however, and had that been the only issue I never would have bothered writing this blog post. No the thing that really got my back up was a panel depicting the events of 1989 in Hungary. Front and centre in this display, in the photos and the text, were a young Orban Viktor. Now I recognise that as a student Orban was there and was involved in the protests against the government, but he was not the  Tőkés or the Havel or the Walesa of Hungary (The wikipedia article on the end of communism in Hungary doesn't even mention him for example). He was one of many involved in a groundswell of popular unrest that eventually led to the toppling of the system.The highlighting of him is particularly jarring give that the exhibition is about the lack of freedoms before 89, the control of the media and the silence imposed on the population of Romania .  And here, in the middle is something conveying hero status on the European leader who is the most undemocratic and most authoritarian and the most acting against a free media in his country. Orban is not Ceausescu, but he is also not a democrat and he is clearly not someone who believes in freedom of speech.

In short, this exhibition was deeply disappointing, and basically a pro-FIDESZ whitewash (Tőkés  has close ties to FIDESZ). I left it feeling much more antipathy towards Tőkés than I had before for putting his name to such a poorly argued and presented piece of propaganda.  I suspect that wasn't the intention. It is difficult to know what the intention actually was, in fact.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why Romania is screwed

We are now firmly in the endgame of the presidential election, with Victor Ponta facing Klaus Iohannis. Regular readers of this bog will have a fairly good idea as to where my sympathies lie (or in fact where my hostilities lie).

A video is circulating today showing the President of Satu Mare County Council, shouting and swearing for a lengthy period of time at various people, threatening to fire them if Ponta does not win in Satu Mare County.  This follows the first round in which - in the county- Iohannis beat Ponta by 0.6% of the vote. The County president in question is clearly a PSD man, and equally clearly irked by the disloyalty shown to him and his party by the voters (and quite possibly has himself just been at the mercy of a tongue lashing from party HQ in Bucharest).

But what is really telling about this video is not the shouting and swearing and threats. What is really telling is that the people he is bawling out are all political appointees.  A huge number of jobs in Romania are filled by people who have been awarded that job primarily through party affiliations.  Sometimes it seems nearly all civil service jobs are filled in this way.  So, the shouting president almost certainly feels that these people who are in post because of the PSD in the first place really do need to get their fingers out and drag people kicking and screaming to the ballot box this coming Sunday to get them to vote Ponta.

But, but, but.  This is Europe in 2014.  Why are so many jobs filled by party apparatchiks and the loyal card carrying members? This is not Ceausescu's Romania, this is the modern, EU member Romania.  But sadly this is still how things work. The party makes the man. OK so it;s democratic now, so there is more than one party, but it still works like this.  And the PSD is the worst offender because they effectively are the old communist party so they have all the systems and local functionaries in place already, from the village level to the city. [Here in Hargita County, it is the UDMR rather than the PSD who have this power of awarding positions to their friends]

This is the problem.  This is why this election is a scam. People will do whatever they can (including breaking the law) to get the vote out for Ponta. It is very telling that the votes for the diaspora went very much against Ponta in the first round.  Taken from the control of the system, taken from the villages where their votes are bought, cajoled, and coerced, people do not want the same old system again.  They want Romania to be more modern, less corrupt, more genuinely democratic.

I don't hold out much hope. The Ponta army will be out on Sunday and they will ensure their man wins, and then we will go back to 1990, and every positive step forward that Romania has made in the last 25 years will be shelved.  The party will again rule, and the corrupt will walk free and safe in the knowledge that their liberty to rip off the people is assured. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Romania's Presidential Elections (2014 edition)

While the number of people in Romania continues to drop like a stone, the number of people who want to be the President of those who are left seems to be rising just as fast.  At some point at this rate there will be as many Presidential candidates as there are people.

