Watching a “Balkanized America” from the Balkans: Wednesday Morning in Bucharest

“Your country is going to hell, David”.

Few Romanians were this straightforward on Wednesday morning. But all expressed it in other ways. I don’t speak much Romanian, but the name “Trump” and encompaning vocal sounds of shock, anxiety, and contempt echoed in the subways of Bucharest. A clear, palpable sadness hung over my two classes yesterday.

Since Tuesday, a Budapest taxi driver and many students have asked me: “What will happen to NATO? Will Trump support Putin?”. They have every right to fear. In the zero-sum game Jacksonian foreign policy of Trump, what does this distant Eastern European country “buy” the United States? A short-listed candidate for Secretary of State, Newt Gingrich, described NATO ally Estonia as a “suburb of St. Petersburg” unworthy of American solidarity in the event of Russian aggression. Will Romania likewise become an afterthought if only the “big league” great powers matter in a post-liberal world order of ruthless transactions?

But the despair extended beyond potential policy shifts. There was the Romanian employee from the US Embassy who suggested her potential resignation as Trump’s victory loomed. After years of working for men like Clinton, Bush, and Obama, there is no way she could walk into an Embassy each day with a large portrait of Donald Trump hanging above. Trump, for her, was the exact foil to everything she loved about America and what it offered as a model for the Romanian people. “The things Trump has said would destroy any politician’s chances in Romania”. A post-communist, infant, and much poorer democracy better polices its extremist fringes than we do. Well done, USA.

One student said that he will probably look for work in Canada rather than the United States; the future status of his father who works in Arizona looks much more unclear, too. Many expected the new immigration regime for legal applicants to change dramatically, and with it their own hopes for study and work in a country that deeply fascinates them.

In class, I offered possible assurances that a true abyss was still distant. “Congress and the courts will have the power to check his excesses”. But, will timid Republicans afraid of their own right flank, besides the brave few so far (Flake, Sasse, Kasich, Graham), suddenly discover a backbone manifestly absent for months? “Maybe he’ll surround himself with good people and advisers”. A near worthless “Maybe” when the editor of Brietbart is now under consideration for White House Chief of Staff.  “The reasons for Trump’s victory are very complex; not all of his voters are bigots or accept wholeheartedly with his character and ideas”. An important point I stand by (and one my progressive friends should bear in mind). But the fact that Trump’s behavior was not ultimately disqualifying for voters is profoundly troubling. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quip that society is “defining deviancy down” cannot fully capture this collapse of basic political norms. “The American system will limit him”. The system? What is the system but a sum of people who must willingly to choose to embrace established precedent? Gradually, I realized in my desperate assurances a single assumption: that there perhaps is another side of Trump we have almost no evidence for. A true leap of faith.

A striking point about this election is how the political intuitions of Europeans I spoke to surpassed my own and those of America’s journalistic and political class. I was shocked how my students, other Romanians, and Greeks I spoke to really expected a Trump win. Outside of the tribalistic warfare of American politics, the progressives among them were far more aware of Hillary Clinton and the current Democratic Party’s profound weaknesses. Given Europe’s history of rightist populist parties, Trump’s Buchananite ideological cocktail was recognized as a far more potent power than progressive and conservative American observers could ever imagine. They grasped darker realities within the American mind  we cannot yet examine honestly – the degredation of culture, the cult of celebrity, a political correctness poised to stimulate backlash, the Balkanization of a country into isolated, enclosed segments grasping to find a basic common life. Fascinating how people who never spent a second on FiveThirtyEight, RealClear Politics, or the New York Times Opinion Section could more accurately grasp the state of our republic.

