Today, if one wants to know what philosophers think about a political or social issue, there is no need to delve into any of the professional journals. It is enough to simply read the editorials or headlines of The Guardian, Vox, The New York Times or The Huffington Post. Not because they have been written by philosophers, but because philosophers simply repeat them. The days when philosophers expressed a variety of views, and did not just parrot mainstream opinion, are long gone.
Yet another example is the saga surrounding the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. In line with all the mainstream newspaper reports suggesting (and often asserting) that the Hungarian government is trying to “shut down” CEU because of its connection with George Soros, the popular philosophy blogs Daily Nous and Leiter Reports have represented the change in legislation in Hungary as an existential threat “apparently designed to target the school”, and as “an assault by the fascist government of Hungary”, respectively.
Of course, we should welcome the fact that the pop philosophy blogs are standing up for private education and freedom of speech, even when the education and speech happen to be funded by a currency-manipulating billionaire who supports the left-wing (anti-Republican, anti-Israel, pro-immigration) cause within the limits of his own financial interests. However, was the situation facing CEU really the targeted, existential threat that it was claimed to be, not just by the aforementioned blogs, but also by Yale’s Philosophy Department, the British Philosophical Association, and many others within the philosophy profession? According to left-wing media reports (for example, The Guardian), all that seems to have been mandated by the new legislation is that CEU faculty have work permits, and that CEU either open a campus in the United States, or that it stop awarding US-accredited degrees within Hungary. It is hard to see how this poses a threat to academic freedom, let alone to CEU’s continued existence. For example, work permits for foreigners are common practice in the developed world. Moreover, for someone like Soros, opening another campus can hardly be “prohibitively expensive”, especially since the legislation does not seem to specify how large or comprehensive the campus has to be.
Indeed, some philosophers realize that the current legislation is not in conflict with CEU’s continued existence. However, instead of using this as a reason to question the narrative promoted on philosophy websites, they resort to speculation based on what “friends” have told them. Consider, for example, the following report by philosopher Maarten Boudry, linked on Brian Leiter’s blog:
But according to my friend Roeland Termote, who is the Eastern Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC, the exact rules imposed by the new law don’t even matter that much. Even if the CEU were to comply with the law to the letter tomorrow, or if it were to find a loophole of some kind, the Fidesz government would very probably just pass another law to introduce another set of conditions.
But what is this speculation about future regulation based on, besides hearsay? The alleged fact that, as Boudry writes, “[n]obody is even trying very hard to pretend that this law has any other purpose than to close down the CEU”? If so, then why does Boudry also write that it is “an open question” and even “unlikely that Orbán actually wants to close down the CEU”? Indeed, the government of Hungary has repeatedly denied that the law would bring about the closure of CEU, or that it was ever intended to have this effect.
Of course, it may be that the Hungarian government is systematically lying, and that it has an “evil plan” to “’sweep out of the country’ the last holdouts of free and democratic thought”, as philosopher Katalin Balog put it in a comment on Leiter Reports. However, the evidence supporting this interpretation seems rather tenuous. Moreover, the interpretation has become at least slightly less credible in light of the recent news that CEU will continue all of its operations in 2017-2018, “amid hope that it will be able to do so for the long run as well”.
Perhaps it will be replied that this is false hope, or that the government has suddenly changed its evil plan in response to the protests. But there is also another explanation, in line with the government’s public statements on this issue, namely, that its intention never was to shut down CEU, or to curtail academic freedom. At the very least, this explanation should enjoy some credibility now. And if it turns out to be correct—we will probably find out in the course of 2017-2018—then it will be hard to avoid the suspicion that the opinions of journalists and philosophers (is there a difference at this point?) have been manipulated to depict the political opponents of Soros, and, more generally, of Europe’s open borders policy, as fascists who try to outlaw any institution that harbors dissidents.
- The Central European University Saga - May 31, 2017
- Live and Let Live, or Let the Left Live? - March 31, 2017
- Philosophy’s Culture of Silence - March 1, 2017
- Against Open Borders - February 8, 2017
- Implicit Bias: From Early Death to Failed Resurrection - January 17, 2017
- On What Doesn’t Seem to Matter - December 28, 2016
- Closet Conservatives - December 12, 2016