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!


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.


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.

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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.




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!