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How to Stage a Huge Protest

After writing yesterday’s post on the celebration of the EU’s 60th anniversary in Poland, I went back to compare photos taken during last October’s pro-choice march and last Saturday’s pro-EU march. The differences are stark.  Here was the scene last weekend:

And here’s a photo from the same vantage point last October:

The difference is even greater than it might appear, because the bottom picture captures only a fragment of the crowd, which extended as far as the eye could see in all directions.

And this was despite the fact that the weather for that earlier protest was atrocious: rainy and only a few degrees above freezing.  The weather last Saturday was dry and only a bit chilly–for March in Warsaw, that counts as a nice Spring day.

So why the difference?

Whatever your views on abortion, the issue is specific and concrete. The underlying principles are abstract, involving the definition of “human life,” the complex symbiotic nature of pregnancy, the extent of individual sovereignty, and whether there should be legal control over a woman’s reproductive capacity. But none of that was what inspired a few hundred thousand people to join a march in the freezing rain. They were there because the government was threatening, at that very moment, to take away the (already tightly regulated and limited) right to have an abortion.

It isn’t hard to make the argument that broad principles have vital real-world consequences, and that political structures matter. Nonetheless, those sorts of issues involve, for most people, several leaps of imagination in order to link the general with the specific. Many people are deeply upset that the Polish judicial system has been stripped of power and that the government will henceforth decide for itself whether to adhere to the Polish constitution, and what that adherence entails. But so far, the overwhelming majority of Poles can go about their lives just as they did two years ago, when an independent constitutional court still existed.

Those of us who care about general ideals and large-scale political causes all too often look down on those who don’t see the importance of these matters. We were inspired by Václav Havel’s call to “live in freedom,” and we rebuke those who engage in the countless acts of quotidian collaboration that sustain oppressive regimes. But the disturbing truth is that what we see as lamentable political disengagement and apathy is, for the vast majority of people, a sensible prioritization of the things that matter in life: family, friends, work, play….

We cannot and probably should not expect masses of people to turn out for protests in defense of “democracy” or “liberty.” On the one hand, this means we shouldn’t be disappointed when political demonstrations are relatively small. On the other hand, it also means that we shouldn’t expect those demonstrations to have much of an impact. The point now is to proclaim the values of liberal democracy as loudly as possible, even though we know that this won’t accomplish anything in the short term.  If we are correct that these values are the necessary prerequisites for a world that’s truly better for everyone, then sooner or later an issue of intimate, concrete immediacy will emerge. Then and only then will the crowds really turn out. Then and only then will the authoritarian regimes weaken. It might take a while, but it will happen.

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Poland and the EU

Across Europe last Saturday there were ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which launched the process that eventually grew into today’s European Union. Poland was no exception, though here the events were emphatically not supported by the current government. In this context, the anniversary celebrations became de facto opposition demonstrations, which is a sign of how much Poland has changed over the past few years.

The EU has long been popular here—enormously popular, in fact. The referendum on the accession treaty held in 2003 registered 77.6% approval (with 59% turnout—high by Polish standards). Starting in 2006, the Pew Research center has been running a comparative survey on attitudes towards the EU, and Polish support has declined since then by 11 points: from 83% to 72%. Still, Poland has been at the top of this chart every single year. A recent survey commissioned by Gazeta Wyborcza showed that if a Brexit-style vote were held here, the “remain” side would win easily, but with “only” 61% of the vote. The Poles are still the undefeated champions of Euroenthusiasm, though even here Brussels is losing some of its luster.

Another sign of where things stand was on display during those 60th anniversary celebrations/protests. One the one hand, there were gatherings all over the country, and in virtually every town square at noon people gathered to sing the European anthem. In Warsaw, this was combined with a march along the city’s emblematic “Royal Way,” leading to Castle Square and the Old Town. Every opposition political party, several of the country’s leading media outlets, and a who’s-who list of activists and cultural figures joined together in sponsoring the march. At first glance it seemed quite impressive.

I spent most of the event watching from an excellent vantage point, atop the bell tower of St. Ann’s Church. This allowed me to capture the entirety of the crowd, which looked up and waved for a “group portrait” taken by the professional cameraman whom I was conveniently standing next to.

Speaking from the stage, the editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Jarosław Kurski, said that the ten thousand people gathered here were a much better representation of Poland than the current foreign minister. Maybe so, but 10,000 strikes me as a disappointingly small number for such a well-advertised event. This was half the size of the event for Women’s Day on March 8, and less than a tenth the size of the record-setting pro-choice demonstration held on this same site last October.

