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Power and Hierarchy in Financial Support Policies

Ildikó Zakariás’s 2018 book, Jótékony nemzet. Szolidaritás és hatalom a kisebbségi magyarok segítésében (A charitable nation. Solidarity and power in supporting Hungarian minorities) provides an analysis of the power and ideology system underlying an ethnic-based funding policy. The book is enlightening on more than one levels, especially these days, when both the Hungarian and Slovakian systems of all sorts of grants and funds have changed a lot, and a good part of public discourse is concerned with the analysis of these changes and their possible effects.

Drawing by László Gocoň

The book does away with the myth of the innocent helper/supporter, showcasing the hidden agendas and ideologies of support policies. Zakariás emphasizes that, although good will is a seemingly simple concept, it is still a practice during which the supporter decides what is beneficial for the person/group on the receiving end of the support – and this is by far not self-evident. Doing good, as most political mechanisms, is a social construct, the content of which is defined by the ideas and actions of those who take part in it, and of other actors of the society. Both the form and content of helping happens within a space permeated by power relations, whose operation is summarized as follows:

„A rendelkezésre álló erőforrások nagyobb cselekvési szabadságot biztosítanak a segítőknek […]. Ennek az asszimetriának egyik jele, ha a cselekvést az előbbiek kezdeményezik és hajtják végre, függetlenül a segítettek szándékától vagy esetleg éppen annak ellenére. […] A hiány ráadásul megkettőződhet: a beavatkozás szükségessége könnyen elvitathatja a célzott egyének, csoportok önmagukért viselt felelősségét. Végezetül a jót cselekvés, a segítés gyakran elismerést vált ki, a segítettek részéről pedig elköteleződést, amely az utóbbiak számára kötöttség, a cselekvő számára pedig a későbbiekben felhasználható erőforrás.” (The available resources ensure a greater freedom of action to helpers […] One sign of this asymmetry is if the action is initiated and performed by the former, regardless of, or even despite of the intention of the supported. […] What’s more, this hiatus may even be twofold: the necessity of interference may easily question the responsibility of the targeted individuals or groups for themselves. Finally, doing good and supporting often triggers recognition and the commitment of the supported, which is a constraint for the supported, and a resource to be used in the future for the supporter.”

The book examines the forms of funding which are defined by a background ideology of the ethnic-cultural nation. This ideology is primarily about classifying people: it groups together people with the same language, history and culture as a community, separating them from those who do not meet these ethnic criteria. These criteria are based on the narrative of national unity, which presents the mother country and the minority communities as parts of one single homogeneous set. This idea completely ignores the individual development and path of the minority societies which have existed ever since 1920 (independently from Hungary), as Péter György wrote in his book on the memory politics of Trianon (Állatkert Kolozsváron – Képzelt Erdély [A zoo in Cluj – Transylvania imagined], Magvető Kiadó, Budapest, 2013): Hungary is not interested at all in getting a sociological knowledge of the Hungarian minorities and shaping a partnership based on equality with them; instead, it aims at turning the trauma of Trianon into a myth and gaining symbolic compensation. György also draws attention that the 2010 Fidesz law which proclaimed the Day of National Unity writes about the Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries as if they were living as subjects of foreign countries: “The National Assembly of the Republic of Hungary proclaims that all members and communities of Hungarians thrown under the supremacy of other states are part of the united Hungarian nation, the existence of which is a reality overarching state borders, and a defining element of the personal and community identity of Hungarians.” György explains that the current use of the term of subjugation ignores the history of the past one hundred years and the simple fact that this concept fails to still mean something for an individual who was born and raised in one of these states. Such an authoritarian use of the past and the attempt to convert it to the present could be useful for the creation of a national mythology, but not for reaching a syndetic relation, based on mutual knowledge.

However, disregarding the independent development of minority societies is not something only typical for the country giving all the funding, but also appears in the defects of the minority’s view on itself. The Hungarian communities of the former Czechoslovakia, later Slovakia have always been defined by the problem of the lack of centre, easily explained by historical, geographical as well as social reasons; nevertheless, although it has been written down and said many times, the understanding of this situation very rarely translates itself into actions. The Hungarian minority of Slovakia lives in a long strip on the southern border of the country, which has no natural centre, and the two end points are also far from each other. Just an example – a person from Bratislava/Pozsony and one from Kosice/Kassa know almost nothing about each other’s life, although they both are members of the same community of half a million members. Before Trianon, the Hungarians now living in Slovakia used to maintain relations mostly on the north-south axis and mainly considered Budapest to be the centre. A very instructive book in this respect is Veronika Szeghy-Gayer’s Felvidékből Szlovenszkó. Magyar értelmiségi útkeresések Eperjesen és Kassán a két világháború között (From Upper Hungary [Felvidék] to Slovensko. Pioneering Hungarian intellectuals in Presov/Eperjes and Kosice/Kassa between the two World Wars) (Kalligram, Bratislava / Pozsony, 2016). It clearly shows that one of the fundamental problems for the Hungarian intelligentsia of Czechoslovakia after 1920 was how to create a community out of people who had not formed a community before, and do that even in the lack of an appropriate centre.

