In a mad world, we can be ‘them’, too

It wasn’t long after I arrived in Budapest that I first heard of ‘them’. I was at the opera with a new Hungarian acquaintance – a well-educated, well-travelled woman of a similar vintage. We got to talking about one of her colleagues whom we both knew. She nodded to me knowingly while declaring that he was one of ‘them’. I asked no questions. I didn’t want to know.

Sometime later, while discussing the banking crisis over dinner in a Budapest restaurant with a group of well-heeled, well-travelled, well-educated contemporaries, I was surprised to hear that our present precarious predicament was all ‘their’ fault. I asked no questions. I didn’t want to know.

Last week, while bemoaning what appears to be a somewhat alarming descent into social madness, I was pointedly reminded that ‘they’ are the root cause of all Hungary’s problems. I’d had enough. I needed to find out why they are so despised, why they are so openly hated, why they seem to get the blame for everything.

Local or global?

I did some checking to see if friends in other countries had come across them – and, perversely, because I love this country so much, I was slightly relieved to find that ‘they’ are held in low regard in Belgium, Germany, Poland, and the UK (then I stopped checking). It’s not just Hungary. But on reflection, that doesn’t make it any better. When I asked why, no-one could or would explain it to me.

But then I turned to my old friends Messrs Google and Bing and asked why so many people seem to be ‘anti-Them’. I found that historians have actually done some work on this topic and have listed six reasons why they are so hated. The first is economic – they have too much wealth and too much power. The second, their arrogant claim that they are the chosen people. The third, they’re a convenient scapegoat. The fourth, they’re guilty of deicide. The fifth, they’re different. And finally, sixth, they’re an inferior race.

Truth or myth?

Wow. A heady list of charges indeed … were they true. Let’s look at them in turn. In 17th-20th century Poland and Russia, they were hated – and yet they were extremely poor and wielded no influence whatsoever.  As for being the chosen people – doesn’t everyone think that of themselves? I’ve sat in church with many of my compatriots in full knowledge that they believe themselves to be hand-picked by the Man Himself. Convenient to blame? Well, in order to be scapegoat you have to be hated first. As for guilty of deicide? My bible says that Jesus was killed by the Romans and back in 1963, the Second Vatican Council officially exonerated them as the killers of Jesus. So what’s the issue there? Dislike of the unliked is more common and easier to understand but yet they seem to be damned if they try to assimilate [think Aryan response to charges of infecting the pure race with inferior genes] and damned if they stay to themselves. And finally, the race card. Are they a race? As a practising Irish Catholic, I could convert and become one of them, should I so desire. Yet I could never become an Inuit or an Athabaskan Indian.

Fact or fiction?

Just how mad does the world have to get before the pendulum swings back and reason begins to prevail? Or did reason ever prevail when it comes to them? I wonder if Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson ever met with President Eisenhower, what they would have to talk about. The former is on record for denying the holocaust, the latter on his visit to the camps, said he ‘made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda’. That would be an interesting conversation indeed!

In another life, when living in small-town Alaska, one of the Irish lads I knew got a much coveted union position at the oil terminal. There were just six of us Irish in a town of 4000 at that time. Many who had drowned their Irishness in green beer some months earlier on St Patrick’s Day, took umbrage. My then boyfriend had a knife pulled on him in the pub because he was ‘dating one of them’. I was accused of taking jobs from Americans. The bank where my friend’s wife worked was spraypainted – Éire go home – as was the Union hall. Overnight, a wall dividing them and us had been built. But thankfully, there were many who chose to climb over that wall or go around it; many who accepted us for who we were; many who remembered that, no matter where we come from or what we believe, we are all members of the human race.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 November 2011