What it takes for both parties to avoid harming democracy at a time of dramatic power shift. Tip: Democrats shouldn’t take their cues from “V for Vendetta.”

I was one of the all too many from overseas to whom the ascent of Donald Trump has been a reliable source of anguish. After the Brexit referendum came down with its close polls and last-minute plot twist, what remaining prospect we had for a respite had vanished. Though many of us feel shattered now, feeling what should’ve been the glass ceiling instead, no one can afford to postpone a soul-searching for very long.

According to The Atlantic’s David Frum, it was in large part our disengagement from our small-d democratic customs and institutions that allowed Mr Trump to slip through all the stages of the selection process. Amid the harsh noise and political machinations of the campaign season, these “guardrails” were abandoned to such a degree that they were unable to fulfill their functions anymore.

Now that the GOP retains control of Congress, and soon secures a clout over the Supreme Court, there’s a real possibility that disgruntled Democrats — just as many supporters of Mr Trump have — will start railing against the public institutions.

That’d be badly missing the point however.

We need not a wholesale repudiation of the system that gives the very underpinnings of our democracy but rather an increased political engagement within it. Ms Clinton’s principal opponent throughout the primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders made the same plead to his supporters when he urged them to seek offices at the local and state level.

Granted, the laundry list of issues that need to be fixed is long. The problems include gerrymandering and the dramatic disconnect that is between the popular and electoral votes. Also, we may even need to codify some of those broken guardrails so that they become dependable parts of our political immune system again.

Faced with such a tall order, it may be much too tempting to give in to a sense of indignation and go full “V for Vendetta” on the system. The brave thing to do however is to keep their composure and start rolling up their sleeves. Suddenly they have a lot more work cut out for them than they previously did.

On the other end of the bargain, Republicans also have to check their impulses.

With the prospected appointments to the Supreme Court comes a clear control of all three branches of government. This will make it much too tempting for them to slip into a zero-sum mentality. Self-restraint though isn’t just virtuous but also is a long-term investment in a political system that the GOP itself is a part of.

A history rich in Congressional obstructionism may not give us much ground for optimism here. What sliver of hope we have left nonetheless lies with the fact that Mr Trump didn’t get to pick the down-ballots himself. Congress therefore still has the capacity to act as a guardrail against the more erratic aspects of his leadership. Perhaps the last one still standing.

Read All

 

In Europe, we have a periodic history of finding out how the worst possible answer to social anxiety is electing a bully.

 

The Hungarian government’s desperate attempt to weaponize the refugee crisis.

“The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants,” “Since the beginning of the immigration crisis, over 300 have been killed in terrorist attacks” read two of the many gigantic billboards that the Hungarian government put up all across the country in preparation for the upcoming referendum on October 2nd. On the ballot one will be asked the question “Would you like the EU to have the authority to settle non-Hungarian citizens in the country without the approval of the Hungarian Parliament?” Initiated by the government itself, the vote is on a quota system that seeks to equitably distribute the task of relocating refugees from the Middle East across the EU member states.

Putting aside the tone and disinformation of statements like the above, for a government to put its thumb on the scale so blatantly in the campaign of a referendum alone is deeply problematic. This is something former British PM David Cameron can attest to who got into hot water for tipping the scale himself during the Brexit campaign. Nonetheless not only was the question on the ballot remarkable in the way it was framed neutrally, the opposing camps did not have much of a fundraising disparity among them in the first place.

The Hungarian referendum has none of these going for it. Instead, as a testament to how much the question itself is skewed, no major player on the political spectrum has come to endorse a “yes” vote, instead there is bafflement and inertia. In this atmosphere some of the major human rights organizations operating in the country, such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, chose to advocate for casting a deliberately invalid ballot. In the meantime, the government’s toxic rhetoric seems already to be taking root among the people across the country. According to one young boy, 14, from the poorest part of the country, the word “‘migrant’ had already become the playground insult of choice, replacing anti-gay and anti-Roma slurs,” said Áron Demeter from Amnesty International.

