Whiteness: “Race,” Capitalism, US, Eastern Europe

Interview with Jozsef Borocz by Boroka Paraszka

The original of this interview was broadcast, in Magyar, on Marosvásárhelyi Rádió Romania—a minority-language public radio station in Târgu Mureș, Romania—on July 8, 2020

Slightly edited and lightly annotated English translation by Jozsef Borocz

Boroka Paraszka: You said you were „at a loss” about the new movements in the US and their reception in Europe. That surprised me because I thought you had a very defined opinion.

Jozsef Borocz: Well, I do, and I am very critical. I am „at a loss” in two senses of the word. First, I am actually shocked by seeing some of the things happening in the USA, even though I have always been strongly skeptical about the political system, and some aspects of social reality overall, like all the good people I know—I guess I belong in a group of intellectuals who are critical observers of reality—but even I had not expected that the situation would go so far as it has.

In a second sense, I am reading the reactions to the news in the US by the greatest minds of Hungarian intellectual scene with a shock. More precisely, perhaps it is too strong to say that I am „shocked,” since, in a certain way, it was to be expected that reactions of this kind would be produced—but I find the scale, the magnitude of the positions, the  severity, the fury and the absence of any empathy or sensitivity, frankly, breathtaking.

BP: I think that the Hungarian refusal, the dismissive position is not a Hungarian specialty, it is true of the rest of eastern Europe.

JB: Yes, of course.  Mostly.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – MAY 29: A fire burns at a gas station on Lake Street on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protests have been ongoing in the state and around the country since George Floyd’s death while in police custody on Monday. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images/AFP

BP: As to why it is happening, I have no explanation, but if you do have one, I would be curious to hear it. Where does the degree of indifference with which people react to the events in the US come from? Let’s say, from the context of the Romanian nation state, especially those who pursue minority rights, could, in theory, see an opportunity in the US events, and they could see a positive example in all this.

JB:  Right. If we try to turn this entire gamut of issues to the history of Hungarian public culture and education, it strikes me that, at a certain, earlier time, a large part of Hungarian culture—say, looking at folklore—had an image of idea of self and an ideal of beauty that it found in itself as “piros-barna legény, piros-barna kislány” (red-brown girl / boy). Metaphorically speaking, by today, Hungarian conversation has shifted to seeing itself as “fehérnép” (white folk). I know this contrast is unfair “methodologically,” as those two metaphors are not directly comparable, and these are two small examples taken from a gigantic stock of folk metaphors—but precisely as metaphors I will stay with them for now because I find them suggestive. My point is that, over the twentieth century or so, educated Hungarian conversation began imagining itself as “White.” I will clarify what I mean by Whiteness in a moment.

Now, there are enormous problems with that. On the one hand, factually, it is untrue. On the other hand, it is as if, in the absolutely last moment, we were trying to climb onboard the Titanic of global Whiteness—when we don’t even have a seat reservation. This is basically how I can define the trajectory of our culture over the last century.

I have an even better metaphor to offer. It is based on a historical fact—and it lightens our conversation on account of it not being about Hungary or Hungarians. Before independence, today’s Haiti was a French colony, called Saint-Domingue. It was an important part of the French colonial system. The colonial products grown in Haiti made up forty to sixty percent of French colonial imports at the time. Haiti had a plantation-based agriculture, based on slave labor. The news of the 1789 French Revolution percolated through the colonial system—where all the population spoke some version of French at the time—so the people of Saint-Domingue, too, learned about the idea of “droits de l’homme”, human rights, and adopted it as an inspiration. The result was a popular uprising that was both an anti-colonial war and a revolution aiming to put an end to slavery. I obviously cannot recount the beautiful history of the Haitian Revolution here—I can only recommend it for everyone to find out about it. It is enough to know that, in the more than a decade long anti-colonial war that ensued, at a certain point, when Poland had been partitioned and France received a sizeable Polish emigré population, Napoleon sent a Polish battalion to Saint-Domingue to help extinguish the uprising. The Polish contingent arrived in the island and soon realized that their political ideals were best matched not by the geopolitical concerns of Napoleon’s France but those of the Haitian Revolution.

