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The politics of decency

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. Those aren’t my words; George Orwell wrote them back in 1941 in his book All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays.

Fast forward 77 years and Hungary has just come through another general election. In the lead-up to it, the media was full of who said what and when and about whom. Accusations and half-truths were flying around like missiles seeking a target. The opposition was scrambling to put aside their differences, and their egos, and reach some sort of agreement to present a united front to the voters on 8 April. Memories of events and incidents long past resurfaced. Old grudges gained new ground, ignoring the entreaty of former US President John F. Kennedy who urged Americans back in 1958 not to ‘seek to fix the blame for the past’ but instead to ‘accept [their] own responsibility for the future. In other words, it was business as usual.

For a foreigner with minimal Hungarian, my knowledge of what’s going on is limited to the English-speaking press or at the mercy of Google translation. Asking Hungarian friends for their take on specific happenings helps to a point, if I remember that they’re seeing things through the prism of their own experiences. My struggle to find truth amidst the deluge of information available is a difficult one and as I don’t have a vote, perhaps it’s all a moot point anyway. But when I have an opinion, I like it to be an informed one. And I like to know what’s going on.

Specifics aside, I find myself wondering about politics and politicians, about why we vote into power those we do or worse still why we don’t bother voting at all. I’m spending a lot of time considering the traits I’d like to see in my ideal politician, how I’d want them to behave, what I’d like them to do. And perhaps the day will come when we can have our politicians made to measure – in the meantime I can but dream.

Back in 1948, Herbert Hoover, in his remarks to Wilmington College in Ohio, noted:

It is a curious fact that when we get sick, we want an uncommon doctor; if we have a construction job, we want an uncommon engineer; when we get into war, we dreadfully want an uncommon admiral and an uncommon general. Only when we get into politics are we content with the common man.

And while I might want the leader of my constituency or indeed my country to be an ‘uncommon politician’, I can’t decide if I’d like them to be a man or a woman, or if it matters.

The Internet is littered with studies and reports drawing a (spurious?) correlation with the number of women on the board or in leadership positions with a company’s financial and other successes. Adjectives such as empathetic, ethical, and honest are prefaced with ‘more’ when it comes to describing women in leadership roles. Okay, findings can be massaged and for every report showing a correlation, another refutes it. But is there an added dimension that women bring to politics? Benazir Bhutto said that when she entered politics, she brought another dimension to the table – that of a mother. I think of the women leaders I know and am not at all sure that I see that maternalism in their politics, be they national, international, or corporate.

Before dipping my toe in the pool of diplomacy, I’d have argued long and hard that I wanted the leader of my country to be honest, always, all the time, no matter the cost. I know better now. Former President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski gave a keynote speech back in 2002 at the Morality and Politics conference in Vienna. Entitled Is Honest Politics Possible?, the keynote explores the place of honesty in politics and defines an honest politician as

Someone who regards politics as a tool for achieving the common good. He is not naive, and knows that patience, compromise, and a policy of small steps are often needed. Yet in pursuing partial goals he will not lose sight of higher objectives.

This perhaps I could live with. As long, of course, as those higher objectives were for the greater good. I don’t want to be lied to, but sometimes ambiguity has its place. And anyway, in this day and age, the definition of truth is blurred to the point that it can almost mean whatever you want to mean.

When it comes to describing a good politician in a democratic society, adjectives abound. We want our politicians to be accessible, believable, compassionate, decisive, ethical, faithful, generous, humble, intelligent, jovial, keen, law-abiding, managerial, nuanced, open, pragmatic, questioning, reliable, sincere, trustworthy, utilitarian, veracious, worthy, xenial, youthful, and zealous. No tall order there! We want them to inspire hope, to offer security, make our worlds better. We want them to practice what they preach, to advance our cause, and to take care of the less fortunate. We want them to have a lived a blemish-free life. We expect either too much of them or not enough. We blame them for working the system while we do the same ourselves, albeit on a much smaller scale. We set them up to fail and when they do, we complain, loudly, at their shortcomings.

