Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Dispatch from Bucharest: Are we Having Another Revolution?

 

shutterstock_171837251Greeting from troubled Europe, Ricochet and America! Romania is in political turmoil. I write from calm, prosperous, populous Bucharest, probably the safest, least troubled capital in Europe. The protests and political turmoil here have nothing to do with immigration. Horror came over the weekend — I thank again my fellow Ricochetti who inquired as to my safety! — when a nightclub burned down; there are nearly three dozen dead, another seven dozen wounded. These poor souls have somehow been connected to a political anger that is rarely voiced and never articulated here.

It is no explanation, but the facts are as follows: Prime Minister Victor Ponta will resign. The leader of the party running the legislature — and, therefore, the government — made the announcement; Ponta himself has not yet spoken. In name, this is a socialist party or social-democrat party. In deed, it is the party of the oligarchy. The PM runs the country, but it is not clear on what leash he runs.

The man who runs Ponta’s socialist party is Mr. Liviu Dragnea, of whose criminal deeds no one is in doubt. He is a new, corrupt man of ambition representing one of the more important fiefdoms. He has risen through the party without any connection to popular politics. He resigned from government earlier this year — in happier times — because of an unfortunate indictment. This is not necessarily held against him by the oligarchy (I hope to explain the basics of Romanian politics in a sequel post). For now, let me give you a view of democratic politics here.

PM Ponta went to Mexico last week to preach the gospel of government transparency. He is a young man with a weasel’s charms and the vague suggestion that wealthy men with dark designs have his back. He married into the heirs-of-the-communists part of his heir-to-the communists party, as had his mentor — a former prime minster — now in jail, or maybe recently released, who did it when communism was still alive and well.

Ponta has been successful in legislative and local elections lo these five years, leading his party to victory and the country to despair. He has thrived while the various people who claimed to stand for the democracy self-destructed, usually taking their parties with them. Lacking the sporting quality much treasured in storytelling, the law is looking to send him to jail for the crime of committing all sorts of crimes; he has not, however, been indicted, so it’s not clear what will become public knowledge. This can be said of many Romanian politicians of any importance. It cannot be said of all, as many others are — or have been — indicted. Justice is a growth industry in Romania.

Ponta was defeated, however, in last year’s presidential elections, the forbidden fruit of Romanian politics. The president has little authority and wields little more influence, but socialists treasure the position because of its prestige, as if it could transform Romania into a more open oligarchy. It cannot. They have failed, however, to win the presidency in the last three elections and — despite holding the legislature — doomed themselves politically for trying. This is not Macbeth country.

Through the nightclub disaster, the popular anger now grasps at various systemic failures starting from safety codes and running all the way to adequate facilities and personnel for medical care. All these things are intricately tied up with the state and its administration. The mayor of the district of the capital where the nightclub burned has also resigned. He is named — or has named himself for — an old start of Italian campy Westerns, Piedone. Romanian politics sometimes looks like American wrestling, with more than a touch of Mexican wrestling.

There is a hatred of corruption in Romania, but not much love of justice. There is not much sense among the people that they deserve better; there is no sense that they know who might do better by them. Why should a PM be held responsible for such a rare, unpredictable horror? This is not Prime Minister’s questions! There are many young people vaguely democratic believers who hate the man, that is why. This country, they fear — or they know — is run by an oligarchy that is not even using the institutions of the modern state to defend itself: it is using them to enrich itself while the people literally die.

The president, a Klaus Iohannis, who is not a politician, has declared — on Facebook? — that he supports the protesters. A more lackluster, unpopular, unlovable president is hard to imagine. He is the Peter Sellers of Romanian politics. He is of German descent and demeanor, let us say, and the object of a popular hysteria in last year’s presidential election. Everything that should have taught the people that the country cannot trust him taught them to trust him: he is not a politician; he is not a party creature or creator; he is not connected with any of the big organizations or policy changes of the EU, etc. The presidency does this: people persuade themselves that democracy might come through the office designed to excite hope but find disappointment, for it lacks any policy-making or even policy-breaking powers. Indeed, the Romanian president does not even have a real veto.

There is a hatred of politics in the country now. People — young people especially — are talking about getting rid of them all. From the gap-toothed old woman who has seen hell to freshly-minted, pale-faced poli-sci grads turned activists and community organizers, the refrain is the same: they’re all corrupt, they’re all thieves. Almost no one is speaking about organizing parties or political societies of any kind. There is confusion and euphoria in the small minority that might be described as middle-class or aspiring to that description. Anger has made its victims. Political wisdom is something else entirely, I fear.

