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The University of Austin Goes to Hungary

Some of the “classical liberals” who founded an ersatz college for “free speech” sure seem more at home in Viktor Orbán’s repressive regime.

Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

With techno music thumping faintly in the background, two infamously “canceled” American intellectuals drooled over Hungarian women, celebrated the way the country’s favorable exchange rates have kept the cheap booze flowing—one of the two men announced that he was on his ninth drink—and lampooned the mayor of Portland (“[He’s] a lunatic, he’s got pronouns in his bio”). They discussed the visiting man’s plans for his stay in Budapest, which naturally included a face-to-face with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s political director (“Dude, he’s great, you’re gonna love him”). And, serious students of vigorous debate and meticulous empiricism that they are, they capped off the evening with a probing discussion of some of society’s thorniest questions—including whether, as one of the men put it, “It’s the woke movement’s goal to, like, transition all gay people.”

The two canceled men in question were Ilya Shapiro, who abandoned his new job at Georgetown Law School last spring after an investigation spurred by a racist tweet ended with his sinecure not being taken from him by force, and Peter Boghossian, who left his position as a philosophy professor at Portland State in September 2021. Two months after Boghossian released a widely shared resignation letter arguing that “illiberalism” had “fully swallowed the academy,” he became a founding faculty fellow of the University of Austin, an educational venture dedicated to restoring the “classically liberal university” and “reclaiming a place in higher education for freedom of inquiry and civil discourse.”

Joining a time-honored tradition, both Shapiro and Boghossian have parlayed their sympathetic treatment in some quarters of the media into what can best be described as a “cancel culture speaking tour.” They made a joint appearance in March at a Princeton panel titled “Mob Rule: The Illiberal Left’s Threat to Campus Discourse.” Last week, they ran into each other in Budapest, and after Boghossian suggested Shapiro record their conversation as a podcast, the two settled down—Boghossian with a gin and tonic, Shapiro with a Hungarian dessert wine—for a “full, unvarnished discussion.” “I’d never [recorded a podcast] before, partly out of hesitation at the ‘process’ that might be involved, but then I threw caution to the wind, pressed the big red button on Voice Memo on my iphone, and here we are,” Shapiro tweeted on Wednesday.

Both Shapiro and Boghossian were in Hungary as guests of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, or MCC, a small, private educational institution run by Orbán allies with a semi-explicit mission of training a cadre of future right-wing elites. The school, which Orbán recently granted more than $1.7 billion, now controls assets worth more than the country’s entire higher education budget, according to reporting from The New York Times. It has wielded this windfall to attract high-profile figures in media and academia from across the Atlantic: Senior visiting fellows like Boghossian earn up to 10,000 euros (around $9,700) a month, or 11 times the average Hungarian assistant professor’s salary. Never let it be said that taking a blowtorch to democracy isn’t lucrative.

In recent years, much ink has been spilled over Orbán’s success in courting many of the American right’s explicitly post-, anti-, and illiberal intellectuals. But what about some of our country’s soi-disant “classical liberals”—the sort of thinker whose stated enemy is the putative illiberalism of “cancel culture,” who claims to cherish free speech and open debate, and who starts entirely new universities dedicated to the “unfettered pursuit of truth” as their cause célèbre? That they too have been successfully wooed by a proudly illiberal state whose soft-authoritarian leader has presided over a precipitous decline in academic freedom and free speech is further evidence of the utter debasement of the species of intellectual that Osita Nwanevu, writing in these pages in 2020, called the “reactionary liberal.”

A self-described liberal who “can’t stand Republicans,” Boghossian considers the left-right divide to hold little explanatory power. “It’s no longer liberal versus conservative. It’s become authoritarian versus anti-authoritarian,” he said during a recent interview with a representative of MCC. “It’s become people like myself, who value the liberty of others, and the people who want to rob us of that liberty.” Anyone with a passing familiarity with Boghossian’s work can tell you that the liberty-robbers he has in mind are those who embody the hidebound orthodoxies of wokeness and identity politics. Unlike the United States, Hungary, in Boghossian’s funhouse-mirror telling, is a country that actually values liberal freedoms. It’s a place where, as he put it in a shamefully obsequious tweet, “all sides still value debate, argumentation across divides, & don’t have stigmas around ‘platforming’ political opponents.” Throughout the latest parliamentary election, the Hungarian opposition party was offered a total of five minutes of airtime on state television.

What does Boghossian make of Orbán’s 2018 decision to ban the country’s gender studies programs? “What other alternatives would Orbán have? There is no alternative. You have to defund these ideologically driven programs,” Boghossian told Mandiner, a pro-government magazine whose publisher is also a managing director at MCC. “And if they don’t like it, I’d tell them to piss off.” Startling stuff from an alleged “open debate” ultra, to be sure.

As his conversation with Shapiro progressed, it became clearer that Boghossian’s affection for Hungary had less to do with a high-minded commitment to “the liberty of others” and more to do with, well, his own feelings. “You know when you go to a place and you can just feel it? It feels comfortable, safe,” Boghossian tells Shapiro. (In May, the chair of MCC, who is also Orbán’s political director, told The Guardian that American right-wingers “see Hungary as a conservative safe space.”) As Boghossian describes it: “Hungary is a place where people go if they’ve had enough and they’re fucking sick of it, or they want a taste for where it’s like where they can say anything that they want without being accused of anything heinous. I’ve experienced nothing but freedom here.… This place is like paradise to me.” In vino veritas indeed.

