Feverish thoughts while trying not to think too much about the Munich Security Conference

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Thought I felt a cold coming on, but there was too much going on this weekend in Munich to slow down. I wasn’t going to be a hypochondriac about it, so I pushed on through.

It’s early February, so that means the annual Munich Security Conference was taking place. I typically pay close attention to what’s happening there & I did my best this year, but a few excellent concerts and what turned out to be more than a simple cold had me rather distracted.

The big topic at the conference was apparently what’s to be done in Ukraine, and this is where my take on things gets a bit shaky. I’m going to blame my feverish state for my loose grasp of the specifics, but from what I understand there’s been a lot of diplomacy to find a non military solution to the fighting that’s going on there.

While being openly mocked at the conference for continuing to insist that the citizens in Crimea democratically chose to rejoin Russia, the Russian foreign minister continued to insist that the West has meddled in this situation from the beginning. I’m not suggesting that there’s any validity to his argument and there’s plenty to suggest that the Russian position reeks of old school propaganda; however, the European leaders attempting alternatives to more weapons should be lauded.

The photo above is from the Amerikahaus, which has been a cultural outpost in Munich since the end of the Second World War, and that’s where I found myself on Saturday evening. An alternative country band called Lambchop was on the bill, and they played through most of their album from 2000 titled ‘Nixon‘. Interspersed with their music, the musicians had a bit of deadpan fun at the expense of the former American president.

I walked out into the night wondering about Realpolitik and what’re now generally seen as easier times. As some present day American politicians insist on saber rattling and tough talk with regards to the Russians, I’m weirdly relieved to live in a country that at least gives pacifism more than a cursory nod.

Now this could be my fever talking, and I’m well aware that the situation in Ukraine could spiral out of control despite the good intentions of Germany’s Chancellor and France’s President, but sending any weapons into this cauldron seems to be the wrong message. Someone mentioned purely defensive weapons, and I almost spit out my chicken soup.

Anyone who’s watched European politics for a while will have at least a handful of theories about what’s really going on behind the scenes. I’m not by nature a conspiracy theorist, and I continue to hold out hope for whatever’s left of Realpolitik. Whatever happens, it’s certainly going to be a gold mine for the troubadours among us. At least there’s that.

not a Berliner

There in the distance? That's the JFK bridge in Hamburg.
There in the distance? That’s the JFK Bridge in Hamburg.

Lately, there’s been plenty for me write about, and I just haven’t been doing it. The last several posts were photos that I certainly liked, but there wasn’t much text. The whole point of this blog is to show off my writing, so these filler posts without much content go against what I originally set out to do. There might be times when a curious photo and a few lines of texts is all I’ve got time or energy for, but I’d prefer that to be the exception rather than the rule.

My favourite week in Munich tends to be when we have our Filmfest, which starts this weekend, so I already had something up my sleeve in which I’d planned to ramp up this blog again. Then I was out and about with Ella and Louis, the sister and brother Hungarian Vizslas that have featured prominently in this blog, and found myself walking across the John F. Kennedy Bridge.

Why not at least  a mention of what happened today, 26 June, exactly 50 years ago? If you’re like I am, you check out ‘this day in history’-type entries in the paper or online, so you already know that this is the day in 1963 that Kennedy gave his famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner‘ speech in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg in West Berlin

Whatever you think of his politics, and I’m most certainly not going to get into that here, it was the height of the Cold War, and a significant gesture of solidarity to the citizens living in the divided once and future capital of Postwar Germany.

The Berlin Wall went up, and the Americans response was to send planes in filled with supplies, so that the city could continue to survive while surrounded by  Soviet-supported East Germany. Not an easy time here in my adopted home country, and at that moment in history it was incredibly unclear what was going to happen next.

The gratitude that West Germany felt for Kennedy’s show of support – both symbolic, as well as practical – was what led to major German cities naming things like bridges after him. The one here in Munich is the northern part of the Middle Ring Road that goes over the River Isar. It’s not particularly beautiful, and I doubt many locals under a certain age even realise that the bridge even has a name. 

