Monthly Archives: May 2014

Nadia Comăneci, Surprise Heroine

The words “surprise heroine” in my title might puzzle the reader. Everyone who has ever heard of Nadia Comăneci knows about her stunning, history-making triumph at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal at age 14, in which she scored a perfect 10—in fact, seven of them—for the first time ever in gymnastics and won three gold medals (plus a bronze and a silver), returning to her native Romania, a country previously insignificant in the eyes of the world, as a national hero and revered and celebrated worldwide.


She mostly fell out of public view after that, however. When I myself thought of her, I assumed, like doubtless many others, that her subsequent life would be a fairytale of fame, glory, wealth, and comfort.

But reading her 2004 autobiography, Letters to a Young Gymnast: The Art of Mentoring, I was astounded to learn that her post-1976 life was far different from anything I would have guessed. In fact, somewhere past the halfway point of the book, there occurs this passage:

Friend, have you ever seen Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream?Can you comprehend a moment of such total horror, insanity, and dread? I can.


The first time I saw that painting, I knew it. Really knew it. The man is a prisoner, and he will never escape the cell Munch painted him in; he will never be free.

Here Nadia is introducing the story of the defection of her coach Béla Károlyi from Romania, and imagining his state of mind. But it is clear, and soon becomes clearer, that she is speaking also of her own growing feelings. Earlier in the book, she had said:

You wanted to know what life was like after the 1976 Games. … Where are the fairy-tale endings, the mansions, and money? Where is my sweet sixteen birthday party and dinners at Ceausescu’s palace? They are the stuff of fantasies. In truth, after 1976, I began the sometimes troubling and difficult process of growing into a young adult in a Communist country.

Letters actually begins with a description of what is still a recurring dream of hers: Two lovely young girls in nightgowns hover over her with cupped fingers holding some mysterious promise. But as they come closer their mouths open into “cavernous, yawning black holes.” Nadia is terrified, “but the scream catches in my throat.” Sometimes the dream ends in happiness and beauty. But other times she cannot grasp the girls’ hands, and is swallowed in darkness. Then she wakes “drenched with sweat, my heart skipping and racing and grasping. … I see the ghost-like girls fade from my vision and their almond-shaped eyes fill with regret.” The details of these dreams indicate that they signify the terrible choice she faced years after her Olympic victory, and the awful lifetime consequences she had narrowly avoided.

At the time of Nadia’s triumph, even those who knew Romania was a dictatorship might not have realized how bad things were, especially given the 20th-century media’s tendency to treat all big nations as civilized and respectable.

Glory? Sure, there was a bit at the beginning. When Nadia arrived home with her medals, she was greeted by thousands of Romanians, dictator Ceauşescu having ordered a celebration for her arrival. Doubtless much of that jubilation was real on the part of the populace, but “our leaders believed that athletes represented the power of the government and validated our way of life.” Her later treatment by the government illustrated this in spades. “When my gymnastics career was over, there was no longer any need to keep me happy.” Demotion of the Károlyis came more quickly: “[B]y the end of 1977 Ceauşescu had decided to change Nadia’s coaches. ‘I don’t want to share Nadia’s fame with a couple of dirty [Hungarians],’ he said.”

Wealth? “Perhaps you’ve heard rumors, but our country was closed to foreign journalists, and the only information that got out to the world was what my government chose to share. … [M]ore often than not it was self-serving.”

Comfort? Because of Nadia’s status, she was spared some of the horrors such as compulsory appointments with the fertility police, but in most respects she was no different from anyone else. “[T]here simply wasn’t enough food in Romania for its inhabitants. By 1981, things went from bad to horrific.” Aside from the usual privations under communism, their leader was exporting food, giving the people rations that were not enough for one person let alone a family. “People could have stopped having children … but they couldn’t afford to. Plus, failing to reproduce was a crime.” Even Nadia had to pay a large tax because she had no children.

But this was not the worst of it. “You have asked what the exact moment was when I finally decided to defect. I cannot tell you. There were so many factors. … But one day, I realized that where I was in life was where I was going to die. There were no opportunities in my country for advancement unless I wanted to be a savvy political player, and that was not in my nature. … I realized that I could either be like all of those people silently screaming around me or give myself permission to have a voice. … I finally heard myself scream, and I listened.”

Nadia’s account of her gradual awakening and launch of a daring escape is very moving. The terror-filled winter trek in utter darkness over the border, in constant fear of a bullet in the back delivered by some anonymous minion of the system, strongly reminded me of Kira’s attempt to flee communist Russia at the end of Ayn Rand’s We the Living.

In the novel, Kira did get shot, but in her mind “Life had been, if only because she had known it could be. … A moment or an eternity—did it matter? Life, undefeated, existed and could exist. She smiled, her last smile, to so much that had been possible.” That is, for her, the possibility of a future is just as sacred as life itself. And it was the same for Nadia:

So, what gave me the courage to slip out of that house on the border and into the night? Everything I’d done, heard, spoken, experienced, yearned for, suffered through, desired, required, hoped, and dreamed.


I never thought of turning back. … Back to no future? Wasn’t that the same as being dead?

Indeed, those acquainted with philosopher Rand’s ethical system will find much to ponder in this book. Above all, the narrative provides a real-life enactment of that theory’s precept of rational self-interest, of “reason, purpose, self-esteem,” and its earthly power.

In early childhood, Nadia writes,

I was a wild, strange scrap of a girl who was as happy playing alone as I was with friends. I didn’t seem to need anyone. … I remember that period of my life as very happy.

She carried this spirit, in ever-more-mature forms, through each stage of her life:

Some say my eyes do not match my smile and that there is a coldness in them that adults find uncomfortable but to which children are oblivious. … I look back on pictures of myself as a young gymnast and understand that some see blankness. But I see intensity, determination, desire. Always desire.

As long as Nadia’s aspirations happened to match the rulers’ idea of the interests of the national collective, she had felt free. But more and more, there was a conflict, and in time she saw that she’d become a puppet and was ultimately regarded as expendable. Confronting and dealing with this fact called on all her realism, determination, and courage, heroic qualities that went far beyond athleticism.

I don’t give up, ever. I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.

Not only was Nadia’s escape, described in detail in the book, successful, but she eventually found and married the man she describes as “the love of my life,” Bart Conner—also a gymnast, who had in fact, at the urging of a photographer, kissed her anonymously in 1976.

Rand has written, “To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started.” Nadia Comăneci, with no real knowledge of philosophy or of Rand, and merely living as the unique creature she felt born to be, provides an inspiring example of this ideal, writing in her final pages: “I feel as if I’ve lived the joy of a thousand lives.”



Ellen DeGeneres as destroyer: Coin flip politics

From “10 Questions for Ellen DeGeneres” by Jeffrey Ressner:

I’m not a political person, and that may be surprising to hear. I don’t know enough about what’s going on to say anything. It’s probably fair to say that I’d support the Democratic candidate, but that being said, I really don’t know who it will be.

Time, February 23, 2004, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,993428-1,00.html.

Ellen DeGeneres as destroyer? Bear with me.

I once heard one person speaking to another and arguing for a drastic reduction in the scope and powers of the government; the other person responded, “But then who would run the country?”

This, I find, is a common reaction of most people to such a statement—in fact, to any proposal of limiting governmental powers in a major way. Countries, nations are seen as analogous to firms with a boss, and of course a company without a boss would quickly come to ruin.

The function of government is thought to be a managerial one. The problem of who to vote for, then, becomes that of choosing a good manager or executive.

We hear this all the time. Around the water cooler, or in the overheard conversations of commuters, discussions of politicians are punctuated with such observations as “I like him/her” or “I hope he/she will keep his/her promises” or “I hope he/she will get something done.”

And, incredibly, this represents the entire scope of their political concern. There is no discussion of ideas—no discussion of the content of the promises and plans of those genial people to whom they would give all-encompassing power. There is no discussion of the nature of government, or of any possible limits to what it may do. There is no discussion of human rights that might exist prior to society itself, and whether any such protections might stand in the way of the things the state says it wants to “get done.”

There is only debate about what “works,” what is “evidence-based,” according to some hazy notion that the government is there to take care of people from birth to death. It is indirectly conveyed that no man has rights to claim against this noble endeavor; there is no “opting out,” if the government needs something from you in order to pursue it.

It is as though the whole country were an employer, an entity whose goals you might not agree with but must go along with as long as you are employed there—except that having this particular job is the same as living your life.

Most of these people have more sense than this, and at times they do realize they have to back up their political opinions more deeply. So they do a little more listening to the political platforms of and positions taken by those running for office. They observe the existence of the two main political parties, conservatives and liberals, and decide they only have to choose between them, since these two groups seem to disagree on everything, and the mass media seem to imply that this is the basic choice in politics.

Thus, such people see the choice of political allegiance as essentially a “coin flip.” You just have to call it right, and you will be right about every other political question.

These “coin flippers” have only the foggiest notion of economics; so even though political debates seem to give that field of knowledge prominence, they are unable to judge on that basis. And any existing ideas they might have about “the rights of man,” rights existing apart from society and prior to it, are undermined by the sense that democratically elected officials have the perfect right to do anything they have promised the voters in their campaigns—or by the idea that all the basic problems have been solved and it is all just a matter of sound administration.

So they look around for something that will flip them to either the conservatives or the liberals. They decide that if they can find just one thing that either party is definitely wrong or definitely right about, that must be the answer to all the other issues, since they only need one “counterexample” to disprove an entire social outlook.

That conservatives might be right about some things and liberals about other things—all of these things being important—does not enter into the flippers’ minds. To consider this possibility, they would need to delve deeper intellectually and arrive at some wider principles to guide their thoughts. Intelligent though they may be in certain ways, they do not have the intellectual tools for it. Such abstractions are beyond their grasp, and anyway all their lives they have heard that philosophy is irrelevant to practical life.

