THE BLOG
09/11/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Can Politics Stay Local?

We spoke with Paul Linden-Retek via Skype recently: he was back in Prague, where he was born, doing research on the relationship between national cultures and the constitutional structure of the European Union. It sounds pretty dry. Yet it's really the story of his life, which has been a tutorial in how larger political structures often can't encompass or inspire the simple, humane choices of one neighbor helping another. Linden-Retek came to America when he was six years old, when his mother followed his stepfather to Florida and decided to stay there. Her partner died only a year after their arrival, a devastating emotional blow, and she was tempted, in her grief, to go home to Prague. She stayed because she knew Paul would get a better education here. She'd been a close assistant to Vaclav Havel, right after the Velvet Revolution, and so she knew, from the inside, that Czechoslovakia had a long way to go to be able to offer the opportunities Paul would have in the U.S.

It was the right choice. Paul got a tremendous education. He played tennis and spent a lot of time on the beach in Boca Raton, and still he ended up at Harvard and Yale Law School. Throughout his youth, all around him, he saw an innate American compassion -- which had little to do with our Constitution or any sort of laws or regulations -- a distinct cultural bias toward caring and generosity. His school, Pinecrest, offered his mother every possible assistance in raising her son, fully aware of her struggle -- she herself was a guidance counselor at a Catholic school. Their neighbors, too, were attentive and helpful, and it was their innate compassion that stuck with Paul as a part of the American spirit and system.

The school where I was enrolled, they were enormously helpful. They said, 'We are here to help, you are part of the community.' It showed why the U.S. was where she wanted to raise a child. Small acts of neighbors helping neighbors, we felt that very personally. People were willing to believe in us. I'm slowly beginning to realize how much damage was done by the gray normalization, that kind of soft totalitarianism, in Czechoslovakia. It's a sense of communal responsibility (in America) that isn't centralized through the state, a sense of common decency. It was always there in Czechoslovakia at some level but was brushed out by this grayness that came over the country. The rhetoric of solidarity is not particularly strong in the U.S. with the way it glorifies individuality, but on this everyday level it's very much there.

Paul applied for a Soros Fellowship twice -- available to immigrants and children of immigrants -- and he won it in the second round. It has enabled him to forestall a job as a corporate attorney, for example, a common choice for those newly fledged from law school and saddled with debt. Instead, with a manageable level of debt as a result of his award, he has been able to immerse himself (as a continuing graduate student) in the subject of how individual cultures can embrace multi-national principles -- such as those embodied in the European Union -- without losing their cultural values. It was precisely the balance he saw around him in Boca Raton, of all places.

That neighborly American solidarity, which afforded him a happy childhood in Florida wasn't something granted by the founding principles of our republic. It was simply a hospitable Southern cultural bias for caring about others. It thrives, partly as a result of America's political structure, but mostly because the political structure doesn't inhibit it. The Constitution protects individual freedom -- not love for one's neighbor. Yet for Paul, freedom isn't simply freedom from oppression but also freedom to participate in a larger public conversation about how people want to live with one another. Which is, in a way, a responsibility as much as a freedom. How to keep that urge to participate and be the author of one's own culture in a world where increasingly powerful global organizations govern how things work, without checks and balances -- it's a tricky, complex subject, but one he considers vital to a happy, peaceful globe. A world increasingly governed by "supra-national" economic alliances among corporations needs equally "supra-national" political institutions, such as the EU -- as long as they can nurture and protect the individual cultures of their member states. In other words, as long as our cherished neighborhoods can thrive within it.

This sort of vital thinking, so timely and, in some ways, ahead of its time, is what the Soros Fellowship makes possible for immigrants and children of immigrants.

"I was very grateful to have the Fellowship support. There's still a problem with how precarious you feel as a student with debt, and that affects the way you see the world and the kind of decisions you make," he said and then laughed.

I'm still very much the bearer of student loans, even after the Soros Fellowship. Yet the fellowship gives me the courage to go back to grad school after law school. Without it, I might have been much more likely to work for a corporate law firm simply to pay off the debt. So many people go into banking or corporate law. The debt really does constrain your thinking about what you can do. And once you begin that path it can be very hard to reverse course.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.