Journalism and Political Writing


The Sun Betrayed
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Selected articles and columns, Budapest Sun
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Almost No Apologies:
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Selected articles and columns
The Budapest Sun, 2003-2007

“Postcards” from Szeged, Hungary

Quiet city on the puszta

Attentive readers of this newspaper will recall that my first “Postcard from Szeged,” in the issue of September 2, was devoted to the conspicuous beauty of Szegedi females, especially evident in summer when more can be revealed. Alas, this provoked consternation—not to say hysteria—in certain writers of letters to the editor, including one who thrashed me soundly for writing about “sex” in Szeged while ignoring the city’s cultural attractions. He seemed to think that a “Postcard from Szeged” should concern itself with travel and tourism.

It’s true that Szeged offers a bounty of cultural, artistic and historic sites, and I will occasionally write about them. For the most part, though, to set the matter straight, this monthly snippet will tend in other directions.

Above all, as a native Texan recently arrived in the puszta region of southern Hungary, or Magyarország, I want to explore Szeged and its still-rural environs as a provincial microcosm of the whole of Hungarian society, particularly in the context of its 1,000-year past. I want to understand this place in all its strange and compelling—one might even say haunting—manifestations, and I want to share my impressions with the readers of The Budapest Sun. Call it a dialog between a country boy and his urban cousins in the metropolis to the north.

Don’t get me wrong. Szeged is very much a city and becoming more of one every day. It is the seat of a major university which was recently ranked as the top institution for research in Eastern and Central Europe. It’s starting to generate rush-hour traffic jams. It has a McDonald’s and a Burger King, a Tesco, a Cora and a Metro, each trying to outdo the other in conditioning Szegedis to behave like consumers at Wal-Mart, say, in the suburban wastelands of Los Angeles or Dallas.

But there is still something simple and quiet and humble about life in Szeged that I suspect harks back to its centuries of history as a market center for the farmers and ranchers of the sprawling puszta or “great plain” around it. You can see this quiet humility etched in the faces of the old men and women who line the benches on a sunny day in Széchenyi tér, the city’s handsome and popular central park. Unlike Italians in their piazzas, the old Szegedis speak so softly that a passerby can scarcely hear.

There is also, I fear, a sadness in these faces, a sense of tragedy regarding the past and of apprehension regarding the future. What will become of their city in the go-go years of the “market economy” that seem to lie ahead? Will there be a place for peasants like them?

I share their apprehension, and I hope to discuss it, among other things, with the mayor of Szeged in time for my next “Postcard.”

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Mother Language

What is the relationship between a country’s language and its politics? Between language and identity, both national and personal? Should a language be preserved at any cost by an ethnic minority which has long been trapped by historical circumstance in a country that speaks a different language? Might a war be fought over such an issue?

These were a few of the questions I had in mind when I opted to attend a “Mother Language” conference—meaning Hungarian, or Magyarul—held in Szeged in mid-December. An English-speaking friend of mine, Csaba Vörös, was among the organizers of the conference, so I would have help in navigating it.

The conference was sponsored by The Association of Civil Organizations of Southern Hungary, headquartered in Szeged, under the direction of Dr. Sándor Besenyi. It was the latest in a series of annual meetings originally conceived by a Hungarian army colonel, László Tóth, to improve security in South Central Europe by “stabilizing” the ethnic Hungarian enclaves stranded after Trianon in Romania and other border states.

The principal theme of this year’s conference was the daunting array of problems faced by Hungarian schools in the ethnic enclaves. I was startled to learn of the tortuous effort these communities devote to the maintenance of a system of private schools that are operated by the Catholic church.

The overriding deficit of course is money. Since the governments of the “host” countries, most of which practice the Orthodox faith, are naturally not eager to support a separatist system of Catholic schools, the ethnic Hungarians must generate resources in other ways. Those resources are so scant, according to Csaba Vörös, that there is often only one school to serve the children of 10 villages in a given ethnic area. It follows that buses alone are a major expense for the schools involved, not to mention such problems as teacher recruitment and salaries.