It was a painful week. The US Embassy’s “Election Night” Party at the Hard Rock Cafe concluded around 8 am for those few who stayed to the very end. By that point, a Trump victory was certain enough. Flanking the entrance to the restaurant doors were large blown up photographs of eight American presidents, including JFK, Wilson, Eisenhower, Lincoln, and Washington. As I glimpsed their faces for a final time, a profound sense of shame hung over me. We had failed these men. We had dishonored their labor and sacrifices. And that night we disappointed the millions outside our borders who so admire the American experiment, not so much just as a democracy but rather one that uniquely also maintains extraordinary global power and an unprecedented mixing of peoples, ways of life, and interests. If America as a single nation cannot somehow hold together this trio of freedom, power, and diversity, can our fractured world of nations ever do so?

I nearly cancelled class on Thursday given my lack of sleep and limited class preparation. Fortunately, the week’s topic could not be better timed: it was the first of two lessons on the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks to a fantastic college course (by Professor Rael, to any Bowdoin kids reading), I had enough powerful stories, events, and anecedotes in my memory to put together a lecture with limited time. For an activity, I asked each student to read through interviews from a PBS documentary on Jim Crow. While all students already grasped America’s history with race, the first-person, viseral narratives were particularly sickening. But we finished the class on a brighter note; I described the victory of Brown and the fortitude of participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As this sad week ended, I wanted students to think about Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. This is the only American Greatness we can and should recover again – a passionate commitment to ever widening the promise of our original Founding.  Let’s hope and pray, in ways yet unknown, that President-elect Trump will grasp this very soon. And may his spirited critics – left, center, and right – embody it with grace and courage for the next four years.

Stalin meets Paris: A Few Days in Bucharest

Here goes my third update from Romania. I arrived two Wednesdays ago to Bucharest, the capital and the site of our group orientation. After a nap and a (wasted) 1.5 hours watching the Vice Presidential Debate, I hit the metro for downtown. The capital’s architecture can be best summed up as “Stalin meets Paris and their lovechild is postmodern capitalism”. To start with the Parisian note, our hotel was right next to the “Charles De Gaulle” roundabout and lay about 0.5 miles away from a Romanian version of the Arc de Triumf. The long boulevards dividing the city easily remind one of the French capital. In the historic center, most of the older nineteenth century buildings modeled on Parisian architecture are in decay, but a few still lie in better shape and escaped the psychotic “urban planning” of the Communist dictator Ceausescu (nicknamed “Dracula with a Bulldozer”).

The monstrosities of Socialist Realism are sadly still present. The Communist Party Headquarters holds government offices. Two monuments to the martyrs of the Revolution of 1989 stand outside of it. Shockingly, the monuments lie in striking decay and neglect. As I learned later, the term “Revolution” itself is contested by Romanians. While all undoubtedly concede the heroism of countless ordinary protestors and activists, the word “revolution” conceals how much violence was merely between different factions within the Communist Party and Security Services. Consequently, much of Romania’s immediate “democratic” leaders were previous Communist Party officials (excluding, with their execution, the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth double team of Ceausescu and his wife). Undoubtedly, few Eastern European countries experienced a true clean break with the old order, even nations like Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary with much stronger liberal traditions and resistance movements. Still, the continuity in Romania in the early years was particularly shocking. The regime’s paranoia and isolation even from the rest of the Communist bloc made any resistance figure approaching the stature of Victor Havel or  Lech Walesa impossible. And so for many Romanians, the events of 1989 were better described as elite musical chairs than a genuine revolution and transformation of national life.

The true ode to the megalomania and moral bankruptcy of Communist Romania is the Palace of the People (nicknamed the “Madman’s House”). The Palace is the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. Inside are 1100 rooms and 4500 chandeliers. As you walk around the perimeter, you can’t help but one wonder if the palace looks even, slowly slinking under its own weight. Seven hundred architects worked on the project, operating in terror thanks to the shifting tastes of Ceausescu and his wife. It’s hard to imagine all this construction taking place at a time of widespread hunger in Romania, the so-called “North Korea” of Eastern Europe thanks to Ceausescu’s fascination with the “achievements” of Kim Il-Sung and Mao. When I see this horrifying monument (now the home of the Senate and Parliament), the nostalgia for this regime among a few people here is totally incomprehensible.

