The Promise (and Limits) of Ukraine’s “Finlandization”

Nations & States

Ukrainians would have better luck reading tea leaves than recent U.S. actions to discern President Trump’s intentions for their country. Fears of an immediate embrace by the new administration of Putin hardly materialized. Following a dramatic spike in violence in Eastern Ukraine, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley offered a firm condemnation of Russian aggression. A joint meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini maintained a united line on sanctions and demanded full Russian compliance with the Minsk II agreement. With National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s resignation, the leading advocate of warmer relations with Russia is out the door. Facing a press fixated on his campaign’s Kremlin contacts, a potential Senate investigation, and a deeply skeptical intelligence community, Trump’s ability to hand Putin a clear victory in Ukraine may be severely limited.

But Ukrainians oriented to…

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Deciphering the Bannon Doctrine

Nations & States

Time’srecent cover story asks: Is Steve Bannon “the second most powerful man in the world?” The former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood producer transformed the news website Breitbart into a media powerhouse for the Right. For detractors, Breitbart is a platform for racist and nativist clickbait. Bannon lauds it as “a global, populist, anti-establishment news website,” courageously challenging global elites. As campaign CEO in the election’s final months, Bannon pushed Trump to double down on populist rhetoric. Both Bannon and his candidate took a gambleand won.

Most expected Bannon, now Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, to be one force among many in the administration. But the fiery “America First” philosophy preached during Trump’s inaugural speech not only echoed Bannon’s worldview, it was written by him and his closest ally Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor on policy. The pair developed the explosive executive orders…

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Like a Thief in the Night, Corruption has come to reign (even more) freely in Romania

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Romania’s democracy is in dire straits. Romania is experiencing its largest protests since the fall of Communism in its 1989 Revolution,  exceeding 300,000+ protestors all over the country this past week, particularly in Bucharest (150.000), Cluj Napoca (35.000), Timisoara (25.000), Iasi (20.000), Sibiu (20.000), and many other smaller cities. On the evening of January 31st, Romania’s government signed a late-night emergency executive ordinance at 10PM, granting clemency for officials convicted of corruption and decriminalizing offenses that cause less than 200,000 lei ($47,8000) in financial damage with added measures of leniency to the penal code. Under this measure, the government proposed to release 3,000 prisoners (to reduce overpopulation in prisons they say, to free its former colleagues convicted of corruption say the rest). In other words, no need to worry about facing prison charges if you swindle a mere $40,000 from the government.

Many in the PSD ruling party stand to gain from clemency and measures of leniency, as do 2,000…

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Book Review: Ryszard Legutko’s “The Demon in Democracy”

My new piece in Nations and States. A great blog to add to your weekly reading.

Nations & States

If the liberal world order needed to market a highlight reel of its greatest achievements, Poland would arguably stand first through its post-1989 transformation. In the eyes of many American and Western European commentators and politicians, however, the election and policies of the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) may bring this great ascendancy to a tragic close. Its government supposedly embarks on the “breaking of [its] constitution, in letter and spirit,” and barrels towards “Putin-like leadership.” As the Polish people rejected the heavy hand of Soviet domination, their faces turned to Western Europe as an alternative model of humane relations among peoples. For the Law & Justice Party that now governs and its supporters, the strong criticism from outside journalists and European Union institutions forces Poland again into submission by powerful neighbors.

Wise leadership may not be enough to bridge the chasm between Western European liberals and nationally…

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Reforming Romania: After 2016 Elections, Many Setbacks Remain

Nations & States

This year in Romania, Halloween carried a solemn tone. My university students explained their own ambivalence toward celebrations. It was the anniversary of the fire that killed over 64 young people in a night club in Bucharest, the capital. The catastrophe could have been prevented were it not for bribes to government officials that allowed club owners to circumvent basic fire code rules. The revealed ethical bankruptcy of the Romanian state brought thousands of protesters into the streets, toppling the center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) government led by Victor Ponta, who also happened to be facing multiple corruption charges. The renewed Romanian activism sparked hope that the tragedy would trigger a “silent and peaceful revolution” against “cancerous corruption.”

