It happened again last week: another American came to Hungary, and was startled by how different things actually are here than the way this country is portrayed in the media. I had drinks with the visitor, and said yeah, this is a common experience. You cannot trust the media to tell the truth about Hungary, and you certainly can’t trust the US government, which just sent USAID Administrator Samantha Power over here on the pretext of supporting “independent media,” “community led initiatives,” and other Washington euphemism for starting a color revolution against governments it doesn’t like. According to Power (watch clip below; the photo above is taken from it), the US Government is spending $20 million to oppose and undermine the popular government of a democratic NATO ally:
What has made me so defensive of Hungary, where I now live, is that I have seen the same smear tactics that the media and institutional leftists have long used against American conservatives deployed against Hungary. The thing is, it’s not nearly as hard for ordinary Americans to see how biased these narrative-defenders are against conservatives, especially religious conservatives. This is in part because their own daily experience tells a different story, and also because there is at least significant pushback on the narrative from within the US, via conservative media. But few Americans have the chance to know facts that challenge the liberal media and official narrative about Hungary. As this blog comes to an end this week, I’m proud of the work I have done to fight the propaganda on behalf of a country that is far from perfect, but that has been fighting a David vs Goliath conflict for the things many of us on the American Right believe in, and that many more of us American conservatives ought to be supporting. What the Left has been doing to us in America, it does to Hungary on the global stage. If you are a progressive or a liberal, of course you are going to oppose the Orban government; that’s normal! But the gross, endless slanders from government, academic, and media sources against Hungary and its government are something else entirely.
For example, when Samantha Power came here recently to Budapest, the US State Department released this press statement. Excerpt:
The Administrator highlighted USAID’s newly launched work to help support democracy in Central Europe, including by bolstering civil society and helping independent media thrive and build new audiences. Administrator Power also held a meeting with advocates for human rights and LGBTQI+ communities, where they discussed the experiences of LGBTQI+ people in Hungary and their efforts to increase understanding, support marginalized groups, and improve the lives of LGBTQI+ people in Hungary. The Administrator emphasized that the United States will continue to stand as an ally with LGBTQI+ people and all marginalized groups in their struggle for equality.
You would think that “independent media” were being suppressed by the Orban government. In fact, they thrive — and the highest-circulation paper in the country is opposed to the government. What Power would have you believe is that a few brave journalists are pressing forward to tell the truth in the face of government oppression. The truth is more complicated, as the veteran German language journalist and Hungarian media professor Boris Kalnoky writes. Excerpt:
In a nutshell, after the collapse of communism, the post-communist elites were able to hold on to their networks and influence in what had been up to then the media of the Communist Party. Fidesz later acted to counterbalance that disadvantage. However, even now, media opposed to the government of Viktor Orbán clearly dictate the themes of the national conversation. As for suppressing free media, that is impossible. The legal guarantees for press freedom and simple market dynamics ensure that that can never happen.
It should be said at this point that the perception of the role and function of journalism is quite different in Hungary—indeed, in all formerly communist countries—from that generally held in the West. For Westerners, journalism is the ‘fourth power’ of democracy. It seeks to keep politicians honest. Free, independent media acts as a check and balance to political power. Independent journalism makes politics transparent and informs citizens in an objective way, so they can make informed decisions when they elect a new government. That is the theory. In reality, the credibility and honesty of modern journalism have become a subject of debate even in the West.
This, in any case, is not how most Hungarians view the media. Even many journalists themselves do not believe this. Certainly, no politician does. For them, journalism is not a check on power. It is an instrument of power. No matter whether they help the government or fight it, the media outlets are seen as weapons in the political power game. How else could it be, after the collective experience of media under communism?
Most political journalists choose sides. When I agreed to lead the media school of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in 2020 (an institution viewed by most as being pro-government), my one wish was to hire journalists (as teachers) who were connected to no political camp, and who were universally regarded as neutral, objective, and fair-minded. All colleagues I sounded out on this matter agreed that no such person existed in Hungary. That says something about the journalistic culture of the country.