The Kennedy Bridge in Hamburg (pictured above) is what divides the Binnenalster and Außenalster, which are the beautiful lakes right in the heart of the Hansestadt that is Hamburg. Whether you’re on the S-Bahn or ICE Train between the Main Train Station and the Dammtor, in which case you’re riding along the JFK Bridge, or walking along the Alster, there’s a memorial to Kennedy staring back at you. 

Fifty years. Not such a terribly long time, I suppose. Wonder if they’d still name any of this stuff after him today. 

A whole Party of Pirates? Aye, matey.

they start Pirates early in Northern Europe (photo source: tommyimages).

I’ll quickly deal with the Pirate Party. Easy answer: they’re sort of nuts, but not totally nuts. They are very much into net neutrality and free wifi for everyone. They’re in the regional government in Berlin and the traditional politicians are very irritated and not amused with them.

That should be a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. There’s a German word for that: ‘jein‘…ja and nein combined makes ‘jein‘. Cool, huh?

Other things the Pirates want: free trains for everyone. In Berlin, they want all public transport to be free. Period. Berlin’s a curious place by the way. Compared to the German average, the unemployment rate is astronomical. I’m pretty sure Bremen is higher and the rural areas of Eastern Germany, but Berlin is a major metropolitan/cultural centre…and there are a tonne of young people just hanging out. Nominally employed if not outright begging, and the Pirates are their people. Oh, and the nerds.

The Pirates are essentially the politically party you’d get if you rounded up all the players at a Dungeons and Dragons convention and asked them how they thought government should be run.

The newest thing I heard is that they want government IDs in the future to be printed without gender. I’m not sure what the point of that would be, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it had to do with some wacky future-think that gender roles are the root of our problems. Oh, and to make gender-neutral people feel more comfortable. Uh, ok. Weirdos.

Having said all that, Germany has a history of minor parties gaining traction and becoming less minor parties. Because it’s a parliamentary system, you can be a minor party and still get some sort of say in the way things are run.

The best modern example is the Green Party. Unlike in the US, where the Green Party seems to be a glorified Marijuana Rights conglomerate, the German Greens came about as a political movement in 1968, were roundly loathed by the establishment parties, and then slowly but surely became a part of the political fabric (they weren’t actually a proper political party until 1990).

The Green Party‘s big issues have been protecting/saving the environment and getting Germany off of nuclear power. Over the last several decades, the former has become part of nearly every major party‘s platform. The latter was finally achieved (or is being achieved) when the German public freaked out at the events in Fukushima, Japan last year. The right-leaning conservative party (CDU/CSU) in power finally bowed to the overwhelming pressure that’d been building for roughly forty years and Germany has now vowed to go off of nuclear power.

Some experts say they’re insane for doing so, and there’s definitely a touch of ‘let’s show the world we can engineer this one‘ about it. However, that’s sort of my point.

This Party of Pirates? Are they a bit mad? Sure. They really are.

Do they have a clue how politics works? That’s debatable. It’s certainly naive and presumptuous to say you can succeed at politics without knowing how things are done. But naive and presumptuous are actually two of the things the Pirate Party has going for it.

What has to be said

more thunking brought to you by lahikmajoe

This is going to be a post that really breaks from the tenor of my regular offerings. It sort of has to. See, I normally avoid  religion and politics. It’s just not my thing. I certainly have opinions on these topics, but most of the time I’d rather be writing to a general audience.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my grandfather and his stance on this. He often said something to the effect of, ‘Only fools and morons talk about religion and politics in polite company.‘ I can’t even begin to imagine what he’d think about this blogging lark. It’d probably take me a while to explain to him exactly what was going on here, and even then I’m not entirely confident that I could convince him.

Oh well.

Here goes:

Günter Grass, who is a Nobel Prize winner in literature, has caused an international incident by writing a poem that’s appeared in several major European newspapers. What could possibly be the subject  that’s caused all this controversy? Well, Israel of course.

I don’t know if you know one of the unwritten rules of international politics, but quite simply Germans don’t publicly criticise Israel. It’s just not done. There’s this little matter of the Holocaust, which for obvious reasons makes any relations between modern Israel and Germany rife with tension. Actually, the German government deals with this by publicly supporting Israel on nearly everything.