Replacing the PSD government, described by a Romanian friend as a “coalition of feudal barons,” was a broadly center-right, technocratic government led by Dacian Ciolos, a former EU agricultural commissioner with…

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Into Transylvania!

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As some of you know, I was a huge devote of the American Civil War as a child. I memorized the Gettysburg Address for my First Grade talent show. I could recognize the names of major Civil War battles before being able read basic prepositions. In Kindergarten art class, I drew clashing, moving squares of blue and gray signifying clashing Union and Confederate armies. (I did have friends, for the record). So it was fascinating to see in my guidebook that my destination this past weekend, Transylvania (specifically Brasov and the surrounding area), was used by filmmakers for the 2003 Civil War epic Cold Mountain (staring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Rene Zellweger). Apparently the Carpathian Mountains are better for capturing the Blue Ridge Mountains than the actual mountain range itself!

As these photos attest to, you can see why. Even before embarking in Brasov, I knew through the train ride that this region warranted its rising popularity for travelers (hikers especially). Transylvania’s importance goes far beyond its function as the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was one of the most critical regions for both the Holy Roman and Habsburg Empires. After the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman advance into the Balkans, it was the critical demarcation of the Christian West against the realm of the dreaded Sultan. Countless cultural groups can all lay claim to the region’s achievements, best exemplified in the sophistication, architecture, and charm of the region’s main cities that can give well known Central European cities (Krakow, Prague, L’viv, Salzburg) a run for their money. And yet, as the Hungarian writer Miklos Banffy wrote in The Transylvanian Trilogy, Transylvania was more than an extension of either its Hungarian elites, Hapsburg rulers, German colonists, or Romanian peasants. Something about the region spoke instead of a unique “living form of national consciousness”, a “distinct microcivilization” to quote Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book on Romania.

If you visit Brasov, you are indeed obligated to check out Bran Castle. This is among the main sights for Dracula tourism or a vampire pilgrimage. The castle only has the most bare connection to the actual Count Dracula, the brutal medieval ruler (“Vlad the Impaler”) who inspired Bram Stoker’s novel. It was probably captured by the Romanian prince but there is no evidence he lived there, although the Romanian royal family (and one of its most popular members, Queen Marie) used it as a residence.

The castle presentation had a rather contradictory treatment of Dracula. On one side, they milked the legend for all its worth. There is a Haunted House night inside the castle on Halloween. Various dressed up zombies and ghosts parade the entrance. Tacky signs warn you not to walk alone at night if you want to avoid becoming “the Count’s next victim”. At the same time, the castle’s exhibits offered an apology of sorts for the historical Prince Dracula. He was unambiguously not a vampire, and his name (Dracula) meant “son of the Dragon” (in reference to a medieval order), not “son of the Devil”. Vlad’s love for impaling his enemies and even disobedient subjects (contributing to an impressive low crime rate!) did not make him anymore barbaric than his Western European contemporaries. He was a great defender of the West against Ottoman encroachments and a Robin Hood who stole from the local elites and gave to the poor. Most of the attacks on this Romanian prince were slander conjured by disgruntled old German historians. The clash between the global and Romanian image of Count Dracula was on no better display than in this parliamentary election poster, where the party’s logo was of the world’s most famous vampire!

 

More charming than Bran Castle was Rasnov, a former Roman imperial outpost and later a castle of the Teutonic Knights. The views were incredible.

In the midst of these medieval ruins, there was a random but fascinating exhibit. It showcased advertisements for Romania during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even during the heights of Romania’s experiment with Communism (and truly the Stalinist variation for that matter), Europeans still found this country worthy of a visit in spite of all the hurdles.