For us, in our part of the world, one of the most breathtaking aspects of the history of the Haitian Revolution is that the Polish battalion sent there by the French switched sides and supported the uprising.  Mind you, some of the Polish survivors ended up settling there, and there are even today proud Haitians who claim, partly, Polish family heritage.

There are many intricacies to this story. My point is that, in the late-18th, early-19th century, it was still possible for east European subjects to experience a political, moral and emotional identification with Black people and the objectives of the latters’ armed struggles against colonial rule and slavery. This, by the way, was not unique to Poles—there is ample evidence of similar positions in Hungarian history as well.

By today, this political, moral and emotional identification has become almost impossible.

BP: Why?

JB:  Look, this is an excellent question, and I would like to pose it myself. I have no answer. Groups of talented young historians of political ideas ought to re-examine the corpus of Hungarian (Polish, etc.) culture to find the causes for this loss.  Understanding the underlying causes for the Whitening, so to speak, of Hungarian culture would allow us to make giant leaps forward in coming to terms with our collective heritage: Documenting how it happened that masses of Hungarians began adopting the identity position of west European Whiteness. The essence of that position is that west European Whiteness is so exceptional, it is so superior to the rest of the world, that even questioning that dogma is anathema. Hence there is nothing else for us in eastern Europe to do than keep repeating our claim that we, too, are part of west European Whiteness. When we feel that perhaps we are not exactly considered parts of it, our reaction is repeating the same claim, only more obnoxiously, if that’s even possible.

This is not going to work, for multiple reasons.  Perhaps the most important is that this position is deeply immoral. Claiming Whiteness is a global-historical sin.  Being claimants to Whiteness means that we demand unearned, un-earnable global privileges. It means claiming to have a “right” to rob Africa of its natural treasures, from caoutchouc to precious metals, it means claiming a right to enslave—i.e., kidnap, abuse and sell through “the market”, a market that we then turn around and call “free”—and engage under unspeakable, dehumanizing conditions people by the millions and millions. Make no mistake about it, we are not only talking about the US South and Haiti, in the last several centuries, but today. West European Whiteness claims a right to mansplain everybody how they should live—while, for the most part, it has not the foggiest notion of local conditions. It claims a right to treat with the most boorish disrespect the cultures, aesthetic achievements, ethical considerations, problems, etc. of the rest—i.e., the vast majority—of the world.

BP: At this point many people start having a certain anxiety in east-central Europe as experiences are really different around here. Among many other things, partly because of Roma segregation, partly because of racial homogeneity, most of us don’t really have experience about what it means when multiple races live together. At this point, where you say it is a sin to be White, people start to be anxious, thinking “I have nothing to do with the fact that I was born white,” they would not even understand what you are saying when you talk about claims to White superiority, since he or she knows nothing about slavery—here there was no such thing, although Romania had slavery, it was abolished here latest in Europe, never mind, so, they feel that if you say that being White is a sin, then that is a form of racism itself. Hence, they feel victims and not perpetrators.

JB: I have skipped an important point, thank you for reminding me. Putting forth a claim to global Whiteness has nothing to do with skin pigmentation. I repeat. Whiteness is not a question of skin color. Skin color is just an excuse. Whiteness is a category of power, privilege and (im)morality. There are myriad ways to show that. Perhaps I will mention only the most obvious one.

The situation at the heart of the problem I mentioned above—trying to understand how Hungarian culture became “White”—is not exactly unique. In the US—whose written, school-taught and media-distributed history begins with the arrival of Europeans there, a truly revolting story in its own right, by the way—there exists a small industry of social historians studying processes of “becoming White.” Karen Brodkin’s widely read book titled How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About America began this series of research projects almost a generation ago. This was followed by similar project concerning other ethnic groups. The essence of the story is that when a given, non-northern-or-west-European groups arrived in the US, practically all of them were categorized as inferior by the US elites at the time.

