13 reasons not to be cheerful

A recent national survey has ranked Hungarians among the most pessimistic peoples on the planet. Taking a broad look at the different profiles that participate in the collective gloom — from those who lost out in the 1989 regime change to thwarted ideologues — sociologist Elemér Hankiss explores the range of Hungarian despondency.

Published on 12 October 2009 at 15:26
They don't build them like they used to. Antique shop in Budapest. Photo by Mackz/Flickr.

The Gallup WorldPoll Institute posed the question "How do you see the future?" to a representative panel in 120 countries around the global, and the results for Hungary, which was the 117th-ranked nation, were, to say the least, alarming. An extraordinary 34,2% of the adult population took the view that their situation was desperate or more or less desperate — a sombre outlook that was only exceeded by Zimbabwe, where 40.3 % feared for the future. Let's take a look at the different groups that make up this 34%, and try to define some of the causes of capitulation in the face of an uncertain future.

The traditionally mournful Hungarians: over the centuries, Hungarians have developed a mindset which views their country as an entity oppressed by outside forces — by Turks or Hapsburgs — and this outlook is still perpetuated by the national education system and portrayals of Hungary in the media.

Major losers since 1989, which include: the unemployed and those who try to get by on small pensions or benefit payments, those who raise large families on low incomes, and those who live from day to day. This category includes hundreds of thousands of people who believe that without radical political change — which they consider to be unlikely — there will be no new opportunities or even even small-scale social gains.

The tsunami victims who have lost their jobs since the economic crisis. They note that the economy is in ruins, and the livelihoods of huge numbers of families are in jeopardy. At the same time, they believe that the nation's politicians are either powerless or dishonest. Clearly, many of this group have lost faith in the future, which can only be restored by economic recovery, greater transparency in politics and the re-establishment of social peace.

Those whose self esteem has been wounded by two decades of honest toil without appropriate recognition or remuneration. The members of this group, who have seen others grow rich without working, have abandoned all hope of the advent of a just social order.

Then there are the narrow-minded ideologues, whose belief in the future was only sustained by political convictions that have now been shattered, and replaced with a unnerving impression of social chaos.

This sense of unease is in part shared by the blinkered supporters of the Left and the Right. On the one hand, we have those on the Right who argue that the current administration has sold the country for a song, on the other, there are those on the Left who claim that democracy will be destroyed in the forthcoming elections when the Right returns to power. As always, the absence of consensus has only served to heighten a general sense of impending doom.

Thebelievers in progress: those who have been lulled into a false sense of security by intellectuals of various colours and abilities who assured them that the history of humanity was a triumphal march towards progress. Now that this belief has been destroyed, they do not know where to seek inspiration for a positive outlook for the future.

Those who have been disappointed by the EU: in the 1970s and 1980s, they were convinced that all of Hungary's problems would vanish once it became part of the West. Unfortunately, this simply has not happened. Many in this group now view Europe like a disgruntled teenager views his disappointing parents.

Well traveled international citizens, who, on their return from Vienna, Paris or London, are alarmed – and justifiably so – by the current situation in the country. Certainly, the current situation is alarming. But what about personal responsibility? Let's not forget that in the past Hungarians who traveled abroad, like Count Széchenyi [1791-1860] who returned from Vienna and London with the plans to link Chain Bridge to link Buda and Pest, were eager to emulate the achievements they saw elsewhere in Hungary.

The paranoiacs, who are terrified because they believe that a) nothing will be possible unless the opposition obtains power; or b) a victory for the opposition will inevitably lead to catastrophe. In other words, here we have two clearly delineated subgroups, neither of which have any confidence in democracy, at least not as it is practiced in Hungary. The only possible remedy for this outlook is a concerted campaign to strengthen democratic institutions.

The Socratics or the ethically sensitive citizens. This group is increasingly dismayed by the pace of economic and political change, which is moving too quickly to allow time for the re-establishment of public morality.

The exhausted, who have struggled so much over the last 20 years that they no longer have the strength to believe in positive change.

The layabouts, for whom the desperate situation in the country and the climate of despair are a pretext for doing nothing and whining. Naturally, they are reluctant to acknowledge any prospects for improvement that might force them to give up the joys of indolence.

The cynics who are delighted to note that their views have been confirmed by the facts: they believe that in this world— at least in this country— there is nothing that is pure, or sacred or honest. Furthermore, there is no point in hoping for change, because any attempts to introduce change will inevitably fail.

Critics of the list might assert that there must be a number of valid reasons for all of this despondency. No doubt, this argument is to true to some extent, but what remains truly baffling is the fact that Hungarians' propensity for despair is now virtually on par with the gloom experienced by the citizens of Zimbabwe, Burundi or Togo where day-to-day material survival is an ongoing struggle. And we haven't even begun to consider how extraordinarily harmful this epidemic of pessimism is both for us and the country. In short, we could really benefit from a little more confidence in ourselves, in one another, and in the world. What is really needed is the sprit and dynamism of a Hungarian "Yes, we can."

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