Speaker after speaker—from Transylvania, Serbia and elsewhere—addressed these and kindred issues during the three days of the conference. Dr. Jósef Kozma, a deputy mayor of Szeged and Hungarian MP, spoke to the need for “Euro-Regional Collaboration in Human Resources Education,” while Dr. Bodó Barna of Transylvania discussed “Ethnic Life in the Romanian Bánát Region.”

Perhaps the most compelling speaker, according to Vörös and Ilona Anna Forgách, a Szegedi journalist, was Dr. Béla Pomogáts, a literary and political thinker from Budapest. He issued, among other things, a scathing indictment of the entire Hungarian “political elite,” saying it lacks the “vision” required to lead Hungary across the “threshold of the new century.”

As a Texan in the process of being Europeanized, I hope what he meant was a “vision” of Europe whose future generations identify themselves—above all—as citizens of the world, not of abstractions with shifting borders called “nation states.”

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Peak Oil

What a difference a couple of years of globalization can make, even in a place like Szeged. When I first arrived in the summer of 2003, I was charmed by the seeming paucity of cars on the streets. I was charmed by the quaint old trolleys jammed with riders and the columns of cyclists on their own narrow highways and the bold white stripes at pedestrian crossings, where approaching cars invariably stopped to let me pass. I felt honored to be a pedestrian and a cyclist in Szeged. I felt free, for the first time, of the tyranny of Emperor Auto that I had long suffered in the United States.

A few days ago, though, as I stepped to the street at one those Szeged crosswalks, I noticed something hurtling toward me in the corner of my eye. It was a black Porsche coupe, and the driver clearly had no intention of letting me cross. I stood my ground, albeit not far from the curb, while the Porsche swerved slightly and then raced past me with a blaring horn. I shot the savage a defiant third finger, but I felt defeated.

It was a sign that Szeged is fast succumbing to the amoral allure of the automobile, the premium commodity in the corporate push for globalization. Other signs include traffic jams, a startling proliferation of student drivers, and new car dealers popping up like prairie dog mounds on the two-lane highway to Budapest.

This is the road that will soon be “improved” to bring M5 to the Szeged city limits. The mayor of the city, László Botka, told me in an interview that the completion of M5 from Budapest to Szeged is one of his top priorities. Another is the construction of a huge trucking “logistics” center, and still another the development of a municipal airport. The mayor said that such “improvements” are vital to the attraction of foreign investment to the region.

That of course is the sacred mantra of virtually every politician in the world right now. And I can’t help but marvel that the singers of this mantra haven’t been told about Peak Oil. According to a new book by resource expert James Howard Kunstler, unsubtly titled The Long Emergency, 2005 is the year in which global oil production will peak and start to decline. The decline is sure to be rapid, not least because of the rising clamor for cars, highways and jetliners by the vast populations of India and China.

In perhaps as little as a decade, it is reckoned, oil will be so effectively scarce and expensive that investments made today in the infrastructure of the automobile and the jetliner, among other bad choices, will be dead weight around the taxpayers’ necks. Who will need highways and airports when oil is too costly for most people on the planet to drive or fly?

I believe that cities like Szeged can escape this noose, and I will argue my case in future “Postcards.”

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The anti-polis

The longer I dwell in Szeged, the more I appreciate the efficiency of the city government, headed by Mayor László Botka, in the maintenance of infrastructure and provision of basic services. The streets are generally in excellent condition, the parks well-kempt, the transit system and trash collection first-rate. The city has also outdone itself in the restoration of important public buildings and the promulgation of popular festivals and other events.

But there are problems and shortcomings as well, some of them serious, like the burgeoning loss of small enterprises in the city center, which I discussed in my previous “Postcard.” I have since been told by more than one Szegedi that the problem is worse than I portrayed it, and among the reasons is a city development policy that favors big-box multi-nationals like Cora and Tesco over small Szegedi-owned firms.

