Good night, and good luck

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 17th of May 2011   Source: Written by Richard Field

This article is archive

The Budapest Times received this letter from Richard Field, the American businessman and activist at the centre of the storm surrounding the evacuation of Roma women and children from Gyöngyöspata on Good Friday. Field has become public enemy number one in some circles. He has confirmed to The Budapest Times that he has left the country: "I do not plan to return to Hungary so long as I have reason to fear for my safety. 600,000 people voted for Jobbik. If just 1% belonged to hate groups and vigilante groups, that's 6,000 people. If just 1% are prepared to do me harm that's 60 people. If 5% of those would be prepared to do my family harm, that's three people. I do not wish to live the rest of my life surrounded by a phalanx of security guards."


Following is the full version of the letter where he answers his critics. An abridged version was published in the newspaper. Field had written a 10-part series of guest columns in this newspaper covering the issue of poverty in Hungary and how to alleviate it, often focusing on the plight of the Roma.
Ten days that shook the European Union: The meaning of Gyöngyöspata
"An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent."
- Edmund Burke

And yet the mainstream Hungarian press is silent. It's as though the tumultuous events that took place over a period of ten days between Good Friday and the Monday following Easter never happened.


It is as though the job of the media is merely to report events as they unfold, and not to reflect on their broader political, social, economic, cultural and ethical implications. And it is as though, in its scramble to come up with a viable Roma integration policy at the very last minute, the government did not adopt much of the agenda set forth by this author in my columns in the pages of The Budapest Times (See "Hungary's Roma: the case for affirmative action"). And it is though we did not witness the free press perform the very function it is supposed to perform.


The Good Friday evacuation of 276 Roma women and children shamed the government into banning the hate groups and vigilante civil guardsmen that had been terrorising Gyöngyöspata's Roma population for nearly two months. Furthermore, it thrust the issue of Roma integration to the top of Hungary's (and, by extension, Europe's) social, economic, and political agenda. Future historians may very well refer to the period in question as the ten days that shook the European Union out of its complacency with regard to Europe's 8-10 million Roma, the vast majority of which live in abject poverty with limited access to education, health care, and employment opportunities.


There are only two plausible explanations for the "business as usual" attitude of the Hungarian press: Either it is incapable of reflecting in any meaningful way on the events it is reporting, or it has been told not to do so.


One need only look at the photographs illustrating the many hundreds of articles written about Gyöngyöspata to be convinced that the mainstream Hungarian press is every bit as prejudice as Gábor Vona and Krisztina Morvai's radical right-wing followers.


Anyone familiar with Hungary's daily newspapers, weekly news magazines, and news websites is patently aware that most of what passes for news in Hungary is, in fact, voyeuristic sensationalism pandering to the inherent prejudices of Hungarian society at large in the interest of boosting circulation and promoting the political agenda of whichever party or parties with whom the publisher happens to be allied at that particular point in time.


During the ten day period in question we were bombarded with images of Roma men lighting cigarettes en masse, despite the fact that each on was holding a garden implement which, prior and subsequent to the cigarette break in question, was being used to tidy up the Roma neighbourhood on the occasion of Earth day. Coverage of the women and children transported to safety by the Hungarian Red Cross on Good Friday include photographs of a middle-aged Roma woman exhaling a large plume of smoke. Still another photograph features three overweight Roma women in traditional Roma dress sitting on the lawn. Personally, the one I found must discomforting was the one of the Roma woman holding her infant daughter while the latter urinated on the grass in a manner familiar to anyone who has spent any time in any one of Hungary's public parks or playgrounds.

These and countless other images appearing in the press merely serve to reinforce prevailing stereotypes of Roma as lazy slobs who spend all their welfare money on crisps, cigarettes and alcohol. Rarely do images of emaciated Roma men, women, and children appear in the press. Nor do we see many images of light skinned Roma (often the product of mixed marriages) unless they happen to be dressed in traditional Roma garb. Nor do we see images of what most Europeans would consider to be physically attractive Roma men and women. In fact, when touring Gyöngyöspata's Roma neighbourhood on foot, I was struck by the beauty of many of the young mothers despite being terrified for the lives of their children.


The above photograph taken on the day the Hungarian Red Cross distributed food, nappies, toilet paper and washing powder to the 115 families living in Gyöngyöspata's Roma quarter, features a woman with traditional Roma facial features and her two smiling children. To look at the children there is nothing about their skin colour, facial features, or clothing to suggest that they are any different from Hungarian children. That Roma are human beings just like you or me is an incontrovertible fact which the owners and managing editors of Hungary's mainstream media have gone to great lengths to deny in an attempt to dehumanise them so that Hungary's corrupt political elite will not be criticised for abandoning them to their fate.