This reveals, I think, a key aspect of the current political dynamic in Poland. This country has a reputation for big protests, marches, and strikes, and even today the level of public mobilization here is higher than anywhere else in the region. But in keeping with the pattern seen even back in the 1970s and 1980s, that activism really only rises to the fore when people are faced with very concrete challenges to their personal well-being. For the most part, Kaczyński has been smart enough not to push up against those sorts of issues. His strategy has been to focus on dismantling or undermining all the institutions and norms that sustain liberal democracy: the independent judiciary, the public media, the constraints of parliamentary rules, NGO watchdog groups, etc. Acts of opposition to the government’s assertion of control in all these areas have simply been ignored or dismissed as the ravings of “elites” who don’t understand the “real Poland.” The result of this strategy has been that opposition to the state carries very little real danger (there’s little opportunity for anyone here to become a martyr for the cause of democracy), but also very little chance of accomplishing anything. If you want to ignore politics and just get on with your life, it’s been possible to do so. Kaczyński demands active support from those who want to serve in the state sector, but for everyone else he just encourages demobilization and apathy.

This is where the anti-liberal authoritarianism of the 21st century has learned a great deal from the models from the 20th century. Nazism and Stalinism demanded a lot more, but the post-Stalinist communism of the 1960s and 1970s allowed people to carry out their private lives without all that much interference. That’s the system that’s being rebuilt now. It’s one in which most people, most of the time, can live their lives without worrying about politics. The government would love to
have your support, but if they can’t get it, they only ask that you go about your business and leave politics to them. This is a system that promotes disengagement rather than active obedience or enthusiasm.

Of course, those in targeted minorities (whether ideological, national, sexual, religious, or whatever) will feel the power of the authoritarian state. Sooner or later even those in the majority will experience the consequences of anti-liberal democracy. By then, however, the institutions and structures that they could have used to protect themselves will be gone. That’s when we will see the really big crowds once again, but they won’t be as polite and celebratory as they were last Saturday. Nor, I fear, will the authorities be as passive.



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Another Rainy Protest

The democratic opposition in Poland has had the worst luck when it comes to the weather.  The now famous “Black Monday” march from last October was successful despite the elements, but similar weather today (41 degrees Fahrenheit – 5 Celsius – and a steady rain) undoubtedly kept the size of the crowd down. Under the circumstances, though, it was impressive. The march was organized by KOD (the Committee for the Defense of Democracy), and focused primarily on the independence of the judiciary and the preservation of local self-government. After last week’s absurd attempt by the PiS government to block Donald Tusk’s second term as EU Council President (and their defeat by a vote of 27-1), the protests today also had a strong pro-EU theme.

This highlights a challenge facing the opposition here, and in the US as well. When confronted by an ongoing cascade of attacks on constitutional democracy and simple decency, it’s hard to focus attention and organizational effort on a single outrage. Even coming up with a list of demands becomes difficult, because the terrain shifts so often. Without a clear and focused goal, however, the opposition becomes dispersed and unclear. The October protests had one clear objective: stop the government’s plan to completely outlaw abortion. And that goal was accomplished–the only successful challenge to PiS so far. Today’s march was aimed at the preservation of constitutional rule-of-law, democracy, and European integration.  I’m not even sure what it would take for such a march to be called a success. The point, I suspect, is mainly to sustain the morale of the opposition, without any real hope that they can actually block the PiS regime’s relentless assault on the constitution. If we accept that this fight is almost certain to continue for years, then protesting for the sake of maintaining camaraderie and commitment is a good strategy. Maybe the only strategy.

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Poland, Land of Diversity

If I could abolish just one cliché, it would be this one: “Polish society is nearly homogeneous.”

Just pick up any article about Poland from any source on any topic, and you are likely to find this claim. For example, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here….OK, you get the point.

Sometimes you will even see the claim that Poland and the other countries of East-Central Europe have no “tradition of diversity.” That’s so obviously incorrect that it hardly merits rebuttal. Prior to the mass murders and ethnic cleansings of the mid-20th century, there were few places on earth with more heterogeneity than here. But that’s not want I want to write about today.