You could look at an incident such as this public poem as Germany really growing out of its postwar paralysis, when it comes to the world stage – that same way many people including me saw it when Joschka Fischer confronted Donald Rumsfeld  and insisted that he wasn’t convinced by the evidence leading to the  invasion of Iraq. I assure you that it’s not the way the Israeli government (or many of its citizens) sees Günter Grass and his outspoken opinions.  This German intellectual‘s position is not welcomed and his reputation is purportedly tarnished.

Here, the writer is quoted by Der Spiegel (an influential German news magazine):

The overall tenor is to not engage in the content of the poem, but instead to wage a campaign against me and to claim that my reputation is damaged forever,’ Grass said in an interview with a German public broadcaster on Thursday.

So without further ado, here’s the poem in the original German:

Was gesagt werden muss
Von Günter Grass

Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange, was offensichtlich ist und in Planspielen geübt wurde, an deren Ende als Überlebende wir allenfalls Fußnoten sind.

Es ist das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag, der das von einem Maulhelden unterjochte und zum organisierten Jubel gelenkte iranische Volk auslöschen könnte, weil in dessen Machtbereich der Bau einer Atombombe vermutet wird.

Doch warum untersage ich mir, jenes andere Land beim Namen zu nennen, in dem seit Jahren – wenn auch geheimgehalten – ein wachsend nukleares Potential verfügbar aber außer Kontrolle, weil keiner Prüfung zugänglich ist?

Das allgemeine Verschweigen dieses Tatbestandes, dem sich mein Schweigen untergeordnet hat, empfinde ich als belastende Lüge und Zwang, der Strafe in Aussicht stellt, sobald er mißachtet wird; das Verdikt “Antisemitismus” ist geläufig.

Jetzt aber, weil aus meinem Land, das von ureigenen Verbrechen, die ohne Vergleich sind, Mal um Mal eingeholt und zur Rede gestellt wird, wiederum und rein geschäftsmäßig, wenn auch mit flinker Lippe als Wiedergutmachung deklariert, ein weiteres U-Boot nach Israel geliefert werden soll, dessen Spezialität darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengköpfe dorthin lenken zu können, wo die Existenz einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist, doch als Befürchtung von Beweiskraft sein will, sage ich, was gesagt werden muß.

Warum aber schwieg ich bislang? Weil ich meinte, meine Herkunft, die von nie zu tilgendem Makel behaftet ist, verbiete, diese Tatsache als ausgesprochene Wahrheit dem Land Israel, dem ich verbunden bin und bleiben will, zuzumuten.

Warum sage ich jetzt erst, gealtert und mit letzter Tinte: Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden? Weil gesagt werden muß, was schon morgen zu spät sein könnte; auch weil wir – als Deutsche belastet genug – Zulieferer eines Verbrechens werden könnten, das voraussehbar ist, weshalb unsere Mitschuld durch keine der üblichen Ausreden zu tilgen wäre.

Und zugegeben: ich schweige nicht mehr, weil ich der Heuchelei des Westens überdrüssig bin; zudem ist zu hoffen, es mögen sich viele vom Schweigen befreien, den Verursacher der erkennbaren Gefahr zum Verzicht auf Gewalt auffordern und gleichfalls darauf bestehen, daß eine unbehinderte und permanente Kontrolle des israelischen atomaren Potentials und der iranischen Atomanlagen durch eine internationale Instanz von den Regierungen beider Länder zugelassen wird.

Nur so ist allen, den Israelis und Palästinensern, mehr noch, allen Menschen, die in dieser vom Wahn okkupierten Region dicht bei dicht verfeindet leben und letztlich auch uns zu helfen.’

Here’s The New York Times‘ response to all of it:

Günter Grass’s Poem About Israel Provokes Intense Criticism

And the article in the International version of Der Spiegel:

Nobel Laureate Under Fire: Grass Says Campaign Against Him ‘Injurious’

I could spend my time translating the poem, but instead I’ll update this when a decent English version is released. Instead, I’ll just say that I’m very conflicted on all of this. Generally, I’m very sympathetic to Israel. I have a lot of Jewish friends, and I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like to live in a country where all of your neighbours want your nation destroyed.

