Of Exclusive Schools and Gravel (part 2)

August 23, 2007

Having marked my former North American high schools teachers as ‘more liberal and left-wing’ than the average Bulgarian I cannot help but ask myself whether I would go as far as labelling Bulgarian society as ‘conservative’. How could I do anything like that given the recent advance of my country in Europe’s top party destinations list and my familiarity with crowded night clubs and nude beaches along the coast? After all, these places, I assure you, have no similarity whatsoever to Evangelist churches, religious schools or pro-life and anti-gay marriage rallies – the traditional symbols of American conservatism. Could it be that Bulgaria has a form of endogenous conservatism, specific for the country and perhaps present, in some form or another, in other transitional Eastern European countries as well?

I would argue that present-day Bulgarian society can be characterised as conservative in a specific sense and that it is the rule, rather than the exception, that young Bulgarians who have attended ‘elite’ schools are likely to be more socially and politically liberal, more tolerant of others’ views and more left-wing (whatever this terms means these days) than their compatriots with less privileged educational background


Before throwing in some points that may do favour to my argument, let me share a somewhat amusing story. Up to this day, drug dealing and consumption in the US has been closely associated with inner-city decay and has often been stamped as a problem stemming from minorities, African Americans in particular. Moreover, drug trafficking has been linked to immigration from Mexico and Latin America and overt (the Panama invasion) and covert (Guatemala, Nicaragua) CIA operations have been carried out with the goal, among others, of striking illicit drug trade at its source. This is not the place to examine serious evidence of government and corporate involvement in the crack-cocaine economy of the US, for my purpose it will suffice to label ‘illicit drugs’ as an issue held dearly by conservatives. By conservatives – and by younger and older Bulgarian adults throughout the last decade of the 20th century – during the post-communist transition. I recall vividly how one of the riveting points in any of the discussions held between my parents and their friends (a rather hip bunch, hardly suspect of social conservatism), and my grandparents and their friends, has continuously, from the mid- until the late nineties, been the ‘drug profile’ of the schools their children were attending or planning to enrol in.

To cut a long story short (despite the name of this blog) – the ‘drug profile’ of the American College of Sofia was never good in any of the discussions. Of course, my parents who were familiar with the situation and the strict rules on campus did not lend their ears to any of the speculations about widespread drug addiction in the student body and open drug dealing and consumption alongside the fountain and tree-lined lanes of the college. However, people whose children did not attend the school generally believed the stories. It made them feel better to know that their kids were ‘safe’ at the local school, where at least they felt they had some control unlike the parents of college goers who fixed their offspring breakfast before their early morning journey to an enclosed campus area in suburban Sofia.

I believe that this little anecdote, ridiculous as it seems, can illustrate some of my observations about certain patterns of thinking present across different layers of Bulgarian society. Nearly five decades of totalitarian rule could not have passed without an impact. A system of total surveillance and control has the effect of homogenising the population. Even in Nazi camps those that stood out from the crowd were usually the first ones selected for extermination. Totalitarian rule calls for nicely groomed, well ordered marching columns – anyone who would make a stray step is immediately suspect of ideological diversion and defection.

It is a little bit scary to note the remarkable similarity between the modicum of decency that had to be maintained during totalitarian rule and the similar conditions now under democratic rule and free-market economy. I recall when, in the final years of actually existing socialism, I, emotionally stirred by the daily (or nightly, rather) discussions in family circles, would start question certain practices in public. In my wonderful child innocence I would make remarks like ‘So what is it that we are actually celebrating on Liberation Day?’ or ‘Is this a parade or a funeral procession – there are so many wreaths and people look sad and serious?’ Then relatives would look at me with disappointment and murmur something like ‘I thought he would turn up an intelligent kid.’

The situation is not very different now that we have a choice between different brands, colours and textures of toilet paper (there are even comic strip patterns for kids) in stores and between different names, colours and rhetoric of politicians (there are even proto-fascist nationalists for grown-up kids who still like playing with guns) at the polls.