Nor do I want to remind you about the Kashubians, the Łemkos, the Tatars, the Silesians, the Górals, or the remaining communities of Lithuanians, Belarussians, or Ukrainians that one can find along Poland’s eastern border. The small but vibrant Polish Jewish community reminds us that the Holocaust did not entirely wipe out that legacy, but that’s not my topic for today, either. I’m currently living next door to Warsaw’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church—but I’m not going to talk about that, or the local Vietnamese community, or the growing expat groups that have settled in Poland’s larger cities.

All those categories are indeed small, and they don’t detract from the fact that 98% of the residents of this country (according to the most recent census) claim Polish as their native language, and 88% claim Roman Catholicism as their religion. A mere 1.8% of the population was born in another country. The Polish census does not include a category that would match the American concept of “race,” but one would have to search very hard to find anyone who does not have the pale skin color typical of northern Europe.

So yeah—Poland is a homogeneous place. As long as the only markers of diversity you care about are language, religion, and skin color.

Our understanding of diversity has been hobbled by the tendency to take the fault-lines of difference from one time or place, and superimpose them to different times and places. In the 1930s, the boundary lines in Poland were drawn around religion and language, and since those lines can’t be found any more, we call the country homogeneous. In America we have to grapple with the enduring legacy of racial classifications and oppression, so if we turn our attention to Poland, we see a stark uniformity.

But diversity and homogeneity are themselves ideological constructions, and it is vital that we take a critical eye to the claim that Poland is a land without significant internal cultural fissures, prejudices, or stereotypes.

When skin-color, religion, or language cannot serve as markers of difference, that doesn’t mean that difference itself disappears. Instead, the vectors of cultural diversity migrate to other categories, ones that we may not be primed to notice. For example, even though nearly everyone is Roman Catholic in Poland, the actual patterns of devotional practices and theological beliefs are almost as divergent here as they are in the denominational grab-bag of the United States. Rates of attendance at religious service are about the same, and the role of “faith” in public life is comparable. In survey questions regarding matters of religious doctrine, Poles show an enormous range of beliefs—an issue that the clergy here has always complained about. According to a recent survey, only 18% believe that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church provide an adequate guide to moral behavior, and 57% reject part or all of the Church’s moral teachings. Only 14% think that Catholicism should provide the foundation of the “values and norms taught in the public schools,” and only another 11% think that a more general Christianity should serve this purpose. A more detailed survey conducted in 2015 revealed that 56% believe in hell, but a mere 4% (!!) believe that only Christians can be “saved” (with another 8% reserving salvation for all “religious people.”) A startling 30% believe in reincarnation! In the US, those diverse beliefs are expressed by switching from one religion to another. Here in Poland, all these various convictions remain bundled under a notional Catholicism. That singular label matters, of course, but it shouldn’t lead us to assume that Poland is a land of actual religious uniformity.

Even more culturally and socially important is a vector of difference that is hard for outsiders to see. For centuries, nearly all the labor in northeastern Europe was performed by bonded serfs. “Pańszczyzna” (mandatory work for a master) was ended here at about the same time slavery was abolished in the United States, and both systems left an intractable cultural legacy. The descendants of the nobility and the peasantry are all called “Poles,” and they can’t be distinguished by any biological identifiers, but that doesn’t mean that the divide is irrelevant. The nobility constituted around 10% of the population in pre-partition Poland, but they monopolized property ownership and completely dominated culture and politics. The Stalinists tried to change this by adopting a program of hiring and university admission akin to American “affirmative action,” but that didn’t change the overall picture much. Only briefly in the early 1950s did the scions of the nobility constituted fewer than half of the university students. The history of Poland as it is conventionally taught is really the history of the nobility, with the peasantry erased to an even greater degree than African-Americans are erased from US history. Today the vast majority of Poles live in towns and cities, and the traditional peasantry is long gone, but the cultural gap remains very, very deeply entrenched. To be sure, the lack of phenotype differences makes the lines more permeable than racial divisions in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that the lines don’t exist.

A picture of homogeneity requires that we ignore certain differences and prioritize others. It leads us to imagine that a highly-educated Warsaw businessman from a “good family” who goes to church on Christmas and Easter is part of the same national community as a devout smallholder from Podlasie with a primary education.  Meanwhile, we are taught to see a nearly unscalable wall between that peasant and his Belorussian-speaking, Eastern Orthodox neighbor. I’m not dismissing the latter divide, but it is absurd to imagine that the absence of religious, linguistic, or ethnic barriers has led to homogeneity. At most, it has only made the heterogeneity a little bit harder to see.

