A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has just been published online in Harper’s. It will also appear in the Letters section of the October issue. I consider the contents both urgent and enduring; I am honored to be one of the signers, along with many people I respect and admire (as well as people I disagree with on many issues and people whose work I don’t know).  Please read it carefully and share it widely.

I rarely sign group letters or petitions, but the letter strongly reflected my thoughts and observations, and I saw a need for a statement of this kind–against the recent climate of intolerance and in favor of “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

It is difficult to single out one part of the letter as more important than the rest. But this deserves close attention: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

The difference here lies between disagreeing with someone–even vociferously–and demanding that the person be fired, shamed, denied publication, etc.

The responses have been telling–an outpouring of support, some thoughtful criticism, and a number of ad hominem attacks. Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris wrote an excellent article about the letter for The New York Times. There are many interesting comments, including this from James in San Diego:

It’s widely recognized that this “intolerant” way of thinking is somehow related to the type of speech that takes place on the internet, but the exact relationship remains mysterious, usually waved away with a passing reference to the dreaded Echo Chambers, which are actually just some lovely caves.

But it’s more related to the dominance of advertising on the internet. Before advertising was ubiquitous on the web, netizens were actually quite tolerant. And it’s also not really about “tolerance,” at least not in any causal way.

It’s more about the order of mental operations that advertising requires. Advertising requires you to set your judgments first, THEN absorb information. So articles’ headlines (basically small ads) need you to find the topic interesting, shocking, appalling, or heartwarming BEFORE you’ve read about it. If you wait until after learning the details of something to start forming a judgment about it, advertising has failed.

And the habit sticks. People now EXPECT to be able to draw conclusions about things before starting to understand them, and so they organize the data in a way that facilitates this, by highlighting and foregrounding “easy discriminator” elements, which might be rhetorical, contextual, or personal.

But ads rarely lead to new heights, and the way of thinking they inspire militates against intellectual growth or ascent to the unknown.

I don’t know whether James is right about the influence of advertising culture–I would say that the trend toward rushed opinions comes from several sources, including a few education trends–but many of his observations ring true. There’s now an expectation that we form opinions before actually learning about an issue. The contexts range from satisfaction surveys to dating to political discussion.

In addition, opinions have become like badges. Display the right ones, and you’re fine, until someone calls you out as fake; display the wrong ones, and you’re an elitist fearfully clinging to a dwindling demesne, or simply a terrible person. Don’t display any at all, and you’re defective at best.

I hope the letter will bring some needed questioning and challenge into the air. It is already beginning to do so.

I added considerably to this piece after posting it.

Listen Up: Platon Karataev

platon karataev

Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev. I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai, the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter of Idea. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and then something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms (released just last month), whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

They usually sing in English. Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on the new album):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be about Ophelia in Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic pain. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the first song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to.

Respect for What Is Other and Different

the-revolution-1937.jpg!Large

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)

IMG_2406
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.

IMG_2350

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.

IMG_2379

Then she flopped down on the rug and slept.

IMG_2399

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.)

IMG_2428

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

IMG_2295

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.

IMG_2302

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

Bike Rides and Their Layers

IMG_2218

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.)

IMG_2223

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.)

IMG_2202

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

IMG_2164

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.)

IMG_2175

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.)

IMG_2184

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.)

IMG_2167

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.

IMG_2206

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.)

rosegarden

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.

IMG_2252

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

Slowing Down and Stepping Back

IMG_2005

The sickening news of George Floyd’s death under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin brings up lessons I have learned from teaching. One of the most difficult things in a charged moment is to slow down, look around, listen, figure out what actually is and isn’t going on, and respond appropriately to the specifics.

I do not know what was going through Mr. Chauvin’s mind: why he kept his knee pressed for eight minutes and forty-six seconds on Mr. Floyd’s neck, even though Mr. Floyd kept gasping that he couldn’t breathe. It’s possible that through a combination of racist reactions, general anxiety, and trained responses, he failed to see that Mr. Floyd posed no danger and that he was going to die. (A racist reaction, in this case, is one that would have been more solicitous and respectful had the man under arrest been white.) This failure to see may have led to Mr. Floyd’s death; that is, if Mr. Chauvin had taken stock of what was happening, he might have shifted course. In any case, how could he not have heard Mr. Floyd? How could he not have heard the bystanders? Whatever else was going on in him, it seems he failed to hear.

For a teacher, one of the greatest challenges of “classroom management” is sheer overload. People who advise teachers don’t always realize this. There are all sorts of books written on managing a classroom, but none of the advice will do a bit of good unless the teacher knows how to take in the details and the whole. When there is too much happening at once, it can become one big blur.

