…come from Paris to Budapest you think you are in Moscow; go from Moscow to Budapest you think you are in Paris…

György Ligeti

IMG_1726Saturday I was awakened by what I thought were malfunctions in the casita – water running, or gas leaking – or workmen nearby and then I realized it was a hot air balloon, but the sound was so incessant that it couldn’t be just one of those – and then I saw there were three in the sky.  On the roof looking at the sky, I thought about the disparate collection of ideas that I’d been reading or hearing during the week.

First, an acquaintance from New Mexico shared links to two extremely interesting articles.  Then, on Wednesday, I read an amazing piece to Farley – Stone and Bones – that appeared in the New Yorker (it was about the new 9/11 Memorial in New York, but it was about so much more than simply that memorial – it was written by Adam Gopnik (whose collection of essays From Paris to the Moon is my all-time favorite book about Paris) and he delved into the question of what is an effective memorial; he cites the wall in Washington designed by Maya Lin – instead of a more literal figurative piece – as perhaps the best example of a contemporary memorial.

Then there was a BBC show about two women driving the length of the Ho Chi Minh trail through Viet Nam and Laos (some forty years after the Viet Nam war) and their encounters with – among others – the women who seek out and sell remnants such as metal and munitions from that war; in one scene the two British women are shown turning their vehicle around on a road where trees that line the road have a horizontal red stripe painted on them:  the red indicates there may be live mines or ordnance beyond the trees.

All this led me (again) to Aftermath: The Remnants of War: From Landmines to Chemical Warfare -The Devastating Effects of Modern Combat (by Donovan Webster), a book about the dangerous detritus of war (WW I, WW II. Vietnam, Bosnian War for Independence, Operation Desert Storm) that affects generations of civilians and non-combatants long after hostilities have ended.  I particularly remember his descriptions of fields in France where every year – still – farmers die when their tractors set off bombs that remain from the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.

Then I realized that this month (28 July) marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of The Great War or the First World War or the European War, a war that began as the result of the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on 28 June.  It should more properly have been called the War That Should Not Have Been, as the assassination only took place due to a botched assassination attempt earlier in the day and only after a wrong turn by the Archduke’s car several hours later that led to an accidental encounter with Princip as he just happened to be standing on that very street; according to some accounts, sadly the Archduke’s departure was not considered that great a loss by the Habsburgs, the Austrians, or the Hungarians; however, diplomats who, instead of seeking peace, forced one another’s hands during the course of July, and that led to an outbreak of hostilities between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian empire; due to diplomatic entanglements left over from the previous century and earlier in the 20th century, literally all hell broke loose.


All that is background to two talks I had with friends over the weekend about my idea of trying Hungary for a while – a “while” being some indeterminate length of time.  Perhaps I’d try to obtain residency status, perhaps I’d try to teach English so I’d have an activity. One of my friends is an adventurous European woman in her 40s and the other is an American of my generation whose parents emigrated from Europe to America and who is less enthusiastic about the idea, but who sees value in having a second passport. I won’t get into my reasons for this strategy, except to say that it involves ancestry, a cute white parka with faux fur trim on the hood and two pairs of winter boots that I might never wear again (they’re currently in storage) unless I’m in a climate like Budapest or Montreal, a desire for Bull’s Blood (a red wine) and dobas torte, cabbage, sausage, and soups as well as proximity to Paris and Prague, London and Madrid, Athens and Rome: I cannot help it – I am a derivative child of Europe and I’m drawn to the continent.

This is totally absurd, of course, as why would anyone be interested in moving to a country from which people (the professional class for the most part) are emigrating and that is only a distant piece of my heritage and far weaker than my heritage in the United States?  One-fourth of my heritage can be traced to New Amsterdam and another quarter to the Connecticut Colony: that’s 700 years of New World experience.

I’ve read that 10,000 doctors have left Hungary (I haven’t tried to substantiate the number and I don’t know the time period), nor do I know whether these are Ph.D.’s or medical doctors or doctors who have received credentials much like the American clergymen who receive internet ordinations.  Hungarians love to state that per capita, Hungary has produced more Nobel laureates than any other country:  what they’re less likely to tell you is that the awards were received after the laureates left Hungary.