In addition to being victims of centuries of institutional racism, Hungary's Roma are the victim of a decades-long campaign to marginalise and dehumanise them by the mainstream press. To students of Twentieth century history, this will come as no surprise because the exact same thing happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s with respect to the portrayal of Jews by the German press.

If the Roma are to assume their rightful place among Europe's many peoples, the European press must immediately stop portraying Europe's Roma in a manner which panders to popular prejudice and instead portray them in a more dignified light as ordinary human beings facing extraordinary obstacles in their struggle for economic, social and political equality and human dignity.
"Better be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined by too confident security."
 – Edmund Burke
After successfully spiriting 276 Roma women and children to safety on Good Friday, I was publicly criticised by some of my closest friends and allies for having "acted prematurely" and for "failing to think through the consequences of my actions." In response to this I told András Dési, correspondent for the liberal daily Népszabadság, that "sometimes mature adults are called upon to err on the side of caution." However, as subsequent events were to prove incontrovertibly, Tamás Eszes' so-called "Defence Force" constituted a clear and present threat to the lives of Gyöngyöspata's Roma inhabitants. But even if the eight defendants set free on Monday had not returned to Gyöngyöspata's Roma quarter to terrorise its Roma population, the mere fact that Minister Sándor Pintér thought it necessary to deploy 400 policemen to Gyöngyöspata on Good Friday, the day the military training exercises were scheduled to begin, is proof that the government, too, believed Gyöngyöspata's Roma to be under threat. For the government to claim otherwise is to insult the intelligence of the Hungarian electorate.
"He who wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper."
 – Edmund Burke
Prior to the fateful night of April 26th, when Gyöngyöspata's Roma decided they had had enough abuse at the hands of fanatical, militant racists and took matters into their own hands, the Hungarian public at large was treated to the shameful spectacle of government officials and their spokespersons tarring me with the same brush as Tamás Eszes, the leader of the so called Véderő ("Defence Force") which had clearly organised a military training in the immediate vicinity of Gyöngyöspata's Roma neighbourhood for the purpose of ethnically cleansing Gyöngyöspata of its Roma inhabitants. Hard-wired after twenty years of cutthroat partisan politics to assume anything causing embarrassment to the Fidesz government is politically motivated, rather than acknowledging what everybody already knew to be the case – that, in fact,


Gyöngyöspata's Roma residents were under threat – the government concocted an elaborate story of an international conspiracy to stage a "political provocation" involving my spreading panic and fear through the Roma community as a means of persuading them to participate in a "sham evacuation" (as though they weren't scared enough after seven weeks of continual harassment and the resignation of the town's mayor, the only person standing between them and Gábor Vona's brownshirts). That the government should resort to so vile an attack on my person, and that the media should uncritically report it, is testimony of the extent to which Hungarian politics and the so-called "free press" are intermarried and the depths to which both have sunk.

I have often wondered why there are so few contemporary Hungarian role models and even fewer heroes. I can only conclude that in Hungary's highly politicised environment, where government plays a disproportionately large role in the economy both as employer and consumer of goods and services, and where billions of euros worth of EU structural and cohesion funds are at stake, the fundamental arbiter of what is "right" and "wrong" is no longer Judeo-Christian ethics but rather political expediency base enough to make Machiavelli himself blush.


Does anyone really doubt that, had I not contributed money to Politics Can Be Different (LMP) or written a letter to the editor of the Budapest Times highly critical of the Fidesz government last year, the government's spin on Gyöngyöspata would have been different? Tragically, the fact that Hungary's mainstream political parties are, in fact, controlled and financed by a few enormously wealthy individuals means the government naturally assumed my actions were motivated by a desire to advance the political interests of Politics Can Be Different. Nothing could be further from the truth. Truth be told, as a party the LMP is a huge disappointment to me. Furthermore, had the LMP or any of the parties in parliament been doing their job, the Good Friday evacuation of 276 Roma women and children would not have been necessary.


