Politics Are Not All of Life

There are people who, upon learning that I live in Hungary, immediately ask, “What do you think about its turn toward the right?” I then have to explain that the country is not monolithic, that there is much more to it than Orbán, and that people like Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the opposition’s potential candidates for the next national election, stands for something markedly different from him. But I would go even farther and say that politics are not all of life, that you don’t have to get riled up over politics to live thoughtfully and conscientiously, and that you can find meaning and relative freedom (whatever freedom is—Gyula Jenei has a remarkable new poem on this topic) in other things, without being any more escapist or selfish than most humans out there. Granted, politics cover many areas of life and involve most of us at some point, whether we like it or not. But even so, we don’t have to get caught up in them beyond what is necessary or in our nature. Nor do they make us virtuous.

“But look at what’s happening around you!” people will yell. Yes, but there are many things happening around me. Only some of them could be called political. The over-politicization of life is a prison in itself. Many writers and others have resisted the pressure to turn everything into a political statement, to go around with banners and slogans.

In the thirty or so years since I first read Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I have often returned in my mind to this passage (in Part 2, Chapter 2, about Karel’s mother, here in the translation of Michael Henry Heim):

But the defect in her sight seemed to explain something much more basic: what was large for them was small for her, what were stones for them were houses for her.

To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly. One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in the garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective—a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Kundera does not make this the last word; this is still close to the beginning, with much to follow. Nor is Karel sure that his mother is right; he just realizes that the answer is not as simple as he had supposed.

That is what I have learned over time, too. This does not mean that politics should be ignored, or that it’s entirely possible to do so. There are some issues, such as Covid, hunger, and global warming, that can only be addressed by countries and individuals together, through concerted work and lucid language. In that sense they are political. There are also times in our daily lives when we have to take action on behalf of a person or principle. That, too, could be considered political. And we all have political duties of one kind or another, at one level or another, from voting to taking part in work meetings. (Workplaces have their own political systems.)

Nor do we have to be uniformly political or apolitical throughout our lives; we go through changes in this regard. I cared intensely about politics, as usually understood, in my late teens and early twenties. After that, less so. I came to distrust and resist the pressure to be political on other people’s terms. Even more than that, I came to dislike the judgments that went along with such pressure. But I have been outspoken on education and other issues, over many years, and have received both praise and flack for this.

What do people know about each other, really? Someone who seems apolitical may actually be doing more for others, and more to improve the surroundings, than someone who jumps into every political argument. Or ther reverse could be true. It is not always obvious, and our judgments are often based on meager information.

There’s a need for people who take up political causes, make political arguments, run for office. But if everyone were doing that, or if those doing it all did it in the same way, we’d end up with a dreary and dangerous world. People have different inclinations, different things that delight and intrigue and trouble them; all these things have a place, as long as they do not harm others. So let there be room in life for the ferns at the top of this post, for the poems being read at festivals this summer, for the things that are hard to say, for the struggle, late at night, with a math problem, or for the rush of a musical idea.

And we ALL know about Hungary….

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For many liberals in the U.S., Hungary has become a symbol of everything abhorrent. Just mention Hungary, and you get the eyerolls and the nods–yes, we all know about Hungary, we all know about Orbán. Which is understandable, except that often the knowledge isn’t there, or it lacks inquisitiveness. Many reporters, not to mention laypeople, opine freely on Hungary without knowing Hungarian, studying Hungarian history and literature, or spending time in the country. Even some U.S. reporters living here insist on seeing certain things and not others.

There is far more to the country than Viktor Orbán, both inside and outside of politics. Those who care about Hungary could help by shedding light on–or at least taking interest in–what is happening here.

