Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Budapest & Half Moon Bay: The Value Of Perspective

Watching my country disintegrate from abroad, and confronting the fragility of narratives we use to obscure rather than enlighten
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Woke up here in Budapest, made my coffee, sat down to see what happened overnight, and saw this:


God. I've been to Half Moon Bay. It's a sweet little coastal town. Photo above is of the suspected shooter being arrested.

The other day there was a mass shooting in Los Angeles, of course, and one at a nightclub in Baton Rouge, though that has completely escaped the national news radar. I must confess to being startled by my own reaction to these events, living in Europe as I have for nearly all of the past year.

In the past, when things like this would happen, of course I would deplore them, but my reflexive response is to a) point out that America is a violent country in general, and always has been, b) that I grew up in a Southern gun culture, where things like this are unheard of, because we were all hunters who treated firearms with great respect, and c) anyway, the Second Amendment.

All of those things remain true! Notice that these mass shootings are never carried out by young men who were raised in a firearms culture having to do with hunting.

Nevertheless, living in a violent country inures you to things like this. You get used to it. When I saw the Baton Rouge news, I thought, "Well, yeah, par for the course these days." Which is crazy, but such is life in America.


(Side note: Especially in a city like Baton Rouge, which, like crime-ridden New Orleans, has a large contingent of poor young black men. You are not supposed to notice these things, but everybody does, because one's safety depends on it. Friend of mine there, an older man, a white liberal Democrat who spent a lifetime working with law enforcement, told me once that one of the hardest things for him to deal with personally, as a liberal who despises our history of racism in Louisiana, is the reality of total social breakdown in the black community, and its causal intersection with violent crime in the city. He told me that the truth is, the core of the problem is beyond the ability of the state to fix. It all has to do with the annihilation of the family, in his view. He talked about going to court once and seeing a mother in handcuffs who had been brought out of prison to be present when her handcuffed teenage son stood before the judge for sentencing for some violent crime he had committed. That, for him, was a symbol of our city's tragedy. But no one talks about that publicly, for obvious reasons.

"So what's the solution?" I asked. He shrugged, as if to say, there's not one, at least not one that can be imposed from the outside.)

Anyway, the European solution -- take away all the guns -- would be illegal in America, would never work, and does not address the core problems in US society that produce mass shooters. Again: all of that is true.

And yet ... to stand outside of the United States and read these stories from a Western country where this kind of thing never happens is really sobering. All the usual things one says when these events occur can still be true, but it's still just mind-blowing that this is the kind of society we have become. I realized this morning, reading the news about Half Moon Bay, that I had become just like the liberals who tick me off with their utterly predictable litany of accusations whenever there's a mass shooting. That is, my responses are also predictable. It's almost liturgical, the way we all react. The truth is, I think, that the horror and chaos of these events are such that we do our best to bound them with Narrative, not so much to understand them as to remove the threat from them to our sense of order and well being.

It really is true that guns are too easily available in the United States. But guns have always been easily available in America, which was for many years a frontier society. We didn't have frequent mass shootings then. (And again, in rural America, hunters have plenty of guns, but we don't have mass shootings.) Something has changed.

Guns are hard to come by in the UK, so killers use knives. Surprise! Knife crime is at a record high there. True, I would rather live in a society where the kind of people who commit violent crimes are armed with knives rather than guns. But that's not really the solution, is it? It's a way of deflecting the more serious, and difficult to solve problems. In Britain, the police are more geared towards fighting the scourge of people silently praying outside of abortion clinics, or saying something unkind about transgenders online, than they are towards stopping bike thieves or slashers. In the UK, the liberal media prefer not to pay attention to the Pakistani grooming gangs, because it raises uncomfortable questions about Muslim immigrants in their society. In the US, our media focus on police violence, which, though undeniably a problem, is nothing compared to the violence within the black community, which takes the lives of vastly more black people than cop shootings do. In other words, we impose Narratives to prevent us from having to talk about the real issues. We conservatives do it too, in our own ways: find stories that allow us to avoid hard questions about the things we believe and do. For example, it really is true that our kids are bombarded with trans propaganda, but too many of us would rather blame others -- even though the "others" are legitimately at fault! -- rather than ask ourselves hard questions about our own permissiveness within our families and communities, regarding, say, the use of social media and technology.

I live now in a city and country that is significantly poorer than the United States is, but where this kind of violence is all but unknown. From where I sit, you realize that poverty is not really an explanation for why things are the way they are in the US. It's part of the problem, but not at the core of it. Neither is racism. The fact is, we are all living through the disintegration of our society, a process that has a number of causes, but which cannot be stopped, or even mitigated, until and unless we can talk openly and seriously about the causes -- even when the causes implicate us, and our cherished beliefs.