In a broader context, Budapest might just be aiming at bolstering its general negotiating position vis-à-vis Brussels. In the absence of any specifics however, the question on the ballot effectively amounts to a blank cheque where the outcome of the referendum will continue to apply regardless of how the EU may fine-tune the exact details for a quota system going forward. This is a hazardous game to play. Not only does this kind of brinkmanship erode trust amongst the EU states, but internally too it runs the risk of undermining trust in a basic democratic institution should the situation eventually call for rejecting the will of the voter. Neither of which an EU still reeling from the implications of Brexit as well a surging far-right in Germany needs any more of.

The administration of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has a record of controversy and brinkmanship. Yet the willingness to put the most vulnerable in harm’s way in one of the most serious Humanitarian crises since World War II marks a new low for him. Afflicting hundreds of thousands of lives with knock-on effects on the stability of an entire region should be considered too large a collateral risk for a fistful of bargaining chips.

Meanwhile, as a restive EU was heading off to its first post-Brexit summit in Bratislava, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission tried to defuse some of the tensions. In his State of the Union address just before the event, he started to soft-pedal his original stance on a mandatory quota system by commenting that “when it comes to managing the refugee crisis, we have started to see solidarity. I am convinced much more solidarity is needed. But I also know that solidarity must be given voluntarily. It must come from the heart. It cannot be forced.”

This effectively renders the dispute over the refugee quota moot for now. Even so, if this charade with the referendum is any indication, the EU might not afford to put off the arduous work of further integration for any longer. For an organization this large and eclectic, there might very well be a critical point to being a vehicle for brinkmanship and conflicting side-deals. Let’s not find out where exactly it lies.

Read All

 

A cultural phenomenon also featuring two posters of my own.

Each year in September, there’s the open-air billboard exhibition ARC (Hungarian for face) on the edge of City Park in Budapest. The hundred-ish posters on display grapple with current social, political, and philosophical issues with vigorous satire.

A juried competition, each work of art that makes it through the selection process gets to be printed on one of the 130 sq ft billboards.

I’m happy to report that this year two of my posters managed to slip through the process.

Flag of the proud nations of Europe striving for independence
“Flag of the proud nations of Europe striving for independence”
Budapest Prude
“Budapest Prude”

In case you’re in town, I highly recommend you to go explore the exhibition. It’s a rather fun and unique experience. Though quite a few posters require a context of domestic affairs to understand, you can chat up visitors at random. Almost certainly, they will be happy to talk to you and give you some insight.

The exhibition keeps open until September 25th at Ötvenhatosok tere in Budapest, Hungary.

Read All

 

A common theme in U.S. and European politic​s that runs deep yet we tend to overlook.

Throughout history, there has been a debate on the desirable level of governance on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S. the tussle has manifested itself in the competing notions of “Federalism” and “States’ rights” whereas in Europe it comes in the flavor of “integration” versus “sovereign nation states.” Much like with the campaign for Brexit soaking in the admiration of Europe’s far-right, we often see this sort of debates pitched around the word ‘liberty.’ The go-to rhetorical tool for stirring the emotions.

While we can find all the ingredients for a bona fide debate here, there is a point beyond which relaying more power to lower levels of government might open the door to ​political favoritism of certain constituencies over the others. This gives rise to the paradox in which more liberty at a lower level (closer to the individual) could end up leading to more disparity at the level of the individual. Case in point here is what has been the cauldron of Reproductive rights v. Religious freedom in the U.S.

Part of what helps sustain this paradox is the relative ease with which lower levels of governance are capable of staying under the radar of public attention even as they pursue discriminatory policies. On the flip side however, involving stakeholders and observers from a broader sphere helps steer our proceedings toward the admission of higher ethical standards. A U.S. example here is the tendency how before the “New Federalist” shift it was the ruling of the Supreme Court that would put the final nail in the coffin of repressive state statutes. An example from Europe is the induction of ex-Eastern bloc countries to the EU in 2004 and 2007. This required that they undergo “Law Harmonisation” which included stronger Human Rights provisions.