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So the lovechild of “Stalin in Paris” is postmodern capitalism. Bucharest did not feel as post communist as I expected. Worried though I was rightly about pickpockets and taxi scams, Bucharest is actually the third safest city in Europe. There’s almost no homicides, burglaries, or violent crime of any kind (in spite of Romania’s high EU rankings on poverty). Destitution is still visible. Countless Roma beggars. Bent over, frail elderly women who appear to walk around each day with all their belongings. The faces generally look worn out, tired, and cold. Granted I may have unfair standards after six weeks in the Mediterranean culture of Greece. And it was rush hour in the Bucharest metro, where I held on to my passport and wallet for my dear life. All this being said, the center of Bucharest seemed quite ordered – no overflowing trash (present even in Athens’ main tourist areas) and little graffiti. You can spot a Pizza Hut, Subway, Starbucks, multiple KFCs, and McDonalds quickly. Numerous international banks. Well dressed businesspeople. Bus advertisements for Family Guy (translated here as the “Demented Family” – accurate, no?) and South Park. And constant announcements about a visit by John Maxwell, a leading American leadership guru. Mike Tyson(!) was actually around.

Seeing these symbols of “American culture” made me think of two great quotes from the French. The former primer minister George Clemenceau: “America is the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without the interval of civilization”. Or, more seriously, from the fantastic French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, an actual defender of America’s role in the world among French philosophes: “America has a knack for the propagation and an ability to export its worst while reserving for itself its immense virtues”.

A brief detail catching me was the constant presence of the European Union flag. The flag was everywhere present outside government buildings and business offices. It was notably more visible than in Athens or nearby countries like Poland and Hungary. As a recent visitor, it symbolized Romania’s cautious, low profile on the European diplomatic scene. The crisis in Greece obviously leaves few people there feeling any abiding loyalty for the European project. As Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary vocally challenge Brussels (Merkel) on refugees, federalism, and sovereignty issues, Romania is extremely quiet. This is not to say that Romanians are in lock step with EU policy. One local academic I met during orientation would surely prompt “trigger warnings” at today’s American university for his assault on Germany’s refugee policy and iconoclastic praise of Samuel Huntington, Ron Paul, and Patrick Buchanan [side note: not a few Europeans actually think Trump will be less militant and trigger-happy than Clinton].  Nevertheless, Romanians describe the country as being very pro-EU in sentiments. This remarkably survives the failure of EU membership to live up to the hopes of dramatic change that accompanied entry in 2007. The upcoming parliamentary elections in December are expected to be fierce but there’s a broad consensus across the left-right axis in continued loyalty to Atlanticism, the European Union, and NATO. In other words, a decent foreign policy consensus protected from the rancor of partisan battle. Can the same be said of our own beloved republic? To quote George P. Shultz, our greatest living Secretary of State, on this election, “God help us.”

The Monasteries in Bucovina

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Some of my friends also on Fulbrights joked with me about our near guilt over the amount of free time over this year. With classes on Thursday and Friday, a five day “weekend” is always theortically possible. And in Romania, the euro/dollar goes a long way. Just to give an example, I took a nine-hour overnight train for $25. Compare that to the cost of an American ticket with a far more incompetent Amtrak and you see what I’m getting at.

Last weekend, I checked Romania’s primary tourist site outside of Transylvania: the monasteries of Bucovina, situated in the northern region of Moldavia. To check them all out in a single day, I hired through my hostel a Romanian driver. Sadly, he didn’t speak “the language” (English, one of my grandfather’s immortal lines as the archetypal American tourist). The monasteries are situated in a region that best depicts my imagined picture of Romania: quaint, pastoral, but obviously poor. As we drove around, I counted at least seven horse-drawn wagons carrying produce. We passed by cabbages sales on the side of the road, quaint and decaying homesteads, and old ladies (who nearly all wear head scarves here) selling jams, fruits, and sauces. There is even your occasional drunk wandering on the road side. When I confessed to my students that this region felt like the “Real Romania” to my students back in Constanta, one was slightly offended: “So you think we all live like peasants??”. Touché, touché.