This, by the way, can be beautifully demonstrated with a story that I keep repeating. As it turns out, the establishment of the American Population Association—the scholarly association of practitioners of this very respectable area of research—was possible, in 1930, because there was strongly committed lobbying support for population research by several groups. Most vocal and strongest among those lobbying groups were the “immigration restrictionists,” overlapping with the so-called “eugenicists,” politically very active and influential people who advocated a eugenic approach to managing social life. Their firm conviction was that the United States was facing a terrible future (again, we are talking the late twenties). Why? Because the country was “flooded” by people whose “genetic stock,” the eugenicists claimed, was “undesirable.”

When practitioners of Hungarian culture hear this, the common reaction is “yes, of course, the undesirable were the Colored people.” To those who think that right now, I would like to say—think again. It was about us. Those groups with the putatively “undesirable genetic stock” from whom the eugenicists were trying to save the “gene stock” of the USA were the east Europeans. And of course, southern Europeans.

So, back to the idea of Brodkin’s project, “how Jews became White folk”—well, such that two generations after the beginning of massive Jewish immigration to the United States, the children and grandchildren of the immigrants began changing their position in the stratification and class systems of the United States. They became subject to upward mobility. As part of that process, they were able to force the system to accept them as members of the White quote-unquote “race.” I always put the word “race” in quotation marks because, of course, science tells us that there is only one human race, ergo the concept of multiple “races” is utterly un-scientific.  

By today, by the way, quite a few books have been published, documenting other processes of becoming White, by Italians, Poles, the Irish, etc.  

BP:  Apropos Italians, I was watching the news of attacks on, or removals of, various statues and was surprised to see that a majority of those statues were erected by the Italian diaspora. That surprised me very much.

JB: Of course. In a certain game of Italian-American politics of identity, especially as it has existed in the tabloid press and other forms of political conversation, the offspring of the Italian immigrants in the USA, a majority of them villagers or people from small towns, manual workers coming predominantly from the much poorer, southern parts of Italy, were searching for a symbol for their identity, a person whose character expresses both their “Italianness” and “Americanness.” And they found it in the much-lionized persona of Columbus.  In that sense, they had a tough break, as they say, as the greatest Italian they had thought of and settled on as their symbol was, as it turned out, a colonial racist plunderer. Such is life, they will have to be able to deal with it. This is approximately as if the Hungarian diaspora in the US chose somebody like—and I am of course making a great leap here—somebody like (World War II Fascist leader of the “Arrow Cross” movement, and a genocidal war criminal) Ferenc Szálasi as their symbol at a certain point in time and as if today, a few young people chose to pour red paint over, or topple, his statue. That’s about all one can say about it.

BP: The difference between Szálasi and Columbus—it is absurd that we need to talk about the two of them in one plane—is that there is a consensus about Szálasi’s historical role, and that society has not too much, but still some basic knowledge about it. In contrast, Columbus in European mass media, since the premiere of the film 1492, featuring Vangelis’ music score, it has not occurred to us Europeans—I am talking about those of us talking about the events from the outside, with relatively little knowledge—it just does not occur to us that we should have any kind of problem with Columbus. There seems to be a tiny little fracture here. 

JB: Indeed, it has not occurred. All the worse for us. 

BP: While the murder of George Floyd was in the news—well, I wouldn’t say there was a consensus about it in Europe, but still, there was a certain kind of silence, a sense of surprise or shock. When the street disturbances began, with a thin layer of the atrocities, or performance acts, against public statues, then suddenly there was an about-turn in central European public opinion, and it became dismissive. I think there is, here, some kind of a very big, big misapprehension, a certain loss of meaning, as concerning the clarity of the European vision.

JB: Indeed, that is pretty much what happened. Let just start by me saying that I have not been in the US since last August (I had a fellowship in Europe since then). So, in this sense what I am saying is based on my earlier, direct experience, plus my forays into the news over the internet. I should also add that I am not an expert on American Studies; as a sociologist I mainly work on societies other than the US.

Having said that, I think what happened is that the European public. . . how should I say, . . . the European public was suddenly caught engaging in a bit of dishonesty. We can of course keep repeating mantras like “human rights,” and equality, especially before the law, etc., but as far as I can tell, there has never been equality in the context of US society. Never. Never. In the small town where I live when I am back to teaching, the police routinely harass people for the crime of “driving while Black.” And that is a truly, strongly liberal part of the United States.

