Monday, December 21, 2009

Thoughts of December 25, 1989 and 2009

President Obama has put a Christmas deadline on the approval of his health plan in the Senate. Many people of goodwill view the plan as an albatross and a disaster in the making. There is certainly a lot of ego buried in his ostensible altruism.

Back in 1989, December 25 in Romania, December 25 took on a tone that jarred markedly with the peace and goodwill that Western Christians associate with that day. On December 25, 1989, Nicolai Ceacescu and his wife Elena were executed by a firing squad after a two hour trial. The irony did not extend to within Romania's borders, where Christmas is celebrated on January 7, according to the Julian calendar.

Ceaucescu was in some ways like the genial and beloved neighbour who turns out to be a psychopath behind closed doors. Nixon's visit to Romania in 1969 left the impression that Ceaucescu was easy going and pragmatic, kind of like another Tito. He actually refused to allow Romanian troops to join the Warsaw Pact countries invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, openly condemning the Soviet led invasion. Most Americans thought he was acreative communist maverick

This was the impression I was left with when a Romanian American friend told me of his visit to Romania in 1976. He told me that he was not even allowed to visit his relatives in their homes. He had to exchange money at ridiculous rates for each day he was in Romania instead of just staying cheaply with family in their homes. Secret police were tailing him for his entire visit. He was an outsider, and Romania's seedy side was something to be hidden from outsiders.

What was so awful about Romania? Time magazine presented a grim picture back in 1973, reporting as follows.

"Ceauşescu's emphasis on industrialization has produced a phenomenal annual growth rate of nearly 12%, but Bucharest cupboards are bare. Peasants are so wretchedly poor that some villages have no shops and people live by primitive forms of barter. In recent months, there have been increasing reports of unrest and even strikes.The answer from Ceauşescu has been an increasingly autocratic rule and the nourishing of a personality cult.

For two weeks before Ceauşescu's 55th birthday in January, the entire government press became a giant birthday card with Comrade pictures and Ceauşescu." greetings to "beloved Congratulatory messages were actively solicited, and in they poured, including salutations from Richard Nixon, Willy Brandt and Mao Tse-tung."

It is no coincidence that Ceaucescu's latter years sound like those of North Korea's Kim Il Sung. Dictator of the Month reports as follows on the aftermath of Ceaucescu's visits to China, North Korea and North Vietnam.

Ceauşescu visited the People's Republic of China, North Korea and North Vietnam in 1971 and was inspired by the hardline model he found there. He took great interest in the idea of total national transformation as embodied in the programs of the Korean Workers' Party and China's Cultural Revolution. Shortly after returning home, he began to emulate North Korea's system, influenced by the Juche philosophy of North Korean President Kim Il Sung. North Korean books on Juche were translated into Romanian and widely distributed in the country. On 6 July 1971, he delivered a speech before the Executive Committee of the PCR.

This quasi-Maoist speech, which came to be known as the July Theses, contained seventeen proposals. Among these were: continuous growth in the "leading role" of the Party; improvement of Party education and of mass political action; youth participation on large construction projects as part of their "patriotic work"; an intensification of political-ideological education in schools and universities, as well as in children's, youth and student organizations; and an expansion of political propaganda, orienting radio and television shows to this end, as well as publishing houses, theatres and cinemas, opera, ballet, artists' unions, promoting a "militant, revolutionary" character in artistic productions. The liberalisation of 1965 was condemned and an Index of banned books and authors was re-established.

Reports I have from coworkers who once lived in Romania round out the picture of Ceaucescu as a man who used Romania as his social laboratory. One co worker kept his book of ration coupons to show people how bad communism was. Another told me how a chicken wing was considered to be a generous portion of meat for a holiday meal. The disastrous free fall of Romania's economy was caused an insane emulation of Kim Il Sung's "Ju che" philosophy of self reliance. Ceaucescu kept the population on the edge of starvation so he could sell foodstuffs abroad. Meanwhile, Romanians were infuriated to turn on their televisions and to see that the stores were filled with food and consumer goods. When Ceaucescu went on tour, he was shown stores that had been especially stocked for his visit. Whether he wanted to be deceived or not, he was detached from the reality that was the lot of ordinary Romanians. Additionally, despite his sweeping socialist rhetoric, he had multiple luxury homes around the country as well as millions in Western currency.

Ceausescu's last public speech was in Timosoara, Romania, which has a significant Hungarian minority, which had been subject to brutal repression by the communist regime. eventually, Romanian students crossed ethnic lines and supported the Hungarians. The response of the communist Party was to organise a state sponsored demonstration to show support for the government. Ceausescu showed up at this last demonstration, which spun wildly out of control. Widely portrayed is the stunned look on his face as the crowd jeered at him. From Timosoara spread the revolt until finally the army switched sides.

What was the fatal flaw of Ceausescu? Ultimately, his regime succumbed to death of multiple causes. A willingness to make the well being of the people take a back seat to political ideology created a feeling of alienation from the government, a feeling that the leaders did not feel the pain of the people.

This would almost be a forgivable sin if the leadership felt the failure of its ruling ideology. Unfortunately, the communist leadership had luxuries that were out of the reach of common folk. Whatever Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu said about communism and worker's rights, they themselves lived a life of unimaginable luxury. There is a hollow ring to hypocrisy, whether it is Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Fae Baker or Eliot Spitzer counseling religious and civic rectitude or a limousine liberal railing against greenhouse gases and flying by private jet. Romania did not have the safety valve of democratic elections to either "throw the bums out" or to elect a Congress full of new scoundrels to keep the bums from trashing the country.

We have a Congress that routinely exemts itself from measures it imposes on the people. From Al Gore's jet, Nancy Pelosi's opulent perks to a Congressional health plan that will be unchanged by health care reform, our elected leaders routinely insulate themselves from the fallout of their toxic ideologies with a lead apron of legislative exemptions. Our tone deaf leaders have November 2010 to fear as they force upon us a legislative agenda that is widely unpopular. We are fortunate to have the means at our disposal of replacing unresponsive leadership. Now we must use them.


Note on the picture with this article. In Communist Romania, the pre communist flag had a communist seal in the middle. When Romanians demonstrated against the regime, they cut the seal out, leaving a flag that was almost like the one that had been used prior to communist rule.


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