Last night, reports spread of 15,000 people protesting in the capital, in front of the Parliament, as well as other places. More protests will follow. Romanians do not generally protest, but they are doing astounding things these days. The previous PM was also toppled by a protest in the capital, if a much smaller, sillier affair, than this one and lacking its moral claims, but with the same anger. Will a haunted protest make a real difference? I doubt it. The government is what it was; the legislative majority is what it was. Some of the less enthusiastic types are saying, let’s not have elections now, because the only parties with any organizations are the enemy. That is probably true.

I hope to have more to say on the relationship between the the oligarchy-democracy fight, party system, the institutions of the modern state in Romania. For now, let me end with this note: there will be some surprised faces at the next meeting of the various EU councils, and yet another man will get to shake hands with an American president.

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  1. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    TT, I now understand why so many of our conversations are at cross purposes. The culture gap between Romanian and American is substantial, and very hard for Americans to understand.

    When I lived in Europe, there were many jokes about other nationalities. Such as:

    Q. What is the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian?

    A. The Hungarian will sell you his grandmother.

    The Romanian will deliver.

    • #1
    • November 4, 2015, at 6:44 AM PST
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  2. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” – George R. R. Martin

    How much of this Romanian political chair-shuffling actually impacts real life in Romania, and how much is little more than a game of thrones?

    If those corrupt yahoos grubbing for position and stabbing each other in the back leave the people alone, then I generally shrug my shoulders and say, “whatever”.

    The key question, for me anyways, is almost always the magnitude of the actual crimes of those involved, and how much does it affect the ordinary person in the street who works hard, plays by the rules, and pays their taxes?

    A nightclub burns down and its the national government’s fault? How, exactly? Did the Prime Minister take a bribe from the nightclub owner to get a pass on a fire inspection?

    Titus Techera: There is a hatred of politics in the country now.

    That’s the most sensible thing I’ve read in ages. Too bad it only applies to Romania.

    • #2
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:00 AM PST
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  3. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    iWe: When I lived in Europe, there were many jokes about other nationalities. Such as: Q. What is the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian? A. The Hungarian will sell you his grandmother. The Romanian will deliver.

    What’s the difference between a Romanian and a North American?

    The Romanian gets that all their politicians are corrupt.

    • #3
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:03 AM PST
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  4. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Misthiocracy:

    iWe: When I lived in Europe, there were many jokes about other nationalities. Such as: Q. What is the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian? A. The Hungarian will sell you his grandmother. The Romanian will deliver.

    What’s the difference between a Romanian and a North American?

    The Romanian gets that all their politicians are corrupt.

    Romanians assume that politicians necessarily are corrupt.

    • #4
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:08 AM PST
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  5. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    I was hoping you’d write about this, Titus. I had the feeling my mainstream media wasn’t doing me right, and didn’t know where to turn.

    • #5
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:09 AM PST
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  6. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    iWe:

    Misthiocracy:

    iWe: When I lived in Europe, there were many jokes about other nationalities. Such as: Q. What is the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian? A. The Hungarian will sell you his grandmother. The Romanian will deliver.

    What’s the difference between a Romanian and a North American?

    The Romanian gets that all their politicians are corrupt.

    Romanians assume that politicians necessarily are corrupt.

    They’re not wrong.

    • #6
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:28 AM PST
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  7. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Misthiocracy:

    iWe: Romanians assume that politicians necessarily are corrupt.

    They’re not wrong.

    Well, we Americans are hopelessly naive, and like to think of honest and humble politicians who are not robbing from Peter to pay Paul, while pocketing a transfer fee.

    Which is why we have a Coolidge membership level.

    • #7
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:35 AM PST
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  8. The Reticulator Member

    I don’t want to look at everything through the lens of Russia, but still I’m curious, is there anybody among these people who Putin badmouths?

    • #8
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:36 AM PST
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  9. Arahant Member

    May ye be guided.

    • #9
    • November 4, 2015, at 7:58 AM PST
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  10. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    The Reticulator:I don’t want to look at everything through the lens of Russia, but still I’m curious, is there anybody among these people who Putin badmouths?

    Mr. Putin is too busy with other things.