After much consideration, I’ve decided that Theodore Roosevelt, had it right when he said in his remarks to Harvard and Yale undergraduates invited to Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island, June 1901: the most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency. Decency. That’s what I want. I want my politicians, my leaders, my guardians of tomorrow – I want them to behave decently at all times. Is that too much to ask?

First published in the Budapest Times 13 April 2018

The Catch 22

 I am not political. I have never been political. The permutations and combinations that need to be worked out in order to decide who gets to sit in parliament, any parliament, are way beyond my simple maths. I have yet to understand the nuances that lie beneath the political rhetoric offered by opposing sides: to me, it all sounds the same. In Ireland, the differences between political ideologies are slim enough to be practically invisible and to my unpoliticised mind, the same could be said of many other countries. The end goal of any party seems to be pure, unadulterated power. And so, for the first time in my apolitical life, I find myself a little concerned. Actually, I’m downright nervous about the idea of one political party, any political party, in any country, having a majority that will effectively allow them to change the Constitution without referendum. For a nation’s people to be so powerless is scary. But then again, I’m not a politician.

Before I cast my vote, I’d like the answer to two questions: Why – in a country that has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners, a notable collection of writers, artists, composers, scientists and mathematicians – are teachers so underappreciated and horribly underpaid? Don’t they hold the future of this country in their classrooms every day? G. K. Chesterton said that ‘without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously’. Now, more than ever, we need our children to be educated to think for themselves, to form opinions, to question the status quo, to learn right from wrong, to forget about how it has been done and to think about how it should be done, to face up to their responsibility as citizens of this great country.

Gullible or naive?

I’ve recently heard Hungarians I know recount stories of faking diplomas, having someone else sit their exams, paying someone to write their thesis or dissertation and then being coached by them to defend it. Any minute, I thought, the candid cameraman will jump out and laugh at me for being so gullible as to believe it all. But he never did. Perhaps this happens the world over…and ‘naive’ is my middle name! But I was shocked. And I can’t help but thinking that if teachers were given the respect their responsibility deserves and paid accordingly, if the disease were treated, and not merely the symptoms, then education might once again be something to be proud of and the future might look a little less bleak.

Health is wealth

That brings me to Question No. 2. Why are doctors and nurses paid so little? Society’s obligation to its elderly, its sick and its infirm surely goes without saying. Recent conversations with doctors, specialists and medical staff have left me flabbergasted. When a man in an Armani suit gets to jump the hospital queue and the little old lady has to wait for yet another hour, there is something not quite right. When families are subsidising their doctor sons and daughters so that they can work the wards, something is wrong. When patients are giving backhanders to ensure a level of healthcare that is their right, something is very wrong. When countryside practices lie empty because those who might have staffed them have gone abroad to countries where their expertise is valued and rewarded accordingly, something is very, very wrong. Who will take care of those left at home?

The buck stops here

To my unpoliticised mind, it’s not the alphabet army of CEOs, CFOs, and COOs, or the politicians who should be earning the big bucks; it’s the teachers and the doctors and the nurses. Those people whose very job it is to nurture society, to educate it, to keep it healthy and strong, and to care for it as it grows older. For only with a strong, educated, and healthy mind, is society in a position to effect change: to right the wrongs, to grow its economy, to take its place on the world stage. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about: a future in which we abdicate responsibility to whatever political party has come up with a majority; a future in which citizens are in danger of losing control of their Constitution; and even worse, where they are too worn out and apathetic to care one way or another.

But the Catch 22 is that in order to accomplish anything, the government needs money. And for this to happen, people need to pay taxes. But for this to happen, the tax system needs to be reformed and the government’s accounting made transparent. A flat rate would be a start, followed by society disowning those who avoid their responsibility as citizens. But hey, what would I know? I am not political.

First published in the Budapest Time 15 February 2010