America: Once The Promised Land, But Now?
[Readers, what follows is a modified version of a post I sent out in my Substack newsletter last week. I have added some thoughts to it, prompted by reflection on what the bishop said to me. — RD]
Yesterday I traveled to the Buda side of the Danube to meet Bishop Istvan Szabo of the Reformed Church of Hungary. If you’re a film person, you’re thinking, “Wow, the director of the Oscar-winning Mephisto is now a Calvinist divine?!” Nope. As my new Hungarian friend who introduced us, said, “‘Istvan Szabo’ is the Hungarian equivalent of ‘Steve Taylor’ — a very common name here.”
(And by the way, did you know that Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a Calvinist? This is a predominantly Catholic country, but Calvinism is a significant minority here as well. Here’s a short English-language history of the Reformation in Hungary. It turns out that Calvinism was big here until the Counter-Reformation, when the Habsburgs cracked down hard on Protestantism. It survived mostly in Transylvania, in the far east of what was then Hungary.)
Well, anyway, Bishop Istvan is now retired from bishoping, but he’s pastoring a church in Buda, and generously invited us into a room downstairs for coffee and conversation. I asked him if I could write about our conversation. “Yes,” he said, “I am an open book.”
He was born in December 1956, right after the Soviets invaded to reconquer Hungary for Communism. There was martial law and nighttime curfews, so the Bishop’s mom had to ask Russian troops to take her to the hospital to have the baby. The Szabo family joke was that little Istvan has to be grateful to the Russians for his appearance in this world.
Istvan’s father was a Reformed pastor in their village. He, along with every other Christian cleric in town, received a visit from a Soviet commissar of some sort, trying to convert them to atheism. They didn’t succeed. Istvan recalls a “very fine childhood,” despite the overwhelming Soviet attempt to Russify Hungarian culture. Like all other Hungarian students of his generation, he was required to study eight years of the Russian language, but today can’t remember any of it. Resisting all things Russian was their way of resisting the occupation of their country. He said that celebrating all the Communist holidays was compulsory, as was studying great Russian art and literature.
Listening to this, I thought about what a terrible shame it is that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and all the other Russian greats will forever be associated in the minds of a generation of Hungarians with occupation and oppression. Istvan told me that bizarrely, the Russians established in the center of the village a graveyard of Red Army soldiers who perished in World War II.
“Can you believe it?” he said. “In a traditional Hungarian village, the graves are outside of the village, or surrounding the church. But these Russians buried 300 of their comrades right in the center of town.”
Think of it: the occupiers forced everyone in the village to make the Soviet sacrifice the center of the village’s life. They could scarcely have done more to engender hatred, could they?
Istvan told me that the villagers were rather Stoic about the occupation. “They said, ‘Listen, Istvan, we have the Russians; we had the Germans, we had the Habsburgs, we had the Turks, and we had the Mongols. They all left. The Russians will leave too.”
The Soviet occupiers subdued religious hierarchies, he said, making sure that the senior leaders — bishops and such — were collaborators. Bishop Istvan remarked that what he sees happening in liberalizing Protestant churches in the West reminds him of this process. The idea, he explained, is that they have been colonized by utopian idealists who believe they have found the truth. Said the bishop, “The Bolsheviks imposed this in a harsh, brutal way, but in the Western countries today, it is happening in a soft way.”
“Yes,” I said. “I call it ‘soft totalitarianism.’ I have written a book about it.”
Why didn’t the Soviets do what Pol Pot did? asked the bishop. They could have simply massacred all their opponents — and in fact did just this in the early years of the Bolshevik regime. But they figured out, he said, that even utopia needs people who are capable of administering it. However soft the woke (my term) may seem, he continued, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they have what they consider to be “absolute knowledge of human history,” and that they will force people to pay a heavy price in order to see their idea of social justice realized.
I told the bishop about the origin of Live Not By Lies: from conversations I had with a number of Eastern bloc emigres to the US, who are seeing in wokeness the emergence of a system like the one they once fled. The bishop went on to say that every society needs an enemy in mind. After the end of the Cold War, the West lacked for an obvious enemy. Now, he said, the elites have decided that the enemy is traditional Christians.
“It’s not a Cold War, but a Cold Civil War, happening in the US, in Germany, everywhere,” he said.
One of the two men who had joined us for the conversation shared an anecdote from a family member in America. The family member’s little girl came home from school after receiving the standard antiracist indoctrination in whiteness and white supremacy. The child said, “I don’t understand this. Don’t all lives matter?” The child’s mom told her not to ever say those words — “all lives matter” — outside the home, because she could get in trouble.