This autumn's election features no fewer than 14 candidates. Including some people who clearly just want to do battle over the odd 0.1 of a percentage point with each other.  We have, for example, two candidates who purport to represent the Hungarian minority.  In some ways there is a logic to that, because since the UDMR's candidate is not ever (ever) going to get into the second round, "splitting the vote" of the Hungarians doesn't really matter and it gives the other party a chance to challenge without being accused of treachery to the Hungarian cause.  We also have two extreme right wing candidates who used to be the leading lights of the same xenophobic party, the PRM. But clearly they've fallen out (possibly over whether the Hungarians are more dangerous than the Jews or the other way round, or some such), and now Vadim Tudor and Funar are going head to head in a battle to the death, a chance at the end of the voting to wave their (no doubt minuscule) dicks at each other and proclaim themselves a bigger shitstain on the Romanian flag than the other.

But enough of the minor candidates who stand as much chance of making the second round as I do (even though I'm not standing).

On the 2nd of November voters will pick two candidates to run off against each other 2 weeks later (unless of course someone gets 50%+ in the first round and wins before that.  But that won't happen.) The favourite (in terms of the polls), and the one who is virtually guaranteed to make the second round is the current PM Victor Ponta.

Now Victor Ponta is, and I say this with absolute certainty, a complete dick. He is the ultimate party apparatchik, the protege of Adrian Nastase, a man so corrupt that he is actually doing time for it (almost unheard of in Romania) Nastase in turn is the protege of Ion Iliescu. The whole house of cards is as bent as a paperclip.  Ponta, you may remember, was also the man who cheated on his PhD thesis, plagiarising large chunks of it and then denying that he had, and when it was proved, he refused to resign anyway.  After all, why should one be excluded from high office just for being a proven liar and cheat? Ponta's hubris of late has even extended to him hosting a rally in his own honour on his own birthday in the national stadium. Something that his political grandfather Iliescu learned from being Ceausescu's right hand man I suspect. Craig at Bucharest Life has a good summary - with pictures - of the whole desperate event. I'm not sure how one can build the cult of personality around someone who apparently has none, but anyway.  It was deeply revolting.  (By the way, the media - particularly it seems the foreign media, present Ponta as the left wing candidate.  he is not.  Unless a socially illilberal populist xenophobe can be considered left wing. In UK terms he is as left wing as Nigel Farage)

Who might face Ponta in the run off?  Well the current money is on Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu. Iohannis seems sort of not bad. He's clearly done a good job in Sibiu (though it's a big step up from running a smallish city to running a country), he's not a party apparatchik, being a physics teacher originally (and most pleasingly from my perspective, he's married to an English teacher).  I can't help feeling that there is a bit of a cultural cringe at play here though. "Well, clearly we're not to be trusted to run our own country so perhaps we can persuade this German bloke to do it for us". To me, however, he's a bit of an enigma. What kind of president would he be?  No-one knows.  Would he be better than Ponta? Hell yeah.  [Ponta, by the way, "left winger" that he supposedly is, has launched attacks on Iohannis based on his ethnicity and his religion]

The only other two candidates who get much of a mention in polling are Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu and Monica Macovei. The former is an ex Prime Minister and one of the few long standing national politicians in the country that I have any time for.  The latter is a former justice minister and the face of the anti-corruption efforts in Romania. She has been, I feel, excellent in that role, and has genuinely given anti-corruption investigators teeth, and has set out her stall to do something about it. She won't win unfortunately. (There's some old case involving both Mocovei and Tariceanu, which means that while they used to work together successfully they now seem to be in one of the many feuds that characterise Romanian politics).

All in all, the three possible people who might oppose Ponta in the run off represent about the only three national politicians in Romania that I actually partially trust. So, it could work out well. But Ponta leads the polls quite significantly and with the PSD's grass roots actions (which is to say they basically run many villages in Romania and will "get out the vote" in the way that they used to when they were the Communist Party), the stronger possibility is that Ponta will win.  But you know, we can always hope.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On pro- and anti-

Anyone who is connected to me on facebook will have noticed that of late my  updates have tended to be ones of support for the people of Gaza, and horror at the actions of the Israeli state. There seems to be a tendency to categorise all such comments (from me or anyone else) as pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. I want to reject that characterisation.  My wish that Israel ends it slaughter of Palestinians, that it ends the siege of Gaza, that it ends this brutal occupation are NOT an anti-Israel position.  On the contrary I feel they are a pro-Israel position. An Israel that is not acting in this way is a much better (and, ironically, a much more secure) Israel.

