Monday, April 25, 2016

Politics and History in Budapest

Monument and Counter-Monument
Budapest, Hungary

It's been a busy couple of weeks since my last post. Since Friday 15 April I've spent less than half my time in Berlin, and being home now is giving me a much-needed chance to catch up and put these thoughts in order.

So what have I been doing? I spent a day in Hamburg, exploring the city and having a 30-minute interview. Thoughts this brings up: educational privilege, connections, the difference between Berlin and Hamburg (and how Hamburg feels much older and more secure). This past weekend I was in Sweden visiting Lieutenant Sarcasm. Thoughts this brings up: civilization, desire to fulfill responsibilities vs. ability to do so, the concept of being able to have a relatively un-angst-filled relationship to the past.

Most importantly for this post and my political awakening, though, were the roughly 3 days the entire Berlin group spent in Budapest from Sunday to Wednesday last week. We met various people, from professors and opposition NGOs to Hungarian students and members of an institute that supports the Orban administration.

I went in knowing very little about Hungary besides that the country is shutting its borders to refugees. Our trip organizer sent us several links to help give us some background. There's a definite bias to these materials:

I share this bias, and living now in Germany in a very liberal homestay family as a college student from one of the most liberal states in the USA, it's very simple and easy for me to listen to critics of the Orban government and agree. The countries of the EU must act together to meet a great humanitarian need. Of course! Refugees should be welcomed and given a chance to start a new life away from danger. Of course! However, with the rise of the National Front in France and the AfD in Germany and the Free Party in Austria and the continued popularity of the Orban regime, it is clear that messages running counter to those which I find self-evident are in fact resonating with large groups of people. Therefore, I was most interested in hearing what the Hungarian students and what the Orban supporters had to say.

The Hungarian students tended to be liberal-minded and much more politically aware and sophisticated than us, or so it seemed to me. The one sitting at my table at dinner was actually just in her last year of high school, but had already studied a semester abroad in Vienna and knew four languages (Hungarian, English, German, and Italian; may also have had a little instruction in French). Yet even these students' mindsets show some of the levers that Orban and people like him (nationalists, conservatives) are pulling. These students were very, very proud of being Hungarian in both blood and nationality. Our student, an open and friendly girl with lots of suggestions for where to go and what to do, asked me upon hearing me say that I was American, "but what about your blood?" Later in the evening, when asked a direct question about politics, she said that she saw the two trends in the EU as the worrying rise of right-wing extremism--and in opposition, homogenization.

As a first-generation Chinese-American kid, I've always had to deal with the bullshit idea that your ethnicity and your nationality must be the same. It is an idea which I have only ever seen paired with racism--maybe not open and hostile racism, but racism from even well-meaning folks is harmful. In the current political climate the hostile kind is growing increasingly likely.

Such an attitude was, in fact, taken up by the Orban supporters we heard from. One speaker on the "migrant crisis" said that integration and immigration are issues that are better taken up by the "Germans, who are more used to mixing with Asians and Muslims" [sic] (yes, actually [sic]). One of our group questioned him on this point, asking if he really had such little faith in the Hungarian people to welcome people who are not ethnically Hungarian. Admittedly, Hungary is pretty ethnically homogeneous--but this guy taking it as a given that Hungarians could not integrate with people who are different.

This leads to a question of leadership. What does a leader do, if not unite people behind a vision? Sometimes that vision is grotesque--Hitler is the obvious example, but pick any of the recent politicians who spew hate and intolerance--but it does not have to be. Yet something that the critics we heard from all said was that the current wave of right-wing extremism has been exacerbated by the failure of the political left to offer a compelling competing vision. Austria's traditional centrist parties, which have ruled either separately or in coalition since the end of WWII, aren't even going to make it to the second round of presidential elections. Where is the center, where is the left?