To put it simply, Hungary suffers from a political system that is morally bankrupt. If Hungary is to take its rightful place among the great democracies, it must reject the political status quo and adopt one based on morality and a commitment to public service that is selfless rather than selfish, where politicians and political parties automatically subordinate their own interests (and those of their financial backers) to those of the people they are elected to serve.
"Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises; for never intending to go beyond promises, it costs nothing."
 – Edmund Burke
For twenty years successive Hungarian governments have been making unrealistic promises either for the sake of shoring up their popularity or winning elections. In 2002 MSZP candidate for prime minister Péter Medgyessy irresponsibly promised an extra month's pension to Hungary's 3 million pensioners. This base attempt to buy the pensioners' votes worked and Hungary's public finances have been sinking in a mire of red ink ever since. As a direct result of his actions and the irresponsible fiscal policies of subsequent governments (with the possible exception of the interim technocratic caretaker government of Gordon Bajnai), future generations of Hungarians have been saddled with a huge amount of debt (see my article "Drowning in a Sea of Red Ink") without improving living standards or the competitiveness of the Hungarian economy. In the future, Hungarians must recognise unrealistic promises for what they are – political bribes – and refuse to take them.
"I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone."
 – Edmund Burke
In April 2010, in response to Jobbik MEP and candidate for president Krisztina Morvai's scathing attack on the United States Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos, I responded in kind, denouncing Ms. Morvai and her fellow Jobbik politicians for what they were – neo-Nazis. This did not require any great powers of perception or prediction on my part. Rather, it required knowledge of twentieth century history and a willingness to apply the lessons of the recent past to the events unfolding around me (see my article "The persistence of selective memory"). To my astonishment, of the many thousands of US citizens living and working in Hungary, I was the only one to come to the defence of my country's ambassador to my adopted country.

In order for Hungary's experiment in Democracy to succeed, scurrilous attacks of this nature on public officials, be they Hungarian or foreign, must not go unanswered, either by Hungarians or their foreign guests.
"It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact."

 – Edmund Burke
In response to my open letter, Mr. Sándor Szakály, a professor of history at the Pannon University and member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Letters, wrote me an open letter in which he attempted to discredit my overall argument by pointing out certain minor factual errors. He points out, for example, that the bodies of American soldiers buried in and around Budapest were subsequently exhumed and sent to the United States (as though this somehow negates the fact that they lost their lives liberating Hungary and Europe from fascism). He also points out that the murderous Döme Sztójay, elected prime minister of Hungary shortly after Germany invaded Hungary in 1944, was not a Croat but rather a Serb (as though this negates the fact that the decision to deport of all Jewish women, children, and elderly people to Auschwitz was made by a politician of non-Hungarian descent eager to prove his "Hungarian-ness" by collaborating with the Germans on the mass murder of Hungary's Jews).

Mr. Szakály also points out that it was not the father of the so-called "race protector" and original founder of the Arrow Cross (from which the banned Hungarian Guard and soon to be banned Civil Guard movement for a Better Hungary are direct ideological descendents), Gyula Gömbös, but rather his grandfather than was named Knöfle (as though this negates the fact that Gömbös spoke German fluently and fervently wished for Hungary to follow Germany's national socialist example in nearly all respects.)

By the way, Mr. Szakály has the distinction of being Hungary's foremost expert on Csendőrség, that is, civil guards. His numerous lectures and essays on the subject appear to have made a deep impression on his star pupil, Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona. (Unfortunately for Gábor Vona, my Hungarian history professor at Columbia University, Istvan Deak, also made a deep impression on me).
A few factual errors notwithstanding, my argument that Jobbik was modelled on Benito Mussolini's fascists and Adolf Hitler's national socialist party proved to be correct.

The current generation of Hungarians will be called on to make very important decisions regarding the future of their country and the future of the European Union. It is important that these decisions be firmly rooted in sound judgement, and that sound arguments not be rejected out of hand due to minor factual errors having little, if any, bearing on the soundness of what is being argued or proposed.
"Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair."
 – Edmund Burke
 As individual actors we are occasionally called upon to do unpopular things or support unpopular causes in the service of what we know to be right. In my particular case, though I found myself virtually abandoned for having the temerity to speak truth to power, I took comfort in the knowledge that ultimately truth would prevail and that my "precipitous" actions would be fully vindicated. I did not allow the fact that I had been accused of masterminding a "political provocation" or the announcement by the government that the "secret service and military intelligence" was investigating the "murky circumstances" surrounding my involvement in the "phony evacuation" of Gyöngyöspata to deter me from my goal of protecting Hungary's Roma from the scourge of hate groups and vigilante civil guardsmen.

If Hungary is to have any kind of future, its political, civic, and religious leaders (as well as its citizenry) must be prepared to do the right thing regardless of political consequences. Hungarians must learn to praise what is praiseworthy and criticise what is not irrespective of its political implications. Until that happens, Hungary will forever remain a land without heroes or positive role models.

