Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Poetry and Politics


Today, after reading some war poetry, an Israeli student and I engaged in some heated discussion about post 9-11 politics.

That's the kind of shit you can't make up.

The poems are part of my syllabus in English Composition II, Writing on Literature. I teach the course at McDaniel, and this semester I choose to focus on the literature of war. We start with "The Iliad" and finish with "The Things They Carried". It's a wild ride.

To find poetry, I took a random swat at stuff lying around on the Internet. The last few that we read are very contemporary, and the last two are a bit political. The first is "Palestine" by Lorna Dee Cervantes and the second is "The Daisy Cutter" by Louise Rill. Cervantes started writing "Palestine" the day after the attacks, and the poem links the images of 9-11 to the plight of the Palestinians. This did not go down well with my Israeli student Avi. He's a nice kid, but being raised in a country constantly under attack has led him to believe that all the Palestinians, perhaps even all the Muslims in the Middle East, are bloodthirsty monsters. I don't want to paint him as naive (although he is 18, and by his own admission doesn't care much for reading). Avi understands the complexity of the situation is Israel, but when there are people out to destroy your country, certain shades of gray become difficult to discern. By the time discussion of the poem was wrapping up, Avi had suggested that the poet should, "Cry me a river". He got close to accusing the poem of being Al Qaeda propaganda, and finally suggested that Americans are weak because they allowed the terrorists to affect them.

Then we got to "The Daisy Cutter". Now, I don't really like the poem, but I felt I should include at least one straight-up anti-war poem. (I did have them read Crane's "War is Kind", but that poem is more about the contradictory nature of the way we understand and rationalize war. It frowns on our insincerity in times of war, but I don't think it condemns war outright.) I am a bit uncomfortable with the preachy sarcasm and the prescriptive theme in "The Daisy Cutter", but I thought opening by drawing a parallel between the Taliban and a Christian martyr was interesting. The poem ends up suggesting that going to war after 9-11 was a shallow effort at revenge. Maybe not the most profound stuff, but it gets freshmen talking. Anyway, Avi couldn't stand it. He suggested that I would burn such verse if I had lost a family member in the attacks. We went round and round for a bit. I suggested his point of view was myopic. He told me Americans don't understand the enemy. I asked if he were accused of murder, would he want the grieving mother to serve as the judge in his case. Eventually we had to bring things to a close, but I thought I'd share.

Now here's some Willie.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Board by the Riots

We had a long weekend. I left all my work at home and spent the holiday at the country house with Dora and her folks. I may have fallen behind at work, but it was worth it.

I should start with the holiday, because it sheds some light on this country I’ve been calling home for the past few years. A little over 150 years ago there was a revolution in Hungary. There were actually several revolutions in Europe that year. 1848 has been dubbed the year of revolutions. Hungary’s was an exceptionally romantic one, however, led by a warrior poet (literally) and a reformist politician, among others. The March 15th holiday commemorating the revolution hasn’t been considered a political event for some time. It is simply a moment in history that all Hungarians are proud of. It is also when spring finally starts to gain an upper hand on winter. The plum trees were in blossom this year. It was very pretty.

Unfortunately, the leader of the opposition party Victor Orban has a tendency to politicize historical events. This year he encouraged people to celebrate March 15th by marching in protest against the ruling government. This is not something I oppose. Peaceful protests and spirited opposition are all a part of healthy democracies, and I’ll admit there are plenty of issues to protest and oppose here in Hungary. The problem is Mr. Orban is not fostering a healthy democracy here in Hungary.

He is encouraging citizens to take to the streets while his party walks out of Parliament every time the ruling government takes the floor, effectively riling his voting base into action while pursuing a line of total inaction within the houses of government. Meanwhile he does nothing to dissuade the extreme elements of his constituency. Composed of football hooligans and bigots, these people are not truly representative of the opposition’s constituency, but they are loud and easily provoked (think of red paint cans at a fur show or Confederate flags on MLK day). These groups should be marginalized for the sake of the various political parties’ reputations. They are, however, all too visible at rallies around the city.

On the 15th, as predicted, the events devolved into violence. Nothing as bad as last year’s events in October, but it was ugly.

I had little interest in losing more of my already-weakened faith in humanity. Same goes for Dora. So we spent the holiday in nature. We took a lot of walks with the dog. On one of those walks we saw a family of wild boars. Those things are huge, except the babies. The babies are cute. Ask Dora. She’ll tell you just how cute. We ate well and got the proper amount of sleep every night.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Of an outside land


Hungarians describe anyone from outside of Hungary with the word külföldi. It is an adjective meaning foreign or alien. It can also serve as a noun meaning foreigner. The prefix “kül-” means outside or other. The word “föld” means land, soil, or ground. The suffex “i” makes a word possessive. To most Europeans the linguistics of this word are intuitive; a foreigner belongs to another land. Yet for an American, or for a Hungarian-born American, the idea of belonging to a land is troublesome. Being American isn’t an intrinsic quality. It’s more of a right, a duty. These contrasting concepts of nationality get at why so much of the world finds Americans simultaneously enviable and obnoxious. But it doesn’t make the term külföldi any less vexing for a couple dealing with cultural identity crises.

This linguistic stumbling block is made worse by the connotative qualities of the word külföldi. Though it is not always the case, külföldi is often dismissive, sometimes even insulting. The word is used to explain away the complaints of tourists and visiting businessmen. If a foreigner is foolish enough to broach the subject of politics and the Hungarians on hand disagree with the leanings of that foreigner, then the offending remark will be squelched with the word külföldi. To put it simply, if you are not a Hungarian and you dare to raise an objection over any of the country's many issues, your comments will be met with proud defiance and the word külföldi. Interestingly enough, those same objections are the subject of nearly every heated discussion in cafes and dining rooms across the country, but they are not to be discussed by anyone who belongs to another land.

For many of my students who come from the East or from the Balkans, the attitude behind külföldi is commonplace, the product of innumerable invasions and conquests. But for anyone with a US passport, there is something hypocritical at work. Everyone in Europe feels the need to explain to me the failings of the United States. Students like to remind me of the racism, homelessness, educational inequity, lack of culture, and imperial overtures that make America the squalid vapid hellhole of a country that everyone loves to hate. They also love to complain the strict post-9/11 visa policy.

The above is an edited bit from what I'm working on right now. The book will follow the doings of a couple living in Hungary. The husband is an American. The wife is a Hungarian and an American. I plan to interrupt the narrative with bits like what I've posted here. Reflections on what it is to be Hungarian, American, or just a citizen of some place. I'm curious about people's reaction to the ideas.