Der Untergang

When Nation Building Begins Abroad

Maybe it is time to consider the possibility that building a democracy does not begin at home, but in the hearts and minds of those who emigrated – and may one day return.

I have been listening to an academic debate on democracy in circa 2012 as two ageing scholars have been turning the discussion personal. One was accusing the other of not understanding the Hungarian situation vis-à-vis democracy because he had spent the last decades of communism abroad, in emigration. It wasn’t an accusation that the émigré might be missing some key information on the country though. It was an accusation that he doesn’t understand the psychological damage communism has caused in its victims because he hasn’t suffered it.

The émigré was basically accused that he hasn’t suffered enough. Or that he wasn’t damaged the same way the non-émigrés were – and was thus not in the position to be right. Why can’t he understand that change is not possible, okay? Not with us, not here – because of how it felt.

But is it really necessary to suffer to provide a solution? Or was it just an irrational outcry of the one who was left behind and envied those who didn’t suffer? Was it not just the fact that the émigré put locals to shame with his energy and optimism?

Does someone have to live the reality of oppression in order to have a valid solution to it?

Or maybe it is actually a bad thing to have experienced authoritarianism. Maybe the damage it caused makes someone less likely to find a solution for the country.

My money was on the second possibility.

I remembered this debate as I watched the incredible footage of evacuation from Afghanistan. Those who wanted to live in a free society now had to escape to do so because there was no chance that they would manage it at home in their own lifetime. Of course, terrorists and troublemakers were also in the crowd, but on the whole it was a massive example of self-selection. The most agile among those who do not belong under a fundamentalist regime were trying to get out as the chance of ever living in a free country in their lifetime has evaporated.

I have always wondered why this righteous urge to send people who self-select to live in a civilized society back to the place they did not belong to begin with. Even scholarships have such clauses, that the recipient must return to his or her home country upon graduation – with the premise that it would change the home country, not the student.

But the truth is that many a times change comes from the minds of people, not from a location. And it can only happen if those minds are unbroken, if those people are not resigned, if they haven’t internalized helplessness to the point where they only seek validation for it.

The downturn of Orbánism is a minor example, but the change of tide started in the hearts and minds of emigrated youth – not those who stayed in Hungary. Students and former students who lived in the west began to organize against Orbán because no one told them it was impossible.

The Most Important Development In Hungarian Politics Since 2010

They were like the exiled scholar vis-à-vis the one who stayed and broke in, endlessly listing and believing the reasons why change is not possible, why this place is doomed, and please go back and stop trying to make us change. It is hateful, but we are helpless against it – and we want everyone to feel helpless as well. That would validate our own inaction and wouldn’t put us to shame.

The youth who organized against Orbánism and broke the spell of helplessness may not achieve anything else in their lives – but they have already performed a historic task of breaking the spell of invincibility that kept the Orbán-gang in power and feeling secure.

That change didn’t come from the inside. Nor did the end of communism in 1989. Nor did the beginning of it, now that you mention. But at least this time it was done by Hungarians.

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