A lot of people are flocking to these right-wing parties and movements because of dissatisfaction with the existing order. So saith this TU-Dresden survey of Pegida participants (link is in German but mostly graphs, so only a few words to translate). If these people are just out-and-out bigots, then (in my mind) catering to them is a step that only the craven would resort to, but if they are normal people whose economic and social fears are being manipulated into hatred, who could be convinced to see opportunities where now there is only uncertainty--what have the ruling parties of the past been doing?

Normatively, people don't need a politician or TV personality or anyone else to tell them what or how to think. But our sense of what is right is socially influenced, and people in positions of power have a responsibility to use their greater/broader access to information in order to present interpretations of reality that are truthful and that move us forward.

(There's a lot more ideology in the previous paragraph than I usually put in, but since I'm just beginning to form my political consciousness I'm going to leave it as is for now. It will get stress-tested.)

To return to Budapest: the same guy talking about the "migrant crisis" (I use quotes because this is how he referred to it; this is how the government is framing it, as a "migrant" crisis and not as a "refugee crisis") spoke of the need to distinguish between asylum policy and immigration policy. Immigration policy meaning "who we decide to live with" [sic] and asylum policy meaning how to help people fleeing violence. His answer to the first was vague, aside from not wanting to let Asians and Muslims into Hungary. His answer to the second was a little more concrete but seemed to boil down to: lob money over the fence to Turkey and let them deal with the problem of housing and clothing and feeding thousands upon thousands of people. And maybe to have the EU take a more active role in foreign affairs in order to "reduce the numbers, reduce the excess" [sic].

The week before the Budapest trip, in my theater class we watched a production of the play FEAR. (A brief intro in English here.) It is about the current rise of conservative national extremism in Germany, and is full of the plea/protest/vow of "never again." The shadow of National Socialism lies heavy on Germany, and in Berlin especially. The theme of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is in the background of the current discussions. Germany, as the main perpetrator in WWII, has not had the option of turning away from the past.

Not so in Hungary. The current regime is eager to deny Hungary's participation in fascism. The picture at the top of this post is of a monument the Orban regime put up, showing Hungary being attacked by the eagle of the Third Reich*, along with the counter-monument--mementos belonging to or symbolizing those who were persecuted--put up by Hungarian citizens angry at this revisionism. The House of Terror, a museum put up by the current regime which explains fascist and communist rule in Hungary from the latter years of WWII to the fall of the Iron Curtain, takes a similar line.

*Note on the anachronism/mixing of symbols: one of our later speakers, a professor of politics with some expertise in history, explained to us that many times in its history, Hungary has been a conquered or subjugated nation--under the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, the Soviets. The conflation of the Habsburg Empire with the German Third Reich is, presumably, meant to appeal to this historical "underdog" narrative. The current regime is also trying to frame the European Union as another such conqueror.

As a kid born in the late 90s, it's a shock to think about how recently the Cold War ended. It's hard to see oneself as part of a historical trajectory. Part of this may be because my perspective is warped by the US's selective, oftentimes revisionist, certainly inadequate history education. Part of it may be because I'm first-generation, and feel no real connection to my ethnic heritage because I haven't grown up living or at least hearing about it and feel only a tenuous connection to my national heritage because is the history of the US as we're taught it really a history about/for people who are like me? Part of it may just be because, growing up in the US, it is easier to overlook the trauma of past conflicts because our cities haven't been bombed and invaded and burnt down in the past century. Since coming here, I've had a lot of moments of historical vertigo--at how long the past is--and anti-vertigo--at how near the past is. I am three degrees of separation (meaning, I know someone who knows someone who knew/met) away from both Martin Niemoller and Adolf Hitler.

Maybe the nearness of history has made such a large impression on me precisely because it's different from what I'm used to. But from my perspective, it seems impossible how easily these "civilized" nations, with such educated and clever and sophisticated citizens, fall back into the patterns of nationalist thought that swallowed millions of lives just a century ago. I have no doubt that these people are on the wrong side of history. But what consolation is that in the present?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


I've made a lot of clamor over the past year or so about needing to live more in the real world, about needing to be more engaged in politics, about building a firm and discerning character capable of taking stances on issues affecting the world today. By all rights, I should be writing a post with what I know about the refugee crisis and the way it is everywhere in the news now, how Germans talk and think about it (although I encounter mostly leftist Germans); or about the Panama Papers and the line to walk between privacy and public accountability. I will write such posts, if not on these topics then in the same vein, in the future.