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There’s a reason countless European tourists head to Romania’s poorest region like I did: the monasteries here are unlike any other in the world. Built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by Romanian princes, the monasteries stand as pillars of Orthodoxy against the “infidels” (primarily the Ottomans, who make not-so-subtle appearances as the bad guys in the iconography). What makes these monasteries so unique is their outdoor frescos, which survived 400 years of exposure to tough Romanian winters, rain, and invasion. Eastern iconography is less interested in depicting the full realism of subjects or characters of parallel artists in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The emotions are always more tame, and a solemnness limits expressions of any strong emotion. But it is an incredible style distinct in its own right and standard.

A few highlights are below. One is the fresco “The Ladder of Virtue” at Sucevita Monastery. It depicts the ladder of souls aiming to reach Heaven. Don’t get too confident though, the artist warns. Even those near the top can get tripped over by some vices, and tumble down to join the demons and wailing infidels/heretics below.

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This “less jolly” tone, shall we say, permeated all the monasteries. Most horrifying were the icons within the church (which I could not take photos of) depicting the martyrdom of various saints. To quote our President’s horribly timed comments, the tortures inflicted would’ve made ISIS look like “the JV team”. People boiled in hot water, buried alive, sawed in half, stoned, burned alive, pulled apart by horses – the decapitations (usually numbering at least thirty in a given church’s interior) looked comparatively merciful. The theme of martyrdom made sense, of course, in this context. With the threat of far more powerful Catholic and Islamic empires, believers had to contemplate for their possible acts of faithfulness onto death. dscn0295

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Another painting present at every monastery was “The Tree of Life”. Drawing from the first chapter of Matthew, the icon links Christ back to the “root of Jesse”, the King David. The aim of the icon is to precisely show believers the ultimate continuity between the Old and New Testaments (no easy feat; recall the early Christian heretic Marcion who claimed that the Bible actually spoke of two different Gods). The biblical kings and figures are all connected through beautiful green leaves and branches.

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But one icon will forever remain grounded in my memory. As I was putting together this post, I was struck forcefully again by its scale and pure ambition.

dscn0252The Last Judgment in all of its awesomeness, terror, and glory. This fresco (OUTDOOR!) at Voronet Monastery has been rightly called the “Sistine Chapel” of the East. Any skepticism of this term while reading my guidebook disappeared when I first saw it. There are so much rich details here. Zodiac symbols lie above Christ in his orb. Angels call forth the dead, and the apparently innocent animals actually carry human bones in their mouths. The saints at the bottom wait anxiously outside the door to Paradise. A soul hangs in the balance as the competition takes place between the prayers offered for his salvation and his own past sins. The Tartars and Turks are in limbo, and not the nice outdated Catholic one for unbaptized babies. They wait unsuspectedly for the angels to drag them by the beard into the River of Fire.

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The weather for this trip was not ideal,. But the cold, fog, and rain showers offered their own charm. Add to this the changing leaves, and there was an extraordinary autumn ambiance to the visit. I would love to return in the Spring, where you can hike easily between the major monasteries. Hopefully my Romanian will be far better by then.

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Getting Settled in Constanta

So my Fulbright teaching has formally begun! I’ll have a piece on the first few days from Bucharest in orientation up in a bit, but I wanted to first tell what was up with my teaching job here in Constanta. I’m in a large city on the Black Sea and at Ovidius University. I had my first three classes this week. They are three two-hour English labs with American Studies majors who are first-years, second-years, and third-years. It’s not a full fledged course so I’ll be assigning under ten pages of reading each week and only one essay for the whole semester. But the excitement of the courses are the enormous academic freedom I have as the instructor. My department pretty much said do whatever you want.