I am, therefore, reclaiming these labels.  I am pro-Palestine AND pro-Israel. I am anti-occupation, and I am anti-massacre and anti-brutality and anti-bombing children.  I am also anti-Likud, anti-Netanyahu, and anti-the actions of the Israeli state and it's military wing, the IDF.

I've spent time in the occupied territories and I know full well how the IDF operates.  And it's not pretty at all. There are, of course, some good decent soldiers in the Israeli army.  But there are also some real shits, and the overall policy of the army is to subjugate, humiliate, brutalise, dehumanise and oppress the Palestinians  This is what I am anti-

In supporting the liberation of the Palestinians, I am, at the same time, supporting the liberation of the Israelis from their owns state's appalling inhuman actions.

"A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations." (Engels)

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

More collective punishment, more war crimes

There will come a time, in the not too distant future, when those who seek to justify Israel's destruction of Gaza will be looked upon as craven and disgraceful as those western communists who applauded when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Testing my patience

So, I wrote last week about the important tests for 8th graders which go a long way to deciding their next 4 years. I mentioned then that I don’t believe in testing in general, because I think it tends to favour those who are good at tests .  But I do see that they at least provide something of a level playing field.

Except when they don’t

There are times when my patience for the way things work in Romania is tested to its limits.  This last week has been one of those times. It is not an exaggerated rant to say that the testing system in this country is an absolute fucking disgrace.

Let me explain:  The marking of these tests is done pretty much the same day (or the following day) by local teachers who are paid almost nothing for the job (they get a gross payment of something like 3.70 Lei per test marked, which, after taxes and everything probably works out at about 40p net). These teachers have a mark sheet to refer to, which they use to score the tests. But – and it’s a very big but – there is no standardisation.  Essentially the teachers mark as strictly or leniently as they like. Indeed on the markers' information sheet it actually gives the marker the leeway to decide whether they think something deserves a mark or not.  If your paper ends up with a strict marker you get a low mark. If it ends with someone willing to give the benefit of the doubt, then you get a much better one.  The test grade is, to all intents and purposes, a lottery. Your grade depends, very heavily, on the marker your paper is randomly assigned.

Now, I know a fair amount about testing and assessment in my professional work.  I'm by no means an expert in that field, but I have read a fair amount on it, taken training courses, and have attended testing and assessment conferences. In short, I know something (less than many, more than most) about how tests work and what their function is. In addition, I am an oral examiner on a well-known international English test, and in that capacity I have to attend thorough and extensive annual standardisation meetings.  

In these tests, though, far from levelling the playing field, the testing system does exactly the opposite (the papers are marked anonymously, so at least we can say the process is not corrupt, but it’s still based on pure luck).  And levelling the playing field is, and I want to stress that I'm stating this in the most calm, objective, thoughtful way possible, levelling the playing field IS THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT OF HAVING A FUCKING TEST IN THE FIRST FUCKING PLACE.

The maths test is reasonably balanced, because obviously in maths (especially at the 8th grade level) there isn’t a great deal of potential variation in correct answers. It’s either right or not. But the literature tests (and here in this town most kids take two of those – in Romanian and Hungarian) are pretty much marked by whim.