Anyone who says this issue is black and white is either lying to themselves or to you. Or even more probably, they’re lying to both.

Someone who understands rhetoric knows that it’s more effective to show both sides with equal respect. I’ve said  nice things about Jewish people and Israel’s predicament, and now you’re waiting for me to offer you the other side. Well before I do that, I just want to say that those aren’t empty thoughts. I’m not desperately waiting to get around to supporting the other side.

As a matter of fact I’m not even going to talk about the Palestinians other than to quickly mention them. It’s not that I don’t also sympathise with their plight. In fact, I do. But there’s no way I can begin to address that in the limited time I have. That’s too big an issue and would distract me from what I feel needs to be said. Or as the poet’s title says, ‘What has to be said.’

So what is it? What exactly is the What that has to be said?

Grass goes on in Der Spiegel article:

‘It has occurred to me that in a democratic country in which freedom of the press prevails, there is a certain forced conformity which stands in the foreground along with a refusal to even consider the content and the questions that I cite.’

One of his main points is that the German government should no longer be selling Israel submarines that could or would be used in an attack on Iran. The response from the Israeli government was covered in the same Der Spiegel article:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the poem with particularly harsh words.Günter Grass‘ shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel, says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass,” a statement released by Netanyahu’s office read. “For six decades, Mr. Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising.’

But the thing is that the writer didn’t make any moral equivalence between the nations of Israel and Iran. That was neither what he said nor what he implied. It’s true that the Nobel Laureate was in the Waffen-SS when he was a teenager, and he only admitted it after including it in his 2006 book Peeling the Onion.

Does that mean he can no longer speak his mind about his country’s military involvement? Because of Germany’s deplorable atrocities in the mid Twentieth Century, have its government and its citizens been stripped of the right to speak out on matters of international importance?

Really?

(update: here’s The Guardian‘s translation of the poem -it’s not the whole thing…I’ll be watching for more of it to be translated)

What Must Be Said by Günter Grass

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

 

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

wil not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

 

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

update: There’s been plenty in the German press, as well as the international media, about the response to this story about Günter Grass and his poem. I thought I’d include something from the often satirical left-leaning Berlin newspaper die tageszeitung. Although this paper dealt with the topic seriously and critically, they saved a bit of space on their last page to poke a stick in Grass’s eye. To put this in context, Good Friday (the last Friday before Easter) is a national holiday and there are no newspapers sold that day.

The short article is called an ‘Open Letter to Günter Grass‘, and it’s written in an overly polite tone. Here’s how it looks in German:

‘Sehr geehrter Günter Grass. Sie haben gestern ein politisches Gedicht veröffentlicht, das in den Medien wie eine Atombombe eingeschlagen ist. Es dauerte auch nicht lange, bis wir von ganz oben dazu aufgefordert wurden, uns etwas dazu zu überlegen: “Das ist doch eine Steilvorlage für Satiriker! Das könnt ihr euch nicht entgehen lassen!” Uns gar nicht dazu zu äußern, kam also nicht in Frage. Wir überlegten darum hin und her und her und hin, was wir von dieser verschnarchten Altherrenpoesie denn nun halten sollten. Bereits durch die flüchtige Lektüre des lyrisch-rheumatischen Mahnmals um etwa drei Jahrzehnte gealtert, kamen wir schließlich zu folgendem Ergebnis: Herr Grass, hätten Sie dieses Scheißgedicht nicht erst einen Tag später veröffentlichen können? Dann hätten wir nämlich frei gehabt. Auch das musste einmal gesagt werden.’

Essentially, it says: You released an atomic bomb in the media, and of course the powers-that-be here at the paper insisted that we satirical writers couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass us by. So, we kicked the idea back and forth of what satirical thing we could say. Something appropriate to respond to this snore-fest of an old man’s poetry. We’ve aged as a result of having to read the volatile teachings of this lyrical and rheumatic monument of a writer, so here’s what we decided to say to him: Hey Mr Grass! Couldn’t you have waited just one more day to release this crap poem? Then we writers could’ve actually had the day off. That had to be said, as well.