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The real highlight of this trip was getting a feel for Brasov as a city truly of Central Europe. Over four days, I spoke Greek, overheard mostly Romanian, attended mass in Hungarian, and attended a concert of German Baroque music. Brasov became a major site for German nobles, traders, and merchants; as a result, the towns’ architecture certainly feels Saxon. Their legacy of pastry shops is also appreciated.

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Likewise, Hungarians, both before and during the Habsburg Empire, comprised most of Brasov and the region’s middle class and nobility. The relationship between these two minorities and the Romanian population has traditionally been fraught with tension. The Hungarian and German presence undoubtedly brought more trade and wealth to the region; they served too as conduits for bringing Western ideas to Romania, keeping the “country” (not actually existing until 1878) more firmly rooted in the West than other Balkan nations (Romanian being a Latin language helped enormously too). At the same time, Transylvanian Hungarians and Germans jealously guarded their privileges and forced most of the area’s Romanians (a narrow plurality of the region, not a majority) into a permanent state of impoverished peasantry. When the Habsburg Empire was destroyed after World War I, the Allies handed Transylvania over to the Kingdom of Romania.

Sadly, Romania did not demonstrate magnanimity in her victory. From 1920 until the early 1990’s, there were systematic attempts to dilute Hungarian culture and influence. Before the Communist takeover in 1948, Romania had a marginal industrial class, a minimal history of leftist activism, and a very conservative peasantry. Consequently, the new Communist elite relied extensively on chauvinistic nationalism for winning popular consent, and thus wrecking much pain on the country’s remaining Jews, Hungarians, and Germans. This persecution incidentally served as an effective financial scheme for Ceausescu’s regime; the governments of Israel and Germany paid the Romanian state when they accepted respective refugees fleeing persecution and harassment. Riots between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania sparked anxieties that the Yugoslavia’s demonic ethnic violence would manifest itself in Central Europe. Fortunately, the ascension process to EU and NATO membership forced the Romanian government to pursue a more responsible, pluralist course.

But tensions still simmer. At a hipster café of sorts, I ended up talking for a few hours with six very bright Hungarian-speaking high school students. These students were extremely proud of their language and history. The community here is quite resilient; they attend the city’s Hungarian school (evidently a fine one given their English abilities and overall confidence) and go to annual summer wilderness camps that bring Hungarian young people together from across Transylvania. But they told stories of how their parents in older times could only speak their first language privately at home; singing the Hungarian national anthem was strictly illegal. Even now, Romanian kids tell these students to “stop speaking Hungarian” or “go home to your own country”. Very few of their close friends were Romanian.  A very flustered older Romanian man clearly left a nearby table early in disgust at overhearing our conversation, calling Hungary’s current Prime Minister “a crook” as he departed. The most impressive kid in the bunch said she had no intention of staying in Romania but would start university next year in Budapest. They do not root for Romanian sports teams. When I conceded to them that both their English and knowledge of the United States was more impressive than many of my university students in Constanta, one smirked: “They’re Romanian? Why are you surprised?” My café banter was obviously not a systematic study. Then again, I heard from a fairly large group, not one or two. The kids also said that their attitude was fairly reflective of other Hungarian youth.

National and cultural identity still mattered to these young people. They were not millennial cosmopolitan “citizens of the world”, recipients of a vortex of social media and global celebrities uprooting deep attachment to place and history. The loyalties of their “provincial”, “parochial” elders still meant a great deal for them. In all likelihood, this will be for the good, a healthy resistance to the bland offering of a purely global or European identity.