Perhaps speaking to the paradox the most is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948—arguably the pinnacle of humanity’s collective political achievements. “Yet, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, there still remains a long way to go in order to achieve the plenitude of the international protection of human rights,” argues Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade, former President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where “the advances of the international protection of human rights depend nowadays, to a large extent, on national measures of implementation.”

None of this is to suggest that all power be exercised at the highest possible level. Not only does it historically run the risk of the abuse of such a centralized power, it would also be a great loss in flexibility not to mention a hindrance to innovation at the local level. Somewhere in between there lies a sweet spot all right, but there is more to this. What makes this balancing act even more delicate is the psychological phenomenon which has us feel losses more intensely than gains. This is something that renders humans risk-averse. Shifting therefore too much power to the more capricious lower levels of governance might just be at odds with the very notion of individual well-being.

Momentous decisions such as the Brexit referendum call (or alas should have) for a cool head. One can even make a convincing case against subjecting such decisions to the whim of the voter. Even so whenever faced with one, we ought to take a detached look at the arguments of the ones who shriek ‘liberty’ the loudest. Especially when they happen to be coming from those who make entire careers out of conflating it with actual individual liberty.

Read All

 

A short film taking a deep dive into the psychology of the European refugee crisis.

(Courage!)

The ease with which two distinct topics have come to merge in the public mind has been a dependable source of angst for me over the last several months. Two of the most formative topics in contemporary Europe, no less. One of them is the series of horrendous terror attacks that have been petrifying us for last couple of years, the other being the refugee crisis spilling out of the conflict in Syria and Iraq. One of them is widely considered to be the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

Utterly predictably, the situation has been a goldmine for political extremists. A mine wherein the rest of us happen to be the canaries. In a reality like that, every single percent of fearmongering Europeans fail to resist is estimated to bring more than one terrorist attack’s worth of misery upon them.

Thus, it is with the saddest kind of opportunism that I launch the film project (Courage!). A narrative short, it looks to take a deep dive into the psychology of the refugee crisis with the synopsis:

Read All

 

How Europe brings 140% a terrorist attack’s worth of misery upon itself with every 1% of fearmongering it fails to resist.

Times such as the aftermath of the last month’s terrorist attack in Brussels lay bare the grinding duality of arguably the most devastating humanitarian crisis of our age. In it, we find our emotions caught in a perplexing blend of agitation and empathy as a series of horrendous terrorist attacks keep occurring against a backdrop of desperate women, children, and men running for their lives seeking refuge in Europe.

Abominable though they might be, terrorist attacks fortunately remain relatively rare occurrences. All the while though, the deluge of heart-wrenching accounts of refugees has been pushing our sensory thresholds to ever-higher levels. By now, we might have already reached a point where it feels as though especially gruesome stories were required to make us recognize their full humanity. Nonetheless there is a strong concurrence between terrorist attacks and the dwindling awareness for the refugee crisis in that both point in the same direction: We are losing empathy for millions still alive for the sake of a couple dozens already dead.

Read All

 

Picking the best U.S. presidential candidate from a markedly global perspective.

Being a spectator from over the other shore of the Atlantic to all the antics that the U.S. Presidential campaign tends to bring out of an uncomfortably large portion of the candidates is admittedly an entertaining way of killing some time. Come Iowa tomorrow though, the mood is about to get more tense and solemn as events to be unfolding from there on are likely to bear primary importance with far-reaching implications for both the parties and the country.

However, the very moment we fully grasp the stakes that this whole show entails, quickly evaporates what little fun is left to make generous accommodation for despondence. After all, Americans are about to elect one of these people to be President of the Earth.

President of the Earth!? Isn’t it way too pompous and arrogant to say that?

Oh, please. Just lean back and let a couple of facts give you a taste.

Read All

 

Who’s your favorite provocateur? You’ve gotta have one. Unless...

 

 

What it takes for both parties to avoid harming democracy at a time of dramatic power shift. Tip: Democrats shouldn’t take their cues from “V for Vendetta.”

I was one of the all too many from overseas to whom the ascent of Donald Trump has been a reliable source of anguish. After the Brexit referendum came down with its close polls and last-minute plot twist, what remaining prospect we had for a respite had vanished. Though many of us feel shattered now, feeling what should’ve been the glass ceiling instead, no one can afford to postpone a soul-searching for very long.

According to The Atlantic’s David Frum, it was in large part our disengagement from our small-d democratic customs and institutions that allowed Mr Trump to slip through all the stages of the selection process. Amid the harsh noise and political machinations of the campaign season, these “guardrails” were abandoned to such a degree that they were unable to fulfill their functions anymore.

Now that the GOP retains control of Congress, and soon secures a clout over the Supreme Court, there’s a real possibility that disgruntled Democrats — just as many supporters of Mr Trump have — will start railing against the public institutions.

That’d be badly missing the point however.

We need not a wholesale repudiation of the system that gives the very underpinnings of our democracy but rather an increased political engagement within it. Ms Clinton’s principal opponent throughout the primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders made the same plead to his supporters when he urged them to seek offices at the local and state level.

Granted, the laundry list of issues that need to be fixed is long. The problems include gerrymandering and the dramatic disconnect that is between the popular and electoral votes. Also, we may even need to codify some of those broken guardrails so that they become dependable parts of our political immune system again.

Faced with such a tall order, it may be much too tempting to give in to a sense of indignation and go full “V for Vendetta” on the system. The brave thing to do however is to keep their composure and start rolling up their sleeves. Suddenly they have a lot more work cut out for them than they previously did.

On the other end of the bargain, Republicans also have to check their impulses.

With the prospected appointments to the Supreme Court comes a clear control of all three branches of government. This will make it much too tempting for them to slip into a zero-sum mentality. Self-restraint though isn’t just virtuous but also is a long-term investment in a political system that the GOP itself is a part of.

A history rich in Congressional obstructionism may not give us much ground for optimism here. What sliver of hope we have left nonetheless lies with the fact that Mr Trump didn’t get to pick the down-ballots himself. Congress therefore still has the capacity to act as a guardrail against the more erratic aspects of his leadership. Perhaps the last one still standing.

Read All

 

In Europe, we have a periodic history of finding out how the worst possible answer to social anxiety is electing a bully.

 

The Hungarian government’s desperate attempt to weaponize the refugee crisis.

“The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants,” “Since the beginning of the immigration crisis, over 300 have been killed in terrorist attacks” read two of the many gigantic billboards that the Hungarian government put up all across the country in preparation for the upcoming referendum on October 2nd. On the ballot one will be asked the question “Would you like the EU to have the authority to settle non-Hungarian citizens in the country without the approval of the Hungarian Parliament?” Initiated by the government itself, the vote is on a quota system that seeks to equitably distribute the task of relocating refugees from the Middle East across the EU member states.

Putting aside the tone and disinformation of statements like the above, for a government to put its thumb on the scale so blatantly in the campaign of a referendum alone is deeply problematic. This is something former British PM David Cameron can attest to who got into hot water for tipping the scale himself during the Brexit campaign. Nonetheless not only was the question on the ballot remarkable in the way it was framed neutrally, the opposing camps did not have much of a fundraising disparity among them in the first place.

The Hungarian referendum has none of these going for it. Instead, as a testament to how much the question itself is skewed, no major player on the political spectrum has come to endorse a “yes” vote, instead there is bafflement and inertia. In this atmosphere some of the major human rights organizations operating in the country, such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, chose to advocate for casting a deliberately invalid ballot. In the meantime, the government’s toxic rhetoric seems already to be taking root among the people across the country. According to one young boy, 14, from the poorest part of the country, the word “‘migrant’ had already become the playground insult of choice, replacing anti-gay and anti-Roma slurs,” said Áron Demeter from Amnesty International.

In a broader context, Budapest might just be aiming at bolstering its general negotiating position vis-à-vis Brussels. In the absence of any specifics however, the question on the ballot effectively amounts to a blank cheque where the outcome of the referendum will continue to apply regardless of how the EU may fine-tune the exact details for a quota system going forward. This is a hazardous game to play. Not only does this kind of brinkmanship erode trust amongst the EU states, but internally too it runs the risk of undermining trust in a basic democratic institution should the situation eventually call for rejecting the will of the voter. Neither of which an EU still reeling from the implications of Brexit as well a surging far-right in Germany needs any more of.

The administration of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has a record of controversy and brinkmanship. Yet the willingness to put the most vulnerable in harm’s way in one of the most serious Humanitarian crises since World War II marks a new low for him. Afflicting hundreds of thousands of lives with knock-on effects on the stability of an entire region should be considered too large a collateral risk for a fistful of bargaining chips.

Meanwhile, as a restive EU was heading off to its first post-Brexit summit in Bratislava, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission tried to defuse some of the tensions. In his State of the Union address just before the event, he started to soft-pedal his original stance on a mandatory quota system by commenting that “when it comes to managing the refugee crisis, we have started to see solidarity. I am convinced much more solidarity is needed. But I also know that solidarity must be given voluntarily. It must come from the heart. It cannot be forced.”

This effectively renders the dispute over the refugee quota moot for now. Even so, if this charade with the referendum is any indication, the EU might not afford to put off the arduous work of further integration for any longer. For an organization this large and eclectic, there might very well be a critical point to being a vehicle for brinkmanship and conflicting side-deals. Let’s not find out where exactly it lies.

Read All

 

A cultural phenomenon also featuring two posters of my own.

Each year in September, there’s the open-air billboard exhibition ARC (Hungarian for face) on the edge of City Park in Budapest. The hundred-ish posters on display grapple with current social, political, and philosophical issues with vigorous satire.

A juried competition, each work of art that makes it through the selection process gets to be printed on one of the 130 sq ft billboards.

I’m happy to report that this year two of my posters managed to slip through the process.

Flag of the proud nations of Europe striving for independence
“Flag of the proud nations of Europe striving for independence”
Budapest Prude
“Budapest Prude”

In case you’re in town, I highly recommend you to go explore the exhibition. It’s a rather fun and unique experience. Though quite a few posters require a context of domestic affairs to understand, you can chat up visitors at random. Almost certainly, they will be happy to talk to you and give you some insight.

The exhibition keeps open until September 25th at Ötvenhatosok tere in Budapest, Hungary.

Read All

 

A common theme in U.S. and European politic​s that runs deep yet we tend to overlook.

Throughout history, there has been a debate on the desirable level of governance on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S. the tussle has manifested itself in the competing notions of “Federalism” and “States’ rights” whereas in Europe it comes in the flavor of “integration” versus “sovereign nation states.” Much like with the campaign for Brexit soaking in the admiration of Europe’s far-right, we often see this sort of debates pitched around the word ‘liberty.’ The go-to rhetorical tool for stirring the emotions.

While we can find all the ingredients for a bona fide debate here, there is a point beyond which relaying more power to lower levels of government might open the door to ​political favoritism of certain constituencies over the others. This gives rise to the paradox in which more liberty at a lower level (closer to the individual) could end up leading to more disparity at the level of the individual. Case in point here is what has been the cauldron of Reproductive rights v. Religious freedom in the U.S.

Part of what helps sustain this paradox is the relative ease with which lower levels of governance are capable of staying under the radar of public attention even as they pursue discriminatory policies. On the flip side however, involving stakeholders and observers from a broader sphere helps steer our proceedings toward the admission of higher ethical standards. A U.S. example here is the tendency how before the “New Federalist” shift it was the ruling of the Supreme Court that would put the final nail in the coffin of repressive state statutes. An example from Europe is the induction of ex-Eastern bloc countries to the EU in 2004 and 2007. This required that they undergo “Law Harmonisation” which included stronger Human Rights provisions.