Bishop Istvan nodded. Those who grew up under Communism know exactly what’s going on here. His interlocutor continued, saying that he is hearing that the phrase “white silence is violence” is a thing in America. He’s right:
The idea is that your silence — that is, your failure to affirm the ideology — is evidence of your guilt. One thinks of the story Solzhenitsyn tells in The Gulag Archipelago:
At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). … For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.
However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in the obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?
The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…
Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!
The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:
“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”
You begin to see why the Soviet-bloc emigres are so panicked about what’s happening in America today, don’t you?
“We are not good survivors of Communism,” said Bishop Istvan, of his generation. “If you read the Book of Exodus, you will see that it took forty years of wandering in the desert for the Israelites to prepare to enter the Promised Land. Many of them wanted to go back to Egypt, where they were slaves, but at least they could have a few material things guaranteed for them. I feel like my generation has been told by God that we can’t enter the Promised Land.
“But I ask myself,” he continued, “which Promised Land should I want to enter? Should it be the West? The problem is, there is no fruit there. There is no milk, there is no honey.”
That resonated deeply with me, this point of Bishop Istvan’s. Something similar has been front to mind for me since I first arrived here three weeks ago. There is something about putting distance between oneself and America, and looking at America from a non-woke country, that highlights the true insanity of what’s happening in our nation. When you’re drinking coffee with a Hungarian man who, as a child, was forced, along with every other child in this country, to turn up on the street and pretend to be happy that Communism was running their lives — well, it really does put in perspective the rising cultural hegemony of Critical Social Justice.
And by the way, Bishop Istvan said earlier in our talk that the Communists understood well that capturing the teachers was a good way to mainline Communist ideals into the heads of students. Teachers were almost always true believers in the party. Listening to him say that made me think about how the capture of schools of education and educational circles by the woke is how the woke ideology is moving so quickly through America. I don’t think it was the bishop, but rather some other Hungarian that I told about how school systems across America have committed themselves to supporting trans students by undermining parents. For example, here is a passage from the government document setting out trans student policies in the state of New Jersey:
A school district shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required. Further, a student need not meet any threshold diagnosis or treatment requirements to have his or her gender identity recognized and respected by the district, school or school personnel. Nor is a legal or court-ordered name change required. There is no affirmative duty for any school district personnel to notify a student’s parent or guardian of the student’s gender identity or expression.
Over and over I have heard from Hungarians and others who lived under Communism that one of the basic strategies of totalitarians is to separate children from parents, if only in the minds of the children. It’s happening in America, in the name of gender ideology! It boggles the mind. It makes me want to scream, Wake up! Wake up and save yourselves, while there is time!
We have a problem with happiness, said the bishop. By trying so hard to make ourselves happy, we are making ourselves miserable. There can be no true happiness without struggle. “If you want to be happy in this life,” he said, “you will be very boring.” His point is not that happiness is wrong, but that true happiness is a by-product of the search for meaning, and the quest for virtue.
Bishop Istvan said that he has hope in the young, that they will throw off the shackles of social media, and realize that there is no substitute for real life, for the touch of a real person, for the sight of a human face, and the sound of a human voice, unmediated by electricity.
“Here in the 1980s, young people formed loose groups, just spending time together,” he said. “They had no idea that they were coming together for any particular purpose. They just came together to practice a sort of letting go.”
Letting go of what? I didn’t ask, but I understood him to mean that only in personal communion with each other could the young people living under late Communism find some sense of freedom. It reminded me of these words from the Solidarity trade union activist Zofia Romaszewska, from our interview in her Warsaw apartment, and recalled in Live Not By Lies:
Zofia Romaszewska is one of the true heroes of modern Poland. She and her late husband Zbigniew were academics and activists in the Solidarity trade-union movement. The couple joined the fight for liberty and human rights in the 1960s, when they hosted dissident meetings at their apartment. When the communist regime declared martial law in 1980 in an attempt to smash Solidarity, Romaszewska and her husband went into hiding, and founded the underground Solidarity radio station. She was eventually arrested, but amnestied after several months.
Today, at eighty, Romaszewska, now a grande dame of the anti-communist resistance, still retains the spark and tenacity of a street fighter. After five minutes of speaking with her in her Warsaw flat, it’s clear that any commissar faced with a firebrand like this woman would have no chance of prevailing.
Romaszewska is fierce on the subject of, well, solidarity. She sees the danger of soft totalitarianism coming fast, and urges young people to get off the internet and get together face-to-face to build resistance.
“As I see it, this is the core, this is the essence of everything right now: Forming these communities and networks of communities,” she says. “Whatever kinds of communities you can imagine. The point is that the members of that community must be very supportive of one another, no matter what comes. You don’t have to be prepared to give your life of the other person, but you do have to have something in common, and to do things together.”
