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The Parade of Equality

Last Saturday, Warsaw held its annual “Parada Równości” (Equality Parade), the label used in Poland for gay rights marches. The organizers said afterwards that it was their largest ever, and my (very impressionistic) impression is that the responses from Varsovians ranged from disinterest to support. That is, there were very few signs of hostility, and only a tiny counter-demonstration of a couple dozen people.

The issue of gay rights is shaping up to be an important cultural and political dividing line in Poland. For a change, however, this won’t map directly onto the conflict between the current authoritarian regime and its opponents. Instead, it is an issue that threatens to divide the pro-democracy activists, insofar as it symbolizes an even broader problem: the difficulty of uniting the center-right, the liberal left, and the social-democratic left (and all the variations of each). This isn’t just a political challenge, but a cultural one as well—and that’s what makes the gay and lesbian rights cause so dicey.

The most recent data I have on attitudes towards homosexuality in Poland come from 2013. That four-year-old survey shows a clear trend line towards more acceptance of gays and lesbians, but the progress has been slow and incomplete. First the good news: only 26% of the population considers homosexuality worthy of condemnation, down from 41% in 2001. Similarly, 69% believe in “toleration” for sexual minorities, up from 52% at the start of the century. But now the bad news: the number of people willing to accept same-sex marriage remains small (26%), and only 8% believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt children. Only 30% are willing to accept public displays of affection of non-heteronormative couples, though (to again look on the bright side) that figure was at 16% as recently as 2005. So despite a rhetorical appreciation of “tolerance,” these survey results don’t suggest much genuine acceptance. But before we single out Poland for approbation, let’s remember what happened in the United States: as recently as 2004, almost 2/3 of Americans opposed gay marriage, but today just over 1/3 feel that way.

Regardless of how we interpret these survey results, we can’t escape the fact that Poland is a country where homophobia is common. There are points of light—most notably the rising national popularity of Robert Biedroń, the openly gay mayor of Słupsk—but far too many points of darkness.

Given this context, the political valiance of this issue is quite striking. There is a reason that gay rights marches are called “Equality Parades” in Poland, and not “Pride Parades” after the anglophone model. The leaders of the LGBT movement made the strategic decision long ago to position their cause within a rhetorical framework of universalistic rights and liberties, giving somewhat less emphasis to public affirmations of difference. A turning point for the movement came in 2004, when then-mayor Lech Kaczyński of Warsaw tried to ban one the Equality Parade. Thousands turned out to protest the decision, including a long list of politicians and celebrities who previously hadn’t even given much thought to the issue of gay and lesbian rights, much less supported the cause. Sure, some of those politicians were trying to coopt the LGBT movement for their own purpose, but since that purpose was to expose the antidemocratic tendencies of the radical right, I wouldn’t be too critical. And whatever the motives of individual liberal and centrist politicians, the cause of Poland’s sexual minorities gained a place on the national political stage. A small and precarious place for the time being…but still.

Fast forward to 2017, and once again the LGBT cause is inextricably tied up with a wide range of ancillary issues. Within the main opposition party, Civic Platform, there are now open debates about this, which is quite surprising given the general conservatism of that party. Last week the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, attended his city’s Equality Parade, after many years of ignoring the event. In a speech at the start of the parade, he said that the rise of a more general atmosphere of intolerance and hatred in Poland has caused him to reassess his own attitudes, and identify his own prejudices. It was a stunning moment; not often does one hear a politician say “I was wrong.” He now hopes to persuade fellow members of Civic Platform to change the party’s positions on gay and lesbian rights. One of those he must persuade is the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. She has long ensured that the city would provide no support for the capital’s Equality Parade, and she personally boycotts it. More broadly and significantly, for the eight years that Civic Platform was in power (2007-2015), they did virtually nothing to improve the legal status of gays and lesbians in Poland, even as party leaders criticized their opponents on the extreme right for their open homophobia.