(my very loose translation)

Welcome to the club

I’m mailing it in a bit this time around. There are so many things on my mind that I’m excited to blog about, but I really need a bit more time to develop the ideas. So instead, I’ve decided to include a video that the The Guardian put together. It’s on their open journalism page, and it’s really worth watching. You don’t even have to click over to it. I’ve embedded the video into the post. Have a look:

There’s so much to think about, right?

There’s so much visual stimuli, but the things that jumped out at me were:

‘keep your chinny chin chins up fellas’

‘I knew the wolf. There’s no way he could’ve blown down those houses. He had asthma’

‘”Huff and Puff” simulation’

and my favorite was one of the signs at the demonstration that said:Wake up and smell the bacon

Although, when I saw this the first time there was plenty  of both positive and even negative feedback on the whole idea. The future of media seems to be one of those darling topics of both serious and not-so-serious thinkers. Last week at South by Southwest in Austin, the editor-in-chief of the New York TimesJill Abramson, spoke at length about this very thing. Oh wait, here’s Jill Abramson Plays the Tech Neophyte at SXSW over at The New York Observer.

But I’m not going to rehash any of the things that were said about The Guardian‘s foray into all of this. You came here for my take.

For me, there’s no question that modern organisations have to grapple with how to deal with new media. Specifically with the way that the reader/viewer has grown accustomed to being a participant. I must admit that when I see a cable news show letting their programming be steered by the idiocy of their viewers, I get irritable. It’s one of those things that really makes me worry about our future collective intelligence.

Yet if I’m honest, I must admit that you take the good with the bad. If we’re going to open media up to the masses, and the genie has been let out of the bottle on this one, then we’re going to sometimes see the dark underbelly of humanity.

In a very critical way, it makes us responsible in a way that we’ve never seen. Even though there will likely always be more trusted news sources than others, we have to be more particular about what/who we believe than any other time in history. We joke about it. We say, ‘I saw it on the internet – it must be true,‘ while knowingly winking at the utter ridiculousness of such a statement.

One of my closest friends tells a story about Sunday mornings at his grandfather’s house. His eyes light up when he tells it. My heart warms a bit just thinking of it, as well. Are you ready? You’re going to love this.

Early in the morning, before everyone was awake, grandfather would amble down to the store and buy a selection of various newspapers. He’d come home with freshly-baked bread from the panadería, and spread all those papers out on the floor. They’d spend hours reading the same stories from different perspectives. As a result, my friend is one of the most balanced and curious people I’ve ever known.

What do I want? 

Glad you asked. Don’t read the same old newspapers you’ve always read. Don’t go to the same websites and assume that the information is good enough. It’s not. Read something that challenges you – something you are sure you disagree with. It’s worth it. It really is.

What’re you scared of? 

Being wrong.

Welcome to the club.

the smart pigs who're sometimes wrong club

Contemplating the Continental Breakup

the idea of Europe

I’ve thought quite a bit about how I’d introduce this topic. It’s complicated and nearly impenetrable. Notice I didn’t say impossible. But many Europeans I talk to don’t know where to begin.

Or they’re so overwhelmed with the whole thing that they shy away from even trying to start. Many people simply don’t want to talk about it.

That’s why I was pleased to hear Ira Glass turn his NPR radio show This American Life over to the people at Planet Money, who would very succinctly and understandably explain the European debt crisis.

They ask the question that many people in the US and around the world have been asking themselves since this situation exploded: Do I really need to be concerned about this? Like the story itself, the answer is more complicated than you might think.

Here’s the podcast:

I know it’s nearly an hour, but the whole situation is explained rather well. Go back, click on the link, and let the story wash over you. It is quite impressively made.

The most telling part of the whole piece happens between 27:50 and 29:40. The guy working in the Greek Statistics Office says that the newly-elected government informed the citizenry, ‘The deficit is closer to 13% not 6% (what was stated by an earlier administration),’ The male journalist’s voice explains that the money had been lent to Greece, ‘…based upon very specific information, and suddenly that information turned out to be very, very wrong. And they wanted to know, “How did this happen?”.

Then the female journalist’s voice goes on:

‘And see, it’s a little hard to answer that question. The Greek politicians explained, “The last guys – they lied to you. It was never 6%. We are telling you the truth. The truth is 13%.” (my note: always be wary when anyone says outright, “We are telling you the truth.”)