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What’s the Point?

As Magdalena Moskalewicz pointed out last week in the Washington Post, the idea for a 2017 Women’s Day strike was born in Poland, in the aftermath of the amazing “Black Monday” protests last October (which I wrote about here). Based on my very impressionist sense, not many women here actually stayed home from work on March 8, but the demonstration in the evening was impressive enough. The official estimates from the Warsaw city government had the crowd at 17,000.

Protests are becoming a regular occurrence in today’s Poland, and any reader of this blog knows that people have plenty to protest about. But I’m forced to wonder: what’s the point? Jarosław Kaczyński sees public opinion as something to control, not something that he needs to respond to. The government has shown repeatedly that they have no particular interest in expanding beyond their support base, which currently constitutes about 33% of the electorate, with another 8% supporting an allied party (37% and 9% if only decided voters are considered). PiS’s actions suggest that they intend to hold on to power by tweaking the political system so that their existing base is adequate. For example, they are pushing forward a massive expansion of the boundaries of Warsaw, because only by including a huge swath of the countryside around the city do they stand any chance of ever winning control of the local government. They’ve advanced a proposal (so far at the trial-balloon stage) to institute single-round voting for mayors, as opposed to the current system that requires winning candidates to get 51% of the vote (with runoffs if necessary). Since the opposition remains divided, such a system would allow PiS to win most of the time.

More generally, the rhetoric of the regime is focused on deepening the divisions in Polish society, and cultivating an “us against them” mentality in their supporters. This, I think, is why they seem willing to tolerate protests and the continued existence of an opposition media. In the 20th century, authoritarian regimes attempted to establish monolithic sources of information, but this ended up backfiring. Most people (at least here in Poland) came to distrust the official TV stations and newspapers, and the slogan “the press lies” became popular at demonstrations in the 1980s. Nowadays one hears that slogan at both pro-government and anti-government rallies, albeit aimed at different media outlets.

Truth itself has become a partisan preference, with awkward facts dismissed as if they were just opinions. In this context, PiS does not have to convince most people that their media is right, and they don’t have to suppress the opposition media. In fact, in a perverse way they need the opposition in order to sustain the claim that there is an ongoing struggle for power in which each side is using newspapers and TV to advance their goals. This mobilizes die-hard supporters on all sides, but it leaves an enormous segment of the population—perhaps a majority—frustrated, confused, and disillusioned with public life altogether. Kaczyński is counting on the fact that PiS will remain the largest single political party, even if it stays well short of a majority. He’s probably right: the opposition now includes everyone from socialists to free-market liberals to Christian democrats, and it’s hard to imagine how they could ever create a single unified political organization to compete with PiS.

In other words, the goal is not to turn the PiS worldview into a hegemonic force accepted by nearly everyone. Even Kaczyński must understand that he’ll never accomplish that. Instead, the goal is to build a system that allows a committed and mobilized minority to govern through the application of raw power, demobilizing much of the population and counting on the continued fragmentation of the rest.

This strategy is working, and will probably continue to work for a long time to come. PiS support has remained rock solid, in sharp contrast to every other government in the history of Poland’s Third Republic. It’s not going up, but it’s not going down either. Protests, even large ones, might help mobilize the opposition, but to hard-core PiS supporters, those events just provide evidence that “the enemy” is still strong. This can’t continue forever, but it can go on for many, many years. And the longer it continues, the less energy there will be for protests like yesterday’s. When faced with a government that is uninterested in winning the support of a majority, much less listening to the concerns of any minority, what is the point of taking to the streets?

If PiS deployed old fashioned authoritarian measures—riot police, overt censorship, mass arrests, etc.—then the opposition would have a playbook of responses. Ironically, 21st century authoritarians don’t use those brutal techniques, which both makes them easier to endure and much, much harder to fight.

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It could be worse

Without in any way downplaying the current crisis of liberal democracy, I just got a reminder that things could be a lot worse. I came across the following 1986 document from the campus affiliate of the Niezależne Zrzeszenie Studentów (Independent Student Society) at the Szkoła Główna Planowania i Statystyki (Main School for Planning and Statistics). The text is quite mundane: announcements that a new, elected student council is being formed, that some new anti-communist stamps are for sale, that a special mass for NZS is scheduled, etc.  But note the format: paper so thin that it is translucent, blurry printing, and a size smaller than a ballpoint pen. This is what you can produce when you are operating an illegal organization with few resources, and when discovery of your activities might get you expelled.