This matters a lot, and not only because we are talking about a fundamental measure of respect for human dignity, not to mention tolerance and equality. It gets to the heart of the political decision that Civic Platform’s leadership must take: to shift their party a bit to the left, or to try to compete with the current ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) for voters on the right.

It might seem reasonable that in a country like Poland there would be space for two parties on the right, one catering to nationalists and another to more centrist, mainstream conservatives. And under normal circumstances, those two parties would compete mainly with each other for dominance on that side of the ideological spectrum. But even setting aside the question of whether Polish politics can be aligned along a two-dimensional “spectrum” (short answer: it can’t), these are not normal circumstances. With PiS steadily dismantling Poland’s constitutional democracy, the stakes are incredibly high, and starkly clear. As the largest opposition party, Civic Platform currently has one task: to lead the struggle to defeat PiS and restore liberal democracy to Poland. That goal will never be accomplished if the entire political stage is subsumed by a debate between a center-right party and a far-right party.

Some have argued that the left is irrelevant in Poland, so issues like LGBT rights should be sidelines, lest the large base of conservative voters be frightened away. After all, left-wing voters will never vote for PiS, so why even worry about them? This reasoning is dangerously flawed. We have just witnessed a US election where low turnout among African-Americans cost Hilary Clinton a victory. Of course American blacks weren’t going to vote for Trump, but large numbers of them saw no reason to support Clinton either, so they just stayed home. Had they voted in anything close to the frequency they voted in 2012 or 2008, she would be in the White House today. This is the fatal and perennial fallacy of centrist politicians who feel they can take the votes of the marginalized (minorities of all varieties, as well as the poor in general) for granted.

Would some gestures towards the LGBT community cost Civic Platform votes among some Catholics? I doubt it. Those on the right who are strongly motivated by fear of or hostility towards minorities make up the core of the PiS voting base, and they aren’t going to be won over. The surveys I mentioned above show that whatever their feelings about specific issues, a very large majority of Poles want to cling to a self-identity as “tolerant.” About half of those who call themselves tolerant currently say that they’d prefer that gays and lesbians stay invisible. In other words, their “tolerance” is (to put it mildly) shallow. But what will those people do if (for example) Civic Platform puts forward a proposal to allow gays and lesbians to obtain hospital visitation rights for their partners (they don’t have that now), or inherit money and property from their partners (which would require some sort of civil union, if not fully recognized marriage rights)? PiS and their allies in the Church would respond that the law must never legitimate “deviant” and “sinful” behavior, and the ideological divide would be crystal clear. I am convinced that very few people outside of PiS’s committed base would want to stand openly for intolerance under that scenario.

Civic Platform will never be a leftist party, and that’s fine. But unless and until there is a viable leftist alternative—that is, a party that is well organized, with a competent and united leadership—then it is up to Civic Platform to ensure that voters on the left will view them as an acceptable, even if not ideal alternative. A large majority of voters oppose PiS; the party’s support is stuck in the 30s, and occasionally falls even below that. But that’s enough to win against a fragmented opposition, if all those on the left are faced with the option of either wasting their votes on tiny parties that won’t get enough support to enter parliament, or voting for a party that is represented by people like Mayor Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Under that dismal scenario, large numbers of them will stay home during the next round of elections. They will be making a grave mistake in doing so, but we can be assured that many will in fact take that path. It is up to Civic Platform to give them a reason not to, and the LGBT issue carries just the right symbolism to serve that purpose.

It’s also the right thing to do.

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Why the Opposition in Poland is so Weak

Sometimes a small moment can perfectly crystalize a monumental problem. That happened today in Poland.

As readers of this blog know, the far-right authoritarian regime of Jarosław Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) have been dismantling Poland’s constitutional democracy for the past year and a half. They represent a mortal threat to everything that Poland has accomplished since the overthrow of communism in 1989. They only enjoy the support of somewhere between 30-40 percent of the population, but they won the election in 2015 because of a technicality in the electoral law that discards the votes of all parties winning fewer than 5% of the total. Since the left is fragmented, they are entirely unrepresented in the parliament, and PiS has a narrow majority of the seats.

