The Fulcrum


My apologies for the relatively light posting of late. The truth is that I have been busy – not so much with official work but I’ve been “in the streets” a lot. Some of it was disguised as hanging out in the bar with friends but underneath it all was my attempt to search for a fulcrum.

I’ve been talking to young adults, older adults, university students, former members of the PCR (Communist party), various politicians (none of them currently holding an office) and even foreigners who have lived here for a long time. From all of these various people has come one single unifying theme – Romania has a multitude of serious problems and that apathy is a universal trait (and almost nothing can be done about it, except perhaps lots of waiting).

I don’t think there’s much disagreement here but it leads me to my next question – what can be done? I don’t mean what can be done about problem X (say, like having a plagiarist liar as Prime Minister) but about the underlying cause itself, i.e. the apathy? What exactly will it take to knock Romanians from their slumber and get motivated to do something?

That’s a question I don’t have the answer for quite yet but I think I am getting closer. I realize that I was getting a little too ambitious a couple of weeks ago when I thought that dispelling that apathy was only a matter of concentrated effort. I realize now that Romanians (from all walks of life) are not under- or misinformed. In general, they know what’s going on. They know what the problems are. And yet no matter what their age, gender, material status (rich or poor), career or religion, they are all united in the fact that they aren’t willing to do anything to change the situation except A) leave the country or B) complain bitterly/largely ignore what’s going on.

That’s really the only two choices being made by millions of my neighbors every day – either GTFO and go somewhere “better” or else mostly ignore the situation while occasionally bitching about it.

I remember the sunny (and fairly warm) day that the MRU government was toppled by the USL, and talking to a well-informed friend about it just moments after it was announced in the news. And yet if you were walking around the city like we were, you would have had no idea that anything had happened at all. The same people were idling in the squares on benches, the same people were sipping coffees on the sidewalk cafes, and not a damn thing changed. Nothing visible happened the day Basescu was suspended either.

There were 10,000 more people in the streets for music and film festivals this summer than there ever were for any kind of social unrest or protest. So I don’t think the widespread apathy is in question. Certainly everyone I’ve been talking to has regular internet access and knows quite well what’s going on, so we can’t pin this on ignorance or being unaware. So what exactly is driving this apathy?

I think a far more useful question is why were people protesting at all in December 1989. I can understand some passionate rebelliousness from young, unmarried men but why were 70-year-old people staring down armed soldiers? Why were old people in wheelchairs out in the streets bearing protest signs?

And why was there so little violence? I have to ask if Captain Dando had been off duty on that fateful day, if another man in his position would’ve ordered the troops to open fire. As tragic as it was to lose those lives, why were so few people killed nationwide by the Communist government? Why didn’t Ceausescu order more firing on demonstrators, especially in Bucharest as it became obvious to everyone that the rebellion was spreading?

Even more odd is the lack of violence in return by the protesters themselves. There was almost no looting or vandalism against state buildings or properties. There were hardly any windows broken, for goodness’ sakes. I watched a lot of videos from those days and what you see (especially in Cluj) is people just tootling their car horns and shouting in the streets but not doing much else. I saw a few portraits of Ceausescu being burned but why no attacks against soldiers? Why were the protestors themselves asking for there to be no reprisals against the troops the day after dozens of innocent people had been gunned down?

And why exactly was anyone protesting Communist rule in the first place? Jobs were guaranteed, social order had been maintained, food might’ve been rationed but it was available (especially in the late 80s). People got guaranteed vacations and parades and free schooling. Certainly there was some intellectual repression but most Romanians today don’t even express themselves. Only a tiny handful of dissidents were ever arrested or mistreated for political reasons. The vast, vast majority of the population was allowed to go about their business with only a handful of activities off-limits. Heck, even the Orthodox Church was not repressed much at all.

So what was worth being in that square and getting shot?

If you’re from the West you automatically want to shout, “For freedom and democracy!” but that’s utter crap. Barely half of the Romanian population votes in any given election so it surely isn’t about democracy. As for freedom, unless you’re talking about freedom to watch porn and steal movies off of the internet, nobody much cares about that here either. The Securitate has long since been disbanded and yet Romanians remain some of the most conformist people I’ve ever met, almost never doing anything to earn the open disapproval of their neighbors and family.

