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Mind the gap


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The Terror House Museum
  • The Terror House Museum

When your daughter elopes
So you hang her from ropes
That’s a moré.
When your son says he’s gay
So you lock him away
That’s a moré.
When your wife won’t stay wed
So you leave her for dead
In the doorway.
‘Scusami but you see
In our theocracy
It’s a moré.

The disparity between the ways our holy books tell us to live and what we do on their authority never ceases to astonish. It’s a testament to our genius for having it both ways: creating sacred texts that reflect our better natures and gleaning them for every stray phrase that authorizes us to behave pretty much as we’d behave if the texts didn’t exist—though more righteously.

I could go on in this vein, but hypocrisy isn't this week's subject. Disparity is. It's a word with a judgmental charge of its own. If you don’t think a disparity is a difference that’s inappropriate and unjust you’ll probably call it something else. If you turn to the op-ed page and read a column whose headline tells you it will be about “sentencing disparities,” or “educational disparities,” or “funding disparities,” you will rightly assume the author intends to condemn the status quo.

The opposite of a disparity is what? Fairness? What about consistency? Or perhaps uniformity? Maybe it’s even one size fits all. Everyone’s on the side of fairness, but a lot of people have a problem with uniformity. A common legislative response to all those shameful sentencing disparities was the writing of new laws that mandated specific sentences for specific crimes; judges lost the wiggle room they needed to be capricious. Of course they also lost the latitude to judge each crime on its merits; they found themselves imposing sentences the best of the judges considered ridiculously harsh and inappropriate.

Likewise, with educational disparities. The new way to make the worst teachers toe the mark is to make them all teach to the same tests and judge them by the results. This approach to education frustrates and insults the best teachers because it limits their freedom to, well, teach. But it strikes a fierce blow against disparities.

Some of the most interesting disparities are artistic—say, the gulf between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing in the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. These moments work or they don’t, and when they don’t they’re completely tasteless. For example, imagine setting crimes against humanity to a Dean Martin ditty.

But a few years ago I walked through the Terror House Museum in Budapest, an old building that during the fascist and communist eras was a headquarters for the secret police. The fascist years get their due, but the museum is obsessed with Hungary’s decades of repression as a Soviet satellite after World War II, a time in which within these same thick walls political prisoners were tortured and killed. In particular, the museum relives the uprising in the fall of 1956 that was crushed by Soviet tanks, some 20,000 Hungarians either dying in the fighting or being executed when totalitarian order was restored. The names of many of these martyrs ring the exterior of the museum.

But after room after room of tragedy, the last room of the museum concludes our visit on a note of sardonic disparity. It recalls the leave taking—the period from March of 1990 to June of ’91 when the Soviet army pulled out of Hungary. A looping video that revisits this exodus is full of preposterous images—grinning soldiers waving from trains and the like—as if the occupiers were so many cousins heading home at the close of a perfect summer in the country. And as we watch we hear music—a plaintive woman’s voice singing something or other that we almost think we know. Eventually we realize we do. The tune is “Memories Are Made of This.”

The whole museum clicks into place. The Terror House isn’t just remembering and mourning. It’s sneering. It is resolving Hungary’s long nightmare as contempt. That’s what a disparity can do. When it works.

More Disparity Week on the Bleader.

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