While Hungary is part of the EU and the Schengen area, it does not use the Euro, but instead continues the forint as its currency.  The EU is not happy about a number of directions or misdirections undertaken by the Hungarian government in the recent past, and sanctions and/or expulsion are possible.  Hungary is under a crushing debt load and its economy, like much of Eastern Europe, has continued to suffer and that suffering began at least ten years before the ’08 global recession kickstarted the present situation.  Hungary’s Value Added Tax is the highest in Europe.

A legacy of capitalist Communism

Hungary may have been in the forefront of the 1989 downfall of Communism and the Soviet Union, but it has paid a heavy social price. Times may have been difficult under Communist rule, but everyone was – theoretically – in the same miserable place and things were not so miserable that one was without shelter, food, or utilities. The free-market economy has made many former party apparachniks wealthy and has made a great many more people struggle for necessities.

Almost anyone from the West who writes from Hungary writes of a bureaucratic labyrinth that makes most state motor vehicle departments in the U.S. resemble the efficient checkout lines of a Trader Joe’s.

I read first-person accounts of authoritarian tram police in Budapest who show no mercy and hand out $40 fines on the spot to tourists who are unable to validate their $1.25 fare tickets in machines that don’t work (instructions for which appear only in Hungarian).

There are other serious issues in Hungary that begin with an elected political leadership that continues to steer towards dictatorship, offering drastic reductions in freedom of the press.  The electorate has begun to show interest in the Jobbik political party, a party much like the Tea Party in the United States but with stronger fascist themes and also somewhat like the National Front in France (but with even stronger racist themes than the National Front).  The NP in May of this year won more than 25% of the vote in the European elections.  All these parties offer simple solutions for an increasingly intertwined and complex world.  In Europe there is call for a return to a European Union that would consist of the original six members plus Spain instead of the current 23 members – thereby excluding Hungary.

One of the articles that my New Mexican friend alerted me to is by Richard D Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is copyrighted by Moyers & Company.  Wolff is currently a visiting professor in the graduate program in international affairs of the New School University, New York City.  The article digs deep into the state of global capitalism and there are a few ideas that tie to the present state of Hungary (and other Eastern European nations).  Wolff writes

Over the two centuries before the 1970s and 1980s, the former hinterland territories of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe developed a huge population used to very low wages… [who] acquired more advanced degrees of skill, education and modern industrial work discipline. … almost all of these workers [were] outside the hiring orbits of employers in the old capitalist centers in Western Europe, North America and Japan. Cold War tensions … kept most old-center employers away.

In the 20th century,

underdeveloped areas variously mixed anti-imperialism, socialism and communism as they tried to break out of the unwanted roles imposed on them by capitalism’s world economic order. … That usually meant assigning the state (rather than private citizens) a major role in owning and operating enterprises. Typically, the state would also plan the distributions of resources and products rather (or more) than relying on private market exchanges to do the job….

[Former] communist and socialist nations did substitute state officials running state enterprises for private boards of directors running private enterprises. … Instead of democratizing their economies by bringing democracy inside enterprises, they shifted from a private to a state capitalism.

In the 1970s the world shifted:

The rapid spread of jet air travel and global telecommunications enabled old-center capitalists to consider relocating their production facilities to lower wage areas (since monitoring and control could be accomplished at a distance). … Old-center capitalists seeking to relocate to the former colonial territories encountered there local partners eager to make and profit from deals with them. Hundreds of millions of new, much cheaper workers thereby became available to old-center capitalist employers.

For the former Eastern bloc

Those partners who enabled old-center capital to flow into their societies and those who most successfully sold the resulting outputs back into old-center markets became wildly wealthy. Yet the mass of their fellow citizens remained mired in the poverty of their long-term economic underdevelopment. While new-center wages sometimes rose, their absolute levels remained low.

Sharply rising income and wealth inequalities thus characterized the new centers of capitalism as well as the old. Globalization distributed capitalism’s deepening inequality throughout the world. It likewise spread the usual effects of such inequality: speculation, real-estate bubbles, gross conspicuous consumption by the rich, political corruption and so on

Could I wear that social fabric?