I left Bishop Istvan Szabo and stepped out into a cool, drizzly afternoon in Buda. We had spoken of heavy things, but his spirit is so light that I didn’t realize quite how heavy they were until this morning, when I was going over my notes. Re-reading them this morning, and thinking about what I learned from this man of God, reinforced my belief that if we are going to have a future, we are going to have to turn to men and women like the bishop, and listen closely to what they have to say. They see the soft totalitarian fraud being foisted upon us in the West — and they know that a similar fate is being prepared for their countries. The good news is that it hasn’t happened here yet. They still have time to prepare.
One more thing about the meeting with the bishop. He and another Hungarian man present talked about how the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, affected their families. Families who had previously simply lived in Hungary now found themselves divided by new borders. Slovakia used to be part of the Kingdom of Hungary, as did Transylvania, which is now under Romanian rule. Bishop Istvan’s father’s family are Hungarians who live in what was given to Serbia by Trianon. Listening to these two Hungarians talk about this to each other — it wasn’t part of the interview — impressed upon me why so many Hungarians even today still talk about Trianon as a grievous national wound. I had thought that it was mostly a matter of resentment over the treaty having reduced the size of the country by two-thirds. I mean, which country wouldn’t resent that? But after yesterday, I realize that there is a deeply personal aspect to this. Families were separated by borders. Generations of Hungarians who had understood themselves as living within a single kingdom now found themselves citizens of non-Hungarian countries.
I’m neither defending nor criticizing the Treaty of Trianon. I imagine that Romanians and Slovaks — and I have good friends among them too — have a very different view of the treaty, which gave them nationhood. But if you want to understand why sovereignty matters so much to Hungarians, and why Viktor Orban and the Fidesz Party give voice to anger over what they believe are foreigners (foreign countries, international corporations and financiers, NGOs, George Soros, et alia) trying to take away or dilute Hungary’s right to self-determination, you have to understand the Trianon effect on the social psychology of Hungarians. I always thought it was a reaction to Soviet occupation, and the imposition of Communism on Hungary. That’s definitely part of it, but from what I can tell, Trianon is the major thing.
I’m finishing up this piece and am about to head across the Danube again to meet an American friend for a late lunch. I will ask her what she thinks about the Promised Land. Where is the milk and honey of the West? For Hungarians, there is no milk and honey in Russia, or in China, or in the deracinated, globalist European Union. They are going to have to figure it out for themselves.
But what a resource this country has in that damaged generation! Bishop Istvan knows that the tragedy of his generation is that they can never fully recover from the wound of Communism. Still, they carry the memory of slavery in that Bolshevik Egypt, and they can at least transmit this knowledge to the young. You would be surprised by the postcommunist young Hungarians I’ve met here who really don’t know much about the Communist years — this, by their own admission. I wonder why not. This is something I need to find out.
[Readers, this was the end of my Substack post. What follows is extra — things I’ve been thinking about over the weekend, following up on the conversation with Bishop Szabo. — RD]
It’s really hard to emphasize strongly enough how deranged American life is when seen from the perspective of this non-woke country. For Hungarians — not all of them; some want what the West has — when they see what’s happening to America, they panic, and don’t want that here. Can you blame them? What I have tried to explain to the Hungarians I’ve met is that this insanity has rolled over America so quickly because the radicals captured the institutions. If you’ve lived through what these people have lived through, you would not dare to let school authorities interpose themselves between you and your child, especially not when it comes to them wanting the child to be free to decide his or her sex, in a time of mass propaganda for gender fluidity. But we do it all the time in America. Most people in the US don’t seem to be all that concerned about it.
What just happened in my home state of Louisiana is a terrific example of institutional capture. Louisiana is a conservative state. Louisiana State University, my alma mater, finds itself in a world of trouble with the NCAA because of the way it mishandled sexual abuse allegations in the athletic department a few years back, especially with former head football coach Les Miles. It was outrageous what the university did back then, and its leadership should pay a price.
Well, LSU has just hired a new president: William F. Tate, who will be the university’s first black president. I’m glad the school will have a black president — but not Tate, who is a Critical Race Theory scholar. He’s a fairly big deal in the field. I found this in the British Journal of Sociology, from a 2013 paper:
Here is an excerpt from that “milestone” 1995 paper Tate co-authored (read the whole thing here):
He co-wrote that 25 years ago. The kind of radicalism that was confined to certain areas of academia then is now completely mainstream. A scholar who endorsed such illiberal race-centered theorizing a quarter-century ago is now going to take the presidency of Louisiana State University.
(If you don’t know what Critical Race Theory is, here is a good primer from a neutral source. CRT is destroying every institution it infects. It is going to tear apart LSU.)
As an alumnus of LSU, and as the father of a current LSU student, I am shocked, disgusted, and appalled that the LSU Board of Supervisors — who were asleep at the switch when Les Miles and student athletes were allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing others — are now apparently trying to cover their asses by bringing in a woke new president. If you have been following the work of the independent journalist Christopher Rufo, you know what CRT does to institutions.
