The Importance of Smallness

Granite skies and barbed-wire fences surround Asotthalom, Hungary, a small village just miles from the Serbian border. Lazlo Toroczkai, the mayor, has recently banned Muslim traditions, including any display of prayer or traditional dress. The mayor’s main rationale for his strict religious policy is that Muslims won’t be able to integrate with the white Christians in the village. Mosques can no longer be built. Mayor Toroczkai’s main objective, quite clearly, is to homogenize his citizens. He is advancing towards that goal through rapid-fire legislation. The political discourse of the village is completely shaped around eliminating the presence of difference. There is a heightened fear that Serbian immigrants will take jobs, lives, and law and order away from the village. Yet, only two registered Muslims live there.

 

The welcome sign to a small village in Hungary. (2015)

The welcome sign to a small village in Hungary. (2015)

As the sunlight dwindles, heat waves settle into the soft clod of Vidor, Texas. The icy winds only lash at night and there are no barbed wire fences. Unlike the physical barriers of Asotthalom, a cultural history of racism guards the town from difference. Once ruled by the Ku Klux Klan, Vidor was nicknamed a “sundown” town. Blacks were warned not be in town by the time that the sun fell, or else they might suffer from the wrath of the citizens. In 2010, 97.3% of the members in the community were white. This is not to imply that Vidor is currently advocating xenophobic legislation or that most the community members are still racist. In fact, attempts of integration by both the federal government, local grassroots legislators, and educators have been made in the past. They have all failed. The homogeneity of the population there demonstrates that Vidor is still suffering from the fear, hate, and anger created by just a few white nationalists over fifty years ago. A Google search reveal results from Vidor residents still attempting to answer inquiries from those who are curious: Is the Klan still active? Is it safe to drive through with my family? Can I raise my family here? In a way, Vidor has become what Asotthalom aspires to be—a place devoid of color in culture and politic.

A KKK Rally in Vidor, Texas. 2001. 

A KKK Rally in Vidor, Texas. 2001. 

Just a few months ago, we may have lamented that these parts of the world have just lagged behind.  Isolationist discourse will remain in the elusive crevices of society, won't it? However, we find ourselves reaching for the glorified past in the dim present. French Populist Marine Le Pen has a reasonable chance of winning the national election, Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon have declared a national “patriot” day and have recently attempted to pass a religious ban under the guise of a safety measure, and Brexit occurred in part to prevent immigrants from entering English borders. In contrast, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s favorability is at an all-time low. Unfortunately, more places like Asotthalom will become what Vidor once was. Where does that leave the rest of us left between Hungary and Texas?

The hateful wounds of a few people cannot continue to seep into the populations of Asotthalom and Vidor, and they must not fester into nationalistic displays of hatred. Xenophobic and hateful actions are steadily regaining lost ground from the past, with contemporary political rhetoric encouraging this resurrection. Countering this movement does not just come from a one-time donation to Amnesty International or a reposted article from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Á la Frantz Fanon, there must be a personal revolution, a commitment to removing the remnants of internal prejudice that may have been (even accidently) picked up across a lifetime. These remnants must be replaced with fragments of other cultures, religions, and societies. This is not a forced assimilation. It is a brief inquiry, which can be caught in glimpses of the unfamiliar: food, literature, music, history, and news. With this exploration of what's beyond your community, feelings of smallness emerge. Smallness is imperative. It is important. It drives the desire to discover what's out there. In a recent letter to a fellow writer about the last World Cup, Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote:

To be human is to be so small, so random, so improvised, so arbitrary, so hastily assembled. We cut ourselves on tin cans as we open them, we forget where we leave a car key and spend a whole morning looking for it, we miss the bus and run after it banging on the door while the driver sits inside in the warmth (it happens mostly in winter), shaking his head, probably gloating. A child misses her footing on the trampoline, hits herself in the face on the iron frame, and breaks a tooth. We spill coffee on the computer keyboard, we say stupid things to people we don’t like and regret it for days afterward, we forget the stove is on and boil the pan dry, we put so much salt in our food that it is impossible to eat, we cut our hands as we tie up a rosebush blown over in the winter storms...You know where I am going. The world is material, it consists of more or less hard surfaces with more or less jagged edges, and we humans never have complete control over our actions, unforeseen accidents happen all the time, some with fatal outcomes.
— Home and Away, 2016

I can only hope that one day Mayor Toroczkai, Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, David Duke and Marine Le Pen will realize their smallness, just once, for a fleeting moment, somehow. Perhaps then, they may understand how they make immigrants and people dissimilar to them feel on a daily basis: large, alien, despondent, hated, undeserving. The jagged edges that we create as a nation for immigrants must be mended, not sharpened. If we don’t resist the efforts to whet the jagged edges, we risk becoming sedated into a solipsistic delusion—a world where hate, fear, and paranoia run amok, a place without immigrants. 


- Peter Barkey-Bircann