I’ve made comparisons between today’s increasingly authoritarian Polish government and the communist Polish People’s Republic, and I continue to believe that we can learn a lot by setting the two alongside each other.  But this 1986 document was a useful reality-check for me. Poland has gone much further down the antiliberal path than the US has, but even Poland isn’t close to the oppressiveness of the 1980s, which itself wasn’t remotely as bad as the Stalinist era, which was a vast improvement over the horror of Nazi rule. One might be tempted to evoke a slippery slope metaphor when talking about today’s government, and that’s not entirely unjustified.  But political activism is like putting on snow-tires in order to get some traction on that slope; we need to keep in mind that rolling downhill is not inevitable. Moreover, no matter how much we might wish to stand at the summit, let’s not confuse the hillside with the valley.

Historical perspective teaches us to see potential dangers even when they are only just starting to appear. That’s why so many historians are worried and angry nowadays.  But historical perspective also offers us a useful psychological survival mechanism, a way to avoid the despair that I’ve seen in so many friends and colleagues recently. Less than five years after the above leaflet was produced, the Polish People’s Republic ceased to exist, NZS was legalized, and SGPiS became the Szkoła Główna Handlowa (which they advertise in English as the “Warsaw School of Economics”).  Today, NZS no longer needs to use such surreptitiously produced and distributed leaflets; instead, they communicate about their activities here.

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Warsaw from Sea to Sea

Another weekend, another protest march in Warsaw…. This one wasn’t as large as some of the others that have made headlines since PiS took power in 2015, but it represented an issue that could become extraordinarily important. Even as Jarosław Kaczyński’s authoritarian rule has grown stronger, even as one public institution after another has fallen, even as the judiciary has lost the ability to protect the constitution—even through all this, Poland’s cities have retained a vibrant public sphere thanks to the ability of city councils and mayors (called “city presidents” here) to circumvent the heavy hand of the central government. Nowhere is this more evident than Warsaw, where anti-government demonstrations are held with the blessing of the city administration. This is a vital line of defense for those who continue to believe in liberal democracy, which is precisely why it is now under threat.

Last week a parliamentary delegate from PiS introduced a piece of legislation that would transform Warsaw into a massive urban agglomeration, linking the city with dozens of towns and villages in the surrounding countryside. This didn’t come directly from the government, because according to parliamentary rules a formal government proposal must go through a process of committee hearings and public comment. A law proposed by an ordinary parliamentary delegate can move quickly to a vote without any of these delays. If anyone knows why such a strange loophole even exists, please tell me. Regardless, there is very little the anti-PiS opposition can do to block this law.

The rationale behind the legislation is transparent, though of course its author denies it. As the proposal currently stands, the new metropol would have a governing council with representative elected by district, so that a massive downtown neighborhood with hundreds of thousands of residents would have the same number of votes as a farming village beyond the current city boundaries. Since PiS controls most of the rural areas, this would allow them to take over Warsaw. It would be as if, in the United States, Montana had the same number of senators as California. Oh, wait…. Anyway, this is the only way PiS will ever take over Warsaw, and even this strategy only works if the boundaries are pushed far, far beyond anything that looks like an urban space. The law would make Warsaw the largest city by land area in Europe, five times larger than Paris.

The city council of Warsaw immediately announced a referendum, scheduled for March 26. Presumably the residents of the city will vote overwhelmingly against the reform. Even setting aside the antidemocratic nature of the law, there will be major consequences that will shape the city’s future. Opponents have noted that the longstanding complaint of the small towns and suburbs around the city has been the lack of adequate downtown parking or good limited-access highways into the city center. The city residents, however, tend to favor improved public transport, less downtown traffic, and cleaner air. The battle is being described as parks vs. parking lots.