The main opposition party is called Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska). It belongs to the same European bloc of parties that includes Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and presents itself as a centrist movement for whom expertise, stability, and good management are the highest priorities in governance. They cultivate an image as patriotic without being nationalistic, Catholic but not extremist or fundamentalist, pro-market while sensitive to the value of the modern European welfare state.

In other words, in a normal world they would be rather dull. As Douglas Adams might have put it, “mostly harmless.”

But actually, it’s worse than that. It is not a sin to be boring (at least, I like to tell myself that!). Civic Platform politicians often present this trait as if it were even a virtue, and maybe in today’s tumultuous world, it is. One could argue that when faced with an existential threat, like the one posed by the rise of “illiberal democracy,” we need to all rally around a center of steady resolve, and set aside every potential controversy in the name of unity against a common enemy. I’m actually inclined to agree with this position.

Then something like this happens. Warsaw recently held its annual book fair, and linked to it was the Warsaw Comics Festival, the largest regular gathering of its kind in Poland. During the festival, attendees were given a book of political cartoons by Tomasz Leśniak and Rafał Skarżycki as part of the international “Free Comic Book Day” program. Their cartoons appear regularly under the title “Poland, the Champion of Poland” (Polska Mistrzem Polski), and you can view the ones collected in this free edition here. They poke fun at ostentatious patriotism, hypocritical religiosity, heartless corporate management, and political self-aggrandizement. I’m posting a sampling below, but I urge everyone to check out the complete series.

One of the sponsors of the Comics Festival is the city of Warsaw, where the mayor and the majority of the city council belong to Civic Platform. This has been a major roadblock for Kaczyński’s attempt to transform Poland, because most of the large cities constitute islands of opposition to his vision. Suddenly on May 25 the cultural office of the city government issued this statement: „We announce that we did not know in advance the contents of the comics „Poland, Champion of Poland.” After acquainting ourselves with this publication, we state unambiguously that we do not accept its contents. For this reason, the decision has been made to withdraw the subsidy for the project of which this comic is a part.” In other words, because they were offended by the cartoons, they pulled funding for the entire festival.

This was not an act of the national government, but of the supposedly freedom-loving liberal democrats sustaining Warsaw as a fortress against the barbarians from PiS. It is a reminder that Civic Platform is now, and always was, a right-wing political party. They have been able to wear the mantle of Defenders of Democracy because Poland is faced with an unabashed attempt to destroy the entire constitutional order, but under other circumstances many of the anti-PiS protesters of 2017 would be protesting Civic Platform with just as much fervor. In one year local and regional elections will be held, and these same Civic Platform politicians will call on Poles of all ideological persuasions to put aside their differences in the name of defeating PiS. And they should! Local governments still retain some genuine power, and they might be the only thing holding Poland back from an even deeper slide into darkness. But already some of my leftist and even liberal friends have said to me, “sure PiS is bad, but Platforma isn’t all that different.”  If it looks like it’s a choice between one or the other (and for all practical purposes, it is), then those with even moderately progressive views will find little reason to even turn out to vote. The PiS base, in contrast, will definitely be activated.

The fate of a comic book festival in Warsaw might not seem like much, but there in a microcosm is why I am starting to despair.

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Does Media Partisanship Matter?

In case anyone had any remaining doubts about the corruption of public television in Poland, a new survey by CBOS demonstrates starkly what has happened since the current government of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS) took over in 2015. There are three major television news networks in Poland: one public (Telewizja Polska, or TVP), and the two major private networks, TVN and Polsat. Americans, accustomed as we are to the pitifully small market share of our public TV stations, would be surprised by the situation in Poland (and many other European countries), where public stations dominate the airwaves. That was true before PiS came to power, and it remains true today.