But when you ask the people at the government’s statistics office – the very people who came up with the numbers – …they say things like this: “Everyone here in Greece said, ‘What number is this? It’s outrageous.'” Instead of the Greek Statistic Office saying, “We messed up. Here’s what went wrong. Here exactly is how we’re going to win back your trust and make sure it never happens again.” 

No. Instead, the workers just kinda shrugged their shoulders. The government worker says, “Nobody knows.” ‘

The female journalist challenges him abruptly, ‘But you guys work in the statistics office…you’re the first people who would know that, because you work here.’He answers, ‘The people here who worked about this matter said, “We did our job very correctly.”‘

That’s part of the story right there. The people who made the mistakes were human and neither want to point fingers at their colleagues nor admit that they actually did anything wrong.

But now here I am. How do I even begin talking about all of it? Well, what’s most interesting to me is the stereotypes and cultural pitfalls that’re inherent in the whole thing. When they were doing the planning to bring Greece into the Euro, no-one wanted to offend the newcomers. Everyone in the room probably knew that the figures (for Greece‘s application to join the Euro) didn’t add up, but everyone’s feelings had to be taken into account.

 

When I was talking to some of my German acquaintances about this, I started by saying something like, ‘The impression is that the vast majority of Greeks make a game of not having to pay their taxes.’

‘No! That’s not an impression-that’s a fact,’ the German said. ‘The fact is that both middle class and even higher class people there do everything to avoid paying taxes.’ Here’s the thing. Here’s the crux of the matter.

Can you imagine paying your taxes fastidiously and then finding out that you’re paying for an untenable situation in other countries? That even if you dump money into that situation, the other countries’ systems will continue to go on as they did before?

The conclusion at the end of the podcast seemed to be that Germany should try being more like other countries. Or be somehow grateful that it has to bail out the others. It’s sort of a weird conclusion, but I think the Germans might be more willing to accept such a plan if it appeared it would even work.

Just because I live here doesn’t mean that I’m going to argue the German perspective. When I don’t agree with a policy or the direction things are going, then I say something. But all the way through this crisis the conventional wisdom is that in the end the Germans are going to pay. The fact that they’ve dragged their heels or questioned whether paying would do any good whatsoever has been met with outrage. Which is also rather curious.

The other thing here is that it’s easy sitting outside of the situation to assume you know what the players should do. The Hatfields and McCoys look ridiculous unless you actually are either a Hatfield or a McCoy.

What’s difficult for someone outside of Germany to comprehend is the blowback that’d occur if the German government were to accept the demands of other European countries to continue to throw money at the problem without stipulations. Without somehow believing that they were somehow setting up a system that’d make sure this didn’t happen again.

Does anyone (except for those on the fringe of Europe) really believe the Common Currency is going to dissolve? It might be talked about theoretically, but the vast majority of people I talk to can’t even comprehend the failure of the grand experiment that is Europe.

And strangely enough…even with the crisis and the cultural differences and all the other problems that are thrown about in the papers and on the television political shows…even with all of that, I tend to agree with my friends who say ‘How could there not be a Europe?’

How indeed.

something rotten in Hungary

a couple of Magyar Vizslas

I have no business writing about this. With resolve, I avoid writing about American or British politics. Why would I wade into the subject of Hungary’s policies? Why indeed?

Although I’m not a European citizen, I take the idea of community seriously. And my community is in crisis. Really? Isn’t that a bit strident? You’re normally so mild-mannered. Why would you strike out so aggressively about something you have no business even mentioning?

Easy. Press freedom. The easiest way to describe it is that the Hungarian government has passed laws that allow the State to not only closely monitor journalists, but to punish them when something deemed unacceptable has been published.

Who cares, right? It’s Hungary. What do we even have to do with the Hungarians? Yes, what indeed? Well, there’s something rotten in Hungary.

This all came to a head this time last year, and I first read about it (in English, at least) in Hungary media law protest shows forbidden fruit remains sweet in The Guardian. Viktor Orbán was introduced as a former fiery student protest leader, and ‘…Now he is the rotating president of Europe, whatever that means.’ It’s a good question (What does being the president of Europe mean?), but not really the point here. Yet that situation is the only reason why it’s gotten as much attention as it has.

