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What I learned on my trip to Budapest

Updated: May 31, 2023


It seemed innocuous at the start. A former student, now a professor, directing a center at a Budapest university invited me to come and give a talk. I had never been. It sounded like a chance to go somewhere new and to support a young academic. As things evolved there was also coordination with the Hungarian Political Science Association and an invitation to give a keynote address at their annual meeting. It would be great according to one confidant, to be there for beleaguered Hungarian academics.


But others advised that I take care not to inadvertently legitimize anything related to Fidesz or the Orban government. I read more about Hungarian politics, including on the way the right has used what seems to be engaged and reasoned argument (but closed to the “wrong” answers) to build support for exclusionary claims. Bela Greskovits documents this so well in his analysis of the Civic Circles Movement. I was wary.


The initial plan looked fine – meet with professors and institute directors to talk about institution building and my experience founding the Sie Center and the Journal of Global Security Studies, a panel on engaged scholarship, and then the keynote address in Szeged and a meeting with the university newspaper back in Budapest.


Just a few days before my departure, though, I got the names of those who would appear on the panel. One had worked for the first Orban government. Hmmm. I had a brief panic. The last thing I wanted was to stumble into a “Mearsheimer” moment. I am also still “past-president” of ISA until March and did not want to cause embarrassment there. I learned more about what could go wrong from those with better information. Several on the panel were connected in some way with the government. But getting out of it would be hard – it could cause difficulties for my former student and his boss. I wondered whether I should cancel the trip.

After many conversations, and much thinking, I decided that I should not run away. I should go. But I should speak clearly and forcefully about the importance of academic freedom for engaged scholarship. I would take great care with my remarks, make sure no one could misunderstand me.


That turned out to be harder than I expected.


My comments were pointed, careful, and well-documented. They focused on the importance of academic freedom not just as a value but as critical to research that contributes to social good. I was pleased to hear others reference my remarks in theirs. I was not always entirely sure of the context as they were speaking in Hungarian and I was listening to an English translation, but it seemed that the panel went ok.


When it ended several came up to speak to me more. The first asked, “do you think you will ever get academic freedom back in the US? With all the woke progressives? And GENDER?”


Wait, wut?


It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought of cancel culture claims, but it seemed far-fetched to cast that as the major threat to academic freedom when states were passing actual laws restricting speech.


It took great effort to even communicate that I was more concerned with laws in Florida and elsewhere restricting “woke” materials in the classroom. But then, what about GENDER the person asked? I was not sure what to say until they said TRANSGENDER. Ah. I replied that I had a transgender daughter and was equally concerned about legislation targeting care for transgender persons. I got a puzzled look and more questions about how I could be ok with this, what had misled my child (she is an adult) into such a sad situation (she is much happier). How sad for me. (I am not sad at all.)


Still reeling, my host rescued me from this interaction to introduce me around. Among others was someone who split their time between the university and the Budapest House of Terror. After initial pleasantries, he too began to ask about the indignities we are facing in the US with woke progressives tearing down statues and rewriting history. As a historian, he said, he found this “bone chilling”, “frightening”, “just like the communists”. But, I suggested, African Americans had been ignored in much of the history after the failed effort at Reconstruction. Wouldn’t it make sense then to broaden the historical narrative to include them? He seemed taken aback for a moment but then returned to the dangers of rewriting history, not to mention GENDER, especially from a Hungarian perspective.


On the drive down to Szeged for the Hungarian Political Science Association meeting, I peppered my host with questions. Yes, I heard, Orban and Fidesz, had politicized the transgender issue among others and the media frequently parroted their concern with “woke” and particularly GENDER (meaning transgender) in the West. It was seen as a threat to everything dear to family. And family in Hungary was very important, much more important than in the US (really?). But we would get a more balanced view among political scientists who were much more left leaning and, by their nature, curious and resistant to this dominant narrative.


The hosts in Szeged were lovely and we had a nice dinner, equipped with palinka and delicious paprika-laced food. In the morning, I was part of an opening ceremony with some remarks by the Dean and the Chair of the Board of Trustees followed by a lecture from the person who had won the best book prize and ending with my keynote address. Introducing myself to the award winner, I learned that they had written something on how the right was using gender as a political tool and expressed surprise to have won the award with such a controversial subject. They also apologized that I would not understand much of the lecture as it would be in Hungarian.


I did catch a few article titles and citations that I knew – referencing Judith Butler, Chantal Mouffe, and others I had used in my work so was delighted when we had a chance to give the person a ride back to Budapest and I could ask for the short, English version of the talk. They explained that they were critical of both how the right had used the gender issue but also traced it to how the left had politicized gender. I said I was interested in learning more given the role I thought gender played in closing off some avenues for inquiry in political science – and also that I had a transgender daughter.