After the elections of October, 2015, the new PiS-appointed management of TVP purged the network of anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to the new ruling party, all the way down to the sports and entertainment correspondents. At the time they justified this by pointing to the fact that the director of the public TV network has always been a political appointee, and that with each change of government there has been a change in management. That’s true, but those changes cannot be remotely compared to what has happened during the past two years. As I’ve written previously, the public TV news has become an embarrassing, unwatchable exercise in propaganda, as overt and unapologetic as anything one would see on Fox News in the United States, or on the news shows before 1989 in Poland. Every appearance or action of President Duda or Prime Minister Szydło is publicized with glowing coverage, while the protests of the opposition are described as the machinations of anti-Polish forces in league with nefarious foreign elements. There’s an abundance of information aimed at stirring up fears of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims in general, even though Poland has only the tiniest communities from the Arab world or North Africa. International figures like Donald Trump, Victor Orbán, or Marine Le Pen are shown in the best possible light, while advocates of liberal constitutional democracy are maligned.

I could offer a more careful media analysis to prove the claims in the last paragraph, but I don’t have to: the Polish viewers make the case for me. Back in 2012, a survey showed that 30% felt that the public TV news supported the government, then led by Donald Tusk and Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform, or PO). 44% considered these channels to be mostly nonpartisan.  Significantly, the figure was almost identical for TVN, while even fewer felt that Polsat had a clear ideological leaning. 

The transformation wrought by PiS could not be more obvious. While a somewhat larger group feels that TVN supports the parties of liberal constitutional democracy (which, to be honest, it does), there are few who pretend that TVP remains an independent news source.  Almost 2/3 of those surveyed recognize the public media as a government mouthpiece – a figure so high that it must include quite a few PiS supporters. Presumably, they want their media to be openly supportive of the state. Meanwhile, Polsat has retained a consistent image because the network has tried to avoid contentious topics as much as possible.  This leaves their news show somewhat bland, which might help explain their low ratings. 

The interesting upshot of this is that the news media might have less influence than we tend to imagine. There haven’t been any dramatic changes in party preferences over the past year, though PiS has fallen and Platforma gained a little bit.  The aggregate polling for the past month gives us this breakdown:

The major difference between this picture and the election results from 2015 is that PiS has lost quite a few percentage points to other right-wing parties, while Platforma has gained vis-à-vis the other parties of the center and left. But the overall picture hasn’t changed all that much.  In other words, the over-the-top propaganda of TVP, even though it is still watched by so many millions of Poles, hasn’t shifted the needle much.  Similarly, the equally explicit (though less tendentious) defense of constitutionalism and liberalism on TVN has failed to convince very many former PiS voters to step out against Jarosław Kaczyński’s rule.  We tend to place a great deal of our hopes and concerns onto the media, but perhaps this whole sphere is less important than we used to think (or less important than it once was).

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The Bishops and Nationalism (followup)

We have the first test case to see what the Polish bishops really meant with their statement on nationalism from last Thursday, which I wrote about here. On Saturday, the furthest of far-right nationalist groups, the National-Radical Camp (Obóz NarodowoRadykalny or ONR), had a march in Warsaw, presenting us with a scene that sent a chill down my spine.

There should be no ambiguity here: if there is any group in Poland that violates the principles outlined in the bishops’ condemnation on nationalism, it is the ONR.  Yet a popular priest named Roman Kneblewski immediately sent out this tweet, which roughly translates as “Today the ONR in Warsaw. It lifts our hearts!”

Not surprisingly, there was an outcry against the idea that a Catholic priest would be openly supporting a group with paramilitary trappings that openly spreads hatred and bigotry — and just days after the bishops had supposedly condemned such things.  The tweet shown above was quickly taken down from his feed, but plenty of tweets exemplifying his support of nationalism in general, and the ONR in particular, remained.  In fact, some came after the bishops’ statement, in explicit repudiation of that document. For example, he re-posted a recording of a sermon in which he defended nationalism, and a quote from the revered Primate from the communist times, Stefan Wyszyński, in support of nationalism.