This was the issue behind the protest last Saturday. The signs reflected the ironic, referential sense of humor typical of Varsovians (see the pictures below). For example, one placard read “San Escobar demands annexation to Warsaw” (if you don’t get the joke, click here) and another said “We demand Warsaw from Sea to Sea, with Madagascar included” (referring to the description of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic as stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and also to the bizarre demand of pre-WWII antisemites that Jews be deported to Madagascar). Another poster was a copy of a poster from the early 1950s labeled “The Great Architect of the New Warsaw,” but with Kaczyński’s face inserted where Stalin’s had been. My favorite was a cardboard copy of the landmark from Warsaw’s palace square, the so-called Zygmunt Column. The original has on top the figure of the king who moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw, but this version had an inflatable duck with the label “Jarosław III Żoliborski,” a play on the famous Polish king, Jan III Sobieski. Kaczyński’s name has led to lots of duck jokes (kaczka=duck), and this one added a reminder that he comes from the prestigious intelligentsia neighborhood of Żoliborz, which is ironic given his longstanding populist tirade against the “elites” of Warsaw.

Will this sort of demonstration accomplish anything? Probably not. The humor will have the same impact as a Saturday Night Live skit: the liberal audience will be thrilled, but the people who support the government won’t appreciate the jokes, which will feel like insulting taunts to them. But in a way, that misses the point. PiS has all the power right now, and the only constraint they face is the risk of a wave of protests so massive that they disrupt the functioning of the state—something on the order of Maidan in Ukraine, Tahrir Square in Egypt, or (more relevantly) the Solidarity movement right here in Poland. That’s extraordinarily unlikely, to put it mildly.

But that doesn’t mean that protests are irrelevant, or that the upcoming referendum in Warsaw (which won’t block the legislation) is pointless. The democratic oppositions in Poland or in the United States can’t realistically stop Kaczyński or Trump. Only a revolt within PiS or the Republicans could do that. But the opposition can, and must, work to maintain a strong sense of civic engagement and democratic activism, because the alternative is cynicism, hopelessness, passivity, and atomization. If those attitudes spread, rebuilding a democratic culture after Kaczyński and Trump fall (as they must, eventually) will be extremely difficult.

This struggle won’t end any time soon. Those who believe in liberal democracy have to focus on the long term, and be prepared to persist even if success remains years away. Demonstrations like the one in Warsaw last Saturday are a key part of that strategy.




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Poles Want Democracy

Do Poles value democracy?  That’s a silly question: obviously it depends on what you mean by “democracy.”  Nowadays authoritarian leaders like to describe their regimes as “anti-liberal democracies,” and very few public figures openly criticize democracy as such. When Jarosław Kaczyński, Victor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, or Donald Trump proclaim their belief in democracy, they mean that everyone should obey the proclamations of governments that truly represent the interests of the nation. To go against the (singular) will of the people is to defy democracy, in this vision. Liberals, on the other hand, insist that democracy should be characterized by an ongoing respect for compromise, consensus, and respect for minority opinions (and identities). In this second worldview, firm legal and institutional frameworks and a strong sense of political norms should constrain the power of the majority from doing anything too extreme. Interestingly, for much of the 19th century, Europeans didn’t usually call that worldview “democracy,” but rather, “representative government.”  John Stuart Mill famously argued that the latter was preferable over the former, precisely because “the tyranny of the majority” (as he put it) posed a threat to individual liberty. Against Mill’s arguments were “democrats” who hearkened back to Rousseau’s idea of the “popular will.”

For better or worse, we don’t have that distinction any more: everyone nowadays is supposed to believe in democracy, with adjectives attached when we want to clarify what sort of democracy we like. At least, that’s the impression one would get listening to the political debates of the early 21st century: you accuse your opponents of being antidemocratic, but never claim that label for yourself. Yet an interesting survey has been conducted in Poland ever since the fall of communism, asking people “Do you agree that sometimes a non-democratic government is better than a democratic government?” The newest iteration of this poll shows that a record-high number of people believe that democracy is always the best, though a significant 28% continue to envision circumstances when it would be better to dispense with democratic principles.

There are many possible interpretations of this result, and they depend on a more nuanced exploration of how the meaning of the term “democracy” has shifted in public discourse over the past 20 years.  For example, it is possible that there is a stable level of support for the idea that a strong leader elected by a majority should have absolute power.  In that case, the recent drop in people who question the value of democracy would be tied to the spread of the concept “anti-liberal democracy.”  A lot more research would be needed to verify or debunk that hypothesis.

