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Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Race" to the Bottom

Kertész Ákos is an octuagenerian writer of reknown, especially for his strikingly critical work on the conditions of working-class life in Kádár's Hungary. His novel, Makra has been sold in 1.2 million copies (in a country with ten million citizens--i.e., approximately one in three Hungarian households is likely to own it). Kertész has received just about all high state awards that are available for a writer in Hungary.

On February 29, Kertész followed thousands of Roma citizens of Hungary (including, e.g., former Member of the European Parliament Viktória Mohácsi) in applying for political asylum in Canada. He decided to do so, his press statement explains, because, for the recent year or so, he has been subject to ceaseless harassment and physical threats for a piece he had written for a Hungarian-language newspaper, published in the USA, in which he suggested that Hungarians must be "genetically inferior," otherwise they would not have tolerated a series of dictatorships over their heads. (Having been called upon by the Hungarian government to do so, Kertész later recounted his statement. In spite of that, the conservative majority in the Budapest municipal council revoked Kertész's title as "Honorary Citizen of Budapest". The extreme-right party in Parliament has initiated a number of procedures against him, including a motion to revoke all his state awards.)

I have two small comments about the whole affair. First, it is obvious that such turns of phrase are absolutely commonplace in Hungary today, making just about any conversation, television or radio discussion, or even a trip by public transportation, quite unpleasant for those of us with a normal sense of humanity. Everyday racism is all over the place. What sets apart Kertész's statement is of course that it is applied to "Hungarians" in toto, i.e., a sacred object of devotion for extreme nationalist rhetorics. The prevalence of the 'race' discourse does not absolve Kertész of the responsibility for what he puts on paper (see my comments on that below), but helps us contextualize his point. It also helps us understand how it is possible that such a thought, if it can be called that, once penned by an author, should be able to pass through the hands of newspaper editors and all other people involved in the production of a newspaper and a website, apparently without raising an eyebrow. To me, that is the real clue regarding this matter.

Second, the racist slur used, as it is here, against "Hungarians" as such only makes sense, given the context, if we take into account the fact that Kertész himself is a "Hungarian," i.e., if we recognize that the absurd statement is, at a minimum, self-deprecating. The whole point is that of a desperate self-deprecation. With this, Kertész makes a very powerful literary allusion to a (not particularly pleasant, but still powerfully present) topos in Hungarian literature, that of lamentation and self-castigation over the tragic failings of the "nation." But understanding that allusion would require a sympathetic mind and a basic familiarity with Hungarian culture--both of which are woefully missing from the attitudes of the right-wing hacks who gave Kertész a Nazi reaction, thereby implicitly confirming the bigger point Kertész was trying to make with that ill-chosen metaphor.

To me, the worst thing about all this is the repeated realization--something I am getting with alarming frequency in, and with respect to, Hungary nowadays--that members of the culture behind the speech community, including many of those who label themselves as "left" and/or "liberal," have basically no idea how retrograde, antisocial and, overall, how suicidal their ignorance about the implications of the "race" discourse is.

The tragedy is not the racism of the extreme right. The ultimate tragedy is the implicit "openness" of the "liberal / left" position to such racist imageries. This truly is the end of a culture, as far as I am concerned.

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cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta