Saturday, 7 January 2017

Gender, the Big Indo-European Problem

The past years have seen a steady rise in the global appeal of identity politics. Following its victories in academic and political discourse, it is now on its way to conquer the corporate world. Firms are increasingly expected to implement policies promoting the elevation of members of "minority" or historically "oppressed" groups into leadership positions. As a result, identifying with certain groups has become much more important than it was in the golden days of liberal individualism.

The question is which group identities count in this new paradigm - and which don't.

The Texture of the Other

Female figurine from Neolithic "Old Europe", which
archeologist Marija Gimbutas argued was a matriarchal
culture destroyed by the invasion of Indo-European
 warriors (credit:

Liberal individualism was a fairly straightforward concept: Every individual had equal intrinsic value. Political and economic structures were simply meant to provide the same opportunities and protection to each individual irrespective of any external feature – such as skin colour, ethnicity, sex or social background – which accidentally differentiated them. 

Proponents of identity politics argue – similarly to Marxism – that this principal equality failed to bring about a more meaningful levelling of social opportunities because deeper structures continued to favour those belonging to certain dominant groups.  Marxism pointed to the unequal distribution of wealth as such a deeper structure. It saw the dominant group in the bourgeoisie, which controlled the means of production. Identity politics has devised a more sophisticated theory. It argues that it is certain cultural codes – or discourses – disseminated in society that serve to establish a dominance hierarchy favouring certain groups over others. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Yes, It’s 1979 All Over Again

It is amazing to see how people change. With Donald Trump's victory, we are fortunate enough to witness this amazing phenomenon once again. We are fortunate because it happens pretty rarely. In fact, such a radical change of mankind's spiritual condition occurred only three times in the past 150 years. In order to understand the significance of Trump's rise to power, it is useful to revisit these past epochs.

I really wanted to put a beautiful photo of "Mr Trump holding a mining helmet at a West Virginia rally" here but was unable to agree with Getty Images on the price. Maybe I should have consulted "The Art of the Deal" before I started bargaining. Fortunately, a prolific and highly influential hobby photographer came to my help (credit: Gage Skidmore).

"She called it the gold standard"

Departing from London to go round the world in 80 days, Phileas Fogg told his fellow club members with whom he had made the famous wager that “I am taking a passport with me, so that the various visas it will bear will enable you to check my itinerary when I return.” Notice that Fogg did not take the passport with him to be able to travel across the globe. It only served to document his journey – and even this was considered “unnecessary” by his friends, who would as well have trusted his “word as a gentleman”. A couple of days later he was once more reminded of the “futility” of passports by the British consul in Suez: “You know that a visa is useless, and that no passport is required?" This happened in 1872, before either Egypt or the Suez Canal came under British control.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Can Spengler Explain the Islamic State?

At university, I was sometimes jokingly accused of a tendency that, no matter what the actual topic was, the title of my writing assignments always began with “Spengler and the ...” If you take a look at my list of publications or even the posts of this blog, you will be able to establish that this was nothing more than a malicious falsehood. Still, Oswald Spengler remains a central point of reference to me and yes, sometimes I publish essays under a title featuring his name.

This and all other illustrations of this post are taken from
"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", a
filmstrip drawn by Sándor Lengyel, 1963.
All the more so as the range of nouns that can appear in such a title together with Spengler's name is virtually endless. Relying on his encyclopedic knowledge, Spengler wrote about almost everything. First and foremost, however, he was a civilization theorist. A recourse to his thoughts therefore commends itself most clearly when a phenomenon is examined in the context of the civilization that produced it. This is the case with the problem of how the Islamic State is rooted in Middle Eastern culture.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Scripts for the Future

My history teacher once said, “It is our loves that make life worth living.” By this measure, I have no ground to complain.

I encountered my first love at the age of 10, on a rainy autumn afternoon. I was in the 5th grade, just having been allowed to return home every day right after the last class. The day-boarders of my class (i. e. those who remained in school for the afternoon) were brought to cinema once a month and we were invited to join them. That afternoon I was not sure if I wanted to go because the film's title reminded me of the action genre I did not like. Reluctantly, I went – and I was not the same person as I left the cinema. I fell in love with Back to the Future for the rest of my life.