Another defect I perceive in Szeged is the absence of strong city programs in pursuit of such critical objectives as environmental protection and energy and water conservation. There is, for example, no curbside recycling of solid waste in the central city. Without such a program, the city must continue to truck its growing mountains of refuse to mountainous landfills in the countryside, thus blighting and damaging the land while ultimately imperiling water resources.

A similar situation obtained some 25 years ago in Austin, Texas, where I am from. The city government failed persistently to implement programs like recycling and energy conservation that were obviously germane to the long-term well-being of the populace. So the citizens took matters into their own hands. They formed associations in their living rooms, circulated petitions, raised hell at city council meetings, and finally ran candidates for the council and won. Today, as a result, Austin is a world-class model of resource management, with a high percentage of its solid waste being recycled and discussions underway of ZERO solid landfill waste by 2040.

I have asked perhaps a dozen of my fellow Szegedis why, in the face of official inaction here, the citizens themselves haven’t acted on issues so vital to their own future and certainly their children’s and grandchildren’s future. Why no grass-roots agitation in support of recycling, protection of the environment, survival of local entrepreneurs?

And I have been looked at, invariably, as though I had just arrived from Mars. I have heard references to the Soviet era, which presumably destroyed the public appetite for confronting government and indeed for participating in politics. One friend told me: “That Austin thing is like the Athenian ideal of the polis, where every citizen is expected to be a senator. In Szeged, in Hungary, we have the anti-polis. We hate politics.”

Surely, if such an attitude endures in Szeged, in Hungary, it will qualify as the gravest problem of all.

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A flag for self-reliance

Here’s a plot for a horror movie. Bright young marrieds with noble intentions abandon the city to farm a small plot on the fertile great plain, or puszta, of southern Hungary. Soon after their arrival, the farm animals turn on their new owners in sullen revolt, particularly a maddened rooster. It traps the wife in a corner of an outbuilding. It lunges repeatedly, ignoring her frantic jabs with a stick and blocking her escape. At length her husband beheads the assailant with a scythe.

This isn’t a movie. This is one of the many adventures experienced thus far by Roland and Cheryl Magyar, who have just completed their first month as the owners of a tanya, or small farm, on the road to Ópusztaszer, some 30 kilometers north of Szeged. I wrote about the couple in my January “Postcard” (“A guy named Magyar”), observing that Roland, 28, a native Hungarian, had recently returned from five years of study in the U.S. with his American wife Cheryl, 27.

I celebrated their arrival in Szeged because of their devotion to the principle informing my favorite environmental slogan: “Think globally, act locally.” Roland promptly secured a job with a foundation in Szeged committed to sustainable energy development, and now, four months later, he and Cheryl have overcome one obstacle after another to purchase their tanya and commence the creation of a model organic farm, which I equate with the planting of a flag for local self-reliance in the Szeged bioregion.

As demonstrated by the mad-rooster episode, the hardships in such an enterprise can be daunting. Roland and Cheryl currently have no running water in their house—though they do have wells and a pond on their land—no gas, no indoor toilet. They heat and cook with a wood-burning stove. They have no TV, no telephone line, hence no connection to the Internet. They have an old Czech tractor, a Zetor, left behind by the previous owner, but Roland doesn’t intend to use it. He looks forward instead to the acquistion of a murakózi, the fabled Hungarian draft horse.

Despite the privations, he and Cheryl are happy, tanned and confident they will make good on their brave endeavor. “Our corn,” says Cheryl, “is already knee-high, and we have 6,000 paprika plants in the ground.” Being organic, those will fetch a higher price at harvest, perhaps totaling a million forints.

Additional cash crops, present and future, include poppies and oil pumpkins, apples, cherries and other fruits, almonds, guinea hens, mangalica pigs and “electricity,” says Roland. Electricity? “The puzsta,” he adds, “is perfect for the production of wind-generated electricity. We think we can be net exporters not only of high-quality food items but of surplus electric power from wind turbines.”