Oh my God, they said, “has she…he… all the way transitioned?” I am never sure how to answer this question – what is it really asking? What more did they need to know? But the struggle with the pronouns also threw me off. Does someone who has written a book and many articles on transgender issues not know what pronoun to use for my transgender daughter? Had this person spoken to transgender people or anyone who knew transgender people? The conversation went on and I spoke of a recent New York Times article recounting how Republican strategists had identified transgender issues as fertile ground for political gain and my impatience with this kind of strategizing that gives little thought to its fallout in particular lives – like mine and my daughters. The response? Well, the left did it first. There would be no backlash without the left seizing on the transgender issue for their purposes. (Really?)


I brought up Sarah McBride’s book, Tomorrow will be Different, her relationship with Biden, and my feeling that efforts to make it easier for people to live as they felt comfortable seemed different from the calculated political story the New York Times had told (though I admitted I did not have first hand information about how accurate it was). I knew this person was interested in agonism – the ability to have contentious political conversations. I respect that, and often push for the same. But I also want space for my daughter to feel like she can participate and be respected in the skin that makes sense for her. By now the car was getting pretty uncomfortable for me.


Back in Budapest, at midnight, I looked up articles by this person. Two points hit me hard. First, they linked transgender concerns to the individualist philosophy of neoliberalism. Second, they quoted Roger Brubaker “Unlike race, however, sex is also a well-established biological category. But despite the evident biological basis of sex differences – a biological basis that is utterly lacking for racial differences – it is more socially legitimate to choose and change one’s sex (and gender) than to choose and change one’s race. (Brubaker, 2016, p. 135)” In effect the article argued that focusing on individuals had given up on structural changes (like giving women equal rights) to focus on a class of people who really *were* (or should be?) what doctors saw when they were born.

It was this individual narrative and politicization of transgender issues (like passing laws that allowed transgender persons to live as they felt comfortable) that had contributed to the right-wing backlash.


I admit that I am not giving this piece a thorough treatment. And this is not the place for a serious academic critique, but I will say just three quick things. First, I am not sure you can separate individuals and structures. And casting any logic that focuses on how people feel as individuals as connected with neoliberalism seems a stretch. There are, after all, collectivist cultures that accept or even celebrate transgender persons. Second, a large swath of research in network theory shows connections between how we live and our physicality, linking health, habits, and even physiological tendencies to the relationships one has. Other research has demonstrated changes in people’s DNA as the result of traumatic events. Third, there are biological factors that impact different ethnic groups differently, affecting disease and its treatment, for instance, and hormonal differences between men and women occupy quite a range, so I am not sure of the accuracy of Brubaker’s assertion. These three initial thoughts suggest that there is room to question the logic of this argument. Having more exchange on these claims will be important.


But the point of what I am writing now is more personal. Sitting in my hotel bed at 1 am, I felt sick. My head was spinning, my heart was racing, my stomach was upset.


Her first year in college my daughter wrote a short story. This is how it started: "What does the number 35 signify to you? Is it just another number? Just the mathematical equivalent of 7 times 5? Maybe you know that it is the highest number you can count to on your fingers using base 6. That’s pretty cool. Maybe it has some superstitious meaning to you. To me, the number 35 is a countdown. I once heard a statistic that 35 is the average life expectancy of a transgender woman." Recent statistics suggest that 82% of transgender people have considered suicide and 40% have attempted it. My daughter’s essay, which is beautiful, goes on to talk about all the reasons that might be the case. I hope she publishes it one day.


Suffice it to say that the discomfort I felt in the car, and in the hotel room that night, are nothing compared to what transgender people feel when we look at their lives from the outside, with cool logic, divorced from their reality and yet purporting to make sense of it all. But my feelings are a reminder that our academic arguments are not divorced from the people we study. They not only matter for our scholarly debate, they can also affect the people they claim to describe.


When I was preparing my remarks before I left, I thought I would be clever and use examples from Florida and other states in the US to admit that there were problems everywhere. To identify somehow with what was happening in Hungary even as I tried to nudge even one person to think differently. I did not imagine how different, how much worse, it could be – even from what I see to be a quickly worsening situation in the US. I did not understand how my words might be completely mistaken given the different context.


In my hotel room, I reflected again on Bela Greskovits’ analysis. We had used it in the conclusion of our Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence book to consider how civil action could be undertaken for nefarious purposes. Now it seemed much more vivid. Appearing reasonable while closing off possibilities can nudge societies toward exclusionary assumptions so pervasive that they permeate even the opposition and academic critiques.


Most importantly, though, I felt like a research subject who had been ignored. Nothing of my experience was even remotely hinted at in work purporting to depict the left and its efforts on transgender issues in the West. I hope I have never written something that has led someone involved to feel so disregarded.


I am sure I will write more on this. And there were good things about the trip. Budapest and Szeged were beautiful, those who hosted me did a lot to make it all work, I met some nice people, and ate well. I leave you with a beautiful shot of the river in Szeged and a piece of Dobos cake, which was delicious. For now, though, I am grateful to be sitting in a Munich lounge on the way home…and still processing.




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