Ahead of next month's parliamentary election in Hungary, a recent report from the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. found the Roma minority in that Central European country face an unprecedented amount of violence and discrimination. While prejudice against Roma, pejoratively known as Gypsies, is widespread throughout Europe, the report says Hungary is more anti-immigrant and hostile toward minorities than elsewhere.
"In the last five years in Hungary, the establishment of vigilante groups and hate crimes against Roma and other minority groups has characterized a climate of increasing social and economic exclusion," the report states.
A 2011 survey shows many Hungarians share anti-Roma sentiments with 60 percent believing that criminality was in "gypsy" blood. The same poll found 40 percent believed it was okay to have bars and clubs where Roma were not allowed in.
These widespread attitudes help explain the popularity and political strength of the Jobbik party. It's the country's third largest, holding 43 seats of 386 in the Hungarian parliament. It defines itself as a "principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party," but outsiders say it's a radical organization that targets minorities.
Its website, "The Movement For A Better Hungary" has an entire page dedicated to defending itself from accusations that it is extremist, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic. It charges the foreign press wrongly concludes hard economic times have triggered Hungarians and other Central Europeans to victimize minority populations:
"Quite simple really. Central Europeans + Economic Downturn = (or rather, must and can only equal) Hateful Extremists and persecution of minorities.
"People don't behave like this anywhere else mind you, only around here. Take a few pennies out of a Hungarian's pocket, and he turns almost immediately into a slavering ultra-nationalist who on the way back from clubbing a local Gypsy, will pause only to hurl yet another brick through the windows of his nearest synagogue."
The party's sarcastic response is meant to dismiss the accusations as ludicrous. But, statements and actions of party members over the last few years go against those web protestations. In November 2012, one of Jobbik's parliament members, Márton Gyöngyösi reportedly asked parliament to create a list of Jews as national security threats.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center blasted Gyöngyösi's statement and called it "sadly reminiscent of the genocidal Nazi regime which murdered hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews with the help of numerous local collaborators."
Gyöngyösi said he was misunderstood and was referring to dual citizens of Israel and Hungary.
When asked in an interview by the Jewish Chronicle Online if Hungary should apologize for the Holocaust, Gyöngyösi replied "Me, should I say sorry for this when 70 years later, I am still reminded on the hour, every hour about it? Let's get over it, for Christ's sake. I find this question outrageous."
The World Jewish Congress held its Plenary Assembly in Budapest last year to highlight anti-semitism in Hungary. When WJC President Ronald S. Lauder opened the gathering he said, "We are seeing, once again, growing ignorance, growing intolerance, growing hatred. Once again we see the outrage of anti-Semitism. ... In the press and on television, anti-Semitism and incitement against the Roma minority are becoming commonplace, even accepted."
Lauder added the persecution of Jews and Roma have happened in tandem in the past, "Let us never forget the Roma were also victims of the Nazi Holocaust."
The Harvard report says the anti-minority climate is having a deleterious effect on the Roma and that hate speech by politicians and public figures has contributed to physical and violent assaults against this marginalized population. The European Roma Rights Centre documented cases of seven Romani adults and two Romani children who died in attacks from 2008 to 2012.
Another concerning issue in the report is the rise of paramilitary and extremist groups, which target not only Roma, but Jews and LGBT members. And many of these groups conduct weapon trainings for their members. One of the report authors says the frequency and regularity of these instructions is unique to this central European country.
"There are some news in Romania about few trainings organized by some extremist organization, but nothing at the level of Hungary," said Margareta Matache who has worked on Roma and minority issues in Europe for 15 years. She added, "What is interesting here is that each of these organizations, they organize these sort of training, not only once, they have regular trainings for their members on how to use weapons."
Anti-minority rhetoric runs rampant in these groups and the Jobbik party has ties to them. The party's current leader, Gabor Vona founded the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary group in 2007. Matache says, "one of their more explicit objective was to stop the Gypsy crime" and "that Gypsy crime is a serious form of crime which poses a danger to everyone." The Hungarian Guard was eventually banned, but Vona has worked to reestablish the group.
Last November, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest weighed in when it condemned an event organized by the Jobbik party. The embassy described Jobbik as a "Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism" and called it out after members unveiled a bust of Miklos Horthy, a Nazi ally and the leader of Hungary during World War II.
"Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers' views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary's highest ranking leaders," the statement read.