The Power of Love

Hill Valley, 1955, as seen from the future
("Back to the Future", © Universal Pictures)
For a long time, I thought it was my interest in history which resonated so strongly with this time-travel movie. In fact, however, the film's protagonist does not travel back in time on a historical scale. He travels back in time on a personal scale, into a period which still lives on vividly in the memories of his parents. Instead of depicting a historical epoch, the film shows how a family's life was shaped by past events that happened to its members and how another turn of events could have led to a different form of life for the family and its members. It is this personal theme that has enchanted millions watching Back to the Future in the past three decades.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Song Factor

This is the time of the year in which television talent shows come to their finals.

Of course there are many problems with these shows. At present, I only wish to point to the most fundamental one: They nurture the belief that it takes a talent to sing a song. Those participating in the competition think they will become stars because they can sing. Those watching the show think they will spend their evening in a meaningful way if they listen to other people singing. Both are wrong.

Doctor Faust with students and musicians in Auerbach's Cellar
(mural painting from around 1625 in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig)
These expectations represent a significant “rupture” in people's attitude to singing which occurred with the emergence of recorded music. Before that time, singing by oneself ranked among the most important sources of joy in people's life. Indeed, it was held in the same esteem as love and wine as evidenced by the adage “Wine, Women and Song”, variations of which were known in many languages. Please note that “song” in this context meant songs sung by ordinary people at everyday occasions, be it work, leisure or a love affair, whether on one's own or with others. It is from this cultural background that the multitude of folk songs arose.

In the twentieth century, the trinity of “Wine, Women and Song” gave way to that of “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll”. This change of expression symbolizes a general shift towards crudity in our lives. With regard to music in particular, it shows how the enjoyment of music recorded by a few selected "stars" took the place once held by the pastime of singing by oneself.

I remember an inscription hanging in my primary school that showed a motto coined by the famous Hungarian composer and music educator, Zoltán Kodály: “Let music belong to everybody!” In my youth I felt this motto was too pathetic and sappy. Today, I fully approve of the message it conveys: People should recognize that singing is not something extraordinary, not something that only stars or would-be stars are able or supposed to do. This insight would be the first step towards rediscovering the joys that singing can bring.

Wine and love can be next on the agenda.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Circumnavigating the Globe

Great circle route around the world starting from Budapest
and passing through China, Oceania and South America
In a previous post, I put together an itinerary to go round the world in thirty-seven days. The itinerary was then successfully implemented in a virtual world tour lasting from the 8th April to the 15th May 2013.

I received some criticism, however, for my very “loose” interpretation of the notion of going around the world. My world tour could be considered a circumnavigation of the earth only in one sense: namely, that I arrived back to my starting point after crossing every line of longitude of the planet. It did not fulfil two other criteria that one may expect of a circumnavigation: First, the length of the route did not add up to the circumference of the earth (the whole journey covered around 34.000 km as opposed to 40.000 km, the approximate length of the equator). Second, I came nowhere close to reaching the antipode, i.e. the exact opposite point of my starting place at the other side of the earth; in my case, this would have been in the Southern Pacific, but I did not even leave the northern hemisphere during my journey.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Pandora's Bachelorette Party at Doboz

Market choices vs. anti-discrimination laws in Budapest nightlife

Some days ago Hungary's Anti-Discrimination Authority issued a ruling in a case filed by Szilárd Teczár, a student of media studies, against Doboz” (Box), a Budapest night club. In its decision, the authority announced that Doboz' policy of charging men for the entrance while letting women in for free violated the anti-discrimination law.

In a sense, I admire Mr Teczár he has done something I have long speculated about. Ever since I learned of Hungary's anti-discrimination law effective from 2004, I have been thinking about whether price discount granted for women at night clubs could bear legal scrutiny. As the practice has been quite general in the Hungarian party scene, I had plenty of occasions to ponder on this while standing in those long rows waiting for the entrance.