Sunday of the Blind or, the Failed Revolution

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Sunday of the Blind or, the Failed Revolution

October 29, 2015

In the spring of 1990, after the fall of Ceausescu’s communist regime, the first free elections took place in Romania. The election day coincided with the the sixth Sunday after Orthodox Easter, when the story of the healing of a man born blind from birth—from the Gospel of Apostle John—is read in Church. But that day in 1990 no miracle took place, and no one ‘came away seeing’.

Romanians elected, by an overwhelming majority of almost 70%, the National Salvation Front. The movement had been created during the December revolution as an interim government, but had vouched at the time to not become involved in the political process. Shortly thereafter, however, it gained the legal status of political party, and nominated a candidate in the forthcoming elections. Most importantly, the bulk of its members were former communist officials. Ion Iliescu, who had joined the Communist Party as a young man in 1953 and had served for decades on its central committee, became the first elected president of post-communist Romania. He would go on to serve two more 4-year mandates, from 1992 and 2000.

Ceausescu had only been the frontman of a group of skilled politicians. With the frontman gone, the group prospered nevertheless, and the impact these elections had on the process of liberalization, privatization, and decentralization in Romania hardly needs elaboration. What is more interesting to ask is how a people oppressed by a regime for many decades would go on choosing, as soon as freed, the very same individuals that had oppressed them? Many have rightly pointed out that Iliescu had quelled any opposition to his candidacy in the media, as well as in the streets. But why did Romanians, after almost 50 years of communism, still needed convincing to yield to an opposing view?

Freedom, political and economic freedom, is something we must learn to have. Revolt against oppression is a wonderful starting point, but it must be motivated by a wider, more sweeping desire for change than the concentrated hatred of one political figure or another.  Regardless of whom holds political office, as Étienne de La Boétie argued, people acquire, in time, civil obedience:

[They] grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been this way.

Revolutions and protests, violent or peaceful, only momentarily overcome the habit of civil obedience La Boétie talks about.

Many parallels can be drawn from the unfortunate Sunday of the Blind Man—the name under which the 1990 Romanian elections are remembered in history—and the ongoing political process in all countries around the world. Romanians voted for a little less fear and a little less poverty than before, but failed to see a world without the fear and poverty they were steeped in. Similarly, people go to vote for what they think are better worlds, only marginally different from what they already known. And while civil disobedience happens, it is rarely successful, rarely directed toward freedom, without people behind it that know how to be free.

Paraphrasing La Boétie, people must first grow accustomed to the idea that they must not be in subjection, that their children can live in another way, not obliged to suffer past evils, and that they should not invest proprietary rights to a ruling elite for change to happen. A comprehensive and coherent set of new beliefs must replace the old one before any lasting change is indeed effected, and this is a learning process many years in the making. 

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