Today, however, I want to think about art, stories, and the kind of art and stories that I want to create. We'll see if my growing politicism will find its way in.

Ubermadchen, which I finished at the end of last month, grew into some modern political messages while also, I think, drifting from the political struggles and class conflicts that would have been more relevant at the time. It was a long story, an adventure story and ein Bildungsroman, fantasy, with a main character who is not afraid to emote. More and more, as I wrote, I grew to care about the characters, identifying with their struggles and with them. When I get the book to a state fit to share, I hope that it does that for others, too. I don't think I ever started crying while writing, which has happened before in rare instances, but the second half of the book was written during my first five quarters of college, a time with far greater emotional amplitude than my pre-college life, and that emotional valence--the fear and uncertainty and occasional triumph of breaking out of one's chrysalis--is present, and is not something I would try to edit out.

Contrast: I am in a theater class right now, and we are looking at contemporary Berlin productions, which are predominantly of a "postdramatic" bent. This means, as far as I can tell, that the point isn't to care about the characters and their situations, but to be challenged--breaking down the fourth wall, playing with form, deconstructing, breaking down. Characters aren't people, they are types, they are media for meaning that may not be textual.

I've been short of story input since coming to college and letting my reading time disappear, and the sudden influx of this new kind of story fodder is a bit of a shock to the system. What if I did that? Did avant-garde, did postdramatic, did quirky and strange, played with form? What if...

It's not off the table, but the trouble is that characters are and have always been the key to the stories I tell. I can't deal with a cast of masks. I live with and through my characters; for every single story I have, I have a modern AU in which I can imagine these people, who I know aren't real but who still matter to me, walking around and interacting with the world that I live in. As I get to know the city of Berlin, I think of how the Ubermadchen characters would interact with it. There is Katya and Levi, on a date strolling along the Spree and talking about robots; Marilla is drinking hot chocolate at Fassbender & Rausch; Josefina and Suzanne are volunteering at Tempelhof, helping refugees; Terez is the undercut hipster on the U-Bahn, listening to a podcast about rocks. If I want to mix my stories, then they're also checking homework solutions with Wolfgang Gemeinhardt at one of the FU libraries.

People are what make writing fiction matter to me. It's why I have three novel-length stories under my belt but abandon standalone short stories after a few thousand words. My current project, which is moving rather slowly because I've got a city to explore, is about Marilla helping out some ghosts and is prompted by a conversation with my sister about horror stories where I could not--unbedingt!--see myself writing a ghost story that did not in some measure attempt to humanize the ghosts.

So I don't know if I can do postdramatic. That probably excludes me forever from being Berlin cool.

I am okay with not being cool, but I do think that it will be worth trying this style or approach out, as an experiment. What draws people to this style? The first thing that comes to mind is that people want to suggest or outright state a message, and the particulars about the characters and their histories and futures and human pecularities would get in the way of that. That would neatly explain why this style is hard for me to imagine myself writing: what message do I feel strongly enough that it outweighs my interest in the individuality of characters? Self-determination and individual freedom/autonomy--but does this lend itself well to abstraction, when the point is more clearly made by an individual determining their particular life against particular odds? Responsibility to help people--but...

Maybe I should stop saying "but" and push these ideas farther. A stronger abstraction machine is worth cultivating.

A big mental block for me is that I don't want to be gimmicky, or rather, to come off as gimmicky. And for someone who strongly values simplicity, any time that style is too visible, the gimmick alarms start, very softly, to beep. I don't like or have patience for affectation, and I am still caught by the illusion of story creation as something organic. But of course, it is not, and even if it was--there is more than one way to grow.