So Father Kneblewski obviously wants to continue to use the word nationalism, and support groups like the ONR.  What happens now?  In recent years the Church authorities have silenced priests who spoke out in favor of tolerance and dialogue with nonbelievers (Father Adam Boniecki), or challenged the Catholic ban on in-vitro fertilization treatments (Father Wojciech Lemański). In other words, they are willing to use firm disciplinary measures to maintain a unified voice on issues that matter to them. If over the coming days we see similar steps taken to bring Kneblewski into line, then we will know that the condemnation of nationalism in last week’s statement is to be taken seriously.  If, on the other hand, nothing is done about priests who openly support the ONR, then we will know that the position taken on nationalism is just a rhetorical gesture that no one need take too seriously. Let’s see….

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Did the Polish Bishops Just Criticize Polish Nationalism?

On Thursday, the Polish bishops released a document entitled “The Christian Form of Patriotism” (Chrześcijański kształt patriotizmu). The text, which I’ve partially translated below, has a number of interesting passages which are already being interpreted as a condemnation of the nationalist excesses of groups affiliated with or supportive of the current government. In fact, that is explicitly what the document does, by drawing a sharp distinction between “patriotism” (good) and “nationalism” (bad).

The bishops condemn what they call “national egoism,” a term which has a long tradition in Poland linked to Roman Dmowski and the early-20th century National Democratic movement (big heroes of the Polish right). On a few occasions over the past year, a neo-fascist group called the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny) has met in churches and had masses said in their honor (see here and here for news about the most recent episode, which Church leaders have already apologized for). Today the ONR had a large march in Warsaw (well, a few hundred people—for them that’s large), and their schedule notably did not include a procession to a local church.

A few more aspects of this newest Church document might also raise some eyebrows. The bishops criticize the exploitation of history for political purposes, the staging of historical re-enactments that glorify war, the use of polarizing rhetoric, the propagation of forms of patriotism that are closed to ideological diversity, and most emphatically the expression of any disrespect for people of other faiths or national background. They even cited Islam in this context, albeit only in passing. In fact, the text has a reference to the need to show “hospitality” to people from other nations, though that’s the closest the bishops came to repeating Pope Francis’ message of support for accepting refugees.

The problem with this document, as with many of the bishops’ writings, is that it is pitched at such a high level of abstraction that readers of different ideological orientations will be able to interpret it to their liking. The text included several references to the use of “unjustified historical analogies,” which supporters of the current government will take to refer to the opposition’s charges that Poland is turning into an authoritarian state similar to those imposed upon this country in the past. Calls for toning down divisive rhetoric will be understood by supporters of the government as a demand that the opposition stop complaining about the ways in which the regime is undermining the constitution and violating fundamental norms of democracy and the rule of law. Indeed, these interpretations are probably appropriate, because it is well known that a large majority of the bishops are supporters of Jarosław Kaczyński’s “Law and Justice” Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS).

So the PiS leadership can rest easy: there’s nothing here that will cause them any short-term headaches. They’ll be able to spin the bishops’ letter for their purposes, and since the drafting committee included many supporters of PiS, this isn’t really even spin. There is a clear warning here to Mr. Kaczyński to stop flirting with the furthest reaches of the far right, which could eventually make it harder to him to follow his long-standing policy of not allowing anyone to outflank him on the right. He wants to ensure that the small parties trying to replicate the success of Jobbik (an undeniably neo-fascist party in Hungary) will not succeed, and in that context the bishops have just set a line that they don’t want him to cross. But in reality, it isn’t going to be hard for almost everyone on the right in Poland to read this document, nod their heads in agreement, and say “clearly I’m a patriot, and only those bad people with whom I would never cooperate are nationalists.

Having said all this, I still think this text might turn out to be important. So far the Church as an institution – and for that matter nearly all priests – have shown unwavering support for PiS. There have been absolutely no signs that any significant members of the clergy, much less the episcopate, are willing to speak out in support of the democratic opposition. There have been some rumors that a few bishops have lobbied unsuccessfully for Kaczyński to soften his anti-immigrant rhetoric, but other bishops have declared openly their opposition to accepting any refugees. The contrast between the Church in Poland and the Papacy could not be more obvious. As the PiS government has neutralized the judiciary, centralized power by abolishing all separation of powers, turned the state media into a vulgar propaganda mouthpiece, and demonized the opposition as traitors and conspirators who care only for undermining Poland’s genuine national interest – throughout all of this, the Church has said absolutely nothing. Against that dismal backdrop, this week’s statement from the episcopate is a slight shift, a baby-step to place a little bit of daylight between the Church and the PiS State.