    Romania, however, has as much conspiracy talk as the rest of Eastern Europe. There is never much quiet; there are always rumors about the Russians supporting or paying for some of the political moves…

    • #10
    • November 4, 2015, at 8:37 AM PST
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  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Misthiocracy:

    “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” – George R. R. Martin

    How much of this Romanian political chair-shuffling actually impacts real life in Romania, and how much is little more than a game of thrones?

    It’s not easy to judge the impact of politicians on daily life. Of course, certain changes are felt–changes in policy sometimes occur; better or worse stewardship of public monies & the central bank… I am not sure people much care about that. There is genuine, if misguided interest at a more personal level. Bought & paid for politics: What did these guys–this coalition or government–do for more or against me?

    But there are other concerns. Romanians lack the interest in justice one sometimes sees among Americans. But in the last few years, it would seem, all the justice deferred since the coup in ’89 has been crammed.

    Romania does not have the political chaos of Italy or Greece, but it is in bad shape politically. It’s come through the economic crisis rather well–stewardship of the central bank & a behind-the-times mortgage & banking system helped… But when it comes to parties & the political opinions of the people, there is more chaos, less politics. It looks like politics might start happening, now & then, but it never does.

    • #11
    • November 4, 2015, at 8:43 AM PST
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  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    So the emergence of politics looks like this, three times in 25 years / seven elections there were extraordinary hopes invested in presidential campaigns for men who either turned out to be incompetent or saddled with annoying, not to say treasonous legislatures. Coups are not rare in Romania, they are just part of the game. Nobody starts killing people… Maybe two per decade is par for the course?

    There are more people voting for president than for the legislature whence the PM comes, who has more authority! The electorates are remarkably different, in part because the runoff electoral system achieves, without any thinking involved in constitutional design, a step-back-from-insanity degree of prudence. Three times an alternative to more socialism was authorized by a majority of the electorate in the second round of ballots. It’s the people’s sheer good luck that no party or coalition can muster a majority-support candidate for the first round of balloting.

    Presidential elections are straight up oligarchy-democracy fights in which the partisans of democracy do not stand to win much, but fear terrible losses. A hope wrought of despair therefore discloses to Romanians their fundamental inadequacy to politics; they dare not see nor act on it.

    My American friends might learn about that kind of fear in 2016 or 2020, for all the differences between the two democracies. I know some of you think you know it now: Some Romanians think they get Venezuela or Argentina: Not quite yet, no-

    • #12
    • November 4, 2015, at 8:55 AM PST
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  13. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: My American friends might learn about that kind of fear in 2016 or 2020, for all the differences between the two democracies. I know some of you think you know it now: Some Romanians think they get Venezuela or Argentina: Not quite yet, no-

    Human nature is human nature. As similar conditions arise, in the aggregate, humans act the same.

    • #13
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:04 AM PST
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  14. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Arahant:

    Titus Techera: My American friends might learn about that kind of fear in 2016 or 2020, for all the differences between the two democracies. I know some of you think you know it now: Some Romanians think they get Venezuela or Argentina: Not quite yet, no-

    Human nature is human nature. As similar conditions arise, in the aggregate, humans act the same.

    This, I deny. Conditions are too dependent on politics to really be similar. Only imposing more or less the same regime can make places similar.

    • #14
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:08 AM PST
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  15. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera: …seven elections there were extraordinary hopes invested in presidential campaigns…

    Nobody should ever invest ordinary hopes in any election, politician, or government, let alone extraordinary hopes.

    • #15
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:11 AM PST
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  16. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: This, I deny. Conditions are too dependent on politics to really be similar. Only imposing more or less the same regime can make places similar.

    Exactly. And there are many, many examples of such throughout human history.

    • #16
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:14 AM PST
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  17. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    iWe:TT, I now understand why so many of our conversations are at cross purposes. The culture gap between Romanian and American is substantial, and very hard for Americans to understand.

    When I lived in Europe, there were many jokes about other nationalities. Such as:

    Q. What is the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian?

    A. The Hungarian will sell you his grandmother.

    The Romanian will deliver.

    Here’s another joke. Three Hungarians are trying to cross the river into Romania. The two that can swim tell the third to give them the end of a rope, they’ll cross first. He does so; they do so. On the other side, as he sees them trying to get rid of the rope, he asks, what’s wrong?, they say: Bloody Magyar!