Additional reading: I am no literary expert, but thanks to the internet, I can access people who are. Theodora Goss's blog post on Modernism, which basically expresses a desire to return to the sort of swift, thinking-over-feeling story that I question my ability to execute. I also deeply admire the work of more intellectual writers, whose work does not stand upon identifying with a particular character--Kafka, Hesse, Borges, und so weiter. They execute the allegorical style fantastically.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hierarchy of Virtues


I've been in Berlin for a week and a day now. Lots of thoughts about various topics. Instead of thinking about getting everything down and then deleting the post halfway through, I'm going to pick just one thread.


For a while in high school, when I was trying to codify a moral system for myself (and for a secret society of sorts in a secondary world fantasy), I had a phrase that ran through my head frequently. It was: "Self-control is the highest virtue."

In the middle of last quarter, I went through a rough patch with a friend, by which I mean all my other friends thought I hated this guy. Once, while discussing it with another mutual friend, I clarified--"I don't have a problem with his character; it's his conduct that I can't stand."

Here--people jaywalk a lot less. The trains run on time. The streets are much cleaner than in any big city I have ever seen, and the buses do not reek. People are polite, and helpful, and yet I have seen stickers "Gegen Islamisierung" on the U-Bahn.


There is, I believe, a hierarchy of virtues. I am in the middle of formulating my thoughts on it, and thus far have determined that it has at least two levels. The primary level is character/conscience (Gewissen); the secondary, conduct. Virtue, in both of these levels, deals with what is "right." But in the first, "right" means "just" and in the second, "right" means "correct."

The two are not entirely discrete, because of course, one's conduct is a means of demonstrating character. How people do things reflects what value system they bring to the world, and--for example--brushing off a friend who needs help is bad character and bad conduct (i.e. both unjust and incorrect). Telling someone what they're doing wrong in a condescending or aggressive way may be a case of--well, my terminology thus far would call it "incorrect justice," which doesn't parse very well. But that resembles how the criminal justice system operates: actions deemed wrong under a socially agreed-upon value system ("crimes") lead to treatment which would not be acceptable in ordinary life (and "punishment").

Under the first category we have big principles: justice, of course; liberte egalite fraternite und so weiter. Conscience. Respecting the rights of other humans. The second category is, to my mind, more socially arbitrary: manners, courtesy. Respect belongs here, too, though, and I think is the borderland--because respecting someone as a person doesn't mean much unless you demonstrate it. Whereas one can strive to promote equality and still be an unpleasant person to be around.

People often focus on the second kind of virtue, conduct, because I think it is more amenable to spot checking. If someone holds bigoted views as a pattern of thought, it probably comes through a little bit in almost everything they do, but perhaps in such a subtle way that it's hard to point to any specific thing that is "wrong." Whereas if someone goes crazy on weekends and causes a big mess all the time, it's more straightforward to specify what is "wrong." As an analogy--correcting grammar mistakes in a paper takes much less mental effort than reading the thing, sitting back, and commenting about structural weaknesses in how the argument is presented.

But problems that are easier to fix are not necessarily the most important. Because I value self-control very highly and have done so for several years, I will never use drugs or alcohol. But where is my engagement with important issues, where is my self-education on injustice and how to decrease it? Secondary virtues are, generally, negative--do not do this, do not do that. Refrain. Do not cross the street until the Ampelmannchen turns green. Do not push beyond someone's stated boundaries. Primary virtues are, generally, positive--protect people who need protecting, speak out when you see something that runs contrary to your conscience.

History is everywhere here. It is not difficult to think about the time of the Hitler regime and how secondary virtues--orderliness, economy, trains running on time--remained long past when the primary virtues of humanity and justice had been abandoned. The "banality of evil," the bureaucrat who does their job and does it well and does not question whether or not it is the right, the just job to do. There is a world of difference between being well-behaved and doing good, and achieving the former in no way guarantees the latter.