This way lies salvation of the planet. Every government and concerned foundation in the Szeged bioregion should leap to support and replicate it.

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Soul of a city

Does Szeged possess that ineffable something called “soul?” When I first arrived here, I felt strongly that it did. I thought I sensed a uniqueness of spirit perhaps derived from the city’s history as the market and cultural center of a hard-working population of small farmers on the puszta around it. Szeged seemed wonderfully rural and urban at the same time, as characterized by its Pick brand of food products and of course its paprika.

I thought I had reason to hope, therefore, that Szeged would define itself along those lines in the future, combining the intellectual resources of its university with the agricultural resources of the puszta to ensure that the city continued to be something special—meaning, above all, something local. I even dared hope that it would become more proudly self-reliant, like the farmers themselves.

Little by little, though, in the ensuing three and a half years, I have watched Szeged veer from that path and into the arms of the globalizing, community-flattening, international investor elite. The latest manifestation of this was the closure last week of a supremely special place in Szeged called Bécsi Kávéház, a.k.a. Café Wien, to pry open space for yet another Szeged branch of the SAS pharmacy chain, owned by the mammoth Pharmainvest Kft.

The word “outrage” is not sufficient here. In the six bright years of its existence on a prominent corner in the city centrum, Bécsi Kávéház—owned by Róbert Papp of Szeged—had established itself as one of the most popular and distinctive institutions in the city. It exuded, in keeping with its name, an atmosphere redolent of 19th century Vienna, with a rich wooden floor and bar, soft maroon walls, carriage lamps and a grand piano stationed majestically in the rear. Its menu offered a sophisticate’s choice of beers, wines, coffees and pastries at startlingly reasonable prices, thus attracting a diverse cross-section of Szegedis and visitors from out of town.

Bécsi had class—and soul in spades—without being ostentatious. It cultivated sociability and conversation by refusing to oppress its clientele with piped-in music or television, the only such bar in Szeged I know of. Perhaps for that reason, it was a favorite of local chess players, whose clicking sounds mingled nicely with the buzz of Szegedis talking to each other. “I’ll meet you at Bécsi” was an oft-heard local refrain.

And now it will be a SAS pharmacy, the third in Szeged, a profit factory for its corporate overseers, with lines of silent, unsmiling patrons waiting to be gouged by equally unsmiling, factory-trained clerks. Significantly, this insult to the soul of the city will be compounded by the opening soon—also in the centrum—of a second Tesco profit factory at the site of a former furniture store. SAS will eliminate the few local pharmacies remaining in town, while Tesco eliminates the few remaining retailers.

Part of the travesty of Bécsi’s demise is that the City of Szeged, through its real estate division, owns the building in which Bécsi was housed. When Róbert Papp declared his intent to vacate, having lost his business partner, the city could easily have arranged for the space to be assumed by a new local lessor who would operate it as Bécsi or as something equivalent.

Why did the city not save this treasure? Why did the citizens of Szeged not demand it? These are questions of civic soul—and the troubling want thereof.

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To love one’s turf

“In those days when man was closer to nature than mass-experience man today, the Balaton people used to walk down to the lake at dawn to watch the water. Its surface told them everything of the previous night and the hours to come—the behavior of the clouds, the birds in flight, the temper of the fish that flashed below.”

These are the opening lines of Balaton, a book published in English in 2005 by Alexandra Kiadó. It is a volume that every household in Hungary should possess, not only for the sumptuous photos by Ottó Kaiser but perhaps even more for the rich and sensitive text by Imre Dlusztus.

As I discovered to my delight in a recent interview, Imre Dlusztus is a man of Szeged extraordinaire—local journalist, sports enthusiast, lover of his city and its countryside, candidate for mayor in the last election as a mission-driven maverick. “Some of the established parties tried to recruit me,” he says, “but their minds are pitch dark with respect to the problems that need to be solved.”