The truth is, a large part of the police in the US is completely out of control. If we look at the statistics of deaths resulting from “encounters” with the police, Black men are victims two and a half times more often than others. How about the level of social segregation that there are children, by the millions, who see nothing, ever, but the ghetto in which they live? Or take the incarceration rate—the number of people in jails and prisons, divided by the total population—which is greater in the USA than either in China or Russia. The USA constitutes 4.4% of the world’s population and has 22% of people behind bars. And among those who are in jail, the proportion of African Americans is considerably greater than their proportion in society at large.

All I want to say is that how the current history of any place, including the US, is written, and by who, is subject to major struggles. And seeing that struggle in the USA, some European intellectuals behave like wealthy tourists who fly into JFK Airport, take a taxi to their posh hotel, then set out to Bloomingdales—a really expensive, very “White” department store—choose what they like, then go home. Intellectually speaking, they fly in with utmost elegance, select the most vanilla white narratives they encounter, and that is the basis for the expertise that supposedly allows them to comment on reality. Frankly, I am at a point that I am not even able to have a conversation about the United States with many of my Hungarian acquaintances. I cannot take it. We do not have any overlap in our experiences.

A few months ago, you interviewed a truly impressive, top elite intellectual, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who opined that he has a special respect for the United States because there democracy was created “without the use of violence.”

I am dumbfounded.

We have reached a point where we cannot possibly have a conversation, you see. All possible exchange abruptly stops right there.

BP: I think the great fracture, the thing that ends the conversation, is something that goes very deep. It may not just have to do with what is known about the US. It is more a function—to return to your points about Whiteness—of us being confident that the so-called European democratic values, as they are usually referred to, are the best possible in the world. And that the system that is built on those values is fundamentally good. What we perceive as disputable is not a problem of values.

JB: Well, yes, but perhaps in our region it does not require too much of an explanation to see that the world of ideas cannot, ought not to be treated in separation from the concrete social, historical, economic and political practices that produce them.  Take the Enlightenment, for instance, the great wellspring of the “values” we are tiptoeing around. We are all taught to regard it with admiration. Liberty, equality and fraternity, human rights, the great European miracle of the 18th century. Well, as it happens, that, too, is the period when the west European bourgeoisie reached the peak of its for-profit, “free” trade in human beings. This is the century of the summit of European slave trade. Estimates by economic historians suggest that the history of capitalist slave trade reached its apex in the eighteenth century. How many millions of people? What kind of ships? Who pocketed the profits? Portuguese, Frenchmen, Britons. I had a chance to visit the nice city of Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France. The town admirably cultivates its historical memory—and that is centered around the fact that Nantes used to be the largest slave trading port of France.  Well, thank you—but no, thank you. . .

In addition to all that, in eastern Europe, we tend to pick and choose what we are willing to learn from global history—on a breathtakingly discriminating, racist basis. For us, it is enough to know “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Of that of course we really like referring to liberty; equality and fraternity don’t seem to be nearly so exciting to today’s elites. The idea that the “other side” of that triumphant history of “the west,” say, of the Enlightenment, ought also to be examined, the thought that we need to keep in mind the material basis on which all those purportedly majestic values had been based—well, that is just not there. Absent.

The European Union, a geopolitical unit that Hungarian “opposition” parties like invoking in the streets every once in a while—actually, it works even more manipulatively, as the chant is the name of the geographical continent, “Europe,” while what they “really” mean is just about half of it—has its headquarters in Belgium. That Belgium whose colonial history begins at the Berlin Africa Conference of the eighteen-seventies, where the King of Belgium essentially snatched up a gigantic territory in Africa, a vast territory of extremely rich rain forest around the river Congo and its tributaries, today’s Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo, an area approximately thirty times greater than today’s Hungary. The king named his newly stolen land, interestingly from the perspective of the Enlightenment concept of “Liberty,” the “Congo Free State” (my emphasis). The main technology of colonial rule was a whip, made of crocodile skin, making a gash of 4-5 cm depth into the body of the victim. Routine punishment for petty theft was chopping off of hands.  The victims of the rule of Leopold II, King of Belgium, in Congo reached ten million, i.e., a magnitude similar to, if not greater then, the Holocaust. Approximately fifty percent of the people of the “Congo Free State” were exterminated.