I’ll be teaching “Postwar America: 1950-1980” and using that period for the backdrop of the readings and assignments. We’re starting with the 1950’s, with three courses on the rise of suburbia and the “consumer republic”, the Red Scare, and dissent beneath the surface (from Catcher in the Rye, Beat generation, Elvis). Then I’ll have two classes on the Civil Rights Movement and move on to the Cold War, Vietnam, feminism, the New Left, counterculture, and conservative reaction. Lot to cover but I’m excited for the challenge. I’m very comfortable with the history and politics of the time, but I’m honestly fairly illiterate when it comes to the film, music, and popular culture context. As I noticed when I speak to Europeans, they are much more familiar with the great classics of American film than I and many other millenials! I will benefit too from an American Corner within the university; the US Embassy runs ten around in Romania. They offer monthly programs on the United States and have a HUGE library. I was salivating, I must admit, seeing a shelf containing nearly the entire Library of America series. It sparked dreams of mastering Faulkner, O’Connor, and Richard Wright if I find time.

I was pleasantly surprised with my students so far because I was warned to expect the worse. During the Orientation in Bucharest, Romanian academics and a Fulbright alumn warned us of problems of rampant plagirism and class absences. A former Fulbrighter noted that 96% of her students once cheated on an assignment and she met 45% of her class roster only a week before the final exam. Participation/Attendance is not exactly mandatory in Romania; students can take the final exam often regardless of their attendance. Even if they fail the final exam (a likely prospect if you never show up to a class), they can retake the test (not course) multiple times in later semesters, and the universities try to be “merciful”. Since universities here are underresourced and do depend on student tiuitions, it seems this more “flexible” response is inevitable. My department also warned me of the wide range of work ethic, English ability, and commitment I would find in my courses.

I cannot offer a final verdict, but the first day subdued these anxieties partially. Granted, only 1/3 of my third-year course showed up and 1/2 of my second-years. But students were quite friendly and most were willing to speak freely in class, which is less common in a more lecture-driven atmosphere here. Much of their writing skills will need a lot of work. But in a pre-test I offered, they all read and understood a column by David Brooks on social media addiction, and we had spirited discussions afterwards. Apparently Constanta suffered from the same “Pokemon Go” epidemic I witnessed in Washington this summer. And there are likewise 7-8 years olds who already hold Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. Some brighter sides of this new technology were acknowledged though. One student mentioned how Facebook and Twitter were mobilized by Romanian activists in the 2014 presidential election for an anti-corruption liberal (meaning vaguely right-of-centre in Europe) reformer, the ultimate winner.

There was much for me to think about when I asked students what they admired most and did not understand about the United States. “The American Dream”. “Hollywood”. The “multiculturalism”. The “sense of freedom”.   Becoming such “a great power” with such a short history. The “diversity”. Much of the Bowdoin (and liberal arts college education) conditions you to be cynical of these claims. You are asked to use every tool available to deconstruct and unmask such grand narratives, rightly asking what people and stories are not being included. There is a role for that in our intellectual lives, but the words of my students reminded me how the work of our nation, incomplete as it is, is still remarkable to ousiders. What we have achieved as a people is not to be taken lightly.

And their words were a reminder that, unless we work through our problems with greater urgency, this praise will become fainter. What will non-Americans come to think of the “American Dream” when they realize that our social mobilities rate is not only unexceptional but rapidly decreasing? What will our “leadership” consist us if we withdraw more from the international stage? What can be admired about our “constitution” when presidential candidates undermine the rule of law and republican procedures/norms through means highly destabilizing (Trump) or more subtle (Clintonian nepotism)? (Note: This is not an attempt to make a moral equivalence between the candidates. As for who I voted for, I will only say #NeverTrump).

