Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gunslinging


Late last month I wrote about a man here in Budapest repeatedly slapping a woman in public. I wrote that I was disappointed by my own inaction. I went on to point out that my lack of initiative may stem, in part, from my time living here in Budapest.

Dan quoted these lines from the post before stating his reaction: "The idea that one person's fortitude can change the way of the world has been pissed on by both history and politics[here in Hungary]. This has left an atmosphere of apathy that is hard to overcome."

Dan then went on to say, "Indeed. This is why-after the protesters have all gone home (or on paid holiday)-Europe needs the "American Gun-Slinger" after all."

The image of the American gunslinger is an interesting choice. As an icon, the gunslinger is forever taking the law into his own hands - but not necessarily because the law has failed. The gunslinger belongs to the semi-mythic untamed West, a uniquely American setting where the law has yet to catch up with evil-doers. This very American folk hero speaks to core beliefs that set the stage for one of the more interesting cultural conflicts between the US and Europe.

Since Antiquity, Europe has held that the government serves a vital role in the lives of its citizens, an irreplaceable role. Here in Europe, the idea that one person can step in to serve justice or offer protection to 'The People' is viewed as an American concept, as an overly-optimistic idea, and as somewhat silly. Even England's most famous outlaw was serving the establishment - protecting the Crown in the name of the true King.

Last week, when I failed to step in and stay the hand of that man, I noted that I was not alone. The tram was full of people, all of whom couldn't be bothered to raise their voices in protest. And why? Last month I blamed Hungarian history, but Dan's point about the gunslinger adds an interesting dimension. Keeping the peace on the streets of Budapest is someone's job. More specifically, in the case of the incident on the tram, it is someone else's job. You see, I pay an obscene amount of taxes so that the government will keep this city clean and safe enough for me to go about my business.

Budapest is struggling after a difficult half-century. We'll call it a work in progress.

Paris is an better example. Parisians are allowed to litter. Their dogs can defecate wherever they please. The Parisian government built a tremendous sewer system with open drains on every street; all day and night street-sweepers march through the city sweeping filth down the drains. The city is fantastically clean, but not because of the citizens. It is because of the government.

When I lived in New York, if your dog took a shit on the sidewalk and you left it there, you were likely to hear from one of your fellow New Yorkers. "Hey, fuckhead, clean up after your god-damned dog." Ah, New York. Good times.

But that concept, that it is a citizens' right to stand up for civil justice, that strikes me as an American conviction.

We love our gunslingers. We love the individual who will stand up against injustice when the establishment is corrupt, absent, or powerless. We can't get enough of our Dirty Harrys, our Martin Luther Kings, our Billy the Kids, or our Thomas Jeffersons.

They come in a range of beliefs and values, but their conviction that one person is enough to change things for the better sets them apart from what I witnessed last month on that tram.
I hope in jotting down these reflections I remember to hold onto some of that gunslinger justice.