Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Meet Sisi/Sziszi (also known as Füsti)

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Yesterday I went on an expedition to the twenty-third district of Budapest to pick up Sziszi, the kitten I was to adopt. Why go so far? I had tried twice to adopt a local cat or kitten, but each time, I called or wrote too late; the cat had already found a home. When I saw Füsti’s pictures and found that she was still waiting for a home, I knew the distance did not matter. I could get there and bring her back.

I named her Sisi after Queen Elisabeth (Sisi, spelled Sziszi in Hungarian), Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, who went to masquerades and wrote poems singing of her fictional adventures there. One of the poems, “A sárga dominó dala” (“Song of the Yellow Domino”) has these lines:

Az arcomat fedte az éjszinü maszk.
– De rég volt, de rég volt, de rég! –
A lelkemet nem fedte, láttad te azt!
– És hidd el, az többet is ért! –

My translation (with liberties taken for rhythm and rhyme):

A night-colored mask enshrouded my face.
– But long ago, long, long ago!
My soul it left bared, you were witness to this!
– And that was worth more, you should know! –

Sisi the kitten looks like she is wearing a mask–but a white one or a black one? Either way is possible.

Sisi also appears in Gyula Jenei’s poem “Olló” (“Scissors”), my translation of which will appear in The Massachusetts Review sometime in the coming year. (The quote below is as the text appears in Jenei’s 2018 collection Mindig Más; a slightly different version can be found here.)

vonásaikat már nem lehet rendesen kivenni,
egyébként is aprók a portrék, de nagyanyám állítja,
hogy az ferenc józsef és sziszi. ő persze erzsébet
királynénak fogja mondani, s a félszárú pápaszem
mögül elnézi nagyon öreg szemével a megkopott
vonású fejeket, amiket még tovább koptatok,
ahányszor smirglivel kifényesítem őket.

Back to the kitten. When I arrived to pick her up, the whole family was standing outside and waiting for me: the two parents, the two boys, the little girl, who was holding Füsti (“Smokey”), and the dog, who ran to greet me. The girl was crestfallen about giving up the kitten. The mother cat had had seven little ones, and Füsti was the last to be given away. (The family kept the mom, who was recovering from her spaying operation.)

They asked me to send them pictures; I did so last night and will send them more. Because they were so kind, and because the little girl was so sad to lose her, Sisi is keeping the name Füsti too. She will be Sziszi Füsti, or whichever name I call her at a given moment.

At first she meowed in the cat carrier, but on the train ride home, she settled down and started playing with the toys. She slept a bit too.

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When we got home, she immediately started exploring–running here and there, hiding, darting out of hiding and running back again. Then the temptation to play grew too much for her, and we played for a long time.

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Then she flopped down on the rug and slept.

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But that was only the beginning. By nighttime, she had discovered the bed, decided that she liked it, and revealed her cuddly, purring side. Now she is completely at ease. She jumps and leaps around, then curls up and basks in the quiet. She loves it when I cuddle with her. She has figured out everything in the apartment: she knows where her food is, where the litter box is (and, fortunately, how to use it), where the toys are, where the comfortable places are, and where to find me. She knows how to stretch out and curl up, how to wiggle her paws. Tomorrow her cat tree will arrive; once she can climb to the top, she will be able to look out the window. (Update: it is here.)

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How does a little kitten know how to do all of this? How did she make herself at home so quickly? I think she had a great start in her original home–but I think cats also have a sense of home in their souls, especially if they are born into a home and not on the street. Each cat does this in a different way, and in changing ways over time, but they get to know a place, run and leap in it, and fall asleep in it too. I think of the ending of Edward Hirch’s “Wild Gratitude” (and of the beginning, too, and the middle):

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

Surprises of Sameness and Difference

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I was standing in line at the supermarket with my little basket of groceries. Ahead of me was a blond woman in a pale green mini-dress, with tanned legs and an enormous cartful of goods, which she loaded slowly onto the conveyor belt: cleaning supplies, a big bag of chicken, various household items, beverages, and so on and on. While I was waiting, masked, I found myself imagining that she would then load the goods into her big car (not an SUV–I don’t see those around here much) and drive out to her house in Szandaszőlős (a suburb of Szolnok). The Golden Retriever would come bounding and leaping out to greet her, the kids and her husband would help her bring the groceries in, and then they’d all go out for a ride on their motorboat.