Anyone expecting the Church to play a role in fighting today’s authoritarianism similar to the one they had during the communist era will be disappointed. That’s just not going to happen. We are not going to see priests (at least, no more than a few renegades) marching alongside the liberals and feminists who have been challenging the PiS government so far.

But this statement by the episcopate suggests that it is possible that the Church leadership would prefer not to be seen as an appendage of the nationalist right. In PiS’s Poland, the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that Kaczyński (probably) cannot neutralize, and maybe—just maybe—this might serve as a weak constraint that could keep the very worst elements of the radical right from rising to even more power.

That’s not much of a hope. But these days, it might be all we have.


Here are some excerpts of the text from the Episcopate. The complete 4,398 word text can be found here)

The revitalization of patriotic attitudes and feelings of national consciousness, which we have observed in Poland over the past few years, is a very positive phenomenon. Love of the fatherland, affection for the culture and traditions of one’s homeland – these things do not just relate to the past, but are tightly bound to our present capacity for sacrifice and solidarity in the attainment of the common good. They therefore influence the form of our future in a real way.

At the same time, we can see in our country the emergence of attitudes that are contrary to patriotism. Their common ground is egoism. This can be individual egoism, apathy about the fate of the national community, exclusive concern for the wellbeing of the individual and those closest to him. This sort of inattention to the treasure that every one of us receives together with our common language, the history and culture of our homeland, connected to an apathy about the fate of one’s countrymen – this is a non-Christian attitude. Also contrary to patriotism is national egoism, nationalism, the cultivation of a feeling of superiority, being closed off to other national communities as well as the human community. Patriotism, after all, must always be an open attitude. As our great countryman Henryk Sienkiewicz one aptly put it, “the slogan of every patriot should be: “through the fatherland to humanity.”


From this same Christian perspective, we want to note today that patriotism, as a form of solidarity and love of one’s neighbor, is not an ideological abstraction, but a moral call to give witness to good here and now, in a concrete place, under concrete conditions, among concrete people. Since it is not an ideology, patriotism does not impose a rigid ideological cultural form, and even less a political form, but in diverse ways implants itself and brings to fruition in the lives of people and diverse communities, which want to further, in solidarity, the common good.

Patriotism differs therefore from the ideology of nationalism, which imposes onto living, everyday relations with concrete people, in the family, in school, at work, or at home, rigid diagnoses and political programs often characterized by an aversion to foreigners. They strive to force cultural, regional, and political diversity into a uniform and simplified ideological schema.


We want to underline once again the necessity in our fatherland of a patriotism, well known from our history, that is open to cooperation in solidarity with other nations, based on respect for other cultures and languages. Patriotism without force or contempt. Patriotism attuned to the suffering and injustices that affect other people and other nations.

A patriotism for all citizens. Therefore we emphasize and remind everyone that all Polish citizens contribute to the life and development of our fatherland. The history and identity of our fatherland is particularly closely tied to the Latin tradition of the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, alongside the Catholic majority, our common fatherland has been well served, and continues to be served, by Poles who are Orthodox, Protestant, as well as adherents of Judaism, Islam, and other faiths, as well as those who do not find themselves in any religious tradition. And even though the criminal Holocaust carried out by the German Nazis, as well as other tragic events during the II World War and its aftermath, ensured that many of these communities are no longer among us, their contribution will always be inscribed onto our culture, and their descendants continue to enrich our public life.

Therefore contemporary Polish patriotism, remembering the contribution that Catholicism and Polish tradition has made, should always embody respect and a feeling of community with all those citizens, regardless of their faith or heritage, for whom Polishness and patriotism are a moral and cultural choice.