The much referred-to unitary identity of the Hungarians from Upper Hungary did not exist then, and in the 1920s it was still possible to speak openly and publicly about it.

The main attempts to solve this problem happened through the minority literature, which may also offer an explanation for the permanent legitimacy crisis of the Hungarian literature of Slovakia. As a literary tradition to define the contour of the community did not exist, and wasn’t created either, the permanent self-representation conflict of the minority turned in time into the very own conflict of the Hungarian literature from Slovakia – see Zoltán Németh’s A bevégezhetetlen feladat. Bevezetés a „szlovákiai magyar” irodalom olvasásába (The unfinishable task. Introduction to the reading of the “Hungarian literature from Slovakia”)(Nap publisher, Dunajská Streda / Dunaszerdahely, 2005).

The lack of a centre, in a contemporary understanding, still means the lack of central or centralized institutions. There is one single institution in the history of the Hungarian institutional system of Slovakia which managed to bridge this gap, but a party decree was needed even in this one case. The Csemadok came into being in 1949, with the aim of a not too aggressive assimilation of the Hungarians, which then managed and still manages to accomplish several bottom-up initiatives. However, it would never have grown this big merely upon civil interests, neither would it have covered all the Hungarian-inhabited settlements of Southern Slovakia. Although the highly centralized operation of this institution seems to hold on, it still fails to meet the community’s age-long expectation: the image and historical myth of a homogeneous community. The strangeness of it is that although it is a hundred years long dilemma, it hardly ever changes its arguments and counter-arguments. Nevertheless, the geographical distances and regional differences will not vanish in another hundred years either, and the much desired homogeneous identity of the Hungarians from Slovakia will continue to be a vision (but one whose creation and representation is already keenly funded). All this while, variety and the lack of centre could be an advantage and could take the burden off the shoulder of people whose entire career may be about the creation of an identity image which is in contradiction with many historical and geographical facts.

A cultural support policy with the agenda to enforce a common identity originating from common bloodline for no other reason but to create the minority image it needs to promote its national utopia fails to assist the case of recognizing the advantage of variety and of hybrid identities and to present the sociological reality of the Hungarian minority from Slovakia. This is the point where support and power converge, let us only think of the Esterházy Akadémia established in Martovce/Martos in 2017, operating with the financial support of the National Policy State Secretariat of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Bethlen Gábor Alapkezelő Zrt. This is a non-accredited education centre, with a website which lists no names of educators or no kind of curricula so far. Instead, it showcases a sentimental idea about elite education, following which the participants can have an active part in “raising their motherland”. Lacking actual professional information, the institution looks for the time being as if it teaches history with an ideological background, with the aim to shape an identity that the individuals cannot acquire from their own environment – and then they can use this acquired mentality in politics and media.

A similar case of the political agenda of support policy is the Szlovákiai Magyar Írók Társasága (SZMÍT) (The Society of Hungarian Writers from Slovakia), when the president of the society signed an agreement with the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum) of Budapest without consulting the members first.At a first sight, this agreement may seem unproblematic, a first step towards the canonisation within Hungarian literature of writers living in Slovakia and writing in Hungarian. The full picture is different, however: the agreement was not signed in professional circles alone, but in a political force field closed off from the public sphere, as Viktor Orbán personally participated in the meeting held at the Magyar Nyelv Múzeuma (The Museum of Hungarian language) in Széphalom. In such a company hardly any objection or dispute could have taken place. Furthermore, there has been a change of management at the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum lately, and it is not yet clear how the new plans for changes are going to work in practice. It is only clear that the Petőfi Irodalmi Ügynökség (Petőfi Literary Agency) and the “central literary force field” as well as the methodology perceivable so far are not very promising. The fact that the president of SZMÍT signed a vague and inconcrete agreement about a closer cooperation between Hungarian literature and minority literature without discussing it with the members first is also not a promising scenario.

The dysfunctional operation of the SZMÍT was also a subject of Zoltán Szalay’s article, which pointed out that no Hungarian media covered the news of Pál Száz’s Talamon Alfonz award, although the book that won the prize (Fűje sarkad mezőknek [Grass grows on fields], Kalligram, Dunaszerdahely/Dunajská Streda, 2017) was notedin Hungarian literary circles as well, and it was also awarded the Artisjus prize in 2019. Szalay claimed that it would have only needed for the SZMÍT to send out a press release, but it failed to do so. In this context it does indeed seem awkward to sign an agreement about stronger relations with the motherland, whatever this means. In any case, it is a nice parallel to what Ildikó Zakariás has written about the power hierarchy of support: instead of the supported party taking responsibility for itself, an outsider, the supporter is in the position to define the subject, quantity and quality of the funding the supported needs. This seemingly positive gesture covers up the hierarchy and the risks it entails, which can be especially harmful in literature, which is supposed to be about freedom, free thinking and free speech.

Zakariás Ildikó: Jótékony nemzet. Szolidaritás és hatalom a kisebbségi magyarok segítésében. [A charitable nation. Solidarity and power in supporting Hungarian minorities] Kalligram, Budapest, 2018

Translated by Emese Czintos