These thoughts were continuing as I paid for and bagged my own items and went out to my bike. As I was unlocking the bike, something caught my eye. There was the woman, across from me, unlocking her own bike and loading her groceries onto it. For all I know, the rest of my imaginings were accurate. But a key link in the chain had just been broken. I tried not to stare, but I was amazed.

Discovering something in common breaks up prejudice. But commonality has its pitfalls too; it’s easy to imagine that you share this or that with someone else, when in fact their experience of that thing is fundamentally different from yours. Respect requires recognizing both commonality and differences.

I was struck by Tiffanie Drayton’s NYT piece “I’m a Black American. I Had to Get Out.” Although she supports the protests strongly (while worrying for her friends’ safety and health), she speaks in somewhat different terms from the slogans and mantras. I learned something from the common ground I found with her as well as the contrasts.

She writes of the conditions that led her to flee the country–the violence against black people, the cost of living, and the ultimate catalyst: the court’s finding in 2013 that George Zimmerman was “not guilty” of murdering Trayvon Martin.

Then she looks back to a much brighter childhood–in America (where she had moved with her mother, at age four, from Trinidad and Tobago), in an ethnically mixed New Jersey town outside of New York City.

In school, I learned to pledge allegiance to the American flag. “With liberty and justice for all,” I proudly recited every morning. I was an honor-roll student who felt adored and supported by my teachers. I roamed the town with friends, stopping at the pizza parlor for a dollar slice, or the bodega for an empanada.

From there, she writes of having to move at least twice because of the rising cost of living: to Orlando and then back to New Jersey. The dream of living in a safe, tranquil neighborhood had ended: “The only colors that penetrate those dark memories are the blue and red lights of police vehicles parked on every other street corner, swirling all night long.”

In a very different way, I have felt the effects of rising living costs in America–the near impossibility of leading a simple but comfortable life without working yourself to exhaustion. In San Francisco, where I lived for seven years, rents and real estate prices have risen so high that I could probably never live there again, even if I wanted to. In New York, similarly, to afford an apartment, you have to move far out to the outskirts, which are rising in cost too. The stress of commuting and barely getting by, while living in noisy, crime-filled neighborhoods, affects people of any race, but it will have a much worse effect on those who have no alternative.

I have relaxed and come into my own since coming to Hungary–partly because I can afford and enjoy a simple life here, biking around with my groceries and all, partly because my work–both at school and outside–has opened up new possibilities, and partly because I feel accepted and appreciated, not only by my friends, but in general. So I could relate–and not relate–to Ms. Drayton’s words:

The privilege of dual citizenship afforded me sanctuary in Trinidad and Tobago. As I settled here, my life slowly became colorful and vibrant again. I paraded through the streets for Carnival in blue, teal and purple beads and feathers, surrounded by faces of every color — descendants of enslaved people from Africa, indentured servants from India, and the Amerindians who were here when Europeans arrived. I strolled through black neighborhoods with my two children in tow, with no concerns about whether we stood out as outsiders. I sat on my patio with my mother and sipped coffee, finally at peace.

And I gave myself space to mend my broken version of blackness.

Much of this is true for me too, and much of it isn’t. I know what it means to be at ease, and in joy, after years of outsiderness of different kinds (though I miss my U.S. friends badly). I am an outsider here in Hungary; I will never be a Hungarian or regarded as one. But in a basic way I have a place here and am in my element. While this will go through ups and downs, it isn’t superficial or transient.

But I can never know what it means for a black person to mend her own broken version of blackness–how deep the breakage must be, how exhilarating and yet how painful the mending. I have been through something of slightly similar shape, but it is not the same.

I look forward to Ms. Drayton’s book. I also hope to find more common ground and difference, and to shed the fear of both, in all my encounters and missings, whether in line at the supermarket, in the lines of books, or face to face.

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Both pictures were taken from my new apartment: the first through the mirror, and the second through the window.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.