Some would still question my sanity if I cast doubt on the practice of building resorts where century-old trees once stood or on the custom of not paying social security for temporary workers. Well, profits are good – judging by the number of expensive cars on the streets of Sofia and the daily traffic to exotic destinations at the airport. Then, it comes naturally that at this period of initial accumulation and consolidation of wealth people are jealously guarding their possessions (be they great or small) and are extremely sceptical of any ideas aiming at greater social justice, redistribution, environmental protection and such. Some of the most vociferous defenders of private property are the owners of land close to sea or mountain resorts – land which often falls within the territory of national parks and normally is not a perfect place for a giant hotel with an adjacent golf course and a selection of bars and restaurants. The new landowners, sometimes having acquired their property along the tortuous road of legal moves, with the help of complicit officials along the way, are militant and resolute to protect what’s theirs from the inroads of environmentalists, EU officials and other possible predators. Yes – they are conservative. In the US, they’ve got pitchforks. Here, they have certificates from the mayor and shrewd lawyers. They all believe in private property when it is theirs. They are all unwilling to listen to any arguments someone might have against.

I am not in the position to blame the post-communist Bulgarians for uncritically accepting the vices and virtues of capitalism – after all, for many, it might not be selling out but rather a buying in. More to the point – I just believe that the totalitarian education system was immediately suited for switching from communist to capitalist mode. Think about it – you were a maverick before if you did not wear your ‘young socialist’ scarf (blue in elementary, red in high school) and if your parents had a ‘bourgeois’ background. Now, you would be out of the group if you do not wear Nike (or some other brand) clothes and your parents are not earning enough cash.

The system is now different and everyone is free to choose for himself/herself. In practice, however, things work a little bit differently. In the neo-conservative post-communist society deviance is cool. As long as it is within limits. You can take drugs but only party drugs – another benchmark of affluence. You can have sex but only heterosexual and with the right partner – if you want to be ‘in’, you ought to find a good-looking, well-dressed girl (guys) or a money-making clean-cut boy (girls). You can disagree on what brand to wear, which cheese to buy and which club to go to. It is not cool to disagree on things which are taken as common sense. Marshall McLuhan, in his Understanding Media, quoted some US Generals who believed that post-World War II Italian society was doomed to be in trouble until people started arguing over brands and not over politicians and ideologies. Indeed, the normalisation of society under the current free-market system is achieved only by inversion of the minor and major points of contention.

It seems that the conservatism of Bulgarians is not quite like the American brand popular in Red States, especially in the South. People do not aim at righteous lives, they simply strive to live without deviating from the overwhelming social norms. Get together with the likes of you, do what the likes of you do, buy what the likes of you buy. The public school system, in its present post-socialist, post-EU accession, transition state, also reinforces this uniformity. Yes, in the neighbourhood school there are kids of different backgrounds. Yet, they are encouraged – by peers and the majority of teachers alike – to aspire to certain ends which do not differ considerably from majority’s aspirations. I dare say that teachers at the American College of Sofia did encourage individuality and, to repeat, were more progressive (and more critical of capitalism, free markets and US foreign policy) than the majority of their Bulgarian counterparts. Moreover, given that us, more ‘privileged’ kids, were readily exposed to the candy of capitalism, we are now less likely to completely buy into it. I had marshmallows more than ten years ago. I liked them and I still do. I do prefer, though, that they come in a recyclable paper bag rather than wrapped in colourful plastic. Small things like that make the difference.

Exposure to people who are not eyeing everything that comes from the West and shines (be it a marshmallow wrapper or a new BMW) with hardly restrained craving, together with encouragement of dissent and contemplation do leave an impression on children, teenagers and young adults. It is a process of change – when Bulgaria advances beyond the initial stage of wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumption things will be different. For now, however, it should not be surprising that students and graduates of ‘elite’ schools are politically more liberal and left-wing than the national average.

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  1. …American universities abroad do seem to have a drug profile, that is a popular city myth in Blagoevgrad too regarding AUBG students suspected of dealing drugs to the local students … re: East European endogenous conservatism as a personal belief system – there is really some local breed of it and it looks like a topic worth investigating .. great read 😉

  2. Well, drug use at many prep schools and suburban public schools in wealthy areas in the US is quite significant as well. It’s not just an urban kids phenomenon.

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