In Europe, Hungary is held up by western Europeans as a bogeyman. It is governed by a populist conservative, Viktor Orban, who is hated by western European elites for various reasons. Among them, he totally rejects the open-borders multiculturalism embraced by western European elites. All the problems of crime, extremism, anti-Semitism, ghettoization, and terrorism that most western European countries deal with (or fail to deal with) don't exist here in Hungary. Why not? Because there are very few Muslim immigrants. Sorry, but it's true. Two summers ago, you might recall reading in this space how shocked I was that when police in European capitals, and even in L.A. and NYC, were deployed to protect synagogues and Jewish businesses from Muslim violence during a spasm of violence having to do with events in Israel, in the Hungarian capital they were nowhere to be seen. I walked daily through the old Jewish quarter, and saw Jewish families out doing business, walking with their kids, and so forth, unprotected by police and military, because they didn't have to be. It was astonishing. And yet, the western European media bang on about how horribly anti-Semitic the Orban government supposedly is, because its members criticize George Soros.

People from western Europe and the UK who live in Budapest tell stories about how their friends and families back home have the impression that the streets of the Hungarian capital are infested with skinheads and brownshirts, and brutal police enforcing order. It's laughable. You don't often see police, because this is a peaceful, orderly country. It's a country where you can walk around late at night, alone, and not fear that you will be robbed or assaulted. When my friends from Alabama came to visit me last year, they were shocked by this. And I was startled by how startled they were, because I had come to take it for granted that going out on the streets without a worry in my head for my safety was normal.

So you begin to realize that "Hungary" plays an important role in the narrative imagination of Europeans (and also US elites in the media and in government), to distract their own peoples from asking why it is that Hungary is such a safe and normal place, when their own cities are not? They have to invent this myth of Hungarian fascism to banish the hard questions about how they run their own societies. When I travel in western Europe, and meet people who find out I'm living in Hungary, and you can see a shadow fall over their faces. Then the conversation becomes quite predictable: I tell them that Budapest is a beautiful city, full of fun things to do, and it's very safe and pleasant. I can see in their faces that they struggle to believe it, because all they know is what they read and see in their media, about what a right-wing hellhole it is. A total lie! And a lie that is propagated for political reasons: to bolster the liberal, globalist, multiculturalist narrative. The other night I met a young scholar from Spain who is working here, and he told me at length about how Hungary is demonized in the Spanish media, and within Spanish institutions. When he first arrived here, he was shocked to see quickly that it was all bullsh*t. And then he began to wonder why exactly it is that the left-wing government, and the left-wing media, have an interest in maintaining this myth about Hungary.

Hey, I get it. But you know, living here has red-pilled me to some degree about the American Right, and our own shibboleths, and the various narratives we tell ourselves and each other to avoid having to question our own beliefs. We accept gun violence as a fact of life in the United States, and it really is true that we have a Second Amendment, and, well, all the things I said at the top of this post. Yet to live in a peaceful European city (and Budapest is not the only one, of course) and to see my own country from afar is to wonder why we can't have nice things like they do. Yes, I know: Europe is relatively peaceful because it is full of Europeans, and America is not because it is full of Americans. Culture matters. Still, the experience of seeing America from abroad makes me think. I see what a damn mess we have made of our own country, and I get really defensive of the Hungarians, the Slovaks, and other peoples of what we used to call Eastern Europe, who are regarded by American elites and western European elites as backwards postcommunist hicks who need to be educated in liberal democracy. One of my readers, responding to my post asking when was the woke turning point in American life, wrote me last night:

I live in a neighborhood with teachers. They told me that pre-2016, they might have encountered one or two students claiming to be "transgender," which was odd, but easy to accommodate or ignore. Now when I ask them how many transgender students are in their high school, there are too many to count. So to my mind, the big turning point was Bruce Jenner, already part of the attention-whoring Kardashian family, knowing how to work the media to normalize an utter unreality. It's been all unreality since.

This doesn't exist in Hungary -- yet. But the United States, and the European Union, are doing its best to introduce this Blessing Of Liberty™ to this country. American culture is a giant machine designed to export dysfunction and social breakdown, and call it freedom. Look, I'm an American, I'm not a Hungarian, and there are things about this country that I will never understand. That's fine. But I have come over the past two years of living and working in Central Europe to see that these people may not be strongly religious (Poland excepted), but they still have an intact culture, and that they are totally vulnerable to having the ideas and practices that have led to social disintegration in the US and western Europe forced on them. What do you think the Hungarian opposition to George Soros is all about? It's because he dedicates his vast fortune to trying to turn Hungary and other former communist countries into San Francisco. And there are some American conservatives, especially in establishment Washington, who, knowing little to nothing about these countries, buy uncritically into the lies about them.