So,  one can draw the short straw in the Romanian and/or Hungarian marking lottery and get a terribly hard marker.  The best in the class can get the worst marks.  To give an example, there are two identical twins in another class at her school, who are both brilliant, and who both score more or less exactly the same on any work.  Their marks for the Romanian test were 9.10 and 5.25 out of ten. This is simply not a possible split. Some of the best in Romanian in Bogi's class got some of the lowest marks (including the two kids who have a Romanian parent, and who are therefore functionally bilingual. Though, of course, as I've mentioned before, the test does not test language competence, but literary analysis)

There is an appeal process.  But everybody in the know says that the second marker tends not to alter the mark much because it’s perceived as undermining a fellow teacher. 

The Romanian test in particular has been the subject of much debate in the country over the last week, since a teacher from Bucharest last week complained that it was (a) testing things that were not on the curriculum; and (b) subjective in the marking.  She gave an example of a question of synonyms in which two answers were given but others were possible.  (Her letter here, in Romanian).  The Ministry of Education has responded on their website by pointing out that (in the case of (b)) it states quite clearly that the teacher/marker has the flexibility to decide whether an answer not given in the key is acceptable or not. (Link here). In other words, they have proudly stated, defending themselves against the charge of having a subjective grading system, that they do in fact have a subjective grading system. 

The function of the test is essentially a competition. Having your test marked hard is not a problem – if everyone is marking the same.  But they are not. So, the upshot is that some kids get punished through no fault of their own.  And these tests (or rather the grade given for these tests) decide which school you can go to and which subjects you can study. They are, in short, extremely important.  Much too important, it would seem, to be left in the hands of whichever people at the Ministry of Education are currently responsible for them. 

I love living in this country for many reasons, but sometimes the way it is run makes me want to scream. Perhaps I should not expect more when the Prime Minister is an unrepentant plagiarist. 

Maybe it's an important lesson for 8th graders to learn that their lives are subject to the whims of fate and that ability and hard work count for nothing.  But I figure they'll learn that eventually anyway.  It seems shameful to institutionalise it.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Day of the flag

Yesterday, I learned while watching the news, was "The Day of the Romanian Flag". WTF is that? There's also a day for the national anthem, and a day for the constitution.  I am not yet sure if there is a "National Day of the Romanian Penal Code" or "National Day of the Romanian Currency".  I mean seriously, what exactly do people do on a day which celebrates a piece of cloth? Do all countries have one of these? What's the point of it?  Can anyone tell me?

Not really the same thing, but anyway:

Slightly later update:  I made the day of the currency up, imagining it to be an impossible date... but it exists! April 22nd, if you ever want to pay homage to your Lei.

Seriously though.  the day of the flag. What's it all about?  "The day of the symbol of the national day".  Does the flag get its own symbol, that you can wave in its honour?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Romtelecom, setting Romania back 30 years

Customer service in Romania is frequently (though by no means always) a haphazard affair, with there still being a significant number of places where your custom is seen as more of a burden than a positive.  But things are changing for the better, and noticeably so.

So when a large company with - no doubt - up to date processes and a focus on customer service manages to piss you off so much through treating you like the old days it can be really shocking.

Romtelecom is the company that used to have a monopoly on all telecom type services in this country, but these days they are in competition with other companies, and they provide internet, land-line telephone services and cable TV.  Of late I've actually heard reasonably good things about them.  And so, when we decided to get a much better Internet connection in our house, we had no problems in going to them.  Last week we got in touch and put in our request to be connected to their service.  "OK, we'll let you know", was the response, which we took to mean "We'll call you when the guy is coming round to connect you up".  We checked in today and ... well it wasn't like we had imagined.

Today's message was "The fact that you asked for internet does not mean we will give it to you.  That was just a logging of your request.  The village you live in is not part of our "development plan", and so, well,... "(you get the picture). Now, Romtelecom has cable here.  Our neighbours have internet through Romtelecom, as do most people in the village.  it's not that they have to lay cable out here or something.  They just can't be bothered sending someone out to the village.  It's an absolute fucking joke.   I feel like I jumped back in time 20 years to a Romania where the customer is just a pain in the arse to be ignored or treated like shit.

I'm flabbergasted, to be honest.