Earlier this year, the Hungarian ambassador to the United Nations apologized for Hungary's role in the Jewish and Roma Holocaust during World War II. This was the first time the country apologized for its involvement.
"We owe an apology to the victims because the Hungarian state was guilty for the Holocaust. Firstly because it failed to protect its citizens from destruction and secondly because it helped and provided financial resources to the mass murder," said ambassador Csaba K?rösi.
In the last year and a half, Matache says she and her colleagues have observed a decrease in rallies and violence against Roma, which she considers a good sign. But that trend has been coupled with legislative changes that worry her. The report says that changes to the constitution limiting minority rights and free speech should be cause for concern, even as violent attacks decrease: "In other countries such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, similar trends have been recorded: outright violence has been supplanted by anti-minority policies and legislation."
Colleen Bell, the United States Ambassador-Designate to Hungary, expressed worry during her confirmation hearings in the Senate about recent changes to the constitution and fears that democracy was eroding.
"Many argue that sweeping legislative and constitutional changes have hurt the international investment climate, undermined property rights, weakened the judiciary, and centralized power in the hands of the executive," Bell said in her statement, "The United States has also expressed concern about the rise of extremism which unfortunately is a trend not unique to Hungary. However, the rise in Hungary of extremist parties is of particular concern."
Matache hopes the European Union will step in to help curb the violence and discrimination in this member country.
"They really have to take some measures because there is a legal framework available and there is a need for some measure to stop the violence," she says,"But also, to make sure that the Roma, Jews and LGBT, all minorities in Hungary, they feel safe because there is a level of insecurity that those people cannot really manage it from both the local level in their villages, but also in big cities."
And she says the European Union should figure out how to deal with member countries that violate the Union's human rights laws. She hopes reports like this one will also catch the attention of the U.S. and lead the international community to place pressure on countries like Hungary to move toward a more accepting society. But she says cultural education is also key to improving the situation.
"Hungary is one of the countries, along with Romania, Bulgaria and countries in central and Eastern Europe where children of both minority and majority population do not actually have the chance to learn about prejudice," she says, "The children belonging to majority population could actually learn more about minorities, by being involved in classes and reading more on cultural diversity and having educated children on cultural diversity, I think that the level of prejudice might decrease."
Tomorrow, the Code Switch blog visits Hungary's neighbor, Slovakia, to see how one town is working to integrate Roma and non-Roma students in a recently desegregated school.
The folk- and roots-music world is full of cross-generational collaboration. But it usually takes the form of folksingers pairing up with other folksingers, borrowing from a long musical tradition. It's another thing altogether to take words written long ago and give them musical life. Leyla McCalla does just that on her new album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes. Though the disc includes a balance of her original arrangements with Haitian folk songs, what's most intriguing is the way she built many of the songs around Hughes' poetry.
The song featured in this video was taken from Hughes' poem "Vari-Colored Song." The words to "Heart of Gold" are full of questions and observations, and rich with color. There's the red of Georgia clay and the blue of the sky, the gold heart and so on. McCalla has said that this was the first song she wrote for the album, because it seemed to her to provide a window into Hughes' way of thinking. That it's so focused on color and questions could indeed sum up the bulk of Hughes' work.
As a song, it rests on a darkly haunting fiddle melody, which eventually gives way to McCalla's own rich, warm cello. The instrumentation sounds like lonesome nighttime, and the way McCalla's voice leans around the words makes them sound like some back-of-the-mind wonderings. Chances are, Langston Hughes would be pleased.
I recently met up with one of my former high-school English teachers, and talk turned naturally to books. I told her how influential the books I'd read throughout my high school years had been, and mentioned several titles by name — The Count of Monte Cristo, Alas, Babylon, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men.
I leaned closer, admitted that though I'd loved all of those books — indeed, they had become permanent fixtures in my own library — the book I enjoyed the most was Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, which had been assigned to me by a different English teacher in a different year.
My former teacher sneered a little. "I hated that book, and never assigned it for my students," she said. "I really don't think that's appropriate content for impressionable teenagers."
Because of the sex, or because the sex was with a priest? I wanted to ask but didn't.
As a young teen, I'd rarely had a conversation about sex, let alone read about it. Occasionally my Aunt Kay would toss a romance novel in my direction, as if she knew that, at my house, I would learn nothing about boy and girl parts meeting up for a play date. Sex was a verboten topic with my religious mother, right up there with "But how do you really know God exists?" and "Why does Dad sleep on the couch so often?" Not questions she wanted to hear — certainly not ones she'd attempt to answer.