Well, we don’t particularly seem to care about things like that in eastern Europe. Brussels is the seat of both NATO and the EU. Much of the Hungarian context just stares at the world and admires the West, that’s all. And, it is profoundly surprised when it hears that—last week it was not in Brussels but in Antwerp, another town in Belgium—people express a certain kind of historical anger by violating the statue of Leopold II. East Europeans just don’t get it. Why don’t they understand? To a large extent because they don’t know. Why don’t they know? Because they view history from a White supremacist point of view. They think they are allowed to do so, and that excuses their ignorance. They know exactly what not to know.

Of course, they are free to (not) think whatever they wish—but then I, too have the right to say that I am embarrassed and ashamed by that attitude.

BP: The classical counter-argument usually is that—yes, slavery is a nasty thing, but nobody really has a sense of what happened between capturing people in Africa, loading them in boats those who survived reached the Americas, people don’t really know much about all that—but, in general, pretty much everybody agrees that the institution of slavery is not good. And people usually add that, well, we see it like that today, but two-three hundred years ago, the world and values were different.  Hence historical depth and context also need to be taken into account.

JB: I agree. And a key part of this historical depth and familiarity with context ought to be the recognition that not only those facts are facts that extol Whiteness. I am not saying we should engage an opposite, some kind of anti-White racism. But recognition of the fact that most of what we have been taught about world history is seriously biased ought not to be so astonishing for people in our part of the world—after all, the falsehood of canonical histories is a shared experience of the societies of this region.

As regards slavery, there is another point. It is one thing to say that, well, slavery is not nice, and that freedom is a beautiful value. I agree with that, of course. But the critique I am trying to formulate is about something else, at several points. One is that we are not talking about slavery as such, as a generic idea. What we are talking about is the fundamental strategy engaged in (the original) accumulation of capital of the longest, early period of capitalism by the west European bourgeoisie. In Haiti, for instance, as in much of the “New World,” that phenomenon was linked to a very specific set of agricultural production regimes. We are talking about plantation economies—the forerunner to large-scale, industrial farming. Slavery-based plantation production had a relatively high rate of productivity, and it allowed cultivation of specific, very lucrative crops that could only be produced via slavery because they were so labor-intensive. Free people could not be forced to do that kind of back breaking work. So, the point is not just that, well, slavery is a nasty thing. It is more important that it was an integral part of the history of capitalism, a history that is not over yet.

The other thing is that it is not that the generic category “people,” that was enslaved. People marked by very specific “traits,” defined along ethnic, linguistic, geopolitical and quote-unquote “race” codes were selected specifically for this purpose. These two facts frame the political processes taking place in the world today in a much more precise manner. For, if we comprehend that slavery was part and parcel to capitalism, and that the “race” code and ethnic discrimination have been immediate, integral, un-erasable components of capitalism, that will throw the protests that are taking place in the US today in a different, very sharp relief. And we can also glance at some important ways in which our world could be made a better place—by eliminating those forms of oppression, exploitation and destruction of human lives. This would also allow us to see our own regional histories in different lights. The phenomenon of ethnic oppression, for instance, perhaps I don’t need to explain it to the audience in Marosvásárhely / Târgu Mureș how relevant this issue is in our part of the world. Why is it so difficult to see our collective histories of suffering as part of the history of global capitalism? Why can’t we see ethnic oppression as a fundamental aspect of human existence under capitalism as is exploitation? — That of course would require that we say something about exploitation as well.

BP: This town is special in the sense that, after the regime change, it was here that a fatal ethnic conflict took place. And yet, now, people have reacted with incomprehension and self-distancing to the news of conflicts in the US. And neither here, nor elsewhere in eastern Europe do many people understand how it is possible that all sorts of people revolt against institutional racism, irrespective of what “race” they may be categorized as. There is a certain sense of solidarity that is very surprising to people around here.

