I recently returned from beautiful Budapest, where I spent a week as a guest of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, an educational institution that was the subject of a hit piece in The New York Times last June. The reasons the Gray Lady disapproves are clear enough: MCC has received lavish funding from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s socially conservative government, is unabashedly elitist in courting top students, and has as the chairman of its board of trustees a close adviser of Mr. Orbán.

To speak frankly, I hesitated before accepting the invitation. While some of my friends are fans of Mr. Orbán and his party, Fidesz, others are vehemently opposed. They think of the prime minister as a dictator, objecting to his overt nationalism, desire for tight borders, supposed anti-Semitism, distaste for the new gender orthodoxy that has so rapidly swept over the West, and seeming friendship with Donald Trump (and, of particular concern since my trip, Vladimir Putin).

In truth, though, I didn’t hesitate for terribly long. For one thing, two socially and politically very different friends told me they were going to be at MCC at the same time: the philosopher Peter Boghossian, who is a staunchly atheistic man of the Left, and the writer and journalist Rod Dreher, a staunchly religious man of the Right. Furthermore, as a longtime professor of ancient languages at Princeton University—a 501(c)(3) entity that has an endowment of nearly $40 billion and receives substantial government funding each year despite self-flagellating claims of being guilty of systemic racism (in which case it is arguably in violation of a number of Civil Rights statutes)—I hardly feel in a position to criticize the way a country I barely know spends money on education.

Nor do I have a fear of association. There are surely lines I would not cross, but with both Peter and Rod enthusiastic, I wanted to check out MCC for myself. And so in I went to what Rod ironically calls “Magyar Mordor,” a land that self-respecting American liberals and some establishment conservatives as well have been primed to view with suspicion.

I am glad I did, for what a week it was! The topic of the conference, and of various side events, was “On the Values We Teach Our Children.” I participated in two panels, one on the importance of the humanities and the other on the thorny matter of identity politics. The first I hope I know something about after a lifetime of study; my reason for being on the latter panel, along with such luminaries as Heather Mac Donald, has, alas, to do with recent “lived experience” (a horrible phrase). It is true that conservatives outnumbered liberals on these and other panels. But it is also true that disagreement was encouraged. I am confident that MCC would have been glad to have more liberal voices in the mix—but the Times and other exemplars of the mainstream media have made centrists and those on the Left wary of traveling to Hungary.

This is unfortunate because what I saw at MCC was what American universities used to be like and what all institutions of higher learning should still aspire to be: fora where the wise and the curious transmit and absorb knowledge and, when circumstances are propitious, move us ever closer to an understanding of ideas that elude our easy mental grasp. During the week, all of us engaged in real conversation about tough issues rather than blindly accepting the orthodoxy du jour—or, for that matter, criticizing said orthodoxy without providing arguments against it. We did this on stage and we did this in the breaks, over cherry strudel. Profound disagreements might not have been resolved, but at the end of the day, there were handshakes, drinks, and good-natured banter—the better to return to the differences the next morning.

The final public event was a “fireside chat” between Peter and Rod. They began by discussing the recent appointment of Sam Brinton, a nuclear engineer and LGBTQ activist, to a post in the United States Department of Energy. As readers may already know—there has been a great deal of press about this—Mx. Brinton, who uses the pronouns “they/them,” is a gender-fluid member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a group of men who dress as flamboyant nuns), a practitioner of a fetish known as pup play, and, more generally, an activist for kink.

In brief, Rod believes that Mx. Brinton, though qualified for the job, should not have been appointed, for one thing because they deliberately “provoke people into having ‘conversations’ about LGBT matters . . . , [which] amounts to bullying.” Peter, by contrast, believes there is no cause to object. The two of them duked it out in front of a rapt audience, with the conversation skillfully moderated by the MCC chairman, Balázs Orbán, a charismatic lawyer and political scientist who is, confusingly, unrelated to his boss, the prime minister. It may surprise you—certainly it surprised me—to learn that Balázs, though sympathetic to Rod on some points, on the whole sided with Peter. Sooner or later, the conversation will appear on YouTube, and I recommend you watch it. It is a model of civil and spirited disagreement.