Most importantly, Hungarians must stop the endless finger pointing and start asking themselves as a people "where do we go from here?" rather than "how did we get here and who is responsible?"
"No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little."
 – Edmund Burke
Civil society is sorely lacking in Hungary. Civil society is to government what the constitutional court is to the legislature – an indispensable counterweight. Without a strong civil society to counter-balance government, political considerations will continue to trump moral ones when it comes to formulating and implementing public policy. While a number of Hungarian NGOs exist, to the extent they depend on government financing they are financially beholden to the government and therefore reluctant to criticise it.
According to the World Giving Index published by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), only 22% of Hungarians contribute money to charity and only 9% perform any kind of volunteer work (verses 49% and 28% in Germany, 77% and 39% in the Netherlands, and 60% and 39% in the United States). The fact that Hungarians are one of the least charitable people in Europe helps account for their unhappiness. Obsessed with their own material well being, most Hungarians fail to appreciate that many of their countrymen are far worse off. Were more Hungarians to follow the example of Red Cross volunteers and perform selfless acts of charity and good will, they would learn to better appreciate what they have and covet less what they do not.
"Our patience will achieve more than our force."
 – Edmund Burke
Here I beg to differ with the father of modern conservatism. The Hungarians have waited very patiently for a period of twenty years for its corrupt political elite to reform itself, but to no avail. The ten days that shook the European Union presents the Hungarian people with a rare opportunity to reform Hungary's corrupt political culture that is the product of centuries of foreign domination and a selfish, indolent aristocracy by electing to parliament a new generation of decent, civic-minded Hungarians committed to returning Hungary to the path of pluralistic democracy. By this I am not advocating the use of physical force which has no place in Democracy, but rather moral suasion. Hungarians must give voice to their sense of moral outrage over the systematic theft of public monies and property that has taken place over the past twenty years and the four ring circus that has passed for parliamentary democracy for too long. The truth of the matter is that leading members of the MSZP, SZDSZ, Fidesz, and the MDF actively conspired and cooperated with one another on the looting of Hungary's natural, physical, and financial resources over a period of twenty years. And it appears the looting continues under the present government. How else does one explain the government's recent decision to spend 800 million forints on yet another "national consultation" (i.e. opinion poll) that could easily be conducted electronically via the internet at a fraction of the cost when 1.2 million Hungarian citizens are living in poverty?
"Be wise, irritable, and high minded in your disdain and indignation at abusive power in unworthy hands."
 – Edmund Burke
Future historians may well attribute the decline and fall of Democracy during the first half of the 21st century to a state of hubris brought on by over-confidence. One thing defenders of democratic and autocratic forms of government seem to agree on is that Capitalism and Democracy are somehow the inevitable result of long-term social, economic, and political forces. However, recent research into the outcome of the American Revolution calls this into question. Looking back over history we see that, in fact, Democratic forms of government have been few and far between. Democracy and all the rights and privileges associated with it is not a solid piece of granite impervious to erosion. Rather, it is a precious handful of quicksilver that must be safeguarded at all cost lest it seep through our fingers. This requires a citizenry that is committed to representative forms of government and prepared to speak out and act decisively in the defence of Democracy, freedom, civil liberties, and human dignity whenever circumstances should so warrant. In this regard, Hungarians have a very long way to go, accustomed, as they are, to everyone daring to stick their necks out having heir heads chopped off.
"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."
 – Edmund Burke.
For too long Hungarians have allowed their decisions to be driven by fear – fear of losing one's job, fear of an unfriendly tax audit, fear of the loss of government orders, fear of one's children not being admitted to a good school or university, fear of the loss of a grant or subsidised loan, and, last but not least, fear of being publicly accused of betraying the Hungarian nation for daring to criticise the government. The momentous decisions to be made cannot and must not be made in an atmosphere of fear. Dissent should be encouraged, not stifled. Contrary opinions should be taken into account, not rejected out of hand. Freedom of speech should be cheered on, not muffled. And a free press should be fuelled, not dampened. Most importantly, no one party or politician should presume to accuse an opponent of treason simply for offering a dissenting opinion. Hungary's leaders must stop thinking in terms of absolutes and start thinking in terms of relative truths and constructive compromise remembering Edmund Burke's eternal words that "All government – indeed, every human benefit and employment, every virtue and every prudent act – is founded on compromise and barter."

This does not mean that the national government should always respect the will of the people with regard to specific pieces of legislation or government programs. For as Edmund Burke says "(y)our representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
Finally, future elections must feature active debate among the parties and candidates about the country's problems and their respective programs for addressing these problems. There can be no repeats of the 2010 parliamentary election which was little more than an opinion poll on how unpopular the ruling Socialist government was.
"You can never plan the future by the past."