Speaking of Trump, his name came up the most when I asked what remained most troubling or confusing about the United States. “How did he become so popular”? “Why would anyone vote for him”? Romanians are particularly concerned because of NATO and their own anxieties about Russia. Romania is far from a nefarious “freeloader” among our allies Trump rants about and is need of his deal-making (blackmail). The country’s military fought alongside American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the country is on track to meet the 2% GDP target on defense spending set by NATO.  Racism and the gun culture also came up too. On the Trump issue, I will actually offer a lecture on this at the American Corner for the university on November 2nd. [Bulletin points: The hallowing out of the white working class. Elite cluelessness. The death of the gatekeepers. Apocalyptic Conservatism. Civic illiteracy. Moral rot].

From what I saw this week, it looks to be a great semester!

On the Frontlines of the Refugee Crisis: A Visit to Caritas Hellas

After almost a year and a half absence, it’s stricking how much of Greece, often for worse, remains fixed. There is the same unemployed man in the same exact seat at a nearby Plaka cafe where he spends his entire day. On a hill in Pangrati above the 1898 Olympic stadium where I run, there is the same woman outside her apartment asking passerbys to borrow their phone for important calls. On another run (marathon training), I saw Perama, subject of a haunting documentary (“The Fish of the Mountain”) I watched at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 2015. Safe to say, this once proud shipping town near Piraeus, with its empty apartment buildings, abandoned construction projects, and closed up main avenue businesses, made America’s Flints or Detroits appear as thriving metropolises. The scale of litter, trash, and graffiti not only remains fixed, but seems to spread even further through the center of Athens.

I would remiss, however, if I did not mention my excitement on a visit to Caritas Athens (the equivalent of Catholic Charities in the United States). This is where I volunteered as an English teacher for refugees/migrants from 2014-2015. From the moment I entered their offices, I could sense an immediate change. The original flood of daily people requesting help every morning was much more orderly, with a new security guard and elaborate sign-in system. Every floor was covered with helpful information and maps for refugees in both Greek, English, Arabic, Farsi, and a few other Middle Eastern langauges I couldn’t recognize. All the staff were very excited to see me. Apparently I look older and much “more sophisticated”. Maybe that was simply becuase of a more decent effort at shaving and dressing up well that morning (neither of which are consistent personal habits as yet). But I’ll take the complement regardless.

The staff admitted to be very stressed, but they were incredibly optimistic for the charity. Caritas Hellas was now in partnership with Catholic Relief Services and so their annual budget had increased to about 1.5 million euroes from 150,000. They now had 33 employees, probably a 4-5x increase from my time there. There was a new building nearby where refugee children and mothers had a space to rest, play, and relax. New legal counseling and family therapy services were now offered for familes navigating fraught situations. In a few days, Caritas’ head social worker, Maria, explained, they will launch a new program for refugees to create hand-made traditional Middle Eastern crafts to sell.

No doubt the scale of the refugee crisis remained (about 50,000 refugees, registered and unregistered, in the country) and was even worsening in some respects. It is clear that many will be in Greece much longer than they expected. Because of closed borders in Hungary, Serbia, and FYROM, a route to the more prosperous North illegally is far more risky and futile. Nor is the legal path by applying to the EU for relocation always promising. According to Sofia, the fundraising director, Scandanavia and Germany have been far more favorable to Syrians from the middle class, with university education, and good language skills. Furthermore, certain demagographic groups like young single men have not been well favored. Nor is family reunification always an easy rationale in one’s application unless it is for the immediate nuclear family. Those who are rejected from the  relocation scheme are stuck in Greece, where they can then apply for asylum status. This can give them some sense of secruity, but they will have to stay here and try to make a life in a country with far fewer prospects.