    Or this medieval tale. A Romanian, sitting by the side of a well, warns people the livelong day, don’t drink, it’s poisoned. He’s not only illiterate, but at some point he runs into people who answer his warning: Nem tudom!, to which he makes motion, averring: Go ahead, it’s cold, it’s fresh!

    I only know a few Hungarians, only went to Budapest once. Relations are ok now. People do not care, except for some old people. This is better for the civil peace, but it also suggests nothing matters anymore. The old hatred has not been replaced by amity or mutual care or what have you. Not many of these jokes have endured…

    • #17
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:15 AM PST
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  18. Arahant Member

    Misthiocracy: Nobody should ever invest ordinary hopes in any election, politician, or government, let alone extraordinary hopes.

    You are a font of wisdom. I had to explain this to a friend after he helped get a guy elected, and then the politician sided with the “establishment” they had been fighting against. “What part of ‘politician’ don’t you understand?”

    • #18
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:16 AM PST
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  19. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Misthiocracy:

    Titus Techera: …seven elections there were extraordinary hopes invested in presidential campaigns…

    Nobody should ever invest ordinary hopes in any election, politician, or government, let alone extraordinary hopes.

    Would you have dared to say this to the people in America in 1860?

    If M. Trudeau fils finally brings about the ex-workers’ paradise, will not this late–& last–election have made all of the difference?

    Leaving aside what is worse than tragedy & what is less than a farce, in Romania democratic elections by a rude, rustic, vulgarian electorate made the difference between incompetent, corrupt, contemptible government & what came before: Para-military organizations beating students in the streets. That is worth ordinary & extra-ordinary hopes. That was 1996. Since then, these elections keep at bay a rather unpleasant oligarchy. That is worth hope.

    • #19
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:30 AM PST
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  20. Arahant Member

    Hope? Wasn’t that the thing that scared all of the other ills out of the box when Pandora opened it? Isn’t that why they all exited so quickly? Because they had been tormented by hope?

    • #20
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:33 AM PST
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  21. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera:

    Misthiocracy:

    Titus Techera: …seven elections there were extraordinary hopes invested in presidential campaigns…

    Nobody should ever invest ordinary hopes in any election, politician, or government, let alone extraordinary hopes.

    Would you have dared to say this to the people in America in 1860?

    Yup. Just look what politics gave them a year later.

    If M. Trudeau fils finally brings about the ex-workers’ paradise, will not this late–& last–election have made all of the difference?

    I never argued that elections don’t matter. I argued that all politicians suck and nobody should ever pin extraordinary hopes on an election … largely because elections matter way too much.

    Leaving aside what is worse than tragedy & what is less than a farce, in Romania democratic elections by a rude, rustic, vulgarian electorate made the difference between incompetent, corrupt, contemptible government & what came before: Para-military organizations beating students in the streets. That is worth ordinary & extra-ordinary hopes. That was 1996. Since then, these elections keep at bay a rather unpleasant oligarchy. That is worth hope.

    Hope for the best possible evil doesn’t strike me as extraordinary. It strikes me as realism. If that’s as high as Romanian “hope” ever gets I bet I’d get along well with most Romanians.

    • #21
    • November 4, 2015, at 9:35 AM PST
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  22. Valiuth Member
    Valiuth Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I had heard of the fire, from my parents who regularly talk to their friends and relatives back in Bucharest. I had not heard that it has sparked such consequences. To be honest when I heard about it, I thought it tragic but not really out of the ordinary. A fire like that occurred in a Chicago night club a few years back many people were hurt and a few even died. I guess though it isn’t about the fire itself, though.

    In your opinion Titus is there any political party/ movement in Romania that is even remotely trust worthy and competent even if they lack actually power? To me it seems that if anything is to be done you can not expect it to form ex nihilo. You need some seed of competence to germinate however slowly. Does Romania have that? Without it all these protest will do is reshuffle the same crooked/incompetent deck of cards.

    • #22
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:06 AM PST
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  23. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The fire seems to have occurred because some knucklehead thought setting off fireworks in a basement with only one exit was a reasonable thing to do. I’m having a hard time drawing a line from there to “corruption.” Is there one, or are the protesters protesting due to a larger issue?

    • #23
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:25 AM PST
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  24. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Yeah, so with hope. But you should consider the danger actual people are actually facing. Taking hope away from them, in a country just out of hell, is more serious than people living in comfortable worlds not of their making!