At a time of deep political conflict, such as divides our fatherland today, it is also a patriotic duty to work for social unity by remembering the truth about the dignity of every person, by relaxing excessive political emotions, by identifying and expanding the field of possible (and essential for Poland) cooperation across divides, as well as the defense of public life from unnecessary politicization. And the first step that one should take in patriotic service is to reflect on the language with which we describe our fatherland, our compatriots, and ourselves. Everywhere, therefore, in private conversations, in official speeches, in debates, in the traditional media and in social media, we are obligated by the commandment to love our neighbor. Therefore the measure of Christian and patriotic sensitivity becomes today the expression of one’s opinions and convictions with respect for one’s compatriots, including those who think differently, in a spirit of kindness and responsibility, without oversimplification and unjust comparisons.


In light of Christian respect for human dignity and also a Christian political vision, it is necessary to recognize as unacceptable and dangerous the exploitation and instrumentalization of historical memory for ongoing struggles and political rivalries. Wherever conflicts (quite natural in politics) become saturated with hasty political analogies and when historical arguments replace economic, legal, or social reasoning, then it sometimes becomes impossible to reach political compromises that are honorable and essential to a democratic society.

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Smolensk (again!)

I’m so tired of writing about this. When a government spends so much time repeating a lie, the rest of us are forced to spend equal time rebutting them. And since the available attention span for news from Poland is so limited in the English speaking world, vital stores get buried because we have to wrestle with the same old canards. Now, on the seventh anniversary of this event, we are at it again.

On April 10, 2010, a tragic airplane crash led to the deaths of 96 Polish dignitaries in Smolensk, Russia. There should be nothing political about that statement – it is a simple fact. This is not one of those issues on which intelligent and honest people can disagree, on which different experts have arrived at different opinions. The belief that the crash was an assassination attempt has been spread by the propaganda apparatus of the current Polish regime, but that should be irrelevant to anyone interested in what actually happened. This story belongs in the ignominious hall of shame alongside claims that Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland was provoked by an attack by Polish troops on a radio station in Gliwice; that US ships were attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964; that Sandam Hussein was compiling weapons of mass destruction and cooperating with Al Qaida in 2001. There is no legitimate debate or doubt here, but because politicians from the governing PiS party in Poland repeat the lies, the international press feels the need to print headlines saying “Poland Says Explosion Behind 2010 Plane Crash in Western Russia” (Bloomberg), “Polish Commission Says President’s Jet Likely Exploded Before 2010 Crash In Russia” (Radio Free Europe) “Polish crash is linked to ‘explosion’” (The Times), “Polands 2010 Smolensk Crash Caused by Explosion” (Daily Beast), “Polish leader’s jet probably exploded just before 2010 crash” (Reuters). All this based on the newest recapitulation of the lie, which came at a major press conference yesterday, on the 7th anniversary of the crash.

There is a mountain of evidence that the crash was the result of a combination of mistakes by both the pilots and the air traffic controllers, made under unfavorable weather conditions. There is absolutely no legitimate evidence to the contrary, despite what you might find if you wallow in the conspiracy swamps of the internet. Yesterday the government released their most recent “theory” of how it happened: having failed to find any evidence for their wild ideals, they came up with the desperate claim that a thermobaric bomb was the cause of the crash. These are devises which consist almost entirely of explosive material, as opposed (for example) to the mix of 25% fuel and 75% oxidizer in gunpowder. As a result, thermobaric bombs leave few if any traces. It’s perfect: now the lack of any evidence of an explosive device can be presented as proof that there was in fact such a bomb on board.

