As a child in Budapest, I heard my grandfather tell the family around the Sunday lunch table to beware the old lady in the ground floor flat; she was not just the janitor. She was spying on the residents, ready to report anyone who appeared to favour the West in any way, had contacts with foreigners, listened to Radio Free Europe or spoke disrespectfully of the party or its leadership. Jokes caricaturing the leaders or the party line were especially risky. (The janitor might have regretted that she couldn’t listen in to our conversations around the kitchen table… a well known source of dissent from the ruling orthodoxy to this day.)
We also knew that if any of our friends were taken away at night by the secret police, it would not be reported in the papers. Or on radio. And we knew the address of the interrogation centre where they were taken (now the House of Terror Museum). It was an oppressive environment, weighed down by fear, a fear of agents of the state, the very state whose first responsibility is to protect its citizens … keeping us safe. Beware that phrase. National security was the reason for the arrest and often torture of ordinary citizens. The torture was both mental and physical.
The oppression led to revolution in 1956, and when it failed, the opportunity to escape for about 200,000 Hungarians, my mother and I among them (with a lot of luck). A decade later, I ended up here in Australia, then a sun-drenched haven of live and let live. But the meeting of an authoritarian response to Covid with the dictatorship of woke has deformed this haven into Terror Australis. Political lynch mobs abound from campus to office, police turn feral – what’s to relish?
My father’s book, The 19 Days (Heinemann, 1957) reconstructs the revolution through eye-witness accounts, radio and newspaper reports. On the morning of 23 October, 1956, an organised group of students requested permission for a demonstration ‘in support of… various national reforms’ from the Minister for the Interior, Laszlo Piros. He refused. ‘At 12.53pm the radio announced that the Ministry of the Interior had banned all public meetings.’ I mention this not to equate the circumstances of the Hungarian revolution with 2021 Australia, but to illustrate how political instincts are common to all sorts of ideologies in wishing to suppress protests. In Budapest it was ‘national security’. In Covid-era Australia it’s ‘keeping you safe’; a benign half-truth wearing jackboots.
Which of Australia’s political leaders champion free speech, encouraging voters to openly question and debate the issues that go to policies that affect our lives? You know, the irrational, panic-driven restrictions handcuffing and locking down freedom, by surly authority. Like free speech, or climate change, or academic freedom and the many strictures of the ever-expanding woke bible, from cancel culture to the community cancer of identity politics. Can’t work, but go woke.
Which if any mainstream media exhibits journalistic rigour, questioning government policies in these crucial areas? Succumbing to the ruling orthodoxy means abandoning the most important role of a free media: seeking truth on their behalf, protecting individual rights in every sphere by exposing the dangers of groupthink. Instead, they perpetuate the groupthink, even censoring reader comments. Hence a populace so cowered by the tools of panic employed by over-zealous state health officers and cynical political leaders, some people actually welcome being marshalled into home incarceration. Mass brainwashing. They even protect their leaders from critics; ‘I stand with Dan’ is its public utterance.
When the fearful cower under their leader, political power expands and engulfs democracy. The fearful in the communist state are forced to ‘stand with their Dan’; here now they gurgle in supplication.
In once irreverent Australia, the woke set the party line, your job relies on following it and your neighbours dob you in for infractions, but you are not free to criticise the woke. ‘If you would know who controls you, see who you may not criticise,’ observed Tacitus. We fled Hungary in 1956 because ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived’, as the saying goes.
The metaphorical midnight knock on his door came when Great Barrier Reef scientist Peter Ridd – who defied the ruling orthodoxy by urging robust quality control for scientists – maintained his integrity but lost his job. In 21st century Australia. Maybe it’s time to flee again.
You can understand the dark outrage people like me felt when on 2 September, 2020, police barged into a Ballarat home and handcuffed a pregnant woman in her pyjamas for what was effectively a thought crime: online promotion for a demonstration against state government policy. Genuinely shocked, I waited impatiently for the Prime Minister to express concern at the incident and tell the country that he expected premiers and police ministers that the police must apply moderation (not to mention proportionality) in policing health orders, as befitting a modern democracy. No leader said it. No leader set the standard.
That was the moment when my discomfort about this unrecognisable face of Australia turned into conscious motivation to go back where I came from – to unescape, as it were. Over recent years I’ve spent several months in Hungary, experiencing it as an adult for the first time. Shopping, travelling, going to movies and theatre, visiting bars and restaurants, mingling and observing. I speak the language and I have two cousins who live in Budapest with their respective families. I got a taste of the social and political landscape.
It’s far from perfect there, of course, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks up for the values and freedoms that underpin his policies, both at home and in Brussels, much to the woke EU’s irritation.
I detected no sense of fearing the state or the police or subservience to the woke; criticism of the political leadership, or anything else, was offered freely.
Australia is richer, but Hungary felt freer. It’s tempting. Now, would I get a permit to escape Australia?
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