But for all the ambiguity of this survey, a very curious pattern is evident.  When PiS first rose to power in 2005, the number of people doubting the value of democracy was at an all-time high.  During the ensuing two years, appreciation for democracy rose dramatically, peaking at the moment when Jarosław Kaczyński lost power in 2007.  Similarly, after the party’s return to power in 2015, appreciation for democracy once again jumped upwards.  It is tempting to conclude that the experience of authoritarian one-party rule makes people appreciate the inefficiencies, the tedium, and the unsatisfying compromises of liberal democracy.  That’s what I want to believe—though it could also be true that authoritarian populists express opposition to democracy whenever they are out of power, but like it when they are in charge. But I’m going to reject that possibility for now, because it is so much more hopeful to believe that Poles are rallying around democracy now that they feel its absence.  If that is true, then it suggests that opposition to authoritarianism is growing.

I have no good reason to believe that this is the case, but I’m determined to find some rays of hope during these dark times.



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The New History Curriculum in Poland

On December 30 the Polish government released its draft curricular program for primary schools, to go into effect starting September 1 of this year. Last week the University of Warsaw’s Historical Institute issued a statement criticizing the plan. Given the government’s demonstrated disinterest in expert opinions (after all, trained historians are “elites”), there is no reason to expect that these comments will be incorporated into the final draft. Nonetheless, I wanted to draw attention to this controversy, because it goes right to the heart of what is happening to history in this country. American readers of this blog should take particular notice of this, because the parallels between the current Polish government and the Trump administration are too obvious to ignore.

The government’s proposal defines history as “the storehouse of collective memory.” Children are supposed to study this topic in order to learn “values,” particularly the “idea of freedom,” which the authors of this text believe “has over the centuries been most fully expressed and constantly present in Polish history.” The essence of the new curriculum is captured best in a passage affirming that “the main goal of history as a school subject is to learn important moments from the history of the Polish nation, particularly through the acts of great historical figures, and also to become familiar with national, state, and religious symbols, to be able to explain their meaning, and to develop respect for them.”

In the old curriculum, history was integrated with the social sciences and humanities, so as to cultivate a nuanced understanding of the complex and nuanced social, cultural, economic, and political forces that have shaped the past. In the new curriculum that will be changed, and “genuine” history will return. All those other topics will be downplayed now, but in fairness they will still be present—just not mixed up with the sacred task of history. The goal of these other disciplines will be to “serve in shaping the students civic and pro-community attitude [postaw obywatelskich i prowspólnotowych].”

By the end of grade four, students are henceforth supposed to recognize “individuals and events of great meaning for shaping Polish cultural identity.” Helpfully, the government has provided a complete list, which offers a nice summation of what they consider the highlights of Poland’s past. Here is the complete list, verbatim:

  1. Prince Mieszko and Dobrawa of the Czechs; the baptism of Poland;
  2. Bolesław Chrobry, the first king and his international summit in Gniezno;
  3. the last Piast, Kazimierz the Great;
  4. Queen Jadwiga, Władysław Jagiełło, Zawisza Czarny, the Polish-Lithuanian Union, and the victory at Grunwald;
  5. Nicholas Copernicus and the Kraków students;
  6. Jan Zamoyski, leader and statesman;
  7. the heroic wars of the 17th century: Prior Augustyn Kordecki, Hetman Stefan Czarniecki, and King Jan III Sobieski;
  8. Tadeusz Kościuszko and the scythe-men [kosynierze] at the battle of Racławice;
  9. Jan Henryk Dąbrowski and Józef Wybicki, as well as the Polish national anthem;
  10. Romuald Traugutt and the insurrectionist state [powstańcze państwo];
  11. Maria Skłodowska-Curie, winner of the Nobel prize;
  12. Józef Piłsudski and his soldiers;
  13. Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski and the construction of Gdynia;
  14. “Zośka,” “Alek” “Rudy” and the “Grey Ranks”;
  15. the steadfast soliders [żołnierze niezłomni]: Witołd Pilecki, Danuta Siedzikówna, „Inka”;
  16. Pope John Paul II;
  17. Solidarity and its heroes.

In discussing the appropriate pedagogical methods, the text stresses that “in every phase of primary school education, shaping and developing a patriotic attitude, while simultaneously respecting the achievements of other nations, should be in the foreground.” Speaking of those other nations, the curriculum does eventually mention the Jews, although not until after fifth grade. Then, in the context of studying the Second World War, Polish children must learn “to characterize the German policies in occupied Europe; to present the destruction of the Jews and the extermination of other nations, and to know examples of the heroism of Poles who saved Jews from the Holocaust.” The older kids are also supposed to be able to explain the demographics of interwar Poland, but no further specifics are given on that topic. There is also a passing reference to learning about “relations of religious denominations and nationalities” in the Polish-Lithuanian Republic.