Boghossian isn’t the only intellectual involved with the founding of the University of Austin to have been fêted by MCC. Last fall, Niall Ferguson, a founding trustee of the (unaccredited) university, addressed MCC’s opening ceremony, with Orbán himself in the audience. Ferguson, who had to step down from his position running a Stanford campus speaker series after he was caught plotting to do opposition research on a left-leaning student—again, an interesting sideline for someone committed to academic freedom—breezily dismissed American criticisms of the Hungarian government’s crackdowns on academic freedom and free speech, which have included hounding Hungary’s best university out of the country and placing other educational institutions under the control of Orbán’s Fidesz party or its allies.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to ‘dare to think’ in many of the academic institutions from which the criticism of Hungary’s government most loudly emanates,” Ferguson said, referring to American universities. This he followed with a breathless, tired litany of “trigger warnings, safe spaces, preferred pronouns, checked privileges, [and] microaggressions.”

Then there’s Joshua Katz, an erstwhile Princeton professor whose tenure was revoked this spring following an investigation into his handling of a sexual relationship with a student. Katz, a Democrat and another self-described “classical liberal,” is a founding member of the University of Austin’s board of advisers and taught at the school’s inaugural “Forbidden Courses” program this summer. In February, Katz was brought to a conference at MCC and spoke on an all-white panel on “What We Teach About Race and Gender,” which included The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher and the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald. I have a hard time grasping what qualified Katz, a classicist with a background in linguistics, as an authority on the panel’s subject matter, other than his summer 2020 letter calling a group of Black student activists “a small local terrorist organization” and his prurient interest in female undergrads. But leave it to Katz to inform us that the panel’s conversation “would be nearly unthinkable on any progressive (read: in many ways, regressive) American college or university campus today.” Perhaps that’s because some U.S. colleges still employ actual gender studies scholars.

Summing up his sojourn in a chipper dispatch for The New Criterion, Katz admitted that the term “illiberal democracy”—an arguably inaccurate label for what Orbán is doing, since his targets are both liberalism and democracy—pained his sensibilities. Yet any lingering doubts were quelled during his “eighty-minute (!) and wholly unscripted(!)” conversation with Orbán and Kaitlin Novak, Hungary’s current president. Orbán and Novak’s arguments, Katz wrote, “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.” The New Criterion titled Katz’s article, “Free speech in an ‘illiberal democracy’?” You can probably guess how he answered the question.

What’s so comic about Boghossian, Ferguson, and Katz’s credulous, historically illiterate P.R. for a would-be autocrat is its incongruity with their self-styling as embattled heirs of Enlightenment rationalism and critique. Ferguson began his convocation speech at MCC by quoting Immanuel Kant’s celebrated dictum “Dare to know,” and at the end of Shapiro’s podcast, Boghossian argued that “the West has undergone a radical departure from Enlightenment norms within the past 20 years.” (“Was 9/11 relevant to that process?” was Shapiro’s galaxy-brained—and perhaps unintentionally poignant—response.)

Tucker Carlson painted himself in a similar light during a speech in Budapest at the 2021 MCC festival, claiming that “Enlightenment liberalism” formed the basis of his politics. That all of these figures have identified themselves in this way exemplifies a phenomenon the writer John Ganz captured in a 2018 essay on Jordan Peterson, one of these men’s many ideological confreres and another notable guest of Orbán’s. “The strange paradox we face today,” Ganz writes, “is that the Enlightenment is being invoked like a talismanic object to thwart the very questioning of political hierarchies and norms that, for Enlightenment thinkers, was necessary for humanity’s emergence from tradition and subordination.”

Given that the University of Austin was supposedly founded to restore “the enlightenment values that made our civilization what it is,” what’s to be made of these men and their fondness for Hungarian illiberalism? It’s probably too early to tell. We did, however, get a glimpse in the form of a New York Post profile of three students who took part in the university’s first “Forbidden Courses” series over the summer. To hear the students tell it, the supposedly verboten topics included criticisms of Islam, support for Israel, and “other controversial issues, like whether transgender women are women,” as one put it.

Far from “forbidden,” these are relatively ubiquitous complaints, frequently expressed by some of the most powerful people and institutions in our society. They’ve also been at the center of some of the most serious, nonphantasmagoric attacks on academic freedom in recent years, including Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s threat to withdraw federal funding from a Duke-UNC Middle East Studies program for its alleged emphasis on the “positive aspects of Islam,” the Israel lobby’s many successful attempts to marginalize or silence academic criticisms of Israel, and recent legislative pushes to defund or severely restrict teaching about gender and sexuality at the university level. Coincidentally, Islamophobia, Zionism, and transphobia also happen to be fairly popular in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

For decades, many right-wing criticisms of higher education were suffused with a kind of fevered bloodlust (“If they don’t like it, I’d tell them to piss off”). But now it’s inarguable that reckless nihilism has become the dominant strain. If Boghossian feels freest to speak his mind in a country that has systematically dismantled its democratic institutions, and if Katz feels freest speaking on an all-white panel on race and gender in a country that banned its gender studies programs, we should ask ourselves: What does the “freedom” in academic freedom and free speech really mean to its self-appointed defenders?