Gosh, I didn't mean to turn this post into a discussion about Hungary. It's just that reading the news of another mass shooting in the US, from abroad, really does get to me. It breaks my heart and it pisses me off. I can't wall it off from the wider breakdown of American society that becomes so much clearer when you step out of it. It's like when I was in college, and would step outside of the bar to get some fresh air, and would suddenly realize how incredibly smoky it is in there.

One more story from the morning news, then I'll stop. It's related. News from Baton Rouge, and LSU, my alma mater:

Multiple people have been arrested on rape charges by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office amid an investigation into the death of 19-year-old LSU student Madi Brooks, the WBRZ Investigative Unit learned Monday.

Sources said a 17-year-old was booked into the East Baton Rouge Parish juvenile detention center Sunday on a count of third-degree rape.

An 18-year-old man, identified as Kaivon Washington, was booked on Monday, along with Casen Carver, also 18. Washington faces charges of third-degree rape; Carver was booked as a principal to third-degree rape.

A fourth suspect, 28-year-old Everett Lee, is identified as the uncle of Washington and is also booked as a principal to third-degree rape. 

According to state law, third-degree rape in Louisiana occurs “when the victim is incapable of resisting or of understanding the nature of the act by reason of a stupor or abnormal condition of mind produced by an intoxicating agent or any cause and the offender knew or should have known of the victim's incapacity.”

Brooks' blood-alcohol level was .319 percent at the time, according to arrest documents. That's nearly four times the legal driving limit for an adult.

According to this newspaper account, police say the dead girl, Madison Brooks, had been drinking at a college bar, was blind drunk, and asked the men to take her home. On the way there, two of the men allegedly raped her in the back seat, then they put her out of the car when they had had their way with her. Still wasted, the poor girl wandered into traffic, was hit by a car, and killed. Evil bastards. I hope they die of old age in jail.

My son who just finished LSU sent it to me. I responded by telling him that what that girl did was just another Saturday night for us when I was at LSU in the 1980s. That is, drinking to great excess was normal, and leaving the bar with someone you wanted to hook up with was too (there is no reason to believe that Brooks thought she was consenting to sex with the men when she accepted a ride home). The point is that the behavior that was totally normal for LSU students in my day -- binge drinking, every weekend, with all that entailed for drunk driving, sex, and the rest -- strikes me now, in my mid-fifties, as horrifying. To be sure, I hate how colleges now, overreacting to this kind of thing, try to police student life to an obnoxious degree. But that came from somewhere. What I think about is how the culture that produced me and other LSU students taught us that it was perfectly normal to binge-drink to the point of blackout. The first time I came to understand that that wasn't normal was when I was visiting the Netherlands one summer in the late 1980s, sitting out on a terrace drinking beer with Dutch friends, when one of them said we needed to drink up and go, because that bus that just pulled up is full of Norwegian tourists, and they're going to swamp the place, drink all the beer, and get rowdy. Why? Because beer in the Netherlands is far cheaper than it is in Norway, and young people from there take binge-drinking holidays.

I was a binge drinker too, because I was an American college student, and considered it the natural way of living. I hadn't noticed till then that none of my Dutch friends made a habit of getting drunk. They weren't moralistic about it; it was just seen as a low class thing in their culture. Over the next years in European travel, I came to understand that binge-drinking was pretty much an Anglo-Saxon thing (though I suppose Scandinavians get into it too). Eventually I came to believe that there's something really wrong with us and the way we treat alcohol in American culture. I raised my kids with a different attitude about it than is typical in the US. We would give our kids small glasses of wine to drink when we would have it at meals, so they wouldn't develop the exciting taboos around boozing that most American young people have. And we taught them that it is part of maturity to be able to enjoy alcohol, but to stop before it goes too far. Only one of my kids is of legal drinking age, but I'm proud to say that he is nothing like his father was at his age, vis-a-vis alcohol. And his brother, who turns 19 in a few days, is no Puritan, but he's not interested in booze. Good. He too has a different set of cultural assumptions than his father did.

Me, I first learned a different way of relating to alcohol sitting on that terrace in liberal Holland. There are so many good and wonderful things about American culture, but we have a lot to learn from others too. It's a cliche to say it, but travel abroad is so good, because in teaching you something about how other peoples live, it teaches you something about yourself and your own country, both good and bad. I surely love the laissez les bon temps rouler attitude of my native south Louisiana, but the sad fate of Madison Brooks is the ugly side of that cultural attitude. That's a fact I don't like to recognize, but it's a fact all the same.

