Banned in Budapest

10.07.14 9:45 AM ET

American Racist Richard Spencer Gets to Play the Martyr in Hungary

By banning a conference of relatively obscure racists and jailing and deporting their leader, Budapest has managed to amplify their odious views, not discredit them.

Should a country welcome a gathering of American “racial realists,” European far-right activists, Russia’s top nationalist ideologue, and other self-proclaimed “Identitarians” in its capital? That’s the dilemma Hungary faced when the National Policy Institute, an “independent think-tank and publishing firm dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world,” announced plans to hold a conference in Budapest over the first weekend of October to “share ideas,” “make new [white] friends,” and do other fun white people stuff. To give you a taste of what they might have talked about, Richard Spencer, NPI president and a former writer for The American Conservative, advocates “a White Ethno-State on the American continent.” Whitefish, Montana, where NPI is based, is apparently not sufficient.

Yet by last Monday, the Hungarian far-right Jobbik Party leader Marton Gyöngyösi had pulled out of the conference, telling The Wall Street Journal, “I can hardly sympathize with the views of some of the speakers—namely those of the U.S. racists; I don’t share their ideologies at all.” You know you’ve hit rock bottom as a professional white nationalist when the guy who made international headlines for standing up in parliament to demand a list of Jews who pose “national security risks” tries to distance himself from you for being too racist. That same day, the Hungarian government put the kibosh on the weekend affair, denying a visa to the conference’s big draw, extreme Russian nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin, and pressuring the conference venue and hotel to pull out of hosting the event. Acting on the instructions of conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who ordered that all legal means be used to prevent the gathering from occurring, the country’s interior minister cited the Hungarian constitution, which, according to the Journal, apparently limits free expression that “breach[es] the human dignity of others or infringe[s] on the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial or religious community.”

Yet by banning the conference, the Hungarian government’s heavy-handed actions, which resemble those of governments across the European continent in their speech-limiting design, have had precisely the opposite of their intended effect. Budapest has turned a relatively obscure group of racists into global martyrs for free speech, and in so doing has amplified their odious views, not discredited them.

Somehow, Spencer and some of his confrères managed to enter Hungary, and on Friday night they gathered at a pub. “At least 25 people came and the atmosphere was friendly and boisterous,” Spencer wrote me from Paris, where he is now staying on his way back to the Land of the Free. At about 10 p.m., a horde of Hungarian police officers raided the bar, demanding that everybody show their identification. It was like a scene from communist times, yet perversely, the “dissidents” in this case were not heroic liberal democrats exchanging dangerous thoughts on the latest Václav Havel play but a bunch of racist pseudo-intellectuals. While the police eventually let everyone else go, Spencer, as the ringleader, was detained the entire weekend and treated like a common criminal, though his alleged crime was harboring stupid and bigoted thoughts.

It’s not a crime in Hungary to hold stupid and bigoted thoughts. But it also shouldn’t be a crime to express them. Many Europeans, given their history, understandably see things differently, but there is no indication that Spencer or his colleagues were planning to incite people to go out and commit hate crimes against specific individuals, the most plausible justification under which someone might be detained for words they express. Spencer spent the weekend shuttling back and forth between various bureaucratic hellholes: an airport detention facility, the central police station in Budapest, an immigration office. His ordeal sitting on “hard benches” under “bright lights” in the dreary confines of a former Warsaw Pact state’s administrative chambers sounds like a combination of The Manchurian Candidate, Midnight Express, and a bad episode of Law & Order.

Spencer was ultimately detained for 72 hours and banned for three years from the visa-free Schengen area of European countries, which includes most of the European Union. “There was a lot of paperwork, unfortunately all of it in Magyar. (This is understandable; we’re in Hungary, after all; however, for me, this gave the process a certain “Kafka-esque quality.),” Spencer wrote me. Franz Kafka lived in Czechoslovakia and wrote in German, facts one would assume to be pertinent to a self-described “Identitarian.” Kafka was also Jewish. But I digress.

The episode is significant for what it says about the state of free speech in Europe generally and in Hungary particularly. Once the order came down from Hungary’s right-wing government to squash the conference, Spencer and his friends began conflating Orban with his Hungarian Socialist Party opponents and other liberal figures, whom NPI sarcastically referred to as “the forces of tolerance and diversity.” Perhaps Spencer thought Hungary, where the extreme right Jobbik is the country’s third-largest party, with 20 percent of the seats in parliament, and where Orban himself has extolled “illiberal democracy,” would be a hospitable place to hold a conference calling for a “European ethnostate.” Since Orban came to power four years ago, he has assiduously cracked down on the NGO sector and independent media through strongman tactics that have been widely condemned by rights groups, the European Union, and the United States. Just last week, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland obliquely criticized Orban at a conference in Washington, stating, “How can you sleep under your NATO Article 5 blanket at night while pushing ‘illiberal democracy’ by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonizing civil society?”

While claiming to be the last bulwark against the rise of the far right, Orban’s Fidesz party has instituted a campaign of historical revisionism that largely absolves Hungarians of guilt for the country’s Holocaust past, overseen a revival in popularity for the authoritarian wartime leader Miklos Horthy, and even tried to hold a ritual burial for a long-dead fascist poet in neighboring Romania. Rounding up a bunch of foreign extremists was the obvious and easy thing for Orban to do to prove his anti-fascist bona fides, a painless and cost-free method by which he could distance his party from Jobbik. Yet ironically, he accomplished this task, urged on him by many Hungarian leftists, by summoning the authoritarian impulses for which he’s been widely criticized.

“I find the idea that a politician ordered my capture because he disagrees with things I say to be morally repugnant,” Spencer says. I disagree with Spencer on pretty much everything imaginable, but I concur on this. And I’m troubled by what happened to Spencer for reasons far more important than the discomfort I feel at seeing a white nationalist creep experience satisfaction by posing as a martyr to the cause of free speech.

To the Hungarian and other European liberals cheering on the shoddy treatment afforded to Spencer, I have one question: If an ostensibly democratic state, a member—albeit not in particularly good standing—of the European Union, feels unencumbered in silencing, arresting, and deporting a trivial and not particularly intelligent man like Richard Spencer, then what is to stop it from shutting down and locking up someone with more brain cells and thoughtful criticisms to make, like, say, yourselves? As much as I hate to find common cause with racists at the xenophobic website VDare, we are indeed “all Richard Spencer now,” at least in Budapest. I may loathe what Richard Spencer has to say, but I will defend, unequivocally, his right to say it.