Some disturbing news has come out of Hungary recently of concern to those who support freedom of ideas in books. Hungary might not seem an important place on the world stage, but as those cognizant of history know, some terrible things have emanated from Europe, such as a pair of world wars and mass murders. In too many places, freedom today finds itself on the run. If this course isn't changed, the outcome can only be bad.
A recently enacted law in Hungary prohibits the dissemination of material allegedly depicting or promoting non-normal behavior to children, specifically, homosexuality or gender transitions. It quickly led to the imposition of a fine on one of Hungary's largest bookstore chains, Lira Konyv. The fine was for $830 for selling a book depicting a family headed by a same-sex couple. The prosecutor claimed the book contains content which “deviates from the norm.” In an attempt to ward off further such charges, Lira Konyv has begun posting signs that read, “This store sells books with non-traditional content.” We will see if this stops the harassment, but I wouldn't count on it.
The supposed reason for this law is to protect children from pedophiles, a red herring if ever there was one. There aren't heterosexual pedophiles too? This is nothing new for Hungary's authoritarian leader and ultra-nationalist Victor Orban. Other minorities have also been attacked by his government. It is a tactic that has been used by all sorts of leaders more interested in their own power than the well-being of their citizens. Europe has its history. Today, many European countries have sizable populations who favor such leaders and policies. Poland is already much in Orban's camp. This law mimics laws already in place in Russia.
The European Union reacted strongly against this new law. They called on Hungary to reverse it. Orban refused. Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte called on Hungary's leaders to withdraw the law, otherwise, “European values are not your values,” and they need to reconsider whether the nation belongs in the European Union.
The trend has not been good in recent years, authoritarians on the move, democrats in retreat. Elections in Europe these days are causes for increasing nervousness. Brazil has turned to a strongman. The Arab spring is over. Russia, so promising in the 1990s, is back under the thumb of a brutal dictator no different from those who openly called themselves “communists.” Little more need be said about the last bastion of freedom on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong. A few days ago, five people were arrested for publishing a children's book about sheep trying to hold back wolves from their village. The charge is sedition. It is free no more.
America speaks for itself.
These are difficult times. Life has been upended through most of the world. We have spent over a year under the domination of Covid, poverty is widespread and income differentials between rich and poor seem to be widening, not narrowing. Climate catastrophes are commonplace and refugees cross borders in search of refuge in countries hostile to their presence. These are the types of conditions that have led to terrible outcomes in the past. A common early warning sign is the scapegoating of minorities. Book burning, literal or figurative, is never far behind. We need to see such behavior for what it is before it is too late.
Hungary was once an inspiration to mankind. Brave Hungarians stood up to their Soviet masters during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. They put their lives on the line for freedom and many paid the price. Now look at what it has become. Freedom is never free. The price of liberty is still eternal vigilance.