Turning Greece into a home rather than a waiting house will be a tough challenge for the migrants. According to the staff, the knowledge that their legal limbo will leave them in Greece for a long time has caused many refugee parents to be very depressed and frustrated, leading to visible signs of neglect, indifference, or even abuse of their children. Many are in denial, showing no interest in looking for work in Greece, learning Greek, or sending their children to public school. Helping refugees accept the loss of their ultimate dreams (a decent life in Germany) is extremely hard. Where refugees are originally from deeply shapes the mindset. Afghanis are apparently much more accepting about a more permenant settlement in Greece. The Syrians, though, are generally much more frustrated; some have even told Caritas staff that they would even return home than stay here. Given the housing situation, such sentiments aren’t entirely ridiculous. Lucky ones can find access to housing offered by UNHCR and some NGO’s. Others stay in refugee camps outside the city, the worst of which are apparently now incubators of hepatitis and malaria. Still others make due with a patch of grass where they can find it in Athenian public parks.

In spite of Caritas’ expansion, some time volunteering at the soup kitchen assured me that the place retained its original core. It was a simple lunch of rice, lental soup, and bread. A Georgian cook ran the operation, with the help of a colorful mix of characters: a Burmese nun from the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a boisterous Argentine (“Hugo”) who founded a tango dance school in Athens, and a polyglot Spainard who married and raised a family in Greece and was one of Caritas’ most loyal volunteers. The latter gave me some interesting advice on Romania (“The Romanian girls are very beautiful. It’s a wonderful place. The people are very cultured with art, music, and literature. But watch out. They are incredible manipulative. They make the Greeks look like ‘juniors’ in comparison!”).

The three hundred refugees who came in over lunch were pretty quiet and mellow. You could see the exhaustion on many faces, especially the mothers. Here and there were also some very frail older Greeks who came in as well for lunch. Their sense of discomfort at receiving charity from strangers was very palpable and hard to witness. The atmosphere would have remained very quiet for it not for the children and a group of energetic (and very good looking) Portugese volunteers from the Jesuit Refugee Service. They were accompanying the kids throughout the day, and I was invited to join them next week for their daily 6 PM football games at the Jesuit Residence.

As the kids departed, they begin to sing the French National Anthem. One of the French Jesuits had apparently taught them the hymn. Surreal to hear this mixed group of Kurds, Iraqis, Afghanis, and Syrians burst out into this patriotic anthem. It was a moving sign, that if the continent could show consistent moral courage and commitment, Europe could indeed truly become the home of these youth. If such a task is ever attained, it will be, in the final analysis, due to the quiet, humble “labor of love” of people like Cartias’ staff. 

“They have absolutely no idea of what they are doing. They are incapable of running the country” – Interview with Pr. Thanos Veremis

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Photo Source: http://www.iefimerida.gr

One of the great pleasures of my year in Greece was pursuing an independent study with Pr. Thanos Veremis. Veremis has published countless essays, monographs, and books on Modern Greece and the Balkans. Alongside his historical research, he is one of Greece’s most gifted public intellectuals through his column in Ekathimerini. One cannot help admire his hope for Greece and fight to make its society, politics, and economy truly liberal, open, and dynamic. Pr. Veremis kindly took some of his time out for a chat and coffee together.

Greece has fortunately escaped the headlines since the memorandum showdown and prospect of “Grexit” last summer. Does this signal any progress? 

The progress has been mediocre. At least since last summer, some of the most extreme members of the SYRIZA government like Konstantopoulou and Lafazanis have departed. This group of strange individuals is out. The government is a combination of those trying to find a centre-left route into politics and some past ideologues of the Left. My guess is that SYRIZA will eventually fill a left-of-centre slot in Greek politics, which would be an improvement. Unfortunately, they are not gifted administrators or leaders. Many are “out of commission” or never faced the real problems of governance. This growing experience will take time, though they will likely lose the next elections regardless.

How would you grade Alexis Tsipras’s government, particularly in promoting meaningful reforms? 

The government is performing way below average. It is very hard to promote economic growth or investment because of their tax situation. In the field of education, SYRIZA is totally disastrous. Nikos Filis [the education minister] is bringing back the PASOK university “reforms” of 1982 that were extremely detrimental to secondary and university education. This is actually what I’m most concerned about.

They have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They are incapable of running the country.