Perhaps speaking to the paradox the most is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948—arguably the pinnacle of humanity’s collective political achievements. “Yet, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, there still remains a long way to go in order to achieve the plenitude of the international protection of human rights,” argues Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade, former President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where “the advances of the international protection of human rights depend nowadays, to a large extent, on national measures of implementation.”

None of this is to suggest that all power be exercised at the highest possible level. Not only does it historically run the risk of the abuse of such a centralized power, it would also be a great loss in flexibility not to mention a hindrance to innovation at the local level. Somewhere in between there lies a sweet spot all right, but there is more to this. What makes this balancing act even more delicate is the psychological phenomenon which has us feel losses more intensely than gains. This is something that renders humans risk-averse. Shifting therefore too much power to the more capricious lower levels of governance might just be at odds with the very notion of individual well-being.

Momentous decisions such as the Brexit referendum call (or alas should have) for a cool head. One can even make a convincing case against subjecting such decisions to the whim of the voter. Even so whenever faced with one, we ought to take a detached look at the arguments of the ones who shriek ‘liberty’ the loudest. Especially when they happen to be coming from those who make entire careers out of conflating it with actual individual liberty.

Read All

 

A short film taking a deep dive into the psychology of the European refugee crisis.

(Courage!)

The ease with which two distinct topics have come to merge in the public mind has been a dependable source of angst for me over the last several months. Two of the most formative topics in contemporary Europe, no less. One of them is the series of horrendous terror attacks that have been petrifying us for last couple of years, the other being the refugee crisis spilling out of the conflict in Syria and Iraq. One of them is widely considered to be the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

Utterly predictably, the situation has been a goldmine for political extremists. A mine wherein the rest of us happen to be the canaries. In a reality like that, every single percent of fearmongering Europeans fail to resist is estimated to bring more than one terrorist attack’s worth of misery upon them.

Thus, it is with the saddest kind of opportunism that I launch the film project (Courage!). A narrative short, it looks to take a deep dive into the psychology of the refugee crisis with the synopsis:

Read All

 

How Europe brings 140% a terrorist attack’s worth of misery upon itself with every 1% of fearmongering it fails to resist.

Times such as the aftermath of the last month’s terrorist attack in Brussels lay bare the grinding duality of arguably the most devastating humanitarian crisis of our age. In it, we find our emotions caught in a perplexing blend of agitation and empathy as a series of horrendous terrorist attacks keep occurring against a backdrop of desperate women, children, and men running for their lives seeking refuge in Europe.

Abominable though they might be, terrorist attacks fortunately remain relatively rare occurrences. All the while though, the deluge of heart-wrenching accounts of refugees has been pushing our sensory thresholds to ever-higher levels. By now, we might have already reached a point where it feels as though especially gruesome stories were required to make us recognize their full humanity. Nonetheless there is a strong concurrence between terrorist attacks and the dwindling awareness for the refugee crisis in that both point in the same direction: We are losing empathy for millions still alive for the sake of a couple dozens already dead.

Read All

 

Picking the best U.S. presidential candidate from a markedly global perspective.

Being a spectator from over the other shore of the Atlantic to all the antics that the U.S. Presidential campaign tends to bring out of an uncomfortably large portion of the candidates is admittedly an entertaining way of killing some time. Come Iowa tomorrow though, the mood is about to get more tense and solemn as events to be unfolding from there on are likely to bear primary importance with far-reaching implications for both the parties and the country.

However, the very moment we fully grasp the stakes that this whole show entails, quickly evaporates what little fun is left to make generous accommodation for despondence. After all, Americans are about to elect one of these people to be President of the Earth.

President of the Earth!? Isn’t it way too pompous and arrogant to say that?

Oh, please. Just lean back and let a couple of facts give you a taste.

Read All

 

Who’s your favorite provocateur? You’ve gotta have one. Unless...