I knew from the buzz at school that The Thorn Birds — a story about the forbidden love between a girl-turned-woman, Meggie, and an older priest, Ralph — would probably not meet with my mother's approval. It was in part the allure of doing something slightly wicked and rebellious that made me eager to sink into McCullough's work. But as I began to read, another, more significant, reason for continuing emerged.
I felt the book like I'd felt no other book before it, and I still have in my possession the paper I presented for that class. The themes of commitment and obligation as they related to love, family and even religion resonated keenly with me. I wrote about all the ironies, like the way Ralph's commitment to God waned and perhaps morphed into obligation when he fell in love with Meggie, or the way Meggie remained committed to Ralph despite her marriage to another — a marriage that, soon after the honeymoon, seemed reduced to obligation.
These values of commitment and obligation were so very different, yet it seemed they could replace one another in an instant — even when a commitment appeared, at first, to be unalterable. I wondered over that. Was it wrong to question commitments and obligations, even those requiring vows, or was it simply ... human?
After the paper was written and the class moved on to Macbeth, my mind stayed on The Thorn Birds. What made people remain latched to one another even after a relationship stopped working? Why would anyone cling to idealistic values rather than test them via deep scrutiny?
I considered pride and ambition and other things that can stand in the way of simple human happiness. What can be gained or lost over a lifetime if a person or couple refused to examine their choices or reflect on whether or not they had made a wrong one? I wondered if religion was a "villain" in McCullough's novel, as well as in my parents' marriage, or if it served a necessary and stabilizing purpose. I wondered if obligation and love could ever coexist, or if someone would always end up on the couch.
McCullough's book marked a turning point for me, an awakening to the ways of human relationships. I even braved up and spoke to my mother a time or two about divorce. And though she stayed with my father until death did they part — and we all miss him fiercely — she has acknowledged that a different choice might have been made. Life is short. Patterns can be broken. And though her path wasn't something my younger self readily understood, time has made clear the complexities involved with committed relationships and the power of obligation. Obligations can help keep people together through life's natural unrest and resist the revolving-door invitation of shiny new possibilities. That good-looking secretary with the ready smile. That friend who is such a great listener, who has invited you out for a drink. Apple after apple, each temptation a test of obligation and commitment, each potentially defining and refining and illuminating those personal boundaries.
Do I believe The Thorn Birds is "appropriate content for impressionable teenagers"? Perhaps not on the surface — sex with a priest and all that. Still, I think it's exactly the sort of "dangerous" book teens should read. McCullough's story invites the reader in with its epic scope and scintillating possibilities, then cracks open the mind with its unexpectedly muddled wide-angle view of the world. It encourages readers to consider the many qualities of gray that can be found in adult relationships — both then, and decades later.
Therese Walsh's latest novel is The Moon Sisters.
If the Tabernas Desert in Spain's Almeria region looks like the set of a Hollywood Western, that's because it was one.
In the 1960s and '70s, it was a Hollywood outpost in Europe where dozens of American film stars — Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor — made a temporary home while filming movies, including the kind that the area became most famous for: Spaghetti Westerns. The genre's name originates from Italian directors like the late Sergio Leone, who built film sets in the windy, barren desert an hour from the Mediterranean Sea.
Hundreds of films were made here, including Leone's famous Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful Of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly — as well as parts of Lawrence Of Arabia and Cleopatra.
A Hands-On Experience
Today, the sets where those movies were made have been converted into Western-style cinema theme parks where tourists can stroll through a saloon, spend time behind bars in a local jail or reenact a shootout in the town square. Actors in cowboy hats and chaps put on daily stunt shows in which Western movie themes are piped through a fake town square. The First City Bank gets robbed every day; the same gun-slinging bandit is always handed over to the hangman. There's also a zoo and water park.
"It looks quite authentic, it looks quite like the Wild West, like Arizona a little bit," says Shadae Talebi, a Californian who lives in Europe and brought her two young children on vacation to Spain.
In general, the theme parks attract aficionados of Westerns.
"My husband has always watched them, so John Wayne is always around and so is Clint Eastwood," says British tourist Angela Thorogood.
Many of the workers are aging stuntmen who fell off balconies or galloped on horseback alongside Clint Eastwood back in the day — now they perform at children's birthday parties. The same people get shot every day, says actor Jose Francisco Garcia Pascual, who drives a horse-drawn cart while packing heat.
