On January 1, the Hungarian Parliament ratified a new constitution, one that brings the country the nearest it’s been to authoritarian rule since the era of Communism. The document was drafted exactly once. As a member of the ruling Fidesz Party boasted, it was written on an iPad. A mere two weeks earlier, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Fidesz, which had earned a supermajority in parliament after receiving just under 53 percent of the national vote in the 2010 elections, prepared to enact their revisions, the government mailed a questionnaire to voters with twelve questions regarding such topics as prison sentencing and biodiversity.
But the new constitution deals with far weightier issues: gone is the independence of the judiciary through court-packing measures and partisan oversight; gone is freedom of religion, as the number of state-recognized denominations is reduced from 384 to 14; but in it are new threats to the freedom of the opposition Socialist Party and gerrymandering to favor Fidesz. The country has a new name, too: no longer the “Hungarian Republic,” but simply “Hungary.” Former Foreign Minister Peter Balazs described the revisions as a move towards a “one-party ruling system” selling “19th-century romantic nationalism” to those it rules. As Fidesz secures its power grab, the far-right Jobbik party has also increased its share of the national vote, on a platform of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric. One recent poll even shows Jobbik as the most popular opposition party, outperforming the Socialists.
I’m far from an expert on Hungary — frankly, I rarely think about the country at all, and I only heard of these developments by chance — but I suspect that to most Yale students, the above will come as a surprise. I also suspect that I don’t need to convince most of my friends and classmates that the descent of a post-Communist country plagued by a history of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma prejudice into neo-fascism is a very bad thing indeed. We might stop here to ask what we can do, how we can educate ourselves, what action we can take. All are essential questions, but also I wonder: why have so few of us heard about these recent events?
The last few months, and in particular the last few weeks, have seen the usual press blitz of the Republican primaries. In Tuesday’s election in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney won — predictably — and predictably, a slew of articles followed asking who the real victor was. From a strictly commercial perspective, this makes sense, of course. The journalistic narrative of the Republican electorate searching for the not-Romney has given us the thrill of the all-too-brief rise of Rick Perry and of the arrival of Cain Train. It turned the Iowa Caucus, in which .04 percent of the population of the United States participated, into an event for which many stayed up late into the night as the results were reported.
And yet, a Google News search for stories “Hungary Constitution” from the last month produces only about 670 results, compared to the 45,600 articles one can read about Mitt Romney.
The current threat to democracy in Hungary is a reminder that when we fall for — or when we demand — a clear narrative arc in the news we read, we’re not just risking that a politician’s claim will go unchallenged: we’re risking not even having the information necessary to think critically about the world in the first place.
Any narrative will exclude certain facts at the expense of others, but journalists, as the gatekeepers of information even in this age of the Internet, can and must prioritize their resources in such a way as to ensure that the pluralistic values of a democratic society are upheld. They must ensure their readers have the tools to be better citizens.
Yes, only a few newspapers and television stations can afford to send reporters to Hungary, but it is not simply a question of money; it is one of the self-reinforcing processes by which culture and media are made impotent. As students at a liberal arts university, we have a particular duty to ensure that our active engagement with the world starts before we read the newspaper. After all, few have our luxury of engaging the world full-time.
The 2012 elections draw near, and the potential for more civil unrest springing from the economic downturn looms. Today’s crisis in Hungary is a lesson in how our own democracy might be made stronger, if we can transcend the usual stories of the day.
Gabriel Levine is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.