Last point, one that just occurred to me as I was preparing to write the headline for this piece. The time I visited Half Moon Bay was the summer of 2006, when my family and I were out in the Bay Area visiting old friends. Our friends were rich tech people. They were middle-class young people who had emigrated from Europe because the husband, a computer scientist, was frustrated by all the anti-entrepreneurial regulations in his native country -- bureaucracy that made it hard for him to do the research he wanted to do, and to start his own company. So they ended up in Silicon Valley, and he eventually started his own business, which was doing very well. They lived not far from Half Moon Bay. They had two little kids, and told us that they figured they would be moving back to Europe before much longer, because they had seen what the Bay Area culture of great wealth had done to older children of their friends and colleagues, and they didn't want their kids to be formed by that culture. The stories they told, my God. Well, a few years later, they did relocate back to Europe, where they could raise their kids normally, even though the company he co-founded had gone public, and he was now worth over $100 million. They could have lived like kings and queens in Silicon Valley, but they chose a far more modest life back in Europe, for the sake of their kids' hearts and minds. I respect them so much for that. They achieved the American dream, but knew that to avoid it becoming the American nightmare for their children, they had to get out and re-embed themselves in a culture that is still intact.

UPDATE: An American expat friend, a conservative, e-mails:

I read recently that there were 280 murders in New Orleans last year. My God. I made my first and only visit to America's most characteristic city in 2018. I'm so glad I did, because I would feel hesitant today. The route of the 10-minute walk I took from the hotel to a po' boy place for dinner passes by 3 murder sites from 2022.

My family in America treats it so casually. "Sh*t happens," they tell me. You just need to pack a gun to defend yourself when heading out to the strip mall to shop. Like it's the Old West in 1886. My father sounds almost romantic about it. I suppose it does make trips to the strip mall sound a bit more exciting.

But I've lived in Europe for 10 years now, and the longer you're away, the more intolerable it seems. Italy, where I live, has a population of roughly 60 million, suffered 309 homicides last year. Slightly more than little New Orleans. And 'suffered' is the right word for it. These are more than statistics. These are lives cut short and other lives devastated by the trauma of deadly violence.

UPDATE.2: A Czech reader:

Czech Republic gun laws are even more liberal than the US ones. Yet, nothing like that is going on. You know, culture, roots … One interesting aspect of this is that the Czechs do not treat guns as a fetish. They treat them like the same way your Southern hunters do.


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Bogdán Emil
Bogdán Emil
My sister married a proud Spaniard from California, and partly following some of her adventures, I used to live on King's Mountain for a spell, right above Half Moon Bay on the serpentine road, and drove down to the quaint little tourist town regularly for their supermarket. Joan Baez, Neil Young, Steve Jobs were our neighbors in that 'hood, meanwhile, the old Portuguese immigrant community stood as more than just a memory.

All that is now broken and estranged from me, as well.

But maybe not permanently, Rod. Let there remain room for hope always, for family and for America, too, for it is truly rare for something good to not only be leveled to the ground, but utterly torn from the root.

Green shoots will reappear, for we weren't made to live in darkness.
schedule 4 months ago
    Fran Macadam
    Fran Macadam
    Jobs and his family lived down the street from me in Palo Alto, on two adjacent properties he razed the tract houses from and built a new mansion.
    schedule 4 months ago
Theodore Iacobuzio
Theodore Iacobuzio
"Over the next years in European travel, I came to understand that binge-drinking was pretty much an Anglo-Saxon thing (though I suppose Scandinavians get into it too)."

The Irish.

In Latin culture (France, Spain, Italy) BEING SEEN as intoxicated is a great disgrace. Becoming so, less. It's all about la bella figura.
schedule 4 months ago
It should be noted here that per capita alcohol consumption is higher in much of eastern Europe (including Hungary) than it is in Louisiana. Though to be sure that top level stat doesn't tell us how much binge drinking as opposed to regular but moderate social drinking is going on. Though it's not exactly esoteric knowledge that Russia has a huge problem with alcoholism.
schedule 4 months ago
Daniel Baker
Daniel Baker
"It's almost liturgical, the way we all react. The truth is, I think, that the horror and chaos of these events are such that we do our best to bound them with Narrative, not so much to understand them as to remove the threat from them to our sense of order and well being."

This is the kind of insight I read Rod's columns for.
schedule 4 months ago
Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
Notice that our country and its government are the greatest purveyors of deadly weapons in the whole wide world. More are being slaughtered overseas than in the *"homeland" in our nation's Forever Wars. The armed robberies at home are also expressed in a foreign policy of expropriation and rules based international law made up unilaterally that more and more resembles a world neighborhood protection racket.
schedule 4 months ago