JB: I think the two questions you ask are linked at their roots. I’m really not an expert on your town, and I see that part of the world also only from news reports of various quality, but my supposition would be that some of the intellectuals of Târgu Mureș, ethnic Magyars or Romanians, or perhaps others, might have a problem understanding the situation in the US because they think of themselves as White. They think they are distant observers, un-involved in that business. They are part of what seems to be “objectively” the best thing in the world, the thing of Whiteness, and that’s enough for them. They are claiming Whiteness in the sense as I defined it above. I repeat, this has nothing to do with skin pigmentation per se. It has to do with an insistence on global privileges and the linking of such claims to a west European moral-geopolitical identity and a putatively higher political, ideational and moral value system. So, they look at the news of the protests in the US and their attitude is, “What’s wrong with those people?” This is the reaction. “These people just keep causing trouble in the streets, topple statues, they are very annoying. What’s the big deal, really? What is their problem,” they think.

As for the “multiple-background” character of the participants in the protests—of course! That’s the whole point! The resistance to White privilege claims and the heavy-handed oppression of the rights, considerations, interests and values of all other people is “a bad thing for Black people.” It is a terrible thing for everybody! It is an awful, awful tragedy for me, no matter how blond my hair may be.   

And let me add that all this goes back to a number of all-important everyday life experiences.  My US job is at a large state university on the East Coast. I enter my classroom. Of the forty or so students sitting there are maybe three whom east European habits of “race” categorization would label “White.” And when we cover the topic of slavery and its lasting social consequences on post-slavery societies like the US, everybody sobs, including those students whom east European intellectuals would label “White.” Some weep because they feel it is really difficult to deal with the knowledge of what was done to their ancestors; others cry because what their ancestors did. All weep because they understand how the sins committed centuries ago are still with us. And that is what the historical sociology of past trauma is about, after all.

BP: This is what is really difficult to find an answer for. How should one relate to what one’s ancestors did? This of course comes up with respect to the Holocaust very much. What are the moral consequences of past brutality for me, a person living in the present?  What do I need to add in order for there to be elaboration of the past, atonement, reparation, and, most of all, for the system to become better, to eliminate the possibility for such horrors?

JB: We need to acknowledge it.

BP: But what?

JB: What earlier generations have hushed up. 

Two recent books by Gábor Zoltán—with whom you had made a terrific interview on this show a few months ago—did a wonderful service in this regard.  For me, for instance, they are shockingly personal. I grew up in District I in Budapest. The richly documented stories of the two books by Gábor Zoltán—titled Szomszéd (Neighbor) and Orgia (Orgy)—take place in that area. The books reconstruct, in painful, microhistorical detail, the genocide, torture and rape that took place during the months of nazi rule in the late autumn and winter of 1944-45 in the two inner districts of the Buda side of the Hungarian capital. The books identify the locations in the most precise manner possible. They list house numbers, floors, flat numbers, street corners, dates, times.

I grew up in that very area. Same houses, same street corners.

The author tells the story how, next to a church, where there are the tennis courts today, the Hungarian Nazis drew the patients, the nurses, the doctors and everyone else they found in the two nearby Jewish hospitals, how they shot them in piles, and left the wounded for dead in the minus 10 Celsius winter cold.

There was a time I would hang out at that very spot, as a kid, to admire the tennis players. And to play our version of street soccer with my little brat friends. I am very deeply grateful to the author for having been able to tell these stories. . .  He was, by the way, raised about 300 meters from the house in which I spent my childhood.

That is exactly how we should be talking. We should be talking like that.

Every time I take the train to my current home in Budapest, I shudder at the site of the Nazi memorial statue erected under the previous mayor of the district and left there by the current one.  I feel sick to my stomach every time I pass by that horrific monstrosity.  And I am not sickened by it because my ancestors were killed, raped or otherwise tortured by the nazis commemorated in that awful statue. I am sickened because, over time, things do come out. We find out what our ancestors, a whole generation of Hungarian society, did or refused to do. And the absolute bare minimum I can say about that is that they stood idly by when genocide took place in front of their very eyes, committed by people they knew (or even themselves).

