I haven’t been enticed by television in many a year now (thank the gods and the Man Jesus) but back in 2004, I was unemployed and freshly relocated to Romania, trying to learn the language.
I watched a lot of television in those days and remember quite well the presidential elections of that year, in which a more respected politician named Teodor Stolojan bowed out of the race (citing health problems) in favor of his old political friend Traian Basescu, the man who eventually became president.
I always felt a strong liking for Basescu for several reasons. I certainly would’ve voted for him in 2004 if I could have, purely for the fact that he unabashedly cried on public television when Stolojan threw him his support. They may have been false tears, or tears used strategically to win votes, but a man in public who is unafraid to show his emotions is a man with no small amount of courage.
I still do not doubt Basescu’s courage even today but the fond feelings I once felt for a man who speaks clearly and slowly enough for a dim-witted foreigner to follow have now turned to bitter ashes in my mouth.
Translating his press conference on Friday, I came across a word I’d never heard before – fronda – and as it comes directly from a political movement in France from the 17th century, I was at a loss as to how to translate it. I asked a few Romanians if they knew this word and none of them had.
It certainly struck me as an oddly academic word for a former sea captain to use and so I dug further, finding this informative page in Wikipedia (in English). The word fronda seems to boil down to something akin to an insulting jibe at those who dare challenge the aristocracy, something faintly equivalent to the English word rabble or “hoi polloi”. It’s when a disorderly person of the lower class foolishly and arrogantly dares rise up against his or her “betters”.
I do not consider Corina Dragotescu a saint or a perfect paragon of all things journalistic but any time an accredited member of the press manages to stand tall in the face of authority, I cheer. Her persistent questioning certainly unmasked Basescu’s nervousness and hostility on the subject of Romania’s future accession to the Wise and Majestic Foreign Investors (who are clamoring for the new Labour Law) and that’s why I wrote Friday’s post.
But going back over the text of Basescu’s prepared remarks (i.e. before Dragotescu or anyone else had asked him a question), I noted that he was simultaneously hostile and defensive right from the beginning. Bringing up that old tired chestnut of “some people say” (that it’s slavery) and then dismissing it out of hand as “ridiculous” wouldn’t pass muster in a high school debating competition. It’s the kind of statement someone makes when they know there’s a deep element of truth in what their opponents say and yet they have nothing with which to counter it.
I didn’t see video of the press conference but I have seen images and snippets of Basescu lately and he looks quite unwell. The twinkle in his goofy eyes that so charmed me in 2004 is long gone. Stolojan, who was (apparently) gravely ill with cancer in 2004 looks far healthier than Basescu these days.
And suddenly it reminded me of a television show that is worth watching – The Wire – which I could watch again and again, forever anon. By the fourth season, a young, ambitious politician named Thomas Carcetti engages every part of his craft and skill, making backroom deals and strategic compromises, to become the mayor of Baltimore.
And just when he sits down in the Big Chair, relishing in his ascension to power, an old grizzled political veteran tells him a parable about eating bowls of shit. Although you have all the trappings of power, and are called “sir” (or madam) and spoken to respectfully (aside from a few contentious journalists), and you get to fly in a helicopter (Romanian) to avoid traffic jams, you end up finding that you’re endlessly chained to unpleasant and largely unsolvable problems.
For instance, you get told you must slash the salaries of the millions of citizens who work for the government, including your own staff. You must then go and push for taxes to be raised. And if there’s a flood that washes away a bridge, a cop or a judge caught taking a bribe or even a dog that bites the wrong person, everyone blames you. Everyone wants something from you and blames you for everything that goes wrong and yet nobody ever remembers to thank you for the good you’ve done.
That’s exactly how Basescu looks and sounds now – like a man who has eaten far more bowls of shit than he ever imagined he would when he first climbed far enough up the Communist Party ranks for the privilege of being able sit in Belgium and eat fancy chocolates when his fellow citizens back home were queuing in line for food rations.
Unlike a few other leaders I could name, Basescu also knows what he is – a mid-level manager. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s obvious that his masters are well-pleased with his efforts. But seven years of constant griping, grumbling and dissatisfaction from the Romanian public (not to mention thorny questions from a certain journalist) are wearing him out. Last week I saw an old woman standing in front of Cluj City Hall with a homemade placard around her neck that read Basescu jos (down with Basescu) and I know he has to be at least somewhat aware of just how much he is increasingly becoming hated.
A couple of weeks ago, a rather earnest young man on Facebook repeatedly kept asking me to link to his blog. I declined because his blog was decidedly political and that’s something that I don’t want to become a regular feature of my writings. Politics is similar to sports and soap operas – interesting and fascinating when you take the time to learn the minutiae of the character’s stories but ultimately little more than hollow entertainment, a devourer of time and almost (but not) always a great deal of sound and fury that signifies nothing.