There has been a Hungary since the late 9th century C.E.  It followed centuries of successive habitation by Celts, Romans, Ostrogoths, Huns, Slavs, Gepids, and Avars, Since that time, it has been organized as an absolute monarchy, a kingdom with elected monarchs, an empire and a republic.  It has been ruled by the Ottomans and Habsburgs and fell under Soviet domination after the Second World War.  While it is a democratic parliamentary republic now, its people have had a history of subordination to outside powers and strong rulers.

Hungary, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sided with Germany and with the Axis powers during WWI.  It was a Nazi puppet state during WWII.  After WWI it lost large sections of land to Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania – some of which is now part of the Ukraine.  Thirty percent of Hungarian-speaking peoples found themselves living outside of the nation of Hungary that was created as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920..

Eastern Europe is a land where scapegoats have been venerated:  today it is the Roma, the gypsies, who carry the brunt of this, but sometimes it has been gays.  During the 1930s and the Second World War it was Jews who were the object of the Final Solution (Hungary did not deport its Jewish citizens to the camps until the spring of 1944 when Auschwitz-Birkenau became the site of the largest mass murder in modern history when more than 800,000 Hungarian Jews were killed).

There is a move afoot in Hungary to rename streets and plazas – part of an attempt to chase the history of fascism and communism – yet some towns, under the influence of Jobbik, have attempted to honor Nazi collaborators or supporters, such as Miklós Horthy, Hitler’s regent in Hungary from 1920 to 1944 and anti-Semite author Cecile Tormay. One of Jobbik’s claims is that “Jews are buying up Hungary.”  In the recent May 2014 elections, Fidesz/Christian-Democrat (conservative right) won re-election for another four years by capturing 44 percent (down 8 percent from 2010), the Center-Left coalition of five parties placed second (26 percent, up 7 percent from 2010), Jobbik placed third at 20 percent (up 4 percent from 2010).  The most recent unemployment statistics show a drop to less than 9 percent and it will be interesting to see whether that affects interest in the parties of the right and far right (of if the numbers prove only to have been massaged or reflect the fact that people are dropping out of the job market).

Scapegoats arise from fear, from the fear that one might be responsible for one’s own state, for one’s own destiny.  Unable to face the fact that one is not as rich as one had dreamed, that one is facing a lifetime of drudgery, that one hasn’t the courage to change one’s fate or situation, one finds that he or she cannot direct his or her anger at oneself and so blames another.

We disagree because it’s in our bones

The same political parties which now agitate the United States, have existed through all time

Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams

In an article published by Mother Jones, Chris Mooney describes how John Hibbing and the Political Physiology Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are confirming Jefferson’s idea.  Hibbing has stated:

We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things … from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently.

According to Mooney, in one of Hibbing’s experiments, liberals and conservatives were fitted with devices that tracked their gaze and were then shown a series of collages containing images that were either happy/positive or threatening/scary/disgusting. The device allowed researchers to measure (1) where the subjects first looked, (2) how long it took them to do so, and then (3) how long they looked at the image.

Hibbing found that conservatives tended to focus much more rapidly on negative or aversive images and dwelled on them for a longer time.  This relationship between conservatism and a stronger disgust sensitivity (a primal, gut emotion not under one’s control) has been detected by researchers other than Hibbing’s group such as psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studies how deep-seated moral emotions divide the political left and right.

Hibbing and his colleagues now think core preferences for how societies ought to be structured have a genetic basis. Other studies have shown that liberals and conservatives differ when it comes to genetics, hormones, moral emotions, personalities, and even brain structure.  Thus, the difference between someone who believes in a more hierarchical world order, with harsher punishments for rule breakers, and who finds outliers threatening and another person who believes in a more egalitarian society, who is more inclined to forgive, and who finds outsiders or out-groups intriguing and enticing, may come down to – in the words of Lady Gaga – having been “born that way.”

If one has a negativity bias, and focuses more on the aversive and disgusting, then the world seems more threatening to you. Policies like supporting a stronger military, or being tougher on immigration, might feel very natural.

So I wonder whether I could exist in a land-locked country where people believe it is better for God to strike your neighbor’s cow dead than that She should place a magnificent calf in your own barn, or in a land where anti-Semite, anti-Roma sentiment is still cherished.

Iris Dement


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