    • #24
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:27 AM PST
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  25. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Misthiocracy:

    Titus Techera:

    Misthiocracy:

    Titus Techera: …seven elections there were extraordinary hopes invested in presidential campaigns…

    Nobody should ever invest ordinary hopes in any election, politician, or government, let alone extraordinary hopes.

    Would you have dared to say this to the people in America in 1860?

    Yup. Just look what politics gave them a year later.

    If M. Trudeau fils finally brings about the ex-workers’ paradise, will not this late–& last–election have made all of the difference?

    I never argued that elections don’t matter. I argued that all politicians suck and nobody should ever pin extraordinary hopes on an election … largely because elections matter way too much.

    Leaving aside what is worse than tragedy & what is less than a farce, in Romania democratic elections by a rude, rustic, vulgarian electorate made the difference between incompetent, corrupt, contemptible government & what came before: Para-military organizations beating students in the streets. That is worth ordinary & extra-ordinary hopes. That was 1996. Since then, these elections keep at bay a rather unpleasant oligarchy. That is worth hope.

    Hope for the best possible evil doesn’t strike me as extraordinary. It strikes me as realism. If that’s as high as Romanian “hope” ever gets I bet I’d get along well with most Romanians.

    I’ve never met people who would say, I like most of my friends to have starved in their childhood. I do not like that about my older brothers who did sometimes suffer. Realism, you say?

    • #25
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:29 AM PST
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  26. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera:Yeah, so with hope. But you should consider the danger actual people are actually facing. Taking hope away from them, in a country just out of hell, is more serious than people living in comfortable worlds not of their making!

    It’s not about taking away people’s hope in general. It’s about disavowing them of having hope in politicians. I’m all in favour of maintaining hope of some day being left alone by politicians.

    • #26
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:31 AM PST
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  27. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Percival:The fire seems to have occurred because some knucklehead thought setting off fireworks in a basement with only one exit was a reasonable thing to do.I’m having a hard time drawing a line from there to “corruption.” Is there one, or are the protesters protesting due to a larger issue?

    When I was a boy of 18, some rock-punk bands with folkloric touches trying to reenact American fantasies from the 60s through the naughts did shows. Kids felt like someone was taking their fear & anger seriously. It was always bad dives, basements, people choked without the fire, & it was the only place one met anti-communist journalists. It was very much a lower class milieu, if you like the sociology talk. It’s that kind of country–these were the bourgeois haunts, after all: Where else can you find lefties who like protest rock?

    We all could have died at any time; we were all too stupid to think about it. It almost never happens.

    Even these people did this fireworks insane trick with some regularity. Horror happened eventually…

    Now, as for politics: None of these places should ever have been approved by the authorities. All the regulations were skirted by corrupt administrations city-wide.

    To get to the PM, it’s a big leap. Partly, it was to do with the awful problems with medical care for the wounded & that is a government issue. The rest is just popular anger among a very small group-

    • #27
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:35 AM PST
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  28. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Misthiocracy:

    Titus Techera:Yeah, so with hope. But you should consider the danger actual people are actually facing. Taking hope away from them, in a country just out of hell, is more serious than people living in comfortable worlds not of their making!

    It’s not about taking away people’s hope in general. It’s about disavowing them of having hope in politicians. I’m all in favour of maintaining hope of some day being left alone by politicians.

    That’s what I mean. If you live somewhere where the civil peace is so old you do not even understand it is the making of politicians, maybe your view makes sense. Are you sure you cannot understand how most of the world is just not like that & never has been?

    • #28
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:37 AM PST
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  29. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera: To get to the PM, it’s a big leap. Partly, it was to do with the awful problems with medical care for the wounded & that is a government issue. The rest is just popular anger among a very small group-

    Never underestimate the power of popular anger among a very small group.

    boston-tea-party-luis-arcas-brauner

    • #29
    • November 4, 2015, at 10:58 AM PST
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  30. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera: Even these people did this fireworks insane trick with some regularity. Horror happened eventually… Now, as for politics: None of these places should ever have been approved by the authorities. All the regulations were skirted by corrupt administrations city-wide.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Land_fire

    Duran Duran even made a song of it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSDyNpNvFL0

    This sort of thing is not unusual anywhere. Corrupt officials exist even in the best of regimes.

    • #30
    • November 4, 2015, at 11:04 AM PST
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