Monday, August 22, 2005


By Balint Vazsonyi

Potomac Foundation, No Cost, 595 pages

Several years ago I invited my friend Balint Vazsonyi to speak to the New York Discussion Group, an assemblage of scholars, businessmen and self-styled intellectuals. In his customary gentle but persuasive manner Balint proceeded to describe the virtues of our constitutional government as only someone who lived under the yoke of communism can. When he finished I found myself touched and inspired. My colleagues, jaundiced by years of reliance on New York Times editorials, said, “Are you trying to tell us the Constitution is a near perfect document?” It was said with a dash of skepticism and a modicum of cynicism.

Balint, without rising to the bait, said earnestly “yes, it is a document written by great men to stir a great nation.” I realized at that moment that he was the contemporary Tocqueville who had the ability to see what other scholars in our midst had overlooked. Balint could drill down to the national essence without frills or obfuscation. He was quite simply a gift Europe gave to the United States.

As I read “America On My Mind,” the selected essays by Balint, my eyes swelled with tears. There were the memories of traveling with him on a bus across the nation; there were the wonderful evening conversations with his charming wife, Barbara, and, most memorable of all, were the words, thrilling words, powerful words that captured Balint’s love affair with America.

In an essay entitled “Etched In a Personal Memory,” one gets a sense of the experience that shaped his outlook. Balint brought to his adopted home the history of European “isms,” Nazism, Communism, Multiculturalism. The contrast between the boot stomping youth groups who could not tolerate any dissent and the openness of America was never lost on him. I remember on one occasion he told me how absurd it is to argue, as Herbert Marcuse had, that tolerance is repression. In typically commonsensical fashion he said, the repression I felt as a youngster was never tolerant.

Balint had no problem at all in describing himself as a polemicist. Yet I saw him somewhat differently. For me he was an artist who limned political variation through a unique prism. Indeed, he was an artist, a brilliant artist who was one of the world’s great pianists. That experience with his music translated into great political sensitivity. Balint wrote: “Throughout the ages, nothing else could guarantee the integrity of an artistic creation but the conscience of the artist. It acted as a filter, stood guard, raised a silent warning when personal passions threatened to destroy artistic truth. Yes — artistic truth may be, and often is, different from crude reality, but truth it must remain.”

Balint was a truth teller. He was appalled at revisionists who wanted to recast American history with their idiosyncratic, bilious opposition to any uniquely national contribution. He didn’t love America out of sentimentality; he loved it out of truth. He realized this an imperfect nation, yet better than all the others. And he knew why that was a defensible position.

Balint spent a considerable portion of his professional life in Bloomington, Ind., at the state university. It is not coincidental that in the Midwest he picked up the essential rhythms of the nation. The facile reference to “social justice” which emanated from coastal America infuriated him. This was the formulation of socialists and communists, he thought. What could these words possibly mean in the United States? He challenged propagators of this phrase to respond.

In fact, he traveled the breadth of the United States, in some part, to discover a definition. He never found it. He realized that social justice is the opposite of justice. It merely substitutes a political slogan for a legal concept. That ability to dig into the interstices of ambiguous terminology was part of Balint’s genius.

He was a man for all seasons — humorous, thoughtful, loving, playful, searing and devoted. While I miss our extraordinary encounters, I was given a rare trip through the nostalgic past with Balint’s book of essays. It offered me a moment of remembrance, perhaps, more importantly; this book reminded me of why I, like Balint, love America.

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute. He is also professor emeritus at New York University and author of the book “Decade of Denial” (Lexington Books).

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