You spend your days denouncing or persecuting something, and then it turns out you are that something.
Recently this happened to a man in Hungary named Csanad Szegedi, a rising force in the Jobbik party, known for its anti-Semitic beliefs. Szegedi had even made some remarks on the subject himself, saying that Jewish people were infiltrating the country’s politics and dishonoring its symbols. So when word got out that his maternal grandparents were Jewish (his grandmother, in fact, was an Auschwitz survivor) but had decided to keep mum about their faith in the years after World War II, things got very awkward very quickly. Last month, he resigned his party membership. Now party members are trying to get him to surrender his seat in the EU parliament, although they say (according to an AP report) that this is because he tried to bribe someone into silence on the subject of his roots, not because of the roots themselves.
It’s an awkward position. There is not much you can do to spin a story like that. (“You see,” he could have tried, “the infiltration has progressed even further than I thought!”) At some point, you simply have to admit what a stupid place you’ve put yourself in. Now Mr. Szegedi has spoken to his grandmother and a rabbi and appears to be going off somewhere to rethink his life. It’s about time.
But there’s plenty of precedent for this sort of discovery. It seems to be an occupational hazard of hate. St. Paul of biblical fame was heading to work along the road to Damascus to persecute some Christians, as was his wont, when he suddenly realized that he was one himself. This sort of thing happens periodically, a variant of the old rule that says the louder you denounce the homosexual menace, the more likely you are to develop an uncontrollable foot-tapping in the stalls of men’s restrooms.
It is easy to rail against a nameless, faceless menace. It is harder to denounce as a menace the old lady next door who has always kindly offered to watch your cats when you are away, but if you shut your eyes and cover your ears and crank up the radio talk shows, you can do it. Barely, but you can.
But denounce yourself? Impossible.
You are not the Other, the lowering monster with unfamiliar eyes hell-bent on destroying everything you hold dear. You’re — well, you. The difference between mortal and venial sins is that venial sins contain an I.
Discover that your best friend or that the neighbor of whose gardening you always spoke so highly is actually one of The Others, and you can cope. Discover that your son belongs to Their numbers, and you can disown him. The Internet will judge you, but you can.
But you are a different matter.
Nothing undermines your vitriolic disdain for people from a particular group like the discovery that you belong to that group yourself. It blows your ship right out of the water. Once the people you hated turn out not to be not mysterious Others in dark glasses but people just like you — you, in fact — the absurdity of your initial position becomes palpable.
As it should have been in the first place. That’s what makes this so funny.