Earlier this month, for instance, the editorial board and more than 70 staff members of Index.hu, Hungary’s largest independent news source, resigned in protest over the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull. There were large protests in Budapest. The dispute continues, and there is much more to it than may appear. The journalist and fiction writer Sándor Jászberényi–not one to soften or mitigate his words–writes in a Facebook post that the freedom of the press has not died in Hungary–or if it has, it died around thirty years ago, when it became possible to buy out a newspaper in the first place. This is the way capitalism works. Jászberényi blames the protesters themselves to a degree, for not bothering to pay for the news that they want to read. His post has 326 comments at this point–and many more comments can be found in the 327 shares. His point is not that freedom of the press is thriving in Hungary. Rather, if people want it, they have to give something for it. Not everyone agrees with him, but his points are worth considering seriously.

In the U.S., I imagine that some were surprised to learn that Index.hu even existed–that there was an independent press in Hungary at all. Look at news about Hungary from the past four years or so. Only a couple of articles mention Index. The recent mentions all follow the narrative that Orbán is taking over the media (which is largely true but needs more careful analysis–consider, for instance, that many people read foreign news online).

Analyses of Hungarian politics sometimes leave out essential information. An otherwise illuminating article by Sahil Handa, published yesterday on Persuasion, states, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, things have gone from bad to worse. When the epidemic hit, Orbán quickly moved to expand his powers even further. Imposing an open-ended state of emergency, he granted himself the power to rule by decree and made the spread of ‘fake news’ punishable by up to five years in prison. All elections have been cancelled for an indefinite period.” Mr. Handa didn’t mention that the Hungarian Parliament voted on June 16 to end the emergency powers–which officially expired at midnight on June 17. Granted, a new health emergency law has been enacted; many worry that it essentially gives the government continued emergency powers, or at least a mechanism for reinstating them. But it is not the same thing. The point is not to dismiss criticism of Orbán and his party, but rather to sharpen it by making it more precise.

The situation is much more complex than U.S.-based analysis tends to acknowledge. Just about everyone on the left says that Hungary has swung to the far right–but this is not true across the board. In October 2019, Budapest and a number of other cities elected liberal mayors. In December 2019, Gergely Karácsony, the new mayor of Budapest, joined with the mayors of Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw to sign a Free Cities Pact, which promised to promote “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity.” I have seen no articles about this in the U.S. press, except for a piece by the Associated Press. Doesn’t this deserve attention? Or are people committed to equating Orbán with Hungary?

What bothers me is not U.S. liberal criticism of Hungary, but the lack of curiosity about the country, the eagerness to use it as a punching bag. This is giving Orbán part of what he appears to want: first of all, a reason to ridicule liberals for their misrepresentation of the facts, and second, an equation between himself and Hungary. This lack of curiosity is bad for discussion itself; it deflects introspection and touts caricatures.

Moreover, when criticizing politicians or governments, one should also acknowledge things they have done well. No one slamming Hungary bothers to mention that the country takes the coronavirus pandemic seriously, has heeded the recommendations of Cecilia Müller, the chief medical officer, and has managed to limit the outbreak. Restrictions have been lifting gradually. Did Orbán and Fidesz take advantage of the situation for their own political benefit? There are legitimate arguments that they have. Did they also take appropriate measures to protect public health? Evidently so, as did local leaders. To my knowledge, there was no one demonizing the medical experts, no one ranting that the pandemic was a hoax. If such rants exist here, they are rare.

I am not immersed in Hungarian politics. My interests lie elsewhere. But from what I have seen, one of Orbán’s weaknesses lies in his dismissal of all criticism as liberal nonsense and propaganda. Over time, such a stance backfires; people stop believing what the government says, since it’s so formulaic. To gain the trust of the public, a leader must be willing to look at a situation from more than one side and to acknowledge when someone else is right. Journalists can contribute to the public good, in Hungary, in the U.S., and elsewhere, by setting an example.

One can add to all this that there is more to a country than its politics. I have made that point many times, and it’s a large subject in itself. But if you are going to talk politics, look past the surface, be willing not to know everything, be willing to see things that don’t fit your preconceptions, and don’t just repeat what you’ve heard from others.

I made a few minor stylistic edits to this piece after posting it.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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