Friday Filosophizing


It looks like the final polishing of the book will be done this weekend, thus freeing up some time for me today. Therefore it’s time for another long Friday piece.

When I’m not writing or thinking about Romania, I have a number of other “hobbies”. One of them is an almost obsessive-compulsive fascination with Sumerian literature. Another is an equally engrossing fascination with probability theories.

My interest in the affairs of the kings of Sumer, who have been dead for over 6,000 years, is partly because of the fortunate coincidence of my birth in the United States, where English is the language most people learn to speak (including me). The vast majority of the archeological and academic work on deciphering Sumerian texts has been done in English due to British control over the relevant area (mostly in what is now Iraq) in recent history.

Therefore I can read and understand most of what is “known” in the modern world concerning the oldest extant writings on Earth. There may be equally ancient written records in Chinese but alas, these are beyond my ken as I certainly do not speak that language.

Therefore my ability to understand English allows me to peer through the “window of time” and see the most remote past (that is currently accessible) via these writings, some of them laid down long before the Great Pyramids of Egypt were even a twinkle in their builder’s eye.

Probability theory, on the other hand, is a study (largely) of what will happen in the future. If you start reading books on the subject, you’ll get mired down in fancy terminology (such as “stochastic processes“) and heavy-duty mathematics. It is therefore usually relegated to the province of mathematicians, economists and “wizards” operating in the theaters of “high finance” (Wall Street, etc).

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been watching the events unfolding in Egypt with great interest. It’s certainly “the” story at the moment and one I think almost everyone has at least heard of in some form or fashion. Al-Jazeera’s coverage (in English – again my birthplace came in handy for me), in particular, has been superb.

What does all this have to do with anything? Well it’s clear, both from hearing the reactions of journalists, bloggers and even the American government, that pretty much nobody predicted that these protests would break out in Egypt. I keep hearing the words “unprecedented” and “unforeseen” and the like.

Certainly that’s true, in an absolute sense. If you had interviewed someone a month ago and asked them to predict what would happen in Egypt at the end of January, I’d wager that people would’ve said “business as usual”. After all, the same dictator had been in place for 30 years, the economy is more or less trucking along as it always has, no laws or new rules were implemented and no particularly high level of unrest or dissent was discernible.

I’m quite confident however that in the coming weeks, months and years there will be mountains of books, essays, newspaper articles and academic treatises which will string together a number of events that “clearly led to” the protests and the ultimate political outcome (whatever that will be). That’s human nature.

My point however is that even to “experts” in the region, including the dictator Hosni Mubarak himself, absolutely nobody was predicting or expecting these large scale protests to occur. And yet they clearly occurred. In my other computer window, I’m watching them unfold live before my very eyes.

How can this be? How can millions of people, including individuals tasked with this very mission (the Interior Ministry of Egypt, for instance) be caught so totally off guard? Was everyone “asleep on the job” or was this just simply so random and bizarre that “no one” could’ve predicted it?

The answer is what’s often referred to as the Black Swan theory, also known as a “flaw” in inductive reasoning.

To use a well-known example, imagine if you were a chicken living in some very nice Romanian’s yard. Every day you get fed and are given lots of delicious water to drink. Life is good. You’re shielded from predators and you even have a little house to sleep in when it’s cold and rainy outside.

If you could be interviewed, you could clearly point to the fact that during your entire life things had been fairly predictable. Every day you got fed, watered and had shelter and protection from predators. If you were asked what your thoughts on the future were, you’d say (quite confidently!), “More of the same”.

And yet one day that “kind” Romanian is going to take an axe and lop off your head and eat you for dinner. All of those hundreds of days’ worth of past experience were completely useless in predicting your ultimate fate.

Clearly, Mubarak is in serious danger of losing his head and, at the very least, his days in office are coming to a rapid end. And yet for 30 years he has ruled almost unchallenged with relatively little opposition or general unrest.

Egypt is a populous country with lots of freedoms. Muslims and Christians (and members of other religions) live together in relative harmony. There are no repressive dress codes for women. Dozens of foreign TV channels are broadcast into Egypt and there is ample access to the internet. Millions of foreigners from all over the world come to Egypt as tourists and mingle with the locals. Egypt is not, in any way, shape or form, some kind of Saudi Arabia or North Korea, with heavy censorship or religious restrictions.

And yet despite all of this, there’s been a dictator in power for 30 years, who has kept Egypt under martial law (known as the “Emergency Laws”) since 1981. The police forces regularly tortured its citizens (as well as on behalf of the CIA and others). Even just as recently as a week ago, the population was deeply afraid to assemble and protest for fear of brutal repression.