"This is very, very hard work. Every day I kill three, four [people]," he says, chuckling.
What The 'Golden Age Of Western Films' Left Behind
Western film directors chose the Tabernas Desert because it resembles the American West with its windswept plains crisscrossed by dry riverbeds and rocky ravines. It was also cheap. But by the late 1970s, directors had found better bargain locations — in Morocco and Turkey — and Almeria's film industry dried up.
In the tiny village of Tabernas — the only real settlement for dozens of miles — elderly residents trade tales of their glory days in the golden age of Westerns.
"This was considered the Spanish Hollywood," says Jesus Laguna, a former stuntman who still wears a cowboy hat. "All types of actors came through here — American Oscar winners, they were all here. But not anymore."
Like much of Spain, the Tabernas Desert has fallen on hard times. Unemployment in the Almeria region tops 30 percent. Recently, Spanish photographer Alvaro Deprit spent a month living in the desert, documenting the lives of those left behind when the film work dried up.
"It's a melancholy feeling," Deprit says, "because their world has finished. It was the golden age of Western films, and now it's an imitation of what it once was."
Those left behind include a member of the Blackfoot Indian Nation who worked as a film extra and has been living in a rustic desert camp ever since.
There's also a local actor, Jose Novo, who looks nearly identical to the late Henry Fonda. Novo says his mother was friendly with the American actor, and gave birth exactly nine months after Fonda was last in Almeria shooting a film, in 1968. It was aptly titled, Once Upon A Time In The West.
The sense that Washington is hopelessly gridlocked has become a source of national despair.
Approval ratings for both Obama and Congress continue to tumble. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found that only 22 percent of voters are inclined to give their own representatives another term — a record low for that poll.
Despite this disapproval, though, a stalemate might not be all bad.
It's not just Congress that's split — the public is divided on nearly every issue, too. So, if Washington were, in fact, able to act, it's possible Americans might be even angrier than they are now.
"If the federal government were passing a constitutional amendment restricting abortion, or if they were passing a national gay marriage act, you'd actually find much more unhappiness," says Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University.
Is Gridlock Good?
Failure to deal with the nation's serious problems is a righteous source of frustration. But — absent majority support in the country for nearly any policy approach — voters might be even more unhappy if Congress were to act in any robust way, Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina suggested recently on the Washington Post's popular Monkey Cage blog.
Gridlock may be maddening, in other words, but the alternatives might be worse.
"Gridlock is good," says William Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University. "I'm not the first person to say it."
Neither party is happy when the other attempts to ram through one-sided legislation. Democrats didn't like it in 2005 when President George W. Bush wanted to privatize parts of Social Security, and Republicans have never stopped complaining that Democrats were able to take advantage of their congressional majorities in 2010 to push through the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans may have been playing politics by withholding any support for Obamacare, but the health care law certainly hasn't gained popularity since its passage.
"Passing it without any Republican support was problematic, at best, and paved the way for the contentiousness and doggedness of Republicans now in aiming to repeal and replace it," Connelly says. "The system is not meant to be simple majority rule, where a fleeting majority, as measured by public opinion polls, dictates legislation."
The Need For Consensus
By contrast, most major pieces of legislation in the 20th century — the creation of Social Security back in the 1930s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s, or the civil rights laws of the 1960s — received bipartisan congressional support in the end, reflecting consensus in the country. In that regard, Obamacare was a departure.
There's no such consensus now on changes to tax policy or immigration law or education. If Congress were to push through major legislation on a regular basis, it would invite a backlash, much as Obamacare did, suggests Brown, the George Washington political scientist.
Americans might hate inactivity, but they'd like finished products even less, according to Brown. That may be one reason why power has kept seesawing in elections over the past decade, as the two parties have taken turns winning and then overreaching.
"People are polarized, it's so clear on just about every issue," she says. "It is just a fact that we don't have the public consensus that once existed."
No Chance For Compromise
Democrats can make a fair case that Republicans had no interest in negotiating when it came to the health care law — or just about anything else that's come up during Obama's time in office.
When power is divided, there's no alternative to negotiation and compromise, says Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served in the House from 1965 to 1999. That's the way the American system of government was set up.
But today's politicians often seem more interested in scoring points and waiting for the next election than coming up with a deal.
Congress passed hardly any laws in 2013. This year threatens to be even less productive.
"The premise when I was there, and for 200 years in the Congress, was that we have to reach an agreement," Hamilton says. "Today, I'm not sure that premise exists."