“My Princeton colleague,” begins Paul Krugman, introducing yet another guest post from Kim Lane Scheppele on his New York Times blog “The Conscience of a Liberal.” Readers in Hungary have learned to deplore those words, and with good reason. Dr. Scheppele’s occasional guest posts on Krugman’s blog consistently peddle a political message that has little to do with independent analysis, and her latest post, sensationally entitled “Constitutional Revenge,” is no exception. As Professor György Schöpflin, member of the European parliament for Fidesz, has noted in the comments section below the post, “her assertions are teeming with misunderstandings, errors of fact, misreadings and ill-will.”
There are a couple of problems here. One is the substance. The other is the background. It’s not only what she writes but also why. Let me first turn to the substance and then return to the question of why Dr. Scheppele is so concerned with Hungary.
Scheppele tries to make the case that the amendment is an attempt to force legislation that has been overturned by the Court. That’s inaccurate. She parses her words carefully and leaves out important details.
Among her list of legislation that the Court has overturned, we have some that will be left untouched, some that will be rephrased following the Court guidelines and some that will truly be implemented into the Fundamental Law. In some cases the legislation was dismissed because the level of the legislation was not appropriate, for example it was a part of “temporary measures,” and the Court has dismissed those on procedural grounds but not on substantial grounds. In a particularly breathless passage, Scheppele claims that the amendment threatens the independence of the judiciary, will open the way for political prosecutions, criminalize homelessness and undermine human rights “across the board.”
Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these examples, so that I can illustrate the way she parses the facts to manipulate the story. Scheppele writes:
“The new constitutional amendment…makes the recognition of religious groups dependent on their cooperation with the government.”
The Hungarian state recognizes a certain number of religious communities as churches, granting them certain privileges, including financial. Under the new law, the one recently struck down by the Constitutional Court, the parliament reduced the number of state-recognized churches from 370 to 32. That’s more, by the way, than other European states recognize. But as I pointed out in a previous post, the Court upheld the parliament’s right to limit the number of state-recognized churches. It struck down the law because it said the criteria and procedure for getting status as a recognized church needs to be clarified. Regarding “cooperation,” the amendment refers to an “organization with a religious mission that collaborates with the government in the public interest.” That’s a reference to religious groups that provide, say, social services and is an effort, presumably, to provide greater definition to the different legal categories that may apply to religious communities.
But to listen to Dr. Scheppele, one might think that there’s a draconian crackdown on the freedom of religion in Hungary when that simply does not stand up to the facts. Why did she overlook the detail that the Court had upheld the right to limit the number of state-recognized churches? Is it because she’s poorly informed? Or is there another reason?
Unfortunately, that’s typical of Dr. Scheppele’s analysis. Here’s another example:
“The new constitutional amendment…criminalizes homelessness.”
False. Homelessness is not criminalized. There is a passage that says “in order to preserve the public order, public safety, public health and cultural values” the government may prohibit living in the streets, but the same amendment also says the government is to ensure the right to housing. As I wrote in a previous post, many cities have ordinances against so-called ‘urban camping,’ and the government has invested a considerable amount in shelters in the interest of the homeless as well as the general public.
But criminalize? Why did Dr. Scheppele write that when it’s not true? Is she poorly informed? Or is there another reason?
She offers no backing for groundless claims that it kills off judiciary independence and opens the way for political persecution. She gets it wrong on the issue of freedom of students to move after graduation. She gets it wrong on the independence of universities. She gets it wrong on media regulation.
And if that weren’t enough, she gets it staggeringly wrong with the claim that the amendment “annuls all of the decisions made by the Court before 1 January 2012.” That’s flat-out wrong. The Court would not be prevented from looking at its previous decisions. “If anything,” writes Schöpflin, “the draft will broaden the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court.”
She frames all of this, of course, in the now familiar narrative about “Hungary’s slide from a multi-party democracy into a one-party state.” But Hungary remains a multi-party state. She suggests that the European Union and the Council of Europe have become distracted with other matters while Hungary simply ‘waited out the storm,’ but the different tone from those institutions is the result of the Government of Hungary responding to their specific points. Again, facts are important.
Now, back to the question of why Dr. Scheppele is so concerned with Hungary. Frankly, I don’t know. She has experience in Budapest at the Constitutional Court, as we know from her own curriculum vitae, and at the Central European University. But her recent writing clearly depends on Hungarian-language sources. She’s produced some whoppers over the last year or so. One where she quoted “a respected Hungarian think tank” claiming that the new electoral legislation has been rewritten to guarantee a Fidesz win. The respected think tank is in fact run by Hungarian opposition political operatives close to the current opposition challenger, a detail she overlooked or didn’t know. Then there was this one about Hungary’s counter-terrorism police, known as TEK, which Scheppele claimed was “turning into Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s own secret police,” a bizarre claim more appropriate to the fever swamps of eastern European conspiracy theories.
Whatever her sources, they are clearly in line with an opposition narrative and grossly one-sided. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion. We have no shortage of them here in Hungary. But even if they are presented on Paul Krugman’s blog on the New York Times, and with the use of the hallowed Princeton affiliation, her political views should not be confused for objective analysis.