The first challenge is to take apart the blur: to step back, look at the specifics, and respond to them one by one. This can be very difficult when there’s a lot of noise. I have found in Hungary that it is easier to address minor situations that come up, simply because it’s easier to see what they are. The atmosphere can be lively, but it isn’t noisy, and with one look around the room, I can tell what is happening.

But even years ago I knew the importance of stepping back and looking around, even though I found it difficult. There was one day in 2012, at Columbia Secondary School, when I was introducing my students to Locke (see the post “Locke and Beads“), and some students were talking loudly and persistently. I stopped to address what was going on, and we talked about it for a few minutes. Then I heard a clatter. My necklace had broken–a beloved necklace given to me by teachers at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute–and the beads were spilling all over the place. The students immediately started helping me gather them again. The sun was streaming through the window, making some of the beads glitter. We ended the lesson by considering the words of Locke, “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.” Everything, or almost everything, had come together: disruption, conversation, necklace, and Locke.

Those particular students graduated from college two years ago (except for a few who took time off for one purpose or another). I often remember them. Standing back now from the difficulty of that class, I see how much was happening in it, and how much more could have happened if I had let myself see more of the particulars.

People who tend to get overwhelmed–by noise, distraction, or other stimulus–need to practice slowing down and looking around. In seemingly chaotic situations, this does not come naturally. Kids often want the teacher to respond individually to them. Few things in school are as frustrating or annoying as when a teacher generalizes about the class without noticing distinctions. Also, kids will instinctively play on a teacher’s weaknesses and vice versa; it takes conscious work to build up each other’s strengths.

When race, ethnicity, or another group difference is at stake, it takes all the more work–and practice–to separate actual threat from imagined threat, and to respond to the situation at hand, not to something conjured out of prejudice and fear. In addition, it takes diligence and humility to interpret the situation correctly. Many conflicts arise out of misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

This is true about all sorts of situations, even those without racial conflict or positions of authority. Most of us have known people who at some point reacted to us without taking in the full situation.  Most of us have done so ourselves. In fact, this probably happens most of the time; we are partially blind to others, even those closest to us. But when authority and race are involved, the wounds and consequences go far beyond the individuals involved.

I don’t know if any of this applies to Mr. Chauvin. But those in positions of public responsibility should learn, during their professional training, how to decelerate and take things in, to see the person in front of them, to distinguish the actual situation from an imagined one. There are teachers, police officers, and others who do this extremely well–who save lives and see lives during the course of their work–and who go unrecognized. Their wisdom is badly needed. They should be seen and heard.

 

Update: I made several edits and additions to this piece after the initial posting.

 

 

Wending Its Way to Readers

mindovermemesWhen you write a book, there’s great excitement and anticipation around its publication. Who will read it? How will they respond to it? Then come the book events. Then the reviews–maybe many, maybe few. A few responses from friends. Then a few interviews. Then the wait. Sometimes a long silence.

My book events–in Dallas, Budapest, Szolnok, and New York–were dreamy and lively. I couldn’t have wished for better. They come back as happy memories. The responsible reviews were encouraging too. (A few Goodreads reviews were irresponsible in that their authors showed no signs of having read the book or knowing what it was about.) But overall, the book went under the radar.

People have so much to read, they are so bombarded with stuff, that they don’t rush to read your book unless they have a particular interest in it or have been hearing about it from everyone. That is why so many publishers and publicists compete to create “buzz” around a book even before it is published.

My book opposes buzz, though; that’s part of its point. It is about thinking carefully about what you want to say and saying it on your own terms, in your own time. It is about questioning those catchwords and phrases–“the team,” “creativity,” “the good fit,” “toxic people,” and others–that do so much damage when thrown about carelessly.  It is about recognizing that we don’t have the last word about the people around us, the ways to lead life, or the meaning of a text.

So it was a delight to be interviewed by Marci Mazzarotto at the New Books Network. She is an Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. We had an unrushed, enjoyable conversation about the book and its ideas. The podcast appeared online today.

nbn

A good interview brings out some new aspect of a book or author, or at least something that hasn’t been emphasized yet. In this case, we talked about the presence or absence of empathy in language. For instance, when people write others off as “toxic,” they often haven’t taken the trouble to speak with them, learn who they are, or address the particular problem at hand. To call someone “toxic” is to say, “I don’t have to bother with you.”

Empathy is a tricky matter. It can bring its own illusions. But as a rejection of over-certainty about others, it is good. As an acknowledgment that others cannot be summed up, that they have lives and thoughts of their own, it can help us out of many errors.

