Sunday, January 17, 2010

Race in Hungary


Just before the holidays Dora and I were eating dinner when we heard a man yelling down in the street. I went to open the window. We could then hear the clearly drunk man chanting the Hungarian equivalent of "Jew go home."

How can you respond to that - especially when you live in the 7th District, the traditionally Jewish district of Budapest?

I've used this space in the past to vent about Hungary's troubled relationship with the minority communities in its borders. It's a topic that gets me riled for two reasons:
1) The worst of examples are violent and motivated by little more than demagoguery.
2) As an outsider, more often than not my views on the issue are dismissed out of hand.

That's a frustrating place to be when you would like to seek a deeper understanding of a problem - perhaps even engage in a constructive effort to improve things.

That frustration is very much related to the paper I'm working on. Much of the reading I've been doing for this project is about young people who do not fit the profile of the typical college student. The effort to bring their views into the academic community seems like a noble cause, but like so many noble causes, it's complicated. In order to interact with an established community, a person must learn and accept the methods the community uses to interact: who is considered an authority, what gives a person the right to challenge an idea/argument, what beliefs are held as truths. These kinds of interactions are dictated by culture and values. So if you want to bring an outsider in, you sometimes have to challenge the person's culture and values. Like I said, it can get complicated.

I hadn't thought of myself as the outsider in such a situation until last week. Dora's extended family got together to celebrate a collection of birthdays and an anniversary. At dinner I sat next to Mate (say "Ma-tey"). He's a law student. He's very smart and very opinionated. He and I don't see eye-to-eye on every issue, and that's okay. But I always try to challenge his take on the Roma (Gypsy) population. He believes that many of Hungary's problems stem from the Roma. Last week I spent at least fifteen minutes listening to Mate explain how the Roma are destroying his country.

I have very little patience for this kind of talk. I believe Hungarians who hold Mate's view are trying to shift the responsibility for the nation's many serious problems to a minority population - a population that has very little political or financial power. The issues that have hampered Hungary's growth are rampant corruption, the public acceptance of tax fraud, and a bloated bureaucratic government that provides very little when you consider people are supposed to pay 50% of their income in taxes. It is absurd to blame these kinds of problems on a group that composes no more than 10% of the population (and that figure is considered a gross overestimate by many).

I've tried to confront Mate's view directly. I've tried to question Mate's assumptions. I've tried acting stupid and forcing him to explain what it is that the Roma have done to make his life so difficult (his life is not very difficult btw). Whenever I get anywhere close to making a point, my views are dismissed. Since I am not Hungarian, I cannot understand how serious the problem is. So my questions and arguments are moot.

My beliefs keep me at arms length from this debate, but it's frustrating because I live here. I am a part of the community - but not really.

Strange as this may sound, I'm thankful for the experience. As a white heterosexual male with a stable family background, it is difficult for me to understand what it means to be a member of a community who lacks certain rights or abilities. This is a rather minor example of that, but it provides some insight.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I like this take on the Sen. Reid thing

Frank James' take on the gaffe by Senator Reid speaks to a lot of my frustrations with manufactured controversies.

In it, James gets at how people are willing to twist the facts in a debate. Often participants get so worked up about an issue that they grab at anything resembling evidence in their support. In such haste, however, the issue often get lost and people end up simply shouting insults at each other.

I'm not in the States to see how intense this "issue" is getting, but I was surprised to hear people compare Reid's comment to Lott's 2002 comments supporting the breakaway segregationist party of 1948. That seems to be a lopsided analogy at best...
A tasteless and politically incorrect description of Obama
versus
A 2002 statement of support for a party with this in their platform: "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."

It may not be apples and oranges, but one is certainly more rotten than the other. Don't you think?