Again, I don’t quite have the answers quite yet that I’m looking for. In case you’re reading this and getting fired up about writing me about the 10,000 explanations for why Romanians are so apathetic, the long years of domination, slavery, etc, please don’t. I’ve heard every excuse you can come up with and plenty more and while those are all interesting and useful, I’m trying to break new ground here. I’m trying to figure out what exactly will galvanize people to start caring about their country and do something instead of either fleeing or idling the rest of their lives in cynical indifference.

I think it should be evident, based on my previous writings, why I care so much about this. My own personal existence here is beyond comfortable but I am filled with an inescapable sense of horror as I watch so many of my neighbors suffer completely needlessly. I don’t even let my cats toy with the grasshoppers they catch in the garden so it’s utterly beyond my ability to understand why Romanians, who get so flipping outraged if an Olympic judge rules against “them” would let such a rich and bountiful country be totally destroyed.

Romania could be one of the richest countries in Europe. I don’t mean “rich” just in the way I care about, rich in traditions, lifestyle and food quality but rich as in cash money rich. With so many tourist opportunities, with so many mineral resources (uranium, copper, aluminum, gold, etc), with so much petroleum, with such perfect opportunities for renewable energy (esp. wind), with such abundance of fertile land and forests, wetlands and beaches, the only reason Romania is poor is because nobody here gives a shit.

I mean really that’s it. If you swapped out every Romanian for an Israeli, a German, an American or a Japanese person, this country would be enormously wealthy in 10 years. Corruption, deforestation, pollution, low wages, failure to collect taxes, crippling and unnecessary public debt, thievery, embezzlement, inefficiency, cheating and wastage on every level is the direct result of this complete and total apathy. If people here cared then untold riches (of every kind) would be at their disposal.

I, for one, remain optimistic, not optimistic that millions of people will listen to me and suddenly wake up from this sleep of death but optimistic that the human spirit is stronger than any history or cultural traditions and that if the candle of hope can be lit then the future can be quite wonderful indeed. But lighting it is the challenge at hand, eh?

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher.

-Peter Gabriel

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24 Responses »

  1. Sam,mi-a placut foarte mult articolul tau. Trebuie sa credem ca putem mult mai mult, trebuie sa credem ca mai sunt multi care cred ca noi. Este timpul sa aratam tuturor ca nu suntem un popor vegetal, ca stim sa ne luam soarta in maini cand trebuie. Si stilul tau american, aceasta mentalitate “Yes, we can !” este foarte benefica. Eu te tratez ca pe un roman, pentru ca esti interesat de tara asta, ca traiesti aici si ca suferi cand vezi o bogatie de tara ruinandu-se din cauza unor incompetenti rosi de setea de putere.

    Hai sa facem ceva, trebuie sa ne cunoastem, sa ne organizam, sa facem actiuni comune, voluntariat, meeting-uri. Trebuie sa ne aratam, sa ne manifestam public opiniile.

    • Florine, nu ai inteles ce a vrut sa spuna Sam! Nu a spus ca tara se ruineaza din cauza unor incompetenti rosi de setea de putere (acestia exista in toate tarile din lume). Sam sustine ca apatia romanilor lasa ca aceste specimene sa ajunga la putere si apoi sa-si bata joc de popor (din incompenta si/sau alte interese).

  2. Sam, I’m a bit disappointed in you for not having figured it out yet.

    1. Romanians LOVE doing precisely the things they criticize most (e.g., bribing, littering, speeding, being rude, etc.)
    2. Romanians DO NOT want to be at the same level as Westerners. This may have been a dream once, but after the borders opened (at least to Western Europe) a decade ago, they realized they actually don’t want the whole package. They want the GET part (cars, gadgets, luxury items), but not the GIVE (hard work, law abiding, the sense of community and respect). In other words, they insist going on with the following trends:

    - low-level education, mock exams
    - low productivity work, no improvement other than by means of the stick (the carrot method seldom works)
    - very lax attitude concerning current laws and social norms
    - a short-sighted taxation system (very low real estate property taxation, very cheap inheritances)

    And the list can go on and on and on…

    But in short: Romania is precisely how Romanians want their home country to be. Regardless of what they are saying. So don’t pity them.

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