The book was written well before COVID-19 appeared, but today I notice various ways of writing off the disease–not by calling it or its victims “toxic,” but by somehow describing those affected in a way that separates them. It’s tempting to believe that the virus comes just to the old, the sick, the faraway–as though anyone could escape any of those states with just a bit of willpower. It is easy to trick yourself into this kind of thinking, even in mild forms, until you know someone who has been ill.

When I reread the book now, I see that it says important things that hold up over time. There are a few superfluous sentences and phrases that I would cut today, but they don’t overwhelm the text. In any case, it is wending its way to readers, and I have thoughts for the next book.

Don’t Take This Advice

IMG_1975

I see all kinds of advice online about how to handle the coronavirus isolation. Some articles tell you to get in touch with more people, to do more things in Zoom groups, to join more clubs. Others tell you how to say “no” to invitations and claim some space for yourself. What they all have in common is an assumption that people need to be told how to lead their lives.

Why this barrage of advice? Adulthood is full of laws, rules, and limitations, so shouldn’t people be able to make the most of what freedom they have? Why hand it over to those eager advice-givers who don’t know a thing about you?

In particular, isn’t it each person’s prerogative to find the combination of aloneness and company, of solitude and companionship, that suits him or her? Each person is different in this matter. The divisions do not fall along introvert/extravert lines; many self-described introverts may find themselves lonely, whereas many self-described extraverts may need a break from others. It has more to do with your existing obligations and with what you actually want.

An example: If you teach online, you have built-in, daily online contact with others-not only with your students, but also with your colleagues and others. So you may not be eager for Zoom chats in your free time. In addition, if you have things that you need to do on your own, with minimal distractions, then you might also want to limit your online social activity. On top of that, if you actually enjoy doing things alone, or offline, or both, there’s yet another reason not to leap into every virtual club or happy hour.

But there are other considerations too, including where and how you may be needed. If you are part of an organization that is turning toward online events, then you may be expected, and may expect yourself, to contribute something. That means that even more of your time is already allotted online–so the free time is even scarcer and matters even more.

There are different ways, also, of being in touch with others online. Some people prefer video conversation or text chat; others (like myself) prefer audio or email. Some prefer quick, immediate chats; others like to take time between messages. So there are many ways to do these things, not just one–and if there seems to be a trend toward one, well, no one has to be part of the trend, especially not in free time.

So, my advice is, don’t worry about all the advice that the world is giving you, unless you sorely need it! Look at your own obligations and wishes, and make your own choices, where choices are possible.

But then each of us has times when we need advice–and if that is true for you, just disregard this advice against taking advice! Advice, though, has built-in limitations. If it comes from a stranger, it lacks insight into your particular situation. If it comes from someone who knows you, it lacks objectivity. Still, every so often, a gem of advice comes along, objective or not. We know it by its truth. There are pieces of advice that I have carried with me for years.

But I think that good advice comes from wisdom, which in turn comes from learning, listening, and discerning over time. Good advice is not formulaic; it takes into account the many possibilities and uncertainties surrounding another person. But when it needs to be strong, it is.

So the upshot is: Do what you want and need. Take advice, don’t take advice. Have fun with the taking and not taking. When the time comes, give some careful advice of your own, keeping in mind that it might not be right.

IMG_1971

I took these photos yesterday by the Tisza and the Zagyva.

The First Issue of Folyosó

folyoso coverIt is my joy to announce the first issue of Folyosó, an online literary journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary! This first issue is entirely in English (except for a handful of words); this means that the authors are writing not in their native language, but in a language they have been learning at school and on their own. Later this year, Folyosó will become bilingual (English and Hungarian), with a section dedicated to translation. In 2021 it will be open to submissions from high school students around the world.

This inaugural issue features students’ fiction, nonfiction, and art (including Lilla Kassai’s painting “The Lonely Castle,” which is also the cover art), a “high-stakes test,” and an interview with Dániel Lipcsei, a folk dancer currently in the eleventh grade at Varga. One story has a teenager behind the wheel of a tractor on a hot day; another shows a woman spying on her neighbor. One is told by a narrator who has taken up miniature-building; another, by the footman from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” Students grapple with current and ongoing questions, ranging from the future of the coronavirus pandemic to the nature of envy.

We wish you fruitful reading. Please feel free to leave a comment on the comments page. Here’s to the arts, here’s to languages, here’s to good health for all, and here’s to Folyosó!

Update: SzolnokTV interviewed us about the journal. I added the video here.