2018 Grateful 3

I got a right old slap in the face this week. Shocking really. I’ve been dwelling on it for days. A mate of mine rang me from Tanzania one evening and we had quite the chat. I asked what life was like over there as we plan on visiting him next year. On a personal note, I was particularly interested in how he was faring in the romance department. I wondered if there was a new man on the scene.  Being gay in a country where homosexuality carries a 30-year prison sentence is no joke. I wondered how he was doing and how much the draconian laws affected his life. [According to Amnesty International, four African countries still have the death penalty for homosexuals.]

He’s keeping a low profile, he said, but thankfully, he’s not living in the capital. Last month, according to a report in The Guardian, hundreds went into hiding to avoid the witch hunt currently underway in Dar es Salaam, where Paul Makonda, the city’s administrative head, has called for people to out their gay friends, neighbours, and relatives. The US embassy has advised US citizens in the country to review their social media posts for content…just in case. Mad, I thought. And very worrying. How could anyone live in those sorts of circumstances?

Anyway, I was recounting this story to another friend of mine, who said: ‘I assume you won’t be going there, then.’ And before my brain kicked in, I heard myself reply: ‘Of course I’m going. I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.’

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

Sweet mother of Divine Jesus, how did I get to this low point? When did I start thinking that as long as it wasn’t being done to me, I’d nothing to worry about?

To say I was disgusted with myself is an understatement.

Many years ago, I came across a quotation by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It affected me deeply. I have serious issues with Azerbaijan and doubt I’ll ever set foot in the country again after that Azeri murderer debacle.  I try my damnedest not to buy anything made in China because I’ve taken umbrage at its censorship laws. After some soul searching in October, given what’s going on with the Rohingya, we decided not to go to Myanmar, even though we could see it across the water.  Realistically, if I took stock of the human rights record of every country I visited and avoided those with a blemish, I’d find my map of travel opportunity much smaller. But that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s the quickness with which I came back with the answer that has me concerned.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

A few weeks back, in a comment on something I’d posted on Facebook, a former colleague (and friend, or so I thought) called me a racist. No explanation was given. Just a statement: ‘You’re a racist.’ That same week, because I don’t happen to think George Soros is evil, another friend lumped me into what they call the Zombie Minions. Not usually one to give a rat’s ass about what people think of me, these two labels hurt me deeply.

Just about any policy or political post I read today on social media has a litany of comments following it that vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ad hominem attacks are rampant. People’s characters and/or personal attributes are being attacked to discredit their arguments. Criticisers are not engaging with the subject of the debate but the person debating it. It’s mean. It’s nasty. It’s debilitating. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly becoming the norm. There seems to be a prevailing sense that ‘I’m right and if you don’t believe as I do, then you’re wrong.’ In this black-and-white world, I’m finding it hard to find even two shades of grey, let alone fifty.

In one comment on an anti-Trump post recently, someone pointed to a page on the US State Department’s website which lists all that’s been achieved since getting into power. Arguably, Obama had set the groundwork, but still, these were accomplished with him in office. I read the list and spot-checked, looking for alternative sources to support the claims. And they’re there. So why then can’t those against the man and all he stands for admit the accomplishments but ask what they’ve been achieved at the expense of? And has it been worth the price?  Isn’t that a better basis for discussion?

I’m slowly losing the will to engage. I’m having visceral reactions to the strident posts I read on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sick to my stomach of the anger and the hate and the superiority of the arguments. I’ve blocked, muted, and unfollowed but then I wonder if I need to read/hear all sides to keep track of what’s going on and not get lured into that self-righteous box of moral certainty.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

But is it too late? Am I already there? Have I tucked away my principles until a more convenient time dawns?

I still plan to go to Tanzania. I want to see my friend. It’s been too long. But now I’ll do so consciously.

This week, I’m grateful that we had the chance to talk and that I had this recalibratory moment. Now more than ever, I need to keep my wits about me, to keep thinking for myself, and not fall victim to the hype and hysteria I see and hear every day.



Do I stay or do I go?

That’s the question that seems to be on a lot of minds these days, as Hungary edges increasingly closer to the edges of democracy. The situation is attracting attention from political commentators such as Paul Krugman of the New York Times and the Contrarian Hungarian is posting regularly with updates on what’s going on. The Irish Times  published a piece and Ireland’s Newstalk radio had a 10-minute section on the goings on here last week, too. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and Hilary Clinton have both approached PM Viktor Orbán airing their concerns at the none-too-gradual, and ever quickening erosion of democracy. But to no avail.

Tonight, as Orbán and his VIP guests apparently entered the Opera House via underground tunnels to celebrate the new Hungarian constitution – one that was written and passed into law without any public consultation or referendum, the manifestation of an intention that was never mentioned in his election campaign –  an estimated 100,000 people gathered in the street outside to make their voices heard. Among them some hundred or so Árpád heads were kept under close watch by the police. I couldn’t tell you what they were saying, but there was no denying the venom with which they yelled. There is some consolation to be had in that their numbers were small and contained. But the fact that there are people in this country who feel like this is scary.

I wonder what it felt like to be inside, listening to the anger and frustrations of thousands of citizens, knowing that some of them had voted you into power? How safe can Orbán be feeling? Or does he care? More to the point, do I care?

I loathe the term ‘expat‘ but have resigned myself to being one. When I’m not in Ireland or elsewhere, I’m in Budapest. I love it here and I really don’t want to move. Yes, I’ll admit that the situation is getting a tad worrying and I’m more than a little concerned about talks of Hungary losing its EU membership. Far-fetched as it might seem, I’m beginning to have nightmares about getting a knock on my door at 4am (but that could also have something to do with my currently reading Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44). I’m also beginning to be more and more conscious of being a foreigner. Three years after I moved in, someone finally updated the doorbell list and I was horrified at the fear in my gut when I realised that my name was on there – advertising to the world where I lived. Am I losing my reason? Perhaps. Perhaps the drama queen in me is rearing her head and imagining all sorts but that didn’t stop me taping over my name. Why draw attention to myself.

I know this is irrational. I know, too, that I don’t want to leave Budapest. And tonight, I’ve realised that in choosing to stay, it’s not enough to stand idly by as Orbán & Co chisel away at a democracy that was hard won. Be it just adding to the numbers on the street at the next demonstration, or reposting articles on what’s happening here so that friends abroad know what’s going on  – I have to do something. Being an expat doesn’t exclude me from the ramifactions of what could happen if this continues. I’ve been told that no matter how long I stay or how hard I try, I will never be more than a tourist. However true that might be, it hurt to hear. Yes, Ireland is and always will be my home. I will always be Irish. And while Hungary is a home from home, I have no desire to be Hungarian. And it could well be argued that I should butt out – it’s not my fight. But just as I didn’t listen to those who suggested I incorporate my company in another country, believing that if I choose to live here, I have  duty to pay taxes here, then if I choose to stay, I have a duty to get involved. So when standing 10 metres from a mob of chanting yobbos who I know would like nothing better than for me for me and every other foreigner in this country, and our associated institutions and organisations, to go home, I felt not fear, but anger. The words of  Martin Niemöller came to mind:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —  Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

The coming months will be interesting.  As a growing audience around the world watches and waits to see how the story evolves, liberal voices like Klubrádió are being silenced. When they are all gone, who will be left to speak out? Now is a time to believe in miracles.