There is also a generational aspect to all this. I am a member of a cohort that was present at the sites mentioned in the books I have just mentioned, when I played around those places of extended genocide—well, that was the sixties. That was only twenty years after the atrocities described in the books.  The area was still full of burned-out buildings, empty plots, I played soccer or ping pong on top of mass graves. And I knew nothing about this. I went to school about 200 meters from those locations. And, the young pioneer movement that we were all part of had a local history orientation in the school I attended. There was a history teacher who was a local historian, and that was adopted as the theme for the pioneer team. And yet, I still had not heard anything about the special place of the immediate area surrounding the school in the history of the war.  Perhaps it is a good thing they did not tell ten to fourteen-year-old children that they live in a site of genocide. On the other hand, it is remarkable that, as a person so intensely interested in issues of society and history as me, it took an extra fifty years to discover, thanks to those two excellent books, what recent history the immediate urban space in which I grew up has.

BP: So, this is the point where I must ask, again, why it is that the mass becomes extremely angry when approaching a statue of an eighteenth-century slave trader, or entering a space that had served as a slave market, or seeing a memorial to the Confederacy—so, at these points in space something bursts.

JB: Yes. The issue of what protesting crowds do with statues is, to me, not particularly complicated. These are symbols, they have meaning way past themselves. They are not just a piece of bronze, not even just impersonations of Columbus or King Leopold II. They also mean something else. They mean colonialism. And slavery. The systematic, intentional denial of human rights. The robbing of people of their dignity. They mean the destruction of the lives and the life chances of hundreds of millions of human lives. That’s what they mean.

In this sense, I am happy to salute the symbolic acts that “desecrate” or topple them. This is a wonderful form of expression. These young people create new symbols. With those symbolic acts, they say: NO. No to this. No to this history. No to what this history means. No, no, no! They will not accept it. Amazing things could be created on this basis. And, by the way, it is entirely possible that more amazing things will be created—it is just that at the moment we cannot quite see them—perhaps yet.

Why don’t we see them? Perhaps because global media is dominated by people who claim global privileges and dominate the institutions. So, the revolution, if it should happen, will not be televised, that’s not how it works. That news, if it does happen, will spread via oppositional, underground forms and channels of knowledge. If it happens. Ever.

BP: At the moment we are at the point that burning books and toppling statues is a nasty thing, that these are acts of barbary. . .

JB: It depends on the books though. As for me, I would burn Mein Kampf any time. Thanks, but no thanks. And there are a few more.

BP: Here I would disagree. In order to have knowledge, we need to know what it is that one rejects, what is the source of our troubles. For that, traces must be kept.

JB: Sure. You can’t eliminate such monstrosities; they have their place in archives.  We of course cannot erase them from history. That is not what I mean. They may exist as library items. I said this provocatively in the sense that we do need some outlets for moral, political and emotional expression and release. So that we don’t have this constant, ongoing anxiety that is part of our everyday life—which is based, in our region, mind you, on a gigantic historical misidentification. We don’t really have a reason to dread the possibility that the young people of all backgrounds in Kentucky or New York City pour red paint over the statues of Columbus.  It is great. They do political work for all of us humans, including us in eastern Europe.

And when the intellectual elites in Hungary opine that expressing anger against symbols is either “futile” or “barbaric”—quite to the contrary! It is of utmost significance. My former students whose social media posts I catch every once in a long while, they are all on that side. It is impossible to stand on the other side in the US context.  At least in the context of the urban setting on the coasts, it is pretty much un-imaginable for reasonable people to oppose the protests.  Opposition to the protests is like the recent, sadly ridiculous photo where two wealthy lawyers stand before their mansion, one with a submachine gun, the other with a pistol.  “To protect their property” from the protesters—who by the way do nothing but exercise their constitutional rights to express their disapproval of the way the system operates.  This is a joke.

Now, that is new. That that position is seen as nothing but a joke.

