Last year, I wrote a piece about a growing trend of nationalism in Hungary that has manifested as intolerance toward ethnic minorities and anyone perceived to be an outsider. I received some flak for that article, mostly because critics didn't like the anecdotal nature of my piece. For instance, Yong Kwon, a freelance writer for Asia Times, accused me of misdiagnosing the real issue in Hungary, which in his opinion is economic trouble, not an attitude problem. And he ended his commentary with this delightful quote:
"[I]t pissed me off that ... he complains about a bad travel experience and turns it into a wider political commentary. What a jerk."
I won't contest the fact that I could be a jerk; unfortunately, that doesn't make Mr. Kwon correct. Despite his robust defense of Hungary, hard data suggests that ethnic intolerance is indeed a widespread phenomenon.
As reported by Benjamin Ward, a December 2012 poll asked Hungarians if they would allow their children to be friends with Jews, Africans and Roma (Gypsies). Their answer was, to paraphrase, "No, no and hell no." Specifically, 46 percent rejected friendship with Jews, 58 percent with Africans and a whopping 68 percent with Roma.
Lydia Gall of Human Rights Watch expounds:
A prominent columnist calls for a "final solution" for Hungaryâ??s Roma population. A member of parliament calls for drawing up a list of Jewish people involved in Hungarian politics. Two-thirds of those asked in an opinion poll say they wouldnâ??t let their child be friends with a Romani child. Another poll suggests a similar number believe Jewish people have too much influence. One doesnâ??t have to be a student of history to be worried about the growing climate of intolerance in Hungary.
Gall's post goes on to detail how Hungarian fans at a soccer match chanted "dirty Jews" when their team played Israel.
Racism, specifically anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiments, isn't uncommon throughout much of Europe. But when it is openly preached by influential people and politicians, something has gone terribly wrong. Of course, Hungary's economic problems aren't helping the situation. In times of trouble, people often fall back on prejudices and blame ethnic minorities and foreigners for their troubles. This has even happened in the United States.
And to rub a little extra salt in the wound, the Hungarian Parliament recently amended the constitution to limit both the freedom of speech and the power of the constitutional court to review laws. Needless to say, a deeply racist country that is becoming increasingly autocratic is not headed in a healthy direction.
What's the solution? Better economic times for Hungary will certainly help. But to tackle racism, there is only one solution: open ridicule. Burying our heads in the sand and pretending it isn't a big problem yielded disastrous results in the not-so-distant past.
(AP Photo: Viktor Orban)