The journalist Péter Zilahy went on to write:

 

When I was little, my parents watched the news on TV every day at 7:30pm. There was only one television channel so everybody was watching the same programme. Everybody knew they were lying on TV, but they also knew that their life was structured around these lies. We all had to learn to read between the lines. If the announcer said that something hadn’t happened here and there, you could be sure it had. If the Russian news agency denied something, we knew it was true.

 

Can you imagine such a scenario? Really? I certainly can’t. There are some of you who might say that living in the West has some eerie similarities. Anyone who truly believes that is, from my understanding, ridiculously kidding himself. I’m all for a bit of persuasive rhetoric, but over on this side of the Berlin Wall, we simply don’t have a clue what Soviet oppression was like. Not remotely.

Zilahy goes on to explain the logical result of banning something: it makes it much more interesting. Something about human nature I assume. But his contention is that this aspect of human nature is particularly strong with the Hungarians.

And then he writes:

 

Many commentators…have suggested parallels to Russia or the Balkans. They fail to see that this is an essentially central-European affair. Austria had its European membership suspended 10 years ago – Hungary still has to find its limits. This is not a government trying to set up a totalitarian regime, but a very Hungarian take on self-control. In reality, the average Hungarian and Orbán’s government have a lot in common: they both think that they can do everything better than anybody else. And yet this government won’t tell me what to write and what not to write.

If parallels are to be found outside the European Union, it would be more fruitful to compare the situation to 1960s America, where you could end up paying huge fines for using four-letter words. The Hungarian language is rich in swearwords – it’s like a whole language within the language. Curtailing them could lead to a degradation of a uniquely Hungarian cultural phenomenon, which a government fond of tradition would surely not want to see.

 

He ends the article by assuming that those in power must have had some sort of grand plan. They surely knew what they were doing with this very fragile relationship between press freedom and the government. The guy’s Hungarian, and I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Or at least try.

But I’ve watched the situation nervously. Again, it’d be much easier to just blow it off and say it’s not my concern. That, in fact, is not the way I see it. To be candid, I wasn’t remotely concerned about Péter Zilahy and his position. I was sure that he was being generous. After all, he knew Orbán by sight from the protests decades ago. If the journalist could keep an eye on everything with healthy skepticism, then so could I.

 

What a relief to see what he’d written in mid December. An article titled Young Hungarians are intent on writing their own future, and I was relieved to see he was still talking about it. How could he not be, right? Well, he was.

 

Hungarians have not been taking the new media law sitting down. There’s been massive protest, and some people are astounded at how the populace has awakened. Theatre directors and artists not only in Hungary but around the world have raised their voices about all of this.

 

In a logical and predictable way, this makes me think that the stubborn individuals in power in Hungary have dug their heels in and intend to stand their ground.

 

Yet this is how Zilahy sums up the situation at this point:

 

As his party continues to pass laws that could be in effect for several political terms, it becomes increasingly clear Orbán overestimated his voters’ enthusiasm for radical change. In recent polls, his party only has a fifth of the vote.

A large number of young Hungarians are afraid that the new rules and regulations will make it harder for their voices to be heard. The Mil (the groundswell of opposition) has distributed 50,000 press passes among the demonstrators, anointing all of them as journalists, urging them to write, to inquire and to pass on information to keep freedom of speech alive. They all have their own views and will not let the government monopolise national identity or the memory of 1956. They do not want the old farts from the left and right who compromised themselves in recent power struggles.

These people, raised in a democracy and brought up with the internet, know well that they will have to foot the bill for their parents’ failure to reinvent the country after the cold war.

Something healthy is finally coming out of this mess. Hungarians are not good dictatorship material. Orbán, if anyone, should know this.

 

From my perspective, the writer seems particularly optimistic that the transparency of the internet age will ensure that Hungary’s present leaders won’t be able to squash press freedom. But that’s where we come in. This has to be an issue for all of us. Especially those of us who wouldn’t normally make any noise about something like this. They can’t shut us all up. I’m quite certain of that.