Do you understand how remarkable this is? Such a conversation—a simple exercise in free speech on a controversial topic—would be nearly unthinkable on any progressive (read: in many ways, regressive) American college or university campus today. If it were to be scheduled, “traumatized” students would put the administration under tremendous pressure to cancel the event; if it went ahead anyway, there would be heavy security; and you could count on more than a handful of students (and perhaps some faculty members) to show up and shout down the speakers, or worse. None of this happened at the putatively illiberal (read: in many ways, classically liberal) MCC. And I like to think that none of this could happen at MCC, though I admit I failed to imagine the appalling condition in which America’s educational establishment would now find itself. Clearly, constant vigilance is required to prevent any institution from becoming woke-ified.

Another remarkable thing: the speakers at the conference had the opportunity to meet with the decidedly un-woke prime minister of Hungary and, at the same time, with Katalin Novák, who is set to become the president of the republic next week. Laudatory accounts of that meeting can be found in pieces written by Rod, an Orthodox Christian who is more enthusiastic than some about a Christian-inflected state, and Josh Hammer, who is Jewish and thus has a personal reason to care about the charge of anti-Semitism.

My own view of our eighty-minute (!) and wholly unscripted (!) conversation with the prime minister and Ms. Novák is in line with what these two gentlemen report: the politicians were relaxed, even though there is a parliamentary election on April 3 and it is not certain that Fidesz will win; they did not have obvious security; and they answered every question—many of them tough—thoughtfully and with good humor. Of greatest interest to me, Mr. Orbán mounted what I thought was a surprisingly strong defense for the need in Hungary right now for “illiberal democracy.”

As Mr. Orbán well knows, this term pains Western sensibilities. Indeed, it pains mine. But Josh Hammer is right, I believe, to say that illiberal democracy “amounts to the same criticism of the liberal order as that which is aired by American national conservatives and ‘postliberals.’” Most of what Mr. Orbán and Ms. Novák said would not have surprised most Americans a decade or two ago—before Obergefell, the ubiquity of Critical Race Theory, and the daily moves of the progressive elite to trash civilization in the name of social justice, a concept that is often indistinguishable from antisocial injustice.

Here’s a simple fact: in both content and form, such a conversation is unimaginable in the United States or in any other country with which I have more than passing familiarity. Neither President Biden nor President Trump could pull anything like this off. Even if they were intellectually capable of doing so, which they are not, their advisers would not allow it.

Yes, the prime minister and the MCC were putting their best foot forward for foreign visitors.  In a sense, I was set up to write a cheerful piece like this. But, no, I am not naive. I have no doubt but that there is corruption in the Hungarian government, and there are undoubtedly policies with which I take issue (the segregation of the Roma, for example). Suppose, however, that a delegation of Hungarians were to visit Washington. The president and whatever our closest equivalent of MCC is—but, really, there isn’t one—would put on their best show, too. We have corruption as well, and plenty of official policies that I find repugnant.

Hungary is a small, land-locked, culturally largely homogeneous country, and I still do not find compelling the claims of some American conservatives that we should look to the Magyars for solutions to our problems. But I came away from the week impressed, not least with the public baths, which appear to be a remarkable social equalizer. (Do not under any circumstances miss the gorgeous and low-key outdoor pools at the Széchenyi Spa Baths!) If I spend more time in Hungary—including outside the capital, Budapest, which is, alas, all I know—I will of course encounter more of its societal cracks and faults. But that is not so much a fact about Hungary as it is about any country with which one slowly becomes acquainted.

The name Fidesz is an acronym of Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Young Democrats). I confess that before I knew this, I figured it was based on the Latin word fides, “faith, belief; loyalty.” After all, it fits: Mr. Orbán has faith and belief aplenty and seems to inspire a possibly worrying degree of loyalty in his followers. Do I also have faith and belief in Mr. Orbán? Some, to be sure, but concerns remain: I am aware that charm and savoir faire are not sure signs of fundamental goodness.

No one should parachute into a country where he doesn’t know the language (yet!) or the culture (aside from Liszt, Bartók, Kodály et al.) and make confident pronouncements about complex sociopolitical matters. It behooves me to learn more—a lot more—about Mr. Orbán, his party, MCC, and Hungary itself. Having decided not to let the Times stop me from visiting Budapest and having now dared to describe my impressions, I have both an obligation to return for broader and deeper examination (for longer than a week and ideally on multiple occasions) and real eagerness to do so. Perhaps you would like to accompany me and see for yourself?

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