On the other hand, who knows where the deep-rooted alienation between Hungarians and Romanians may lead? I do not want to get carried away here. But bear in mind that the second-largest party in Hungary is Jobbik, a fascist party that has even mobilized in Hungarian communities in Romania. For all the slights and discrimination these young people experienced, Romania has not seen a far-right ascendency for almost a decade. The country’s impressive growth rates may account for this turn to the center. But rampant corruption and poverty could prove fertile ground for a more toxic nationalism. Given the many weaknesses of both the EU and NATO, you can bet Russia is looking for any chance to spread chaos “in the neighborhood”. Europe post-2008 has indeed taught us that historical memory is a powerful force. Ukraine. Separatist movements in Catalonia and Scotland. The comparisons of Syrian refugee entry to the “Ottoman hordes”. The Greek left’s equation of German-backed austerity measures with the humiliating Nazi occupation. The continent’s leaders should take head of Faulkner’s words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

But to end on a brighter note, it was a lovely visit. I look forward to returning in Spring or early Summer when hiking awaits!

Thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy”

hillbilly-elegyIt baffled me this past year when pundits claimed that the hardships of America’s white working class remained virtually unconnected to Trump’s ascension. I listened to Ezra Klein’s podcast and heard painful attempts to convince skeptical guests (Yuval Levin, Francis Fukuyama, and Arlie Russell Hochschild) that “look, guys, we all know this was just about racism, right?”. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones called the economic anxiety thesis a “red herring”. Matthew Iglesias of Vox labeled it a “fake explanation”. Fortunately, the election put a lot of this to rest; see the calls of Democratic leaders, whether Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, and the President, for renewed understanding and outreach of this demographic. Enjoy your cultural bubble if you think Trump’s admittedly deplorable racial dog-whistling (and worse) rather than seductive (if false) promises of renewal for collapsing communities better explains Election Night in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Or before you write articles like this in Slate, talk with some journalists in the field.

When I saw The New York Times“Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win”, I was pleased that Hillbilly Elegy made the cut. Vance’s tour of the networks is now extensive post-election. But setting aside our need to find Trumpism’s “root causes” or psychoanalyze “the Trump voter”, Hillbilly Elegy offers much for understanding a world most know dimly.

Vance traces the story of his Appalachian family from their ancestral home in Northern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents built a financially stable life thanks to work at Armco Steel Company. The peculiarities of Scotch-Irish and Appalachian culture do not leave them, however. Driven by honor and family loyalty, Vance’s grandparents (“Mamaw” and “Papaw”) nearly destroy a store after a clerk rudely chastised their son. In one marital brawl, “Mamaw . . . calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her [then drunk] husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life”. This postwar family was not keeping up “with the Joneses”. But Mamaw and Papaw ultimately save their marriage. As wiser grandparents, they achieve a redemption of sorts for their failed parenting in their raising of Vance. Their love, accountability, and protection save Vance from his mother’s painful drug addiction, his own waywardness, and the tyranny of low expectations surrounding him in a post-industrial, fractured Middletown.

Vance’s account is a page turner. He paints powerfully the Marine Corps’ formation of his character, as he goes from a chubby, anxious high school graduate to a confident, fit, well-spoken Public Affairs Officer in Iraq. He writes movingly as the child of a person tortured by addiction, and the subsequent need for both love and distance. The depth of his portrayals of Mamaw and Papaw are so rich that their ultimate passing become a tear jerker. This was especially moving to me after the recent passing of my Grandmother, who while hardly Appalachian, shared much of Mamaw’s fierce Scotch-Irish spirit.

The political worldview of Appalachians is truly fascinating in Vance’s reading. Even as Mamaw and Papaw voted for Reagan and detested Mondale, they carried an old school Democratic populism as fiery as William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Jackson. “Depending on her mood”, Vance recalls, “Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social democrat”. Even Appalachian distrust of Obama, at least in Vance’s rendering, is driven less by racial animosity than a broader cultural gap between their world and the nation’s meritocracy. For Reform Conservatives like myself, Hillbilly Elegy gives hope that these voters could perhaps embolden a new conservative populism purified of white identity politics and able to break the stranglehold of GOP libertarian orthodoxies. Likewise, the calls of Tom Frank, Bernie Sanders, and Jim Webb for aggressive Democratic outreach to the white working class should feel emboldened. The descendants of the New Deal’s “forgotten man”, the men and women after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s own heart, may yet find a home again in the liberalism of today.