If you as an American come to Hungary and impose a US view of journalism onto the culture here, you are going to misunderstand fundamentally the reality on the ground. It’s like the same naive, blunderbuss American attitudes towards Iraq and Afghanistan, which imagined that we could “liberate” those peoples from themselves, and set free the liberal democrat within — assuming that all people, when allowed to choose freely, would choose liberal democracy. Similarly, if you believe that it’s the natural state of the news media to take a left-wing view, you are going to see the leftist media as “independent,” and the right-wing media as nothing more than government propagandists. That’s simply not how it works here.
More Kalnoky, after explaining how after the fall of communism, maneuvering at the political level kept media power firmly in the hands of the successors to the Communists:
The point I would like to make is this: Hungary’s media market was not a naturally evolved, healthy, and independent media environment before Orbán regained power in 2010. It was, to a significant extent, a political market, and that market had been cornered by the left. Such media as existed was as a rule connected to political parties or at least political camps in one way or another. Independent journalism in the Western sense of the term was rare.
Describing the media market as being fully dominated by the governing party gives a very incomplete view of the story. The Hungarian media landscape has remained pluralistic, critical voices remain influential, and the spectrum of published political opinion remains broad. The biggest TV channel, German-owned RTL, is critical of the government. So is the biggest daily tabloid, Blikk, owned by Swiss publishing house Ringier, whose online edition ranks among the top four in digital ratings on most days. The biggest political weekly magazine is independent Hvg. The biggest political broadsheet is left-wing Népszava. Of the four biggest news portals—apart from Blikk—two are very critical of the government (24.hu and Telex.hu). Index.hu, under its new owners, has become more government-friendly, but not a propaganda instrument. Only Origo.hu is a decidedly pro-government news portal.
You get the point. Samantha Power depends on Americans not knowing any of this, and thinking of Hungary as a place where scrappy “independent” journalists do battle with government media drones — and were good old America rushes in to help encourage the free press, as we did under Communism. It’s a nice story, but the truth is, the US government views the proper role of the Hungarian media is supporting Washington’s policies, and liberal causes like LGBT rights. Hungarians can easily see what’s happening in the United States, and how insane we have gone with, say, transgenderism, and drag for children — and they don’t want that here. But Samantha Power and the US government are here to save Hungarians from themselves. It is a breathtaking example of American cultural imperialism and arrogance — but you will not be able to rely on most of the US media to show that side of the story to you.
I’m wound up about this issue because the most formative political event of my life kicked off twenty years ago this month: the US invasion of Iraq. Ed West wrote about it this week on his Substack. Excerpts:
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the greatest western foreign policy disaster since the Fourth Crusade. It wathe pre-eminent modern-day example of folly, driven by wishful thinking, utopianism and a lack of interest in history and how human societies differ. This was mostly carried out by good people, including our own Tony Blair, and promoted by thoughtful and humanitarian commentators who thought they were making the world a better place.
The White House regime which brought chaos and misery to Iraq were most of all entranced by The Weekly Standard, the now-defunct magazine most associated with neoconservative foreign policy. Had any of them read The American Conservative instead, they might have avoided the whole tragedy. In particular they ought have read Steve Sailer’s ‘the Cousin Marriage Conundrum’, printed in the run-up to the invasion and in which the author made a seemingly curious argument for why nation-building in Iraq would fail — its high rates of cousin marriage.
Pointing out that between 46 and 53 percent of Iraqis who married did so to first or second cousins, Sailer wrote that: ‘By fostering intense family loyalties and strong nepotistic urges’, cousin marriage ‘makes the development of civil society more difficult’. The neocon dream of jumpstarting democracy was therefore clearly doomed to failure.
West goes on to talk about how Iraq’s social structure — clannishness — doomed American attempts to remake it into a decent liberal democracy. More:
Their greatest victory, the conquest of Mosul, exemplified the problems facing low-trust societies. The Americans had given the Iraqi Army a vast amount of money, some $25.5billion to supply 800,000 troops, over 4,000 armoured vehicles, 137 helicopters and 357 tanks. In Mosul in June 2014 they had more than 20,000 soldiers available, yet when just a few hundred ISIS rebels moved in, the Iraqi Army fled, leaving most of their weapons in the hands of the enemy. Meanwhile in Baghdad a familiar pattern was emerging.
On the invasion of Iraq the optimistic centre-Left and centre-Right, often the nicest and most reasonable people in the world, were woefully wrong; those on the fringes, including most self-declared socialists, were absolutely right. I’m a great believer in history being a black comedy, and naturally almost all prominent advocates of the Iraq War have gone onto further career success, while Steve Sailer is even more of a fringe figure and one not mentioned in polite society (although any conservative worth reading, reads him.)