The historians at Warsaw University have summarized effectively what is so appalling about this document. As they put it in their January 25th statement:

With regret we state that the new programmatic principles have abandoned concern for such vital attitudes for contemporary society as civic engagement; social awareness; tolerance for differences in opinion, behavior, customs, and convictions; opposition to manifestations of discrimination; the maintenance of bonds not only in local and national communities, but also European and global communities….History is neither a collection of patriotic episodes nor a gallery of heroes. Passing over controversial figures and negative interpretations distorts our image of the past.

The UW scholars are concerned about the total absence of social history, and the lack of any mention of industrialization or the social transformations of the modern world. They are bothered by the fact that the only mention of serfdom comes with a passing reference to its abolition, and there is nothing at all about the movement for women’s emancipation. In a wonderfully laconic passage, my colleagues from UW say “we consider it worthwhile to more fully present the multiethnic and multireligious character of the Republic of Two Nations, including introducing information about the presence and status of Jews in the Polish lands.”

Because education is centralized in Poland, this program will apply to all public schools. One small sliver of hope I have for the United States is the decentralization of our system, in which local school boards still have a role in determining academic programs. I used to think that was a major weakness in the US, because it means that in some states and local districts the students are fed misinformation about topics like evolution, global warming, the history of slavery, reproductive health, sexuality, etc. I confess that I hadn’t fully appreciated the upside of decentralization: it will be possible to have oases of actual education in Trump’s America, at least for the time being. In Poland, that will be harder. Starting in September, the schools will once again be assigned the explicit task of ideological indoctrination, just as they had before 1989.

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Breitbart does not lie

For those who have never descended into the cesspool that is Breitbart, now’s your chance: they have written something about Poland. Actually, don’t go there—I’m not going to link to them because I don’t want to be responsible for any traffic to their monstrous site. But the headline today tells you want you need to know: “Liberal Soros-Backed Newspaper Facing Hard Times in Conservative Poland Begs EU for Funding.” This is a wonderful example of the approach to truth and ethics that characterizes the Trumpeters. (Yes, I do realize that writing about this is both futile and redundant, but I need to vent.)

The reference is to an interview on the website with Roman Imielski, the on-line editor of Gazeta Wyborcza. When asked “Can Europe do something about press freedom in Poland?”, Imielski responded “It is time to think about the media as a very important part of public life and of democracy in the European Union. I don’t understand why the EU has supported other sectors in crisis like coal mines or factories but they are not helping the media.” That’s what “begging” for support sounds like to the people at Breitbart.

Do I need to point out that Gazeta Wyborcza is a massive media enterprise that gets its income from advertising, not support from NGOs? Then again, the key for the headline writer was to put Soros’ name there, because that’s a dog-whistle for the antisemites. And the only reason the paper is in any difficult at all is because any firm that has or hopes to have dealings with the government must avoid advertising in what PiS calls the “polskojęzyczne” (Polish-language) media, distinguishing those outlets from truly Polish periodicals that support the regime. As for those “hard times”: the parent company of Gazeta Wyborcza, Agora Media, has been gaining value on the Warsaw stock exchange, and today one share costs 13.16 złoty, just below a six-year high. The stock did fall in value when PiS started its advertising boycott, but now all the losses have been recovered. Revenues for Agora grew 15.6% in 2016 (compared to 2015), and profits were up 1.6%. Advertising revenues in particular grew, but apparently the market analysts are disappointed that they didn’t grow more quickly.

Everyone is used to “spin” in the media and in politics, but now we are grappling with how to cope with the daily cascade of unabashed lying. In fact, it’s not really even lying. To use the technical term explained in a classic essay by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, it’s bullshit. According to Frankfurt’s distinction, when people lie they are trying to conceal the truth or convince people to believe a falsehood. When people bullshit, on the other hand, they don’t care about truth or falsehood, or about whether anyone believes them or not. The act of bullshitting is a form of self-styling, a performance that has no relation at all with the modes of communication aimed at transmitting information or argumentation.

So going forward, we need a translator from bullshit to regular human speech. So the headline above could be rendered like this: “We here at Breitbart hope to appeal to antisemites and we consider liberal journalists to be rootless cosmopolitans who we wish would go out of business.” See? Once translated, it isn’t a lie at all.