He ran instead as vice-president of the Association of Independent Citizens of Szeged, a group that was founded a year ago by Dlusztus and other Szegedis, among them Imre Vörös, a local building contractor, and Janos Juhász Apro, the president of the group and a member of the Szeged City Council. Dlusztus lost his race for mayor, but he intends to run again on the same platform.

Szeged should be guided, he says, by a 20-year plan with three fundamental components: (1) scientific and technical research, taking advantage of the university here; (2) agricultural development and regional integration, taking advantage of Szeged’s fertile great plain, the puszta, as well as its proximity to the agricultural resources of Serbia and Romania; (3) tourism, especially “health tourism,” taking advantage of the abundant thermal springs in the area.

Dlusztus further believes that Szeged should pursue a path of “local authority and self-reliance,” as permitted by Hungarian law. The city’s development, he says, should benefit the citizens of Szeged above the interests of outside investors and contractors. He is indignant that local companies—vying for sewage system improvement contracts worth 20 billion forints—were awarded only 10 percent of the total, the rest going to large operators from out of town.

As a tantalizing example of what a city can accomplish on the strength of “local authority and self-reliance,” Dlusztus refers to Mórahalom, a town west of Szeged, where the popular young mayor, Zoltán Nógrádi, has helped establish Mórakert, a cooperative of 650 family farms on the puszta around the city. It serves both farmers and city dwellers through such initiatives as farmers’ markets, shared financing and management of processing facilities, like granaries and mills, and the successful development of branded agricultural products.

Grassroots initiatives of this sort are virtually unheard of in corporatized Europe and America today, are anathema, in fact, to political “leaders” who have fixed their lips on the easy teat of “foreign direct investment” and globalization.

Imre Dlusztus, in his passion for the local, is thus a rebel, an iconoclast. He is also the prize-winning editor of Szegedi Egyetem, a widely published poet, an expert on wines, president of the Szeged Football Club, and—as the lines quoted above from his book reflect—a man who recognizes the sacred bond that ought to exist between Earth and its inhabitants.

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Image of a Superpower

Two months ago, in a “Postcard” titled “A Magyar Americanist,” I wrote a profile of Dr. András Csillag, a distinguished American Studies professor at the University of Szeged. I pointed out, among other things, that Csillag is “an ardent admirer and friend” of the United States who has grown alarmed in the last few years at the ugly nosedive America has taken in terms of its worldwide public image. I noted that he had written an essay on the subject which would soon become a chapter in a book on U.S. history by a group of American Studies scholars at Hungarian universities.

That book has just been published as Gyarmatokból impérium, or Colonies to Empire, edited by Tibor Frank for Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest. Available only in Hungarian for now, it comprises 17 chapters on subjects ranging, chronologically, from American federalism and early expansion to George F. Kennan, the Cold War strategist, to America’s role in the Balkans conflict of the 1990s.

Csillag’s essay, “America’s Image at the Turn of the Millennium,” is the longest in the volume, at 36 pages, and arguably the most relevant to the current dialog on America’s place and reputation in the world. If there is a prevailing theme in the essay, it is the tension Csillag observes, with the French writer de Toqueville, between such laudable virtues as America’s commitment to democracy, on the one hand, and its perennial impulse, on the other, toward national smugness, indeed arrogance, and violent intrusion into the affairs of other countries.

This impulse, embodied in phrases like “Manifest Destiny” and “American Exceptionalism,” is clearly at the root of the image problem the U.S. faces today. The seriousness of that problem was documented in a recent survey by the BBC World Service, in which a majority of respondents in 27 nations ranked the U.S. near the bottom of countries they admired—below even North Korea.

It hasn’t always been so, course. By the end of WW II, when U.S. and allied troops had liberated much of western Europe from the Axis forces, America’s image glowed in the view of most Europeans. It glowed still brighter with the Marshall Plan and continued to glow through the years of the Cold War—except for America’s deadly misadventure in Vietnam. That, says Csillag, looked a lot like imperialism to a lot of observers in Europe and elsewhere.