How will the white people of Louisiana feel about the state’s flagship university woking up to teach their children that they are oppressors who need to renounce their “white privilege,” and despise their own “whiteness”? How will alumni donors feel about that? How will state legislators? I have two more kids left to educate in college, and if the new president so much as lifts a finger to implement CRT at LSU, my kids will be going somewhere else to school, and I will make sure that my state legislator knows that I oppose any and all funding increases for my alma mater. I will not be party to paying for the destruction of LSU, and to the colonizing of the minds of a generation of Louisianians by this soft totalitarianism. Believe me, I expect to write more on this later.
I want you to focus, though, not on Dr. Tate, but on the (mostly) white elites who have hired him. What made them think that a Critical Race Theorist would be the best fit to run LSU? What kind of LSU do they want to see as the result of making him the university’s top leader? Did the people of Louisiana know that LSU was considering hiring a Critical Race Theorist? Probably not; I could not find anything about this in the state’s biggest paper, which serves Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The radicals planted their flags at the top of another institution, this one the flagship university of a conservative state. They have done this with the collaboration of the elite gatekeepers whose job it is to look after the health of that institution, and the lack of interest — either passive or active — on the part of the media.
This is how cultural and institutional radicalization is happening all over America, right under the noses of the American people. I tell the Hungarians I meet here: Don’t be like us! You have to fight these people as hard as you can!
Don’t give critical race theorists or gender ideologues any place in your universities. What they preach is toxic, and it will tear your country apart. They will teach your children to hate their country and their civilization, and turn people against each other. You have got to keep this stuff
I spoke to a Hungarian man about that recently, and he said, “This is why I stand by Orban, even though I don’t like some things he’s doing. We can see that our Left is trying to bring the same things here. Did you know that there was a Black Lives Matter statue here in Budapest? The far right tore it down, but it was there for a day, and had Lady Liberty in a rainbow flag. What is that doing in Budapest? We don’t have any black people here, but the Left is trying to import American issues.”
Of course. It’s a globalist left-wing ideology: gender fluidity, racial consciousness, soft totalitarianism. And it’s all being pushed by elites in the media and in institutions. Here is a report on the BLM/LGBT statue in Budapest. Excerpt:
The statue caused an uproar after it won a recent tender for public art in the ninth district of the Hungarian capital.
“Black Lives Matter is basically a racist movement. The racist is not the person who opposes a BLM statue, but the person who erects one,” said Gergely Gulyás, Orbán’s chief of staff.
But the mayor of the district, Krisztina Baranyi, defended the move, saying: “The BLM goals of opposing racism and police brutality are just as relevant in Hungary as anywhere else.”
Unlike our friends on the activist left, I don’t agree with taking statues down (and mind you, these were activists, not people from the government). But you can see how this social radicalism is an international movement. Do you think you could expect a Republican office holder to call BLM a racist movement? The Louisiana legislature tried to ban the teaching of CRT, but the bill’s sponsor withdrew it after a ridiculous controversy over a misstatement he made, and instantly apologized for. In truth, it may not be legal for the Legislature to ban such a thing at an American college. But couldn’t we at least see some spine in Republican lawmakers, speaking out against CRT, and the LSU Board of Supervisors having hired a top CRT scholar as president of the university?!
To take this back to Bishop Szabo: no, Bishop, America is not the Promised Land, in the sense of offering a viable, healthy model of development. It really is dismantling itself through this insane leftist ideology. We are no longer a liberal democracy, but are transforming ourselves into an illiberal left-wing democracy. I’m very sorry for that. You Hungarians are going to have to work out your destiny on your own. Do not do what we have done.
As for me, here’s the conclusion that I am being dragged to by events: that the only choices we have are illiberal left-wing democracy (like Biden’s America), and illiberal right-wing democracy (like Orban’s Hungary). It’s not about voting. It’s about the institutions and the culture. My son Matt arrived here the other day, and I told him that Hungary is like a flashback to my youth in the 1980s, when I was his age. First, a lot of people smoke, but more importantly, you can have an actual conversation with someone you disagree with, without having to worry about being canceled. People can still do this here, or so it seems to me. Orban has said he wants to build an “illiberal democracy” here, and I take him at his word, but how very strange it is to be able to have more honest conversations about politics and controversial matters here than you can back in America.
Over the weekend, a liberal (but non-woke) American academic who is thinking about taking a fellowship at a Hungarian university contacted me to ask me what I thought about the place. I told him that he will feel far, far more free here, in terms of the kinds of debates he can have, than he does in the US. “And,” I said, “it will take you about two weeks on the ground here to learn that most of what you read in the American press about Hungary is bullsh*t.”