(No More Politically Correct Lectures)
For most of you, watching the two Presidents speak this past week would have underlined the enormity of differences in their fortunes. Mr. Gorbachev looked a lonely figure on May Day. At the low point of a once-spectacular personal career, he was now gazing over a vast landscape of failure. It was more than the spectacular political failure of 1989, or the ongoing economic failure of decades, or the humiliating military failure of 1991. It was, and is, the historic failure of a people to utilize the centuries of its existence, to develop the treasures of the land it inhabits.
By contrast, Mr. Bush was speaking in Ann Arbor at the height of personal popularity enjoyed by any elected leader, presiding over a society more successful by and large than any known to us through written history. Yet, as he was addressing the folks at the University of Michigan, I was suddenly aware of a growing and anxious sense of deja vu, some painful memory believed long buried underneath the box which houses my naturalization papers.
Mayday...May Day! The message suddenly came loud and clear from my subconscious. Yes, there it was: throughout my teens, on every 1st of May, I had to spend the entire day walking between the Communist Party secretary and his wife. Since Hungary had few tanks and no rockets to put on parade, it was millions of her citizens filing past the statue of Stalin under whose gigantic moustache members of the party leadership stood. They waved benevolently to us, their serfs, who in turn shouted pre-fab, drilled-in words and slogans - mindlessly, frantically, rhythmically.
The day began with most of the country going to assembly areas by 0600. We stood endlessly, holding up icons depicting Marx and Lenin, or placards proclaiming victory for the peace camp and death blows to the American imperialist war machine. We knew that it would be hours upon hours of being told to quick- march for six-and-a-half minutes, stop abruptly for thirty, go back two blocks, make a detour. If we were lucky, by 1 p.m. we 'made' the platform under The Moustache. We did whatever we were told - not only because attendance was compulsory, but because at the end of it all a sandwich was awaiting us for certain. In some cases one was even invited by a group of workers whose meal included a small individual piece of meat and potatoes.
The "honor" or spending the day walking between the party secretary and his wife came my way for good reasons. Like every factory, office, school, Budapest's famed Music Academy had its own Communist Party organization, wielding the supreme authority in all matters, including life and death. (The latter in particular.) For most of my ten years there the secretary was a young man, six years my senior and, like myself, a budding concert pianist. His first name was Gabor - no relation to the sisters whose last name it is. Gabor took a special interest in me because, as he put it, I was in the danger of being forever lost in the cesspool of liberal thought. 'Liberal,' as all of us knew, was the curse word ascribed to the evil ideology of the American military-industrial complex with which it was undermining the will of the workers to organize and fight. To be accused of being a liberal was tantamount to being an agent of the Imperialists, a dog on chains for short.
Nor did Gabor joke about such things, and not only because he lacked a sense of humor. It was widely known that he had his own parents deported because they used to operate a small store. He also had several fellow students expelled for life because of telling some joke implying criticism of leaders. When he said he was worried about me, I was suddenly worried about me, too. At 17, I already looked back on a dubious past. Barely 13, a fellow student reported me for saying that a real artist could not be a Communist. (I had read Marx the year before and the conclusion seemed obvious to me.) Later, because of repeated attempts to pursue my studies in Italy, I was subjected to a torturous disciplinary trial where I barely escaped expulsion. Under these circumstances, Gabor was being most generous to offer the fruits of his political wisdom for several uninterrupted hours each year. He was a man of great power; I was a boy holding, at best, dangerously ambiguous attitudes. Yet, although I scarcely deserved it, he was going to show me the path to achieving, as he put it, political correctness.
In time Stalin's statue was replaced with Lenin's, Lenin's with green grass. Mr. Gorbachov's May Day was an embarrassment, and Gabor's wife asked me not long ago whether I could help them come to America. When I made big eyes, she explained that after the recent changes Gabor was no longer understood in Hungary. That did not altogether surprise me. But for Gabor to come to America?! To the very heart of the military-industrial complex, to the center of monopoly capital and imperialist exploitation?
Then I heard Mr. Bush's speech in Ann Arbor. If it is true what the President - and David Brinkley, and Sam Donaldson, and Bill Bennett - are saying, Gabor just might feel right at home with the political correctness at many of our universities. He would be surprised at first to find that the word liberal means the exact opposite here, but why get hung up on words? Well, some words do matter and "political correctness" happens to be one of those: the very use of it implies that there is such a thing. If there be such a thing, then some will always claim that they, and they alone, know what is correct. Gabor would fit right in of course but, frankly, I am once again worried about me.
Where can I go? Life in Latin America, Africa, Asia, or in a Sioux village does not attract me. I wish nothing but the best for those who live there, but I went to a lot of trouble to get here with my 23 dollars and no English in 1959. My desire was to live in a country where English is spoken, English-based law is practiced, where individuals of any ancestry flourish as they never could in their place of origin. That, I thought, was worth fighting for every day if someone got left out for whatever reason. I still think so, but I would just as soon not be told about the person's sexual habits or the injustice meted out to his or her ancestors. No one has asked me about mine.
We should not tolerate injustice in our midst, but I would give anything to be spared the lecture. All my years in Hungary I heard nothing but lectures, and not only from Gabor. Like the ones we get today, the lectures were uninformed and threatening, displayed questionable syntax and no sense of humor.
Mayday! Someone has stolen the laughter of our youth! Will the new slogan be "Bores of the World, Unite!"? I hope not. I hope that, for the rest of you, "Gabor" will merely conjure up an aging beauty who punched it out with the Beverly Hills Police.