In his 2014 book, Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama looks at the clientalistic and patronage politics of Greece and Italy still undermining efforts to create a modern, effective civil service and public sector. He compares this to the United States and Great Britain, which had very similar problems in the 19th century but developed creative, liberal middle-class reform movements that pushed for more effective governance. What has stopped Greece, especially its middle class, from advancing these changes? 

Yes, the Tammany Hall spirit is very much alive in Greece today. In a book called Conditions of Liberty, the anthropologist Ernest Gellner argues that there are pre-modern societies based on families and the loyalty of clients to small centres of authority. Society is fractured with many of these competing “pyramids” of power failing to cooperate. This makes the development of a healthy civil society very difficult.  Such a “segmentated society” is indeed Greece’s main problem. Of course, Greece has plenty of talent, ambition, and skill. But it’s segmented, not coordinated. People are narrowly focused on one’s immediate self or family or career.

On the new wave of Greek emigration. 

There is an extraordinary export of talent to the rest of Europe. In the past, Greece’s migration was mostly of unemployed farmers. Now, it’s unemployed and underemployed young people with a good education. This is a serious brain drain as Greeks move to more prosperous nations in Europe.

Whether these Greeks will return in the event of economic growth and maturation remains to be seen. I’m somewhat optimistic. Greece is a wonderful country – nice and sweet as you certainly know. The climate is temperate. It’s a very warm culture where you can form relationships easily. The family here is a strong solace amidst life’s hardships. All you really need in Greece is a decent state that leaves you alone and a stable salary and income.

On a related note, if I were a Northern European at my age, I would certainly move to Greece. Along with the quality of life, we have a decent health care, both with public and private hospitals. The housing is also affordable as well and it’s still quite safe with low crime. Our communication systems have improved. This movement of retirees from all over the EU very well might be Greece’s economic salvation.

What kind of leadership and policies would it take to overcome the gap between Northern and Southern Europe, “creditor” and “debtor” nations, countries leaning towards Keynesian or more conservative, neoliberal solutions? 

Europe is faced with a severe identity crisis about its future. Will it move towards a more unitary system or where each nation-state has a more independent foreign and doemstic policy based on their interest? If the latter is the case, Europe will not have much of a future, whether for both “debtor” or “creditor” nations. We will all go down the “drain” – some countries more quickly than others. Without more unity, we will not be a substantial force that can compete with China, Japan, the United States, or new rising powers.

There seems to be a severe lack of trust. Germany and “Northern Europe” does not seem willing to invest substantial financial resources for development in Greece and the rest of Southern Europe. Conversely, it’s not obvious Greece, Italy, Spain, or other countries are willing or able to overcome many bad political and economic habits. 

One brings the other. If the “South” brings its act together and reduces its debt, there will be more trust by wealthier, Northern states. They will start to say this is our South – in the same way the more wealthy, industrial American North said that about your South after decades of conflict and ultimately war. Even after the Civil War, it took an even longer time for the South to fully catch up economically.

Southern Europe’s climate and less expensive labor can attract businesses. None of these situations are fixed. Mediterranean Europe used to be the economic center, of course, during the Renaissance. Southern and Eastern Germany were once underdeveloped but are catching up to the rest of the country. Eastern Europe has made substantial progress since 1989. Things can changed rapidly in history.

Shifts in Greek political life. 

There’s much confusion about what the left means today. SYRIZA has totally been discredited. They are incapable of generating economic growth. And they are reviving old practices of party politics with the attempts to turn public television and radio into political propaganda. This is old and familiar, and Greeks are rejecting it. There seems to actually be a rise in centrist politics. Kyriakso Mitsotakis [the head of the opposition party, centre-right New Democracy] is young, capable, well educated, and has good intentions. He very well might be Greece’s last hope.

Interesting you are describing a shift to the centre in Greece. The opposite is happening in the rest of Europe! 

Greece is often behind the rest of Europe. Sometimes for good actually!