We need a complete regeneration.
Count Stephen Széchenyi
Speech to Hungarian chamber of magnates
April 22, 1840
Speech to Hungarian chamber of magnates
April 22, 1840
The story of an obscure, 19th century Hungarian count who took it upon himself to rebuild his broken nation may illustrate for us exactly what is missing on the part of both contenders in our quadrennial political prizefight: a spirit of sacrifice.
First, some back-story:
As a young man, uber-wealthy Hungarian nobleman Istvan Széchenyi came across a prophecy by the German writer Johann Gottfried Herder, written in 1791. Herder said there would be no such thing as “Hungary” in just 100 years. The country was too backward, too beset by problems. In effect, he was saying “you can’t get there from here.”
Széchenyi was struck as though by lightning by this pronouncement. Which was a bit strange for someone who had spent a lot of time away from home, first in the military and then traveling. As a result, even his magyar language skills were just so-so, yet something stirred within him: patriotism. Soon enough, he determined to set about with his whole being, his intellect, imagination and capital, to make the dire and somewhat cynical prophecy not so.
Today, more than 200 years later, and half a world away, America seems nearly as pressed on all sides as Hungary was back in the 18th century. We may not face imminent demise, but the problems we face are daunting. And we are not on a path to solve them.
Consider just these:
Finance. Since it is constantly growing, our staggering debt – federal, state, individual – has made real the threat of financial collapse. No, not this week, or next, perhaps, as so many are fond of pointing out, but down the road the probabilities increase. That should still matter, but to so many, it doesn’t, possibly because it would require sacrifice. There’s that word again. Anathema to Washington. The Obama administration doesn’t’ “sacrifice,” it borrows. It has increased the national debt more in four years than in the eight years of the Bush administration, and that is really saying something. As recently as 2000, the national debt stood at $5 trillion; by 2008, $9 trillion, now it is nearly $16 trillion. “Unsustainable” is the word we often hear applied to this thriving malignancy, but even the most financially sober national political candidate – Paul Ryan -- only proposes cutting the rate of growth of the deficit near term versus the actual deficit.
Széchenyi would not have gone along with this. He knew sound money was the foundation for prosperity. To promulgate his views, he wrote on credit and other issues of political economy in three books (Credit, World, Stadium). He wanted a strong and solvent nation. He called on his fellow aristocrats to follow his lead for the good of the nation; it was a hard sell then, he was regarded as a traitor to his class, but he did it.
One cannot discuss our financial situation without considering our military policy, and energy policy. Of the former, with 900 to 1,100 military bases around the world (no one knows for sure), too many; on the latter, we have none. Széchenyi was very much opposed to war, by the way. He knew its death and destruction first hand, something none of the current four candidates do. None have served in the military.
Economy. Let’s say the USA was solvent, and the world, at peace everywhere. Still we have economic competition vis-à-vis China, Brazil, India, Russia, and a host of emerging nations. Széchenyi was concerned with production, he wrote on agriculture, the biggest industry of the day, and promoted new methods to increase production. He engineered a bridge spanning the Danube, linking Buda and Pest, to stimulate trade, earning the nickname, “Bridgeman.” The famous Széchenyi Bridge still stands. Széchenyi was first to navigate the Danube to the sea, again to set the stage for more trade, a stronger Hungary. Széchenyi had a vision; our incumbent president does not even seem to know who creates a business.
Education. American schoolchildren have fallen far behind their overseas counterparts. Some third world nations have higher literacy rates than the U.S. Széchenyi knew the future belonged to the educated. Not waiting for government action, he founded Hungary’s National Academy of Sciences with funds from his own pocket. What is the U.S. plan? Very far down the list, unfortunately.
Health. None of the above matters if you aren’t alive. The obesity epidemic is a modern-day equivalent of the bubonic plague. It is everywhere. So, too, is heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, arthritis. Some of this is genetic, but some of it is environmental, brought on by consumption of excess calories`. Factor in alcoholism, drug abuse and all the rest. America is facing a health crisis, which precipitates a financial crisis to pay for it. So very little of our discussion goes into prevention of disease, so much of the popular imagination goes into figuring out how to pay for new diseases instead of preventing them, as best as one can.
What drove The Count? A complex man, motivated by many things, one of these was faith, Christianity. A Roman Catholic, Széchenyi went to confession and received communion all his life. Before undertaking an overseas trip with his Protestant friend, Wesselényi, Széchenyi warned him it was his custom to pray on his knees each night. But it didn’t end there, his faith required action, as he put it, to join the battle of good and evil as an “active citizen.” Which would mean addressing – straight-on – the aforementioned issues that beset us all. Many in the faith community are not even aware of the financial crisis, let alone demanding our feckless legislators make necessary cuts, raise revenues, balance the scales, to invoke a Biblical image. Faith for many is compartmentalized. For Széchenyi, life was all of one cloth.
Sacrifice, then, to achieve necessary goals was second nature to him. It couldn’t be so easily put in a box and forgotten.
Our times cry out for a Széchenyi , a leader with the moral caliber to own up to the problems at hand, face them squarely, not flinch and then to call for the requisite sacrifices, the regeneration, the imagination to develop solutions, the vision to see a better day, and the energy to make it all happen.
And with the moral courage to call for sacrifice, on the part of all, not just some. That’s the missing and catalytic dimension so far in the race of 2012. The concept of “nation,” of “all” versus the concept of “me.” Instead we have a class consciousness, an ‘us versus them’ mentality, red vs. blue, left vs. right, versus a problem-solving mentality. The talk radio hosts who should know better fan the flames, better to earn personal profits. Again, the “me.” The Count put his personal gain last, the betterment of his country first.
Széchenyi the iconoclastic aristocrat, was anything but a narrow partisan, he was a problem solver.
Instead of a ‘kick the can down the road’ mentality, Széchenyi manifested a sense of urgency.
For the Count, the clock was ticking, and it was not for the next generation to tackle the problems at hand, it was for him. Széchenyi took responsibility. After a lifetime of creativity and hard work, Széchenyi was successful enough to earn the appellation “the greatest Hungarian” from another individual who could himself qualify for the honor (Lajos Kossuth, his political rival, and leader of the 1848 rebellion).
Right now we need another “greatest,” leading an entire nation not just one party. With real programs not slogans about “change.” With the spirit of Széchenyi-type sacrifice, and new fiscal soberness, and new urgency, our nation could attack and overcome all its problems. We could achieve a complete regeneration. We need nothing less. Széchenyi shows us, 200 years later, it can be done.
John A. Sarkett is author of Extraordinary Comebacks: 201 Inspiring Stories of Courage, Triumph, and Success and has re-published Stephen Széchenyi And The Awakening Of Hungarian Nationalism, 1791-1841, by Dr. Geo. Barany, originally from Princeton University Press. More at sarkett.com. For this and any other blog post, he solicits your comments.