Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. Psalms 146:3.I was a boy of six when I won my first award, a golden star, and my peers’ approval. I’d memorized the Hungarian national poem and recited it to my first grade class with shining eyes and childish force. The children cheered, and my teacher, a sister, had tears in her eyes. Big emotional moment. Golden star.
I was born into an age of nationalism, and in Hungary as elsewhere—never mind that I was in a Catholic school—the love of country was the powerful thematic, constantly in front of us. Small Hungary is not a country, Great Hungary is heaven. That rhymes in Hungarian. We all knew that rhyme. The maps we used showed Great Hungary, with fat borders—small Hungary with faint borders; much of the great country was Slovak, Austrian, Serb, and Romanian.
Love of country was conflated then, and still is today, with political power and the figure of the ruler. In Hungary our ruler then was the Regent, Admiral Horthy. Horthy was a decent man, by the way, a worthy sort; he rose to power in opposing a communist take-over of the country in 1919, in the course of which both of my grandfathers had either been arrested or faced by a mob. But worth is not my point. To love one’s country is appropriate, My country, right or wrong, is not. And growing up involves learning that famous verse in Psalms and, further, discovering a modern wording for it: Put not your trust in collectives.
I was a young man of twenty, a newly-trained soldier in the United States Army, en route by air to Germany to join my unit there, when the 1956 Hungarian revolution flared up briefly. During a brief stop-over in Scotland, I was astounded to discover the little airport filled with Hungarian refugees. I spent my stop-over talking to them. Would Eisenhower intervene and help this uprising? I hoped that he would; I was then still young enough to hope; but by then I was grown up and my hope therefore faint.
Over and over and over again. The same patterns repeat. The words are in the holy books but the reality on the ground is always something else. These thoughts recurred the moment the recent revolutionary phenomenon began in Tunisia and rolled forward, the Media Chorus excitedly cheering and, nowadays, sobering as Khadafy seems to be getting a grip. No-fly zones are up in the air, sanctions take wing in the skies, security councils secure things in the abstract but never in the real. Meanwhile little children, right hand laid over little young hearts, sweetly sing the words: “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.”
A work in progress, as we say nowadays.