That they do. I am confident that once the smoke clears from the Ukraine battlefield, we will learn that gobs and gobs of American money went into the pockets of corrupt Ukrainians, that American military equipment did not get to where it needed to be, and that US diplomats, strategists, and media were driven by the same narrative blindness that led us to go into Iraq. Part of that will include narrative-policing that calls skeptics of the official story “unpatriotic conservatives,” “Putin apologists,” and the like.
Folks: we have been here before! We know how this goes. We know, or damn well ought to, that we cannot trust our government or our media to tell the truth. I’m not saying that they deliberately lie, though they might do so at times. I’m saying that they are so drunk on the narrative Kool-Aid that they won’t see facts, events, and people that don’t confirm what they prefer to believe. I know this because I was one of them back in the march-up to Iraq. The whole experience was so formative for me not only because I learned the lies my own political side was capable of telling and believing to justify what it wanted to do, even when it involved making war, but I also discovered how gullible I was capable of being when I wanted to believe a certain narrative.
All of us make mistakes. None of us are perfect, or omniscient, having perfect knowledge at all times. We have to be willing to admit it when we got it wrong, and to change course. But let me ask you this: who was held accountable for the Afghanistan debacle, as revealed by the so-called Afghanistan Papers, which revealed a long pattern of deliberate lying by the US military to Washington about the reality of the war there? That senior US officials knew the war was unwinnable, but hid that fact from the American people while we continued to send our soldiers to die and to kill there for a lost cause, and to hemorrhage money — an estimated 40 percent of which ended up in the bank accounts of corrupt Afghan officials?
“The strategy became self-validating. Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” one former US military adviser in Kabul told US investigators.
And, from the Washington Post’s coverage of the secret US report:
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”
Who was held to account by Congress for all this? Does anybody in Congress care? Has it occurred to anyone there that Victoria Nuland, an architect of US strategy in Ukraine, was the chief foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2003-05, and as such was also an architect of our catastrophic policies there?
Ask yourself: has the “independent” American media done a good job holding US officials to account for our Ukraine policy? Most of us correctly (in my view) hold the Russians in contempt for their invasion of Ukraine, but do you really think that the American people have had an adequate critical analysis of the issues around the war? Or has our “independent” media served more to propagate the policies of the right-thinking elites of both parties’ foreign policy cadres?
Again: living in Hungary for much of the last two years, and observing the disjunction between Hungary as it is, and Hungary as the US government and the US media would have Americans think it is, has made me pretty cynical.
But it’s not just that. Here is a must-read analysis by the American writer David Samuels, writing in UnHerd, regarding attempts by the US government and tech giants to control the way Americans think about politics and society. Excerpts:
“How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society?” wondered Richard Holbrooke, the dean of the American Diplomatic Corps, in the aftermath of 9/11. What startled Holbrooke, and presumably many of the readers of his Washington Post editorial, wasn’t Osama bin Laden’s terror attacks themselves but rather the Al Qaeda chief’s ability to control the framing of those attacks without a state or a television station of his own. To answer this new threat, Holbrooke called for a centralised authority run by the White House that would combine the powers of the State Department, the Pentagon, the Justice Department, the CIA and other government agencies in order to impose America’s preferred interpretation of reality upon the world.
Over two decades later, the flaws in Holbrooke’s grandiose plan for a global propaganda war directed from Washington are glaringly obvious. At the heart of Holbrooke’s conception of what became known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT) was the idea that the crucial post-9/11 battles would be won or lost not in physical locations in Afghanistan and Iraq but rather inside the heads of ordinary Muslims. The truth was that bin Laden and his terrorists understood their target audience far better than the White House, the CIA and the FBI ever could or did. Yet bizarrely, the dream of controlling reality through semiotic and technical means remains current in Washington and other Western capitals, even as the battlefields of the Middle East have gone silent. What started out as a way to fight a far-away foe has quietly metastasised into a totalitarian fantasy of endless warfare against the erroneous thoughts and feelings of ordinary citizens closer to home
Samuels talks about how the US government turned its information warfare techniques from Middle Eastern adversaries to its own people — initially by a Democratic president:
A key turning point in transforming these tactics from a war-fighting technique to a new theory of Western governance happened quietly a decade ago, when large-scale spying on US citizens by the NSA was licensed by the Obama White House. Documents leaked in 2013 by Edward Snowden alerted the public to a series of domestic spying programmes, as well as the fact that the NSA was routinely mining social media platforms to build profiles on Americans without judicial review. While the NSA had previously been required to stop searching the contact chain of a foreign target when it reached a US citizen, a change in policy allowed intelligence services to continue tracing the online contacts of Americans so long as there was a “foreign intelligence” purpose to justify the snooping.