As an actual survivor of hard beginnings, Vance refuses the false choice between “culture” and “structural barriers” explanations. He understands Middletown’s downtown of “abandoned shops with broken windows” as a direct result of a nearly extinct manufacturing sector. While smug authors like National Review’s Kevin Williamson ask why these people don’t just leave, Vance explains out how structural barriers make relocation nearly impossible. But Vance takes his Mamaw’s words of rigorous individual and collective self-help to heart. Yes, his high school surely needed more resources, but parents were not stressing education. An engrained distrust of outsiders gave people an excuse to blame their failings on the “Obama economy” or race-based affirmative action. When Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw complained about welfare abuse, they weren’t referring to “black welfare queens” but their first-hand witness of neighbors recklessly squandering resources. Middletown is a victim of the “cultural contradiction of capitalism” described by Daniel Bell, as the system’s celebration of consumerism and instant gratification, necessary for market revenue, undermined thrift, restraint, and work ethic, the very preconditions for a healthy market society.

For Vance, it’s not that inequality, globalization, or an inadequate safety net are trivial. But a tough backdrop might not by itself explain why people are “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible”. It’s here where my experience in Camden gave me some insights into Vance’s story.

Camden and Middletown

While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I traced the contrasts between Vance’s childhood in Middletown and the lives of inner city African-American and Latino adolescents I had the privilege of accompanying for over 16 months at a non-profit youth organization (Urban Promise) in Camden, New Jersey. Despite Camden’s ranking among “America’s worst cities”, there were crucial positive mindsets among the city’s youth that look absent in Vance’s Middletown. For my students, church, or even only a broad Christian belief, was an integral part of their lives. Kids could go from jamming to Nikki Minaj to instantly singing by heart Kirk Franklin and other Gospel stars. Even kids who never attended church regularly had one aunt, grandparent, or sibling who instilled a Christian sensibility that could guide them through moments of crisis. I still remember a co-worker, then in high school, calmly telling me his willingness to forgive his parents even as their drug addiction had wrecked his childhood. As Vance explains, our image of a pious, God-fearing “Middle America” does not play out in the data of church attendance and participation. Both Camden and Appalachia struggle with forces of deindustrialization, stagnant economic mobility, and social breakdown. But in the former, the church survives as a mighty, if indeed battered, fortress. In Middletown, faith lives on but without an actual community that could give it real force.

Present in Camden too was a narrative that young people saw themselves in. During Urban Promise’s Martin Luther King Jr. Speech Contest, kids eagerly prepared speeches on their own heroes, ranging from Rosa Parks to Muhammad Ali or the school custodian who overcame a past hard-knock life on the streets. As a teacher, I marveled at the drive of second-generation Vietnamese, Haitian, and Mexican-American students to live up to and exceed the hard-earned victories of their parents. In other words, there was a narrative of elusive but real progress, a story students could place themselves even amidst Camden’s manifest decline. And present, too, was an ability to seek guidance and help. On balance, I saw kids, aware of what might be missing in their lives, hungrily seeking mentors, whether a teacher, coach, camp counselor, or older, more mature peers. For Vance, hillbilly culture instead “[deals] with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them”. To seek help from outside a narrow circle is an invitation to failure, betrayal, and disappointment.

I cannot claim sociological rigor to my comparison. I can only speak of the kids and families who consciously came to the organization I served with, so this obviously presents a partial picture. I did not work with students from the most broken neighborhoods in the city. But Brookings’ Carol Graham presents a similar picture, where she compares the striking optimism about “the American Dream” and resilience among urban minorities compared to rural whites. Many Trumpist intellectuals idealize the Southern and Rust Belt white working class as the vanguard for recapturing American values. Per Patrick Buchanan, they are the “silent majority” keeping alive founding virtue amidst national decay. You could perhaps say that poor African-American and Latino communities, despite their progressive political views, are far better exemplars of a certain cultural conservatism. They are more deeply informed by Christianity. Their youth can place themselves within a story to see above present hardships. They better cultivate resilience and the ability to seek support. They are optimistic about the future. Are such places not better incubating American Greatness than the “down and out” voters and communities voting to “Make America Great Again”?