The U.S. partially redeemed itself with its bloodless Cold War “victory” over the Soviet Union, headlined by the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, while America’s image took a hit with the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1998/99—and U.S. rejection of popular international initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol—world sympathy was largely restored in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when the White House organized a multinational military alliance to pursue Osama bin Laden and his ilk in Afghanistan.

Then came the tragically wrongheaded invasion of Iraq, based on false claims of “weapons of mass destruction,” followed by the revelations of American torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, followed by the horrifically bungled government response to Hurricane Katrina—and other more immediate, widely reported American scandals not included in Csillag’s essay.

The bottom line is unprecedented damage to the world image of a country Csillag continues to hold in high esteem. One of the reasons for America’s missteps, he believes, is the failure of recent U.S. administrations to recognize the potency of “soft power,” a concept propounded in a now-famous essay by Harvard professor Joseph Nye. Instead of the military reflex, “soft power” would emphasize cultural and educational initiatives, development assistance and people-to-people programs on a global scale.

The good news is that Csillag sees stirrings of change in this direction, at least in the public diplomacy function of the U.S. State Department.

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The speech not given

In my previous “Postcard,” April 26, I offered a profile of Gerg? Kóvács, a young Szegedi street artist—and expat from Budapest—who founded the infamous Two-Tailed Dog party in 2006 as a whimsical alternative to Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in the parliamentary elections that year. I mentioned that Kóvács, in league with the Hungarian Hempseed Association, was organizing a rally for May 13 in Szeged to promote the legalization of marijuana. I noted that I myself had been invited to speak at the rally.

Why, you might ask, would an itinerant Texas journalist be asked to present his views on the decriminalization of cannabis to an audience in Hungary? One reason was a novel I’d written, set in Texas, that is, among other things, a neo-beat anthem to the virtues of marijuana, including its medicinal value. Though I wrote the novel in English, as Abigail in Gangland, it was published in Hungary in 2005 as Szórakozz a nénikédell!(Go Play with Your Aunt!)

A second reason for my invitation to the rally is the fact that I am a victim of peripheral neuropathy, which causes such severe pain in my feet and legs that I am often unable to sleep. The one medicine I have found which relieves this pain—cheaply, effectively and without fail—is marijuana, at a dose of two hits on a joint before bedtime. Kóvács, the organizer of the rally, had read my novel and knew of my medical condition, hence his suggestion that I speak.

I was glad to accept because I am indignant, to put it mildly, that I am prohibited from purchasing in Hungary, or anywhere else in Europe but Holland, the only substance I know of that eases the pain of my peripheral neuropathy. In case you doubt me, by the way, a recent study at the medical school of the University of California at San Francisco, published in March in the journal Neurology, has provided air-tight clinical verification of my own experience, which came to me coincidentally.

In researching my speech, I discovered that marijuana has also been shown in clinical studies to relieve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, glaucoma, hepatitis C and half a dozen other disorders. Ten state legislatures in the U.S. have consequently approved the cultivation and sale of marijuana for medical use. In some of those states, the campaigns for legalization were supported by George Sörös, the Hungarian-American billionaire who founded Central European University in Budapest and the Open Society Institute.

All this and more went into the text of my speech. I pointed out the absurdity of legalizing “drugs” like tobacco and alcohol, which kill and sicken tens of thousands a year in Hungary, while imprisoning consumers of marijuana, a natural and non-addictive substance with virtually no pejorative effects on health. I cited statistics to demonstrate that the legalization of marijuana and industrial hemp in Hungary could generate an economic bonanza—in the public and private sectors both—as it has in the Netherlands.

A good enough speech, but alas, I wasn’t able to give it. Too long, for one thing. In the final half hour of the rally, my interpreter still hadn’t completed his translation. Another problem was the small mob of Jobbik neo-Nazis who deployed whistles and bullhorns to try to overwhelm those advocates who did speak. They failed utterly with Ágnes Bardos Deak, the bravura lead singer for Ági and the Boys, a rock band from Budapest, but they might have made audio mincemeat out of me.

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