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, hints of further centralised US government surveillance activities using private technology companies began to emerge. The Obama administration routinely spied on reporters by monitoring their private telephone records and using that information to issue subpoenas to force them to reveal their sources. In 2014, Twitter filed a suit against the US Department of Justice and the FBI, stating that it had been served FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrants to collect the electronic communications of its users. Some of these efforts were apparently focused on the Obama administration’s attempts to sell the Iran Deal, the centrepiece of his second term.
And then came the Russiagate hoax against Donald Trump. Samuels writes:
If the Global War on Terror was founded on a profound misapprehension of America’s ability to control how other people interpret reality, Obama’s war on foreign propaganda and disinformation was founded on an outright lie that was kept alive for years by a pliant media addicted to taking handouts from nameless operatives who waged information warfare against their political enemies — and a majority of the country. “The Russian intervention was essentially a hijacking — of American companies like Facebook and Twitter,” a typical 2018 feature in The New York Times falsely asserted. The extent of the “massive fraud” that had occurred on social media platforms suggested a “plausible case that Mr Putin succeeded in delivering the presidency to his admirer, Mr Trump”. Yet according to exhaustive investigations by Robert Mueller and the US Department of Justice, the only fraud that occurred was the promotion by every normative authority and publication in the county of a hallucinatory conspiracy theory that allowed the DC establishment to bring the GWOT back home and use it an instrument to control the American public.
Samuels goes on to talk about how the US government compelled Google, Facebook, and Twitter to join in the narrative-creation and narrative-suppression campaigns that compelled these firms “to make editorial decisions … on a basis that would be acceptable to Democrats and national security bureaucrats.”
The government, the big tech companies, and the media lied about Hunter Biden’s laptop. They lied about Covid. Samuels talks about how now public confidence in the information they get in the newspapers and on TV is at the lowest levels ever recorded. More:
Now America, just like Afghanistan and Iraq, must face the challenge of how to govern a country in which trust has been comprehensively shattered, and all that is left is a landscape of endless information operations run by warring tribes who define their opponents as “insurrectionists” and “terrorists”. None of these efforts to define reality seem likely to do much to promote social peace in the US, any more than they succeeded in bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East. Twenty years later, it would appear that bin Laden’s paradoxical understanding of asymmetric warfare was right: the most powerful weapon against the West is the West.
Read it all. It’s important.
In Live Not By Lies, I mention Hannah Arendt’s judgment that a clear precursor to totalitarianism is when a people ceases to believe in their society’s normative institutions. I brought that up in conversation with a visiting American here in Budapest a couple of weeks ago. He said, “But given what we know now, can you blame people?” No, I cannot — but that simply shows the cost of the lies and lies on top of lies that the ruling class in the United States — left, right, and center — have told over the last two decades. I don’t know what to do with this knowledge, to be honest. The loss of faith has been very hard to deal with. It’s not just faith in specific institutions — I didn’t even mention religious ones here, but I could have — but faith in faith. Not religious faith per se, but the ability to trust that the people and institutions that we need to believe in to have a functioning civil society can be trusted to tell the truth most of the time, and to do the right thing most of the time. Once lost, how does one regain the capacity to trust? That is an open question for me.
I won’t be with you here on this TAC blog after Friday — stay with me by subscribing to Rod Dreher’s Diary, my Substack, for $5/month, or $50/year — but I hope you will still be with TAC, which is one place on the American media landscape where you can trust us to try to find and tell the truth. TAC is not always going to be correct — no magazine can be — but at least the magazine founded in opposition to the foolish Iraq War crusade strives to be skeptical of the lies our leaders and our institutions tell us. That means a lot these days, you know.