And yet sometimes a look at the bigger picture is warranted. Basescu, despite his wealth (and I am quite sure he will be well-compensated after his retirement from politics) is no aristocrat, even if somewhere along the line he learned the word fronda. Romania was once ruled by voivode and princes, barons and counts, dukes and lords, but in this modern age there are still a few aristocrats in positions of power, many of them without an official title to their name.
One aristocrat (with the title of Baron) is Conrad Black, an exceedingly dangerous man, who yesterday wrote an article entitled Prosperity Comes Before Democracy. Although the subject at hand is Libya and not Romania, it would do ye well to mark his attitude.
Titled or not, there are people who truly believe, from the bottom of their ill-begotten souls, that they are meant to rule other people, meant to decide what’s “good for them”, the rabble, the hoi polloi, the unwashed and illiterate masses, and will brook little interference to their plans and schemes.
The piggish, grinning face of Jeffrey Franks that you saw my last post is that of an aristocrat, even though he holds no title. The coldly suave and heartless Mugur Isarescu is one as well. Along with their faithful lapdog Mihai Tanasescu, they openly declare that they know exactly what is good for the rabble of Romania and it involves sabotaging the currency, cutting salaries, raising taxes and gutting workers’ rights.
Listen to them every day in the newspapers and you will hear it over and over – we’re doing this for your own good! When murderers are allowed to flee without protest, when people are tortured on Romanian soil, when American soldiers are allowed to set up shop 50 years after this country shed itself of the hated Soviets, when the sadist monkey George Bush is given a hero’s welcome in the capital, it’s always packaged in the form of “it’s for your own good”.
When billions of euros are borrowed (with no recognizable plan on how exactly that’s going to be repaid), It’s always sold as a ticket to a limitless future, a rainbow in the sky, a golden tomorrow that will come if only we listen to our wise elders. When Basescu and many, many others (including sadly, the right honorable Professor Vasile Puscas) call for Romania to “modernize” and build forests of office towers and decimate the Labour Law in order to serve the Great and Powerful Foreign Investor, it’s always “for your own good”.
It’s always for our own good. It’s not just arrogant western charities dumping stupid T-shirts on this country. Everyone, from the vaunted The Economist and Guardian right down to Constantin “The Genius from Dolj” Dascalu and his urge to protect folks from predatory witches, believes that if only the uneducated rabble would just shut up and listen and do what they’re told, things would get better because everything they’re doing is for your own good.
I’ll close with a brief story from my own life. Last week I was in a Romanian bank, trying to get some money out of an account I have (now had) there. My passport had been updated since my last visit and this prompted a slurry of paperwork. And the young woman I was dealing with starting asking me what, in Romania, are now standard questions – am I married? What is my political party (if any)? And what are the names of my mother and father?
I controlled my ire because I knew she was at the lowest rung of this particular corporate ladder, and just doing her job, but I asked her, “Why are you asking me these questions?” Of course she said she was required to. But I asked her, “But why? Why do these questions matter at all? After all, my father has never set foot in this country, I am not a citizen and therefore cannot vote (or belong to a political party) and whether I am divorced or never married seems to be utterly irrelevant to my being able to withdraw my own fucking money from your very fine bank.”
She was rattled and visibly upset, and rightly so. But I had to ask her point blank nonetheless, “Will you refuse to give me my money if I refuse to answer these questions?”
I have no idea how many hundreds or thousands of customers she has dealt with in the course of her tenure at that bank but I would wager that I was the very first who ever questioned the questions, so to speak. Why must a bank know my father’s name? And why is spending millions of euros on a highway in order to more rapidly ship in bananas and toothpicks a priority? And why is an impoverished villager better off wearing an ugly American football shirt rather than learning how to spin, weave and sew their own clothes? Why is every Romanian beholden to an agreement with western bankers that they’ve never even had a chance to read? And why, above all else, must this country “modernize”? And scrap its labor laws in order to supplicate the Wise and Majestic Foreign Investors? And why is having a Starbucks and a KFC and a McDonald’s a good thing?
Well, as Basescu correctly stated, asking too many questions is a vulgar thing to do. I’m certainly no refined, proper gentleman and I never will be one, even if I can speak softly and wear a suit and tie when the occasion warrants. But nothing will stop me from asking questions. And even if nothing changes, at least I’ve asked. And perhaps – just perhaps – it will truly wake up a few people along the way.
Deşteaptă-te, române, din somnul cel de moarte în care te-adânciră barbarii de tirani!