 – Edmund Burke
Perhaps not. But to the extent future plans depend on perceptions of the present and our understanding of the past, it is critical that such perceptions and understandings be free of prejudice and pre-conceived notions. Too often Hungarian politicians have sought to justify proposed future courses of action with selective reference to past events (usually taken outside their historical context) or outright fabrication. More often than not Hungarians find the government and the government controlled media manipulating and distorting both the past and the present for the sake of political expediency. Jobbik founder and chairman Gábor Vona is a perfect example of a Hungarian politician who seeks political power by offering a revisionist interpretation of Hungarian history at factual odds with reality. Recently, he denied belonging to the Finno-Ugric language group of peoples despite overwhelming linguistic evidence indicating that the distant ancestors of the Hungarians did, in fact, originate somewhere east or west of the Urals (perhaps both if they were transhumant pastoralists, wintering on one side, summering on the other, although I have yet to encounter such a proposition) who spoke a Uralic language that gradually evolved over thousands of years into Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and several minor languages still spoken today by a handful of people in central Asia.

Modern Hungarian, like modern English, is the product of thousands of years of meaningful interaction and intermarriage with neighbouring peoples. The modern Hungarian language features words from Latin, Turkish, German, various Slavic languages, even Persian (the Hungarian word for slipper "papucs" means "foot wrapping" in Farsi).

If "in language there is culture" then modern Hungarian culture is an amalgamation of the numerous cultures with which the Hungarians came into contact during their slow trek westward from their ancestral homeland to the Carpathian basin.
"Men have no right to put the well-being of the present generation wholly out of the question. Perhaps the only moral trust with any certainty in our hands is the care of our own time."
– Edmund Burke
As I write this, policemen, firemen, prison guards and other guardians of the peace are protesting the government's decision not to pay back wages for overtime even as it freezes salaries and raises the retirement age to 65. Educators are protesting government plans to close schools or turn them over to various churches to run as private parochial schools. Fortunately, after drastically curtailing public work schemes, Prime Minister Orbán seems to have finally come to his senses and is promising to create 100,000 meaningful jobs for those Hungarians in the greatest need. His government has also announced a sweeping program combating rural poverty and significantly improving living conditions for Hungary's 700,000 Roma over the next ten years. Ironically, by having Roma integration thrust to the centrepiece of Hungary's domestic and foreign policy, Prime Minister Orbán now has a chance to make a huge difference in the lives of Europe's 8-10 million Roma.
"It is by imitation, far more than by precept, that we learn everything; and what we learn thus, we acquire not only more efficiently, but more pleasantly. This forms our manners, our opinions, our lives."
 – Edmund Burke
Actions speak louder than words. For too long Hungarian politics and society have been dominated by a philosophy that can best be summed up as "do as I say, not as I do." The hypocrisy of Hungary's political, social, economic and religious elite knows no bounds. Most recently we have been treated to the sad spectacle of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány trying to "renew" his party when the single greatest theft of public assets in the history of Hungary took place on his watch. Any politician with a shred of decency would permanently retire from public life. It is not enough that he "renew" the Hungarian Socialist Party from within or without. He and his personal wealth with which he purchases influence within the Hungarian Socialist Party and the liberal Hungarian media must be excised from Hungarian politics once and for all. In the immortal words of a conservative British MP to Neville Chamberlain after his policy of appeasing Hitler had obviously failed, "for God's sake go!"
"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

 – Edmund Burke

The immediate aftermath of the ten days that shook the European Union witnessed an outpouring of moral outrage and freedom of expression unlike anything witnessed since 1956. Inspired by the courageous actions of various parties, including Prime Minister Orbán and Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, the media broke story after story of corruption and abuse of power. I was especially impressed with what LMP Member of Parliament András Schiffer had to say. Would more Hungarian politicians had the courage to speak out for pluralistic democracy and its underlying values – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, respect for human rights, and the obligation of free men and women to protect society's weakest members.

By way of conclusion, I leave the readers of The Budapest Times with the following thought, also borne of that great 19th century English conservative political philosopher, Edmund Burke: "All that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing."
God bless Hungary!
The author wishes to thank managing editor Allan Boyko and publisher Jan Mainka for the opportunity to write ten in-depth columns for The Budapest Times. Gentlemen, I am forever in your debt.
Mr. Field is founder and chairman of the American House Foundation, a US-registered private foundation that is working with the Hungarian Red Cross and other Hungarian non-government organisations on issues of poverty, homelessness and social exclusion.


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