Can We Escape “the Bubble”?

Hillbilly Elegy will make you grasp for solutions based on your political instincts. Vance’s picture of “downtown Middletown [as a] relic of American industrial glory” could make you cry out for expanded Medicaid or job retraining. You might call for a neo-Victorian revival when you marvel at the father losing a good paying job because of four daily thirty-minute “bathroom breaks” and his subsequent self-victimization.

But the last chapter of Hillbilly Elegy makes me think of the broader insufficiency of these recommendations. They are all about what “the elites” will do for the populace, whether through a renewed Great Society or moral pedagogy. They are not about changing the very composition of our elite. And this is what is required today. Not the abolishment of “an elite”, a fatal cure worse than the disease. But instead a leadership class more fluid in its make-up, with greater roots in a wider American life.

This is where Vance’s account of Yale Law School is quite instructive. One professor complains that the acceptance of students from state schools was forcing him to conduct “remedial education”; the real solution was to limit acceptances to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale graduates. Only an emergency phone call with his girlfriend saves Vance from a disastrous mishandling of dinner silverware at a meal for candidates to a boutique DC law firm. Social capital and the rules of networking, not merit alone, are real tickets to big opportunity. Even as a “tall, straight, white male”, Vance was no more than at home in these East Coast powerhouses than his classmates of color.

Vance’s memoir here was powerfully on point. I indeed know my Bowdoin degree will open doors less available to equally and more capable graduates from lesser known universities. Given this situation, students almost entirely from New England and the East Coast benefit the most. I can understand rationales why we might “need” open doors between NESCAC and the Ivies and various companies and firms, but the aftertaste is discomforting all the same.

Senior Year was like watching in real time the formation of the “SuperZips” described in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. How many fellow top liberal arts college alumni would be present at our next job? Who among us was not flocking to the delights of New York, Boston, DC, and San Francisco? Would even exciting, hip cities like Raleigh, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, or Columbus be on our radar? Would anyone of us consider roles of more humble but critical leadership outside the coastlines?

Ultimately, students like Vance, and the communities they hail from, were not part of the conversation at Bowdoin. There was extraordinary community service pursued by students in Maine’s struggling white working class communities. But, compared to countless (and, yes, necessary) conversations on gay rights, Black Lives Matter, or immigration, there was next to nothing on Rust Belt blight, the opiate epidemic, or rural poverty. Many white, first-generation friends and classmates from “flyover country” found it very hard to find a place at Bowdoin. My fantastic, mostly white blue collar co-workers from Maine in dinning also were frustrated. Where did all their struggles and problems fit into the constant talk of “white privilege” they read about in the campus newspaper? Ultimately, “class” was arguably the real “undiscussed” at Bowdoin.

How can we make for an elite that is more genuinely open, not only in its racial composition but in class and geography? Some ideas floated around could be a real start. A national test taken by college graduates could allow employers to examine the true abilities of applicants and thus break “the Ivy League monopoly”, helping more bright kids of all races from the South, Midwest, and Great Plains. So too would efforts to end the grade inflation explosion. More aggressive recruiting by schools in the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and rural America. But none of this will mean much if the top 10-20% continues to self-segregate in “The Bubble” so vigorously lampooned this weekend by SNL.

Places like Vance’s Middletown and wide swaths of our country need educated, entrepreneurial, and high powered leaders. This will never come to pass if Robert Reich’s “secession of the successful” continues. With Trump’s election and our accelerating Balkanization, we can expect this abdication of responsibility to continue. But other paths lie before us. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports Vance will soon be leaving Silicon Valley and San Francisco to return to Central Ohio. Any hope for national renewal will demand highly capable millennials taking a similar step.