Just like for the chicken, things in Egypt have been stable for a long time. It is a country of deep importance to the greater Middle East, it is the home to incredibly influential schools of theological thought, both Muslim and Christian, and it has enjoyed a long peace with Israel.

Nonetheless, the “unexpected” happened and even without resorting to high-level mathematics, it’s obvious there’s going to be major changes in Egypt and the rest of the region in the immediate future. There are ongoing demonstrations and protests in Jordan, Yemen and Sudan and the dictator in Tunisia was overthrown just a month ago.

This is all relevant to Romania because I’ve noticed more and more that people here, both Romanians writing in Romanian as well as Romanians and foreigners writing in English (and other languages), have developed a kind of mentality that the future is going to be “more of the same”.

The Revolution of 1989 feels like a “long time ago” and the future of Romania now is some kind of steady growth and integration into the European Union, capitalism, road building, office jobs and sipping coffees at Starbucks. The path to becoming a kind of pseudo-France or pseudo-Britain seems inevitable. A “revolutionary” change, political or not, violent or not, seems to be unimaginable and not a realistic expectation.

Just about every day I hear this mentality expressed by my friends and neighbors. Usually it’s framed in a negative way – “oh things will never change” said with a sad face. Whether it’s corruption, fiscal mismanagement or political bickering and ineptitude, most people here quite confidently expect that the future will be “more of the same”.

Likewise the mentality of most foreigners and outsiders is equally similar – Romania is a poor, backward country with mistreated minorities (“gypsies”), barefoot orphans and hungry children, ugly rows of Communist-era apartment buildings (blocuri), roaming packs of feral dogs and an unacceptably high level of adherence to “superstitious” beliefs, whether involving “violet flames” or vampires or something else.

I often refer to this as The Script – in capital letters – because it’s amazingly homogenous to me. Foreigners generally use The Script of “Poor Widdle Romania” while Romanians themselves tend to use The Script of “I and my family and friends are good people but all the other people in this country are thieves and corrupt devils”.

Foreigners want to get a thrill up their leg by helping out the “unfortunates” or from making fat profits from low domestic salaries and Romanians feel like they have to carve out a living at the expense of their neighbors just to survive.

My point is not that these “Scripts” are inaccurate. Clearly there are poor people here. There are illiterate gypsies roaming this country and yes they are sometimes mistreated. There are definitely corrupt politicians and other members of the government. And yes, occasionally a stray dog bites someone. All definitely true.

My point is that even if all the facts in The Script are true, these data cannot be used to accurately predict the future. Before last month, Egypt was unquestionably a dictatorship with a repressive police force that quashed dissent. Yet absolutely nobody was able to predict what is happening right now based on past events. Nicolae Ceausescu certainly wasn’t expecting to catch a bullet in the head in December 1989 and I’d wager very few people – even “experts” – were predicting it either, until it happened.

So if years and decades of past events are useless in predicting the future, how does one go about it? How can someone in Romania – perhaps a student just now choosing a field of study – make some kind of “accurate” prediction about what the future will hold? How can an “ordinary” person in Romania make decisions about what job to take, what to do with their money, whether to emigrate or not, if the future is unpredictable?

The simple answer is – you can’t predict the future. No matter how uniform and stable the past was, the future can always take a “Black Swan” turn and change into something completely unpredictable and unforeseen. Even the CIA famously was caught off guard when the Soviet Union collapsed, so how can an ordinary “person on the street” predict Romania’s future?

You can’t. And while that’s scary, it’s also liberating. The future can be whatever we want it to be. Foreign investors largely loathe the corruption in this country because it makes calculating risk difficult. Romanians loathe the low wages and crushing taxation because it makes it quite difficult to take a risk on holding a job here (versus emigrating) or starting a business.

It certainly seems like nothing will ever change. And yet things always do – sometimes in a lightning fast way (Egypt right now) or sometimes more gradually. I first came to Romania in 2000 and the differences between then and now are astonishing.

As a single example, there were a grand total of 3 ATMs (“cash points” or “bancomate”) in Cluj-Napoca when I came here and now I regularly get asked at restaurants whether I’ll be paying in cash or credit. And so on and so forth, all just in the last 10 years!

I didn’t grow up here and so I never was inculcated in the domestic Script, one of making extremely conservative choices (especially with money and relationships) and mistrust of one’s neighbors and fellow “countrymen”. Nor was I inculcated in the standard Script of the foreigners, that of “Poor Widdle Romania”. I consider myself quite lucky in fact that I came to Romania knowing virtually nothing about it – and therefore came to my own conclusions and opinions.