Nor might they want to give it the time it might require. Many such intellectually inclined individuals are deeply into some pursuit that dominates their mental life: science, chess, gaming, mathematics, theater, music. These persons are apt to believe that, globally, human society is modern, scientific, constantly improving—similarly to the insulated world of their own pet interest and comfort zone. Should they see horrible things in the news, implying otherwise, their momentary shock is always tempered with the firm belief that mankind is, overall, steadily progressing—that now, in this 21st century, ignorance and brutality have had their day and are inexorably on the way out.

So they think that, basically, whatever “the authorities” decide to do to solve society’s “problems,” there is nothing fundamentally to worry about as long as the authorities democratically elected on an open platform. As the flippers see it, there are no grand battles of the mind left to fight—just battles against what they see as ignorance or stupidity within a safe framework of steady human advancement.

In those who are not intellectually inclined, the mental pursuit is replaced by some “hobby horse” they constantly ride—some issue that affects them specifically because they fall into some group: drunk driving victims, cancer sufferers, gay persons. Implicit in this attitude is, again, the thought that the really life-and-death problems are basically being handled well.

It is no surprise, then, that flippers accept in one gulp the worldview embodied by the mainstream media, and this is their substitute for independent thinking in the philosophic/moral realm. They figure that if they live in a modern, progressive world, and this world has a certain way of looking at things, then that must be the correct, scientific viewpoint. They’ll accept that and then just use logic and common sense from that basis.

For those with such a mindset, any idea that implies we need to step back and question some major aspect of the modern world that has been in the background ever since they can remember, or at least that everyone respectable seems to accept, strikes them as wild and crazy—a “conspiracy theory,” requiring that numerous, anonymous people with vast power had to have gotten together, plotted, and executed nefarious plans under everyone’s radar.

So, for example, anyone who questions the “green” movement is beyond the pale intellectually and not deserving of serious attention. Have all those scientists, reporters, and pundits been deliberately lying all these years? Nonsense! Could a certain very popular and charismatic politician actually have a Marxist background, and could he be constantly lying and pretending and putting on acts to hide his agenda, depending on people’s ignorance, with the complicity of the major media outlets? Fantastic!

The thought that there might be fundamental ideas dominating and controlling an entire culture or hemisphere, or that people can have nefarious motives and keep them well hidden behind other stated goals everyone agrees with, is not part of such persons’ worldview. That would mean there was something seriously wrong all around them, and everything looks so serene from where they stand.

So when it comes to elections, if there is any big, crucial choice to be made, it could only be between human progress, as exemplified in the “magnificent world today,” and those who for whatever reason “resist” it. The flippers observe that liberals constantly invoke the language currently in the cultural atmosphere, and that the conservatives constantly go against that language in big and small ways. For example, the liberals are always saying that we must improve the lot of the poor and downtrodden; the conservatives are resisting it and speaking the language of individual responsibility and property rights. Which line is easier to follow, requiring no deeper thought than that which already exists in newspapers and on TV?

Even if much of what the conservatives say about economics seems reasonable, the flipper does not really feel competent to form any opinions on that subject. In other areas in which both parties have plausible-sounding arguments, he simply cannot decide with confidence.

In this arena, conservatives’ religiosity is fatal for them—in the sense that it drives undecided voters out of their camp. Conservatives, basing everything ultimately upon faith and tradition, often take some positions glaringly at variance with reason and with a focus upon actual life here on Earth. Bingo! The flipper, seeing this, decides he does not have to consider economics or any other topic; it is the conservatives who must be the representatives of regress, and the liberals of progress.

And here is where the flippers become agents of vast destruction.

Protection of their own specific intellectual interest or hobby horse, under the influence of an unquestioned social outlook in the background, leads them to support politicians who are on the wrong side of far more fundamental and important issues than sexual-orientation acceptance. Sure, you could marry someone of the same sex. But what if you had to do it in the midst of a crushing depression, runaway inflation, and food riots? What if you had to do it in a society continuously hunkered down in anticipation of a terrorist attack?

So I ask: Isn’t it far better to vote for someone who is on the wrong side of the same-sex issue, than for someone who is on the wrong side of those issues that affect our most basic safety and well-being?

But this sort of decision demands that one be able to distinguish what is essential and what is derivative, and to realize that politicians can be mistaken on some issues that are dear to one’s peers while nevertheless being correct on issues that actually matter to humanity as such. It means that the battle lines in politics must be drawn on the basis of principles and ideas, of which some are crucial and others are trivial, and not of personalities and cartoonlike heroes and villains to which one pledges eternal allegiance or enmity.

Now, I like Ellen; I find her very funny and an appealing personality. But, as a flipper, she is disastrous. Her influence is vast, and many people who might otherwise vote somewhat haphazardly follow her lead. She “flips” people to the Democratic side of every issue, on the mere basis of the same-sex question, on which most ordinary people tend to agree with her just because they like her and are not bothered by homosexuality. Both those who share her orientation hobby horse or who have an analogous hobby horse of their own, and those who regard governance as simply a question of good management and personal character, will go along with her.

To be sure, there are many other flipper celebrities. But for the sake of broadcasting an important lesson, it has to be said: Ellen DeGeneres is a destroyer.