A Romanian Thanksgiving

In my opinion, Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. This past Thursday, it was our first American Club event of the year at Transylvania University. It was an exciting opportunity to share something of home with students and faculty. However, it also posed several interesting questions for me personally. What does the Thanksgiving celebration mean for Americans, and how do I share this holiday with others? So, I opened my riveting Thanksgiving speech by passing around Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 painting “Freedom from Want.”  It depicts a scene seared in our collective conscious; Grandpa and Grandma preside over a bountiful table surrounded by the younger generations. Nobody is hungry, nobody is arguing, and everyone is happy– almost to the point of being ridiculous. This perfect scene is often mocked, understandably, in contemporary culture. After all, what would Thanksgiving be without the traditional family argument or debate?  I also thought about how ironic this scene might seem to some of the Romanians who were fasting from meat and dairy in preparation for Christmas. The ideal of “Freedom from Want” epitomizes much of our American ideology.

Many of my students have expressed interest in going to America in search of a better life– to live the “American Dream.” I wanted to encourage them to think about what the American Dream really is, and if there really is such a thing as “freedom from want.” After wandering down a few rabbit trails and almost getting lost, I noticed that some students were so mesmerized by my words that they stared off into the distance as if transfixed…or was it that fly on the wall? Anyway, I concluded my little oration with a question. In what sense is “Freedom from want” a freedom? It does not seem like it can be legally guaranteed, yet it remains a source of hope. Whether or not that hope is misplaced is for each to decide for himself. As we ate and celebrated our freedom from want, I invited guests into conversation about the nature of freedom. The dinner table is often the center of the American Discourse, for what is more American than a political debate at the dinner table?

After the stirring speech by yours truly, we ate a scrumptious pot-luck meal followed by games and songs. In spite of the sterile classroom setting, it turned out to be a very festive evening with laughs and lively conversations. Originally, I had hoped to share a few iconic contemporary American Thanksgiving Traditions like  an American football game or a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Since we didn’t have a projector and the banjo in the corner was a novelty to many of our guests, Anne and I led a few songs. Simple Gifts and Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More are two American classics from my childhood that we shared. We ended our evening with the world’s best party game, “Apples to Apples.” The free association of random nouns and adjectives can spawn some of the best conversations…maybe even more than the equally random ramblings of a Fulbright lecturer.


A Sunday Walk in the Woods

The steeple of  the small wooden church rose among the pines in the Brașov high country. The sun shone through the fall leaves casting a golden glow on the forest path; all was dusted with a crisp morning snow. This is the Romania I’ve dreamed about!

We took a bus to Poiana Brașov and attended the Divine Liturgy at Sf. Ioan Botezătorul (St. John the Baptist). Poiana (which means meadow/clearing) Brașov is most well know for its ski resort and touristy attractions–such as a restaurant built like some kind of Dacian style ale-house and a hotel called “Acasa  la Dracula.” For me, the Church stands out as a witness to eternity in the midst of a temporal, shallow, and capitalist-driven consumer-culture which pervades the modern world. A hieromonk and a deacon served the Liturgy. With the chanters, they lead the Byzantine melodies and low drones, echoing the peaks and meadows surrounding the full little parish. There is something rooted and earthy, while at the same time heavenly and ethereal, in Transylvania.

The buildings of Brașov go back to the 13th century, while the iconography and music hearkens to a time when Constantinople ruled the world and the Carpathian Mountains sheltered small villages with a vibrant cultural life. The ancient, rooted, and earthy human life here is juxtaposed against the ethereal nature of the forests and mountains. It is still possible to find pockets of untouched nature here, where European bears, lynxes and wolves still exist. The only other place I’ve experienced nature like this was in Alaska, another place where time becomes timeless.

After church, we walked the roughly 4-5 mile long hike back to orașului (the town of) Brașov. We met hikers with their children and a British tourist as we made our way back home. The cyclical motion of the Church Liturgy cultivated a stillness in me as we walked. We came to one of the many troiţa, Orthodox Christian Crosses, along the path. Another reminder of the Christain history here and its Eucharistic Life. The troiţa were for me like a lâmpada lighting the Way home, literally and figuratively. After a leisurely three hour hike, we arrived home in Brașov full and ready for a new week.

Troparion of St. John the Baptist, Tone 2

The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise/ but the Lord’s testimony is enough for thee, O Forerunner,/ for thou wast shown to be more wonderful than the Prophets/ since thou wast granted to baptize in the running waters / Him Whom thou didst proclaim./ Then having endured great suffering for the Truth,/ Thou didst rejoice to bring, even to those in hell/ the good tidings that God Who had appeared in the flesh/ takes away the sin of the world/ and grants us the great mercy.

Romanian Students Discuss the “Tyranny of the Majority”

click on image to read the “Tyranny of the Majority”

Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need? Our hour-long discussion on Alexis de Tocqueville’s section on the “Tyranny of the Majority” from Democracy in America culminated when a student posed this wonderful perennial question.

This past Monday, I taught my third university-level textual analysis class. So far we have read John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, James Madison’s Federalist no. 10, and most recently a small section of Democracy in America. Our overarching theme has been an inquiry into American identity. In my first lecture I argued that the United States is in an identity crises. Our civil discourse is becoming increasingly polarized and there is not a consensus regarding what the common good is let alone how we can achieve it. Where and when did the breakdown begin? How can we reconstruct it? Should American identity be remade or rediscovered?

I began our discussion of de Tocqueville with these words from our reading:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.

Why does Tocqueville say that there is no real freedom of discussion in America when our “freedom of speech” is one of the freedoms we are most proud of in America? I think this reaches to the heart of our current identity crises and political gridlock. Freedom of speech is largely an illusion in America because the majority has deemed some words and ideas anathema. It is impossible to enact a plan to cut the debt because one plan is labeled “elitist” another is “socialist.” The majority has decided that both aristocratic elitism and socialism are politically incorrect words that should not even be considered. So, while candidates call each other “elitists” and “socialists” their ideas are not given a deep consideration in the public discourse.

Who is the majority?

First we asked, “Who is the majority?”  After a brief discussion, we decided that the majority was a group united around a common ideal opposed to another less powerful group united around the opposite ideal. We then went back and forth between whether or not the majority is worthy or unworthy to rule. One group seemed to be echoing Thomas Paine by saying that the majority should rule because they best represent the needs of a society while the other side took up James Madison’s argument that needs of the majority should not oppress the minority. While we argued about whether or not our mixed government and free speech on the internet provide protection and a voice for the minority a student asked the question at the heart of the argument. Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need?

When Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835 he asserted that, “If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” It does not exist in America, according to Tocqueville, because anyone who publicly speaks contrary to the opinion of the majority is made “a stranger in his own country.” We have had some great writers and orators since 1835. Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. became some of the heroes who showed us who we are and gave us a path forward.With the presidential election days away, we need to ask ourselves who we are and what do we really need. Where is the literary genius who can shine a light on who we really are? Are we left so intellectually and spiritually impoverished by the tyranny of the majority that the heroic literary genius described by Tocqueville is among us, but is merely another voice crying in the wilderness; and nobody hears.