Nowadays I get a lot of hostility – including from some good friends – for the fact that my opinions are unorthodox or deviations from The Script. I remain relentlessly optimistic and positive thinking, even in the face of indisputable facts about corruption and poverty. I have good things to say about Romania and this offends and irritates a lot of people here. At best, they think I’m “crazy” or my “head is in the clouds” and at worst they think I’m a foolish lunatic or that I’m insulated from “reality” because I have the magical status of a foreigner (from America to boot).

And yet none of you would be reading this if you did not agree, at least in part, with some of my deviations from The Script. I continuously link to organizations and individuals who themselves are “deviators” from The Script, whether it’s the good folks behind Scena Deschisa or Let’s Do It. All of them began doing what they’re doing entirely without my help or influence whatsoever.

Before I published my book (The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania), I asked myself one very important question – “Do I stand 100% behind what I have said?”. It’s my name on there and once released into the public, it was going to have an effect on people, on their mentality and views of this country. Whether that effect is “large” or “small” is irrelevant – once I’ve pressed “send” (so to speak), it’s out there and it will have an effect.

Whether here on this blog, through my books, interviews or even reading silly poems on stage at the local bar, I am “putting out there” a certain view, a certain mentality on Romania, not just on its present condition but also its future. Every time I call out a silly blogger or a racist journalist, I am “putting out there” that the Old Script is no longer quite as valid as it once was. Every book I sell goes into someone’s hands and has an effect on how they view this country.

The revolution in Egypt began when one person said, “Hey, I’m not going to put up with this anymore” and then told someone else, who agreed. And then they told someone else, who also agreed. And now as I write this there are millions of people in the streets, all saying the same thing.

My message – far less political in the strictest sense of the word – is the same. I’m not going to put up with unnecessary rudeness and hostility in this country. I’m not going to stay silent when foreign journalists slander this country. I’m not going to adhere to The Script of “Poor Widdle Romania”. I’m not going to endorse the message that what Romania needs is to be indebted to Western bankers and build insanely expensive highways. And I’m damn sure not going to nod my head in agreement when my neighbors, friends and colleagues go on at length about how “nothing will ever change”.

No. The future in Romania is what we want it to be and not one fact or past event is going to somehow retroactively prevent it from occurring. If corruption is bad, that is only an obstacle to a corruption-free country if we let it be so. If taxes are way too high, that’s only an obstacle to a future of less repressive taxes and fees if we let it be so.

If the Hungarians, Nazis, Turks, Poles, Russians, Fascists, Communists and the Scourge of God himself once ruled this country that is only an obstacle from Romanians running their own affairs if we let it be so.

If we want to live in a country without pollution, corruption, poverty and political ineptitude, it’s entirely within our grasp. Just like in Egypt, once we know we’re sick of “the way it’s always been” then it will cease to be that way. The first step to a future we want is simply – and powerfully – to believe it can be so.

And all the Zosos, naysayers, pessimists, dictators, goons, death squads, secret police, presidents and corrupt politicians will be helpless to prevent it.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

-Gandhi

5 Comments Add yours

  1. the Tudor says:

    Some will argue that the Sumerian cuneiform tablets are not the oldest writings on Earth. :)
    Read about “tăblițele de la Tărtăria”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C4%83rt%C4%83ria_tablets

    Like

    1. Sam R. says:

      It’s definitely true there are older examples of what may or may not be writing. What makes Sumeria so interesting is the VOLUME of extant writings – half a million examples. We’re all still waiting for “proto-Elamic” and others to be deciphered but for now, Sumerian is what we have :)

      Like

  2. jhuitz says:

    Amen. Waiting for the Great Leap Forward. Yet, as much I’d like to believe otherwise, Romanians as a people have yet to show the will to take any such leap. Existence as it is now it seems, is willed to be so.

    Like

  3. Katharine says:

    One could argue that in the case of the chicken, the vital knowledge of the situation was necessarily beyond the chicken’s knowledge. It had no idea it was going to get slaughtered at all, but from the person’s perspective, they knew they were going to eat some fucking chicken for dinner and they were hungry.

    There are the ridiculous laws in Egypt; sooner or later there’s usually an attempt to resist.

    It’s not completely unpredictable.

    I think it’s more the case that Romania in general is not characterized by the can-do mentality, which you’ve referred to before. In addition, your outside perspective on the situation provides an alternate viewpoint similar to the viewpoint of a therapist on a dysfunctional family. Parts of Romania are dysfunctional, and people recognize that, but an outside perspective is beneficial to understanding a situation.

    Like

  4. Dacia Felix says:

    I am old enough to know that nobody knows the future. When my sons were born, Brejnev was still alive and kicking and everyone thought that communism would rule for another 1000 years. My sons started their first year of primary school under Ceausescu and finished it under Iliescu and mineriada. And yes, communism was history.

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