We met with influential political scientist, Dr. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi to talk about the suppression of knowledge under communism, and so much more. Enjoy!
"Good people, people like us, exist everywhere, but only very few of them manage to grasp the opportunities and achieve something."” – Dr. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi
Leading political scientist Dr. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi discusses the impact of living in revolutionary times under the totalitarian communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, the suppression of knowledge under communism, and the slow growth of democracy in the vacuum left behind.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi. I’m Dr. Jed Macosko and today, we have another wonderful guest here at AcademicInfluence.com. Her name is Professor Mungiu-Pippidi, and she’s coming all the way from Romania. So thank you, Professor Mungiu-Pippidi, for coming to us and giving us an interview and telling us a little bit about how you found your particular career. So how did that happen?
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: Well, I would say that my career, to the extent you can call it such, is a product of revolutionary times and the exceptional moments. My parents had decided that I had to be a scientist. So I was sent, despite my protests, to be only honest, and followed medical school in full. So I was preparing to become a psychiatrist. Now, I knew this was not in my interest at all because I was entirely interested in politics, journalism and current affairs. However, there were impediments into following all that, because this was happening in the ’80s in Romania, under Ceaușescu’s rule, at the deepest totalitarian regime ever, where disciplines such as sociology, political science, even psychology had been completely forbidden and closed, because it was considered even dangerous to think about disciplines like this. And there was one journalism and politics schools which belonged to the Romanian Communist Party. So, in fact, they were indoctrination schools, they were not real schools. But anyway, when I was in my first year as a psychiatrist, this was 1989, when I was 25 and revolution came. So overnight, I just took my small East German tape recorder, walked out from the hospital and started a new life as a political scientist at Harvard, became on notorious journalist in just overnight and lots of other adventures.
Jed: Wow. That must be amazing.
So how did you end up going from Harvard to where you are right now? Which different jobs have you had along the way?
Alina: Well, the amazing adventures do not end. Romania has the most belated democratic transitions in East-Central Europe. So in other words, all the other countries, at the collapse of the communist regime, anti-communists managed immediately to come to government, but we were the most belated. It took us six years. So Ceaușescu was gone but something like partial free elections were organized. They were free but not fair. So we took us, the anti-communist parties, six years to come to government. And that sixth year, I had just returned from Harvard and what I wanted to do is to take the communist monopolistic television, we only had one television, which in my youth used to have just two hours of broadcast. Imagine that there were times without internet, with only one TV channel, and in those two hours, they were like half the time more patriotic socialist songs. And the other half were just Ceaușescu and his wife and their big achievements. Okay?
And television had played a very negative role in our six years of democratic transition. In other words, when we were ready to win the elections, they armed militias and they called militias to occupy our university and beat us. And it was, for us, an obsession, a central thing. So what did I do when returning from Harvard? I didn’t ask for the University of Bucharest and for a chair like I have now. What I said I wanted when we won the elections, I said, “I want the Romanian monopolistic television and I will turn this from a totalitarian television into a democratic television.” So that was my public office and quite, quite a big challenge. But I can say that in the end of day, over a long span of time, it happened.
Jed: Perfect. Wow, that is amazing. So what advice can you give to people, who might be watching this interview from within a totalitarian state, about what it takes to be a revolutionary like you, who’s made a huge difference. So tell us what you can give to young people, a little of advice.
Alina: Well, today, I study good governance a lot. So I look at how societies move from this environment, where people with power have all the privilege to an environment which is more democratic and more inclusive. And what I find often is that good people, people like us, exist everywhere. But only very few of them manage to grasp the opportunities and achieve something. And the reason is that if you are in a really very bad circumstances, in a totalitarian or utilitarian regime or simply in a country which is 100% corrupt, you become discouraged. You think it’s never going to happen, that you’re never going to have the opportunity. So my advice is that windows of opportunities exist for absolutely every country. They generally come from outside the country, from a certain destabilization context. But what seems not to exist enough are good alternative elites prepared for that opportunity.
"Your window of opportunity will arrive one day and then you'll just take it and ride on it."” – Dr. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi
So prepare very well, because it’s not obvious how you move from when you are. Freedom comes, but after freedom comes, you will discover that it’s actually very complicated to build a good society. So the more you prepare... It’s nothing like opposition to prepare. Anyway, you don’t have anything else to do. Others govern and govern badly. What you should do is get really, really trained. Build all these wonderful plans, talk to people, know what people want, and be ready. Your window of opportunity will arrive one day and then you’ll just take it and ride on it.
Jed: That is such good advice. Thank you so much.
And as we close out our interview, are there political scientists at different universities around the world that you really respect? People that you’ve looked to in the past or that, right now, seem to be doing a lot of wonderful things.
Alina: Well, I respect quite a very big number of people. But people who encouraged me in my career were people like Larry Diamond , or Stanford, or Frank Fukuyama, were people who gave me the impression that we’re not only studying in order to get the Nobel Prize, but we really study to make a difference and somebody will use. We’re gonna make a difference for the real life of people by what we study. Because if I wanted the Nobel Prize, I think my father always had a positive thinking. He thought I should be a real scientist, not a social scientist.
Jed: Well, is it okay if I tell Frank Fukuyama that you said that he was an inspiration to you?
Alina: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jed: We’ll be talking to him later today. He’s on the West Coast. So later today, we will be talking to him.
Jed: Thank you so much, Professor Mungiu-Pippidi, for the interview today. We were so glad to have you. Thank you for overcoming the difficulties in technology that always exists between the United States and far-away places like Romania. And I’m sure you have the same problem when you try to talk to other places. So we appreciate it.
Alina: Take care. And I appreciate that you guys, as real scientists, are using your time in doing stuff like this. [chuckle]
Jed: Oh, I love it. As a physicist, I couldn’t think of anything more fun than to interview my colleagues in other fields. So I really appreciate it.
Alina: Okay. Take care. Good luck.
Jed: Thanks. Bye-bye.
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