Of course, the United States is a very complex society, with parts where the extreme-right, White-supremacist views of the current President receive stable electoral support, for instance. What that suggests is that there will be quite serious conflicts. That would take us to other issues, such as what shape US political life is in at the moment, the double paralysis of the political party system—neither party has been able to innovate in any meaningful way, in spite of the obvious signs of a crisis—and, on top of it all, that there is an unchecked pandemic ravishing the US. This morning’s news was that public health authorities are predicting a spread of the disease in the US at the speed of one hundred thousand cases a day.

That is the result of the government’s willful inaction, something that is starting to look like a form of genocide. New Jersey—where Rutgers, my employer, is—is a state a little smaller than Hungary in population. I have been making some rough, un-scientific comparative calculations of the infection rates, and it appears that New Jersey has a diagnosed infection rate of ten to forty times greater than Hungary, depending on the assumptions we use in making the estimates. This is a really important part of reality on the ground in the US. It is in this situation that the young people we see are out in the streets protesting police brutality. For several months, they have been locked up in the tiny spaces where they mostly live, not designed for continued “lockdown” arrangements (the dorms, their childhood room in their parents’ house or in shared rental). The untenability of their situation also fuels the protests.

Meanwhile, even if we don’t directly speak about the most obviously egregious issues of “race” discrimination and violence, it is hard to deny that there is an element of a slow-going genocide in all this.

I understand some parts of the elite intellectuals of Hungary have had a life strategy based on looking at “America,” saying how great it is, pointing out how awful Hungary is, and working on adopting US patterns in Hungary. Many members of this group did this with perfectly good intentions. The problem is that this project may not be realistic. This particular “copy-paste” position is in trouble. For, there are some important dimensions of life that “America good, Hungary bad” may not be true. Sometimes it happens that it might be the other way around, or they are both “bad,” for different or similar reasons, or reality is something else entirely.

BP: You referred to “genocide.” I would take issue with it. I wish to signal that I don’t find it adequate in the given situation. I of course do not doubt that there are very serious public health problems and dangers. But you mentioned the history of colonialism in Congo, where what took place was truly genocide: willful, specific, proactive, sadist murder of millions of people. Let’s try to make hierarchies here, or why don’t we leave the concept of genocide to denote that.

JB: Maybe I exaggerated. Maybe. In a way it was, again a shortcut; I skipped some important details. Perhaps not everybody knows that among those who are diagnosed with the COVID19 infection, the proportion of African Americans is almost twice as high as their percentage in society at large. Among the fatalities, their proportion is 2.3 times greater. Hispanics and African Americans have a much higher rate of having no or inadequate health insurance than the rest of the population. These facts also need to be taken into account when we see what the federal government does or doesn’t do to satisfy the most elementary public health needs of the population. Top government officials, including the President, talk total garbage about the disease. They say that masks are not necessary. Then they claim that the situation is ready for an end to the lockdown, as the economy must re-start. Plain and simple, they play lottery with human lives. I cannot assume that there is no element of intentionality in all that.

The lifting of the lockdowns was, clearly, a demand by certain powerful segments of capital, specifically capital in the service “industry.” Stores, restaurants, services of all kinds—capital engaged in this sector took a hit by the lockdowns and passed on the hardships to their labor. Meanwhile capital demanded an end to the lockdowns and funded the “anti-mask” protests. Remember that the interests of segments of Big Capital, e.g., the airline and tourism industries—together the world’s largest industry—align with that demand for reopening very much.

So, what does the government do? It goes along with the demands for “restarting the economy”, i.e., it sacrifices the safety of the population at large. On pretty much all occasions when the government has to choose between the interests of capital and society, it chooses capital. Meanwhile, young people, at the stage in their lives where they need to devise and enact long-term strategies for their lives, look around and see that there are no opportunities whatsoever. “There is no there there,” as the saying goes. They have no choice, they must protest. At this point, protests may take the form of toppling the statues of Columbus or Confederacy generals or colonial tyrants—in a few months, who knows, they might express themselves in some other ways.

József Böröcz is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and Research Professor at Corvinus University of Budapest. To find out more about his scholarship, consult http://rutgers.academia.edu/jborocz .

 

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