Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Conference in Sibiu

East-West Cultural Passage Symposium
Sponsored by Lucian Blaga University
Faculty of Letters & Arts
The Fulbright Commission of Romania
Held in Sibiu, 15 May 2009

Panel Topic: Is American Democracy an appropriate model for Romania?

Remarks By Panelist Prof. Duncan McDougall, Fulbright Scholar, Plymouth State University, New Hampshire, U.S.A., presently teaching at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania


Early in the fall term I told my students at UBB-Cluj that I saw Romania and the United States as being much alike as countries with a lot of natural resources and beautiful geography, and both containing many cultural heritages and ethnic groups. I said then that the differences I perceived might stem from the fact that America had a 200-year head start in developing democratic institutions.

Today, I see that opinion as both naive and ethnocentric.

On "Nationality"

Today would have been my late father's 93rd birthday. His name was Dugald Stewart McDougall, and he was an American of Scottish descent. My three brothers and I are proud of our Scot's heritage, but if asked our nationality, we would all answer unhesitatingly, “American.” The use of “nationality” as meaning “country of family origin” has fallen into disuse in America.

In Cluj-Napoca on Catholic Easter, I was surprised to hear the Hungarian national anthem played in church, and equally surprised by the answer I first heard from the Hungarian-Romanian colleague with whom I attended Easter services at Biserica Kalvaria, the old Roman Catholic Church in the Manastur section of Cluj. I asked her if she considered herself first a Hungarian, or a Romanian. “Hungarian,” she said at once. After a pause, she added, “… though my citizenship is Romanian.”

Since that day I have asked a number of Hungarian-culture colleagues and students, “How do you describe yourself, as Romanian or as Hungarian?” In each case I have been told, “Hungarian.” After a pause, in each case those folks have rethought their answers, and said words to the effect of, “But I am a citizen of Romania.”

I cannot remember the last time I heard an American citizen refer to the land of his ethnic roots as his “nationality.” In that perception, I have come to accept the notion that there is, indeed, an American Culture. In that distinction, I have come to understand a difference between America's diversity and Romania's diversity.

Differing Diversities

In Romania, the people live within borders imposed, in the main, by the victors of World War I. Those who were not of Romanian culture at that time were suddenly cut off politically from their ethnic fellows, and forced to live the lives of members of a minority. An emotional memory, now 90 years old, persists, leaving many of Romania's citizens still feeling like foreigners in their home country.

In contrast, American ethnic diversity stems, in the main, from three historical facts: voluntary immigration, slavery, and the conquering (some would say "incomplete genocide") of the American Indians. The voluntary immigrants from Europe conquered the Native American tribes, became the continent’s majority, and have formed an American Culture of great ethnic diversity: the famous “melting pot” that is America.

But thinking about the American Indians has led me to a new view of American diversity with respect to European diversity.

Julius Caesar rose to power by conquering Europe's “barbarians,” as he called them. In The Gallic Wars Caesar describes many European tribes, separated more by language and culture than by geographic boundaries, for the latter were always shifting as the tribes made war on each other. In America the Abenaki of Maine, the Iroquois of New York, the Cherokee, the Sioux, the Blackfoot, the Piute, the Apache, the Navajo, and many more tribes, were much the same. And today, their survivors are all Americans, and see themselves as such, though a few thousands have retained their native tongues, naturalistic religions, and tribal ways by living within reservations, with borders drawn by others. These ethnic enclaves are known as Indian Nations, and many are legally such, sovereign nations within the United States: “The Sioux Nation,” the “Navajo Nation,” etc.

Thanks to the Roman conquest, the Middle Ages, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and all that has followed, the European tribes, or nations, are two thousand years past their tribal lifestyles, yet tribalism persists in residual ethnocentrism and bitterness. What is the solution? I hope not more “ethnic cleansings,” more Kosovos.

So, where does this line of thought leave me on the central question, “Is American democracy an appropriate model for Romanian democracy?” I must say, “Of course not.”

Each democratic society will be shaped by its history and the will and cultures of its members. Else, it would not be a democracy “of the people,” and “by the people.” Should some aspects of American (and other countries’) democratic institutions be borrowed by Romania? Probably. Why reinvent the wheel? But Romanians must make those decisions, and clearly, their governance issues are very different from America's.

Role of the EU

There is another side of the Romanian situation that bears mention here.
During my Fulbright Year in Romania, I have come to understand a bit about the most positive and promising geopolitical development of my lifetime, the European Union.

The “tribes” of Europe have finally come to see themselves not as ancient rivals, but as members of a single great civilization, stemming from Ancient Greece and Rome, yet colored by hundreds of regional languages and national cultures. Here the example of American Democracy becomes more relevant. The American does not feel in a strange land when he crosses from Missouri into Kansas, nor are his goods taxed at the state lines. Americans enjoy prosperity or suffer hard economic conditions as One Nation, Under God. Since a decade or two after our Civil War ended in 1865, virtually all Americans have so identified themselves, and gradually we have come to value our ethnic and racial diversity, even as time and television have worked to homogenize us.

The latest expression of the Oneness of a diverse America came in the election of Barack Obama as our President in 2008.

In closing, a short cultural story.

Each year in New Hampshire there is an event called “The Highland Games,” when New England's Scottish-Americans gather to sing “Scotland the Brave,” and to watch huge men tossing the caber. It is but one of thousands of events across America each year that celebrate Americans' ethnic heritages.

At the 2007 memorial service for his grandfather Dugald Stewart McDougall, my son Jesse Stewart McDougall, here present, told us of a big man in Scottish warrior dress that he saw once on stage at the Highland Games. This "Highland warrior" told the audience, “We Scots ha'e but two emotions: weepin', and angerrrrr. I lost a friend two months ago, and it set me to weepin'. For o'errrr a month I was weepin', until finally some fella' came along, and pissed me off.”

Thank you for inviting me to this conference, thank you for the Fulbright experience, and may God bless us all.


Dr Zach said...


Thank you very much. I enjoy reading your reflections on Romania, as well as American-Romanian comparisons.

I look forward to talking with you next month in San Antonio.


Hanna Ugron said...

Dear Professor,

I have read and found your latest blog entry very interesting and in no way offensive to any of Europe 's majoritarian or minoritarian community. The comparison you've made between the Indian Nations (or tribes) and the European nations, is a very intriguing point of view, which made me look at things from a fresh, new perspective...
Fortunately in Romania nationalist movements and xenophobic discourses have lost most of their electoral appeal, because (as you already mentioned) as a former communist country, it gets closer and closer to the “gravitational attraction” of the European Union, and to the point, where nationalistic and ethnic discourses are “out of fashion”.

I hope we will be able to organize that discussion, about the Hungarian minority in Romania, and I would be very happy, if you could come.
Thank you, for the interesting, new ideas... :)
Yours sincerely,
Ugron Hanna

Duncan McDougall said...

Dear Hanna,

Thank you for your comment, and especially for your frank and open expression of your feelings in our class, for those taught me a new perspective on Romania.

Prof. McD.