Experts in aviation disasters have ruled conclusively that the crash was an accident; those who would like to read the complete report of the crash investigation commission can download it here. I prefer to focus on an even simpler argument: there was no conceivable reason for the enemies of Lech Kaczyński to carry out such a risky operation. Let’s assume that Donald Tusk, Vladimir Putin, and perhaps even Angela Merkel wanted Lech Kaczyński to be removed from the presidency of Poland. That desire would have been reasonable: Kaczyński had been seriously undermining (then Prime Minister) Tusk’s foreign policy, the President’s support for Ukraine and Georgia was irritating Putin, and his nationalistic euroskepticism was a problem for Merkel. But let’s return to the early months of 2010: at that time Kaczyński’s favorability rating was at a record low: 23% deemed his performance as president to be “rather good” and a miniscule 3% “very good.” Presidential elections were scheduled for later in 2010, and there seemed little hope that Kaczyński would be re-elected. Meanwhile, PiS’s overall support remained stuck far below PO’s: throughout the period from 2007-2010, the two parties were consistently separated by more than 10%. In other words, in April of 2010 all the indications were that Kaczyński was on his way out, and that the movement he represented was collapsing alongside him. It is likely that the collapse of the Kaczyński brothers after an electoral defeat would have been decisive. The Smolensk crash turned that around by creating a martyr for the movement, and a foundational legend on which to base the party’s reconstruction. I do not doubt for a moment that Jarosław Kaczyński was devastated personally by his twin brother’s death, but as a political matter, he and his fellow members of PiS may well be the only ones who benefited from the catastrophe.

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Civil Disobedience

The phrase “civil disobedience” is often bandied about by political activists, but it’s a risky tactic if the goals aren’t clear. Is the purpose to solidify the commitment and solidarity of the protesters? That’s pretty easy to accomplish: being arrested, particularly as part of a group, can be a transformative experience (to say the least). But what if the goal is to actually shift public attitudes? That’s a lot harder, because it requires the sort of act that disinterested observes will understand and respect, so that if the police do intervene, most people end up sympathizing with those being arrested.

Yesterday I received a lesson in how to do this, and I saw how very, very hard it is.

The context was the 7th anniversary of the airplane crash that killed 96 Polish dignitaries, including then-president Lech Kaczyński, the twin brother of Poland’s current de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński. The current regime in Poland propagates the lie that the crash was an assassination organized by the enemies of the nation both inside Poland and abroad, a legend that Kaczyński uses to justify his assault on the norms of constitutional rule and liberal democracy. (For further background on the mythology of this alleged “assassination,” click here.) His goal, as he has said repeatedly, is to purge Poland of the traitors and enemies, so that national security, strength, and above all unity can be restored.

The anniversary ceremony was unusual even by the standards of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS). Terrified that the event might be unsettled by some sign of protest, they blocked off nearly the entire historical center of town and only allowed those with invitations to enter.

Thousands of PiS supporters had arrived from all over the country to participate in the commemorative mass, and I overheard bitter complaints from them wherever I went yesterday afternoon, as they realized that they wouldn’t be able to get close to their heroes. The pre-screened audience got to watch speeches by various Polish dignitaries in front of the Presidential Palace, and people following the official propaganda channels on TV saw a respectful crowd that responded with unified approval as different speakers repeated the conviction that Lech Kaczyński had been assassinated by Poland’s enemies. The small crowd then marched towards Castle Square, where a select few were admitted into St. John’s national cathedral. The mass was broadcast on a big screen TV in front of the Royal Castle, giving the impression that those who couldn’t fit in the cathedral nonetheless got to participate in the event. Nothing could be further from the truth; the police were carefully screening who was allowed to go where.

About a kilometer away on Piłsudski Square, about a thousand anti-government activists had gathered with the goal of sending a simple message: the Smoleńsk disaster should be remembered as a national tragedy, and not co-opted for the political purposes of one party. After all, among the 96 casualties were representatives of every political perspective. The majority were from PiS, but on board were representatives from all the leading parties, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox clergy, and above all a large number of people with no political function (including, of course, the flight crew and the attendants). Since they were on their way to commemorate the anniversary of the WWII Katyń massacre, representatives of the families killed in that horrible event made up a significant share of the delegation. But the diversity of the victims (just like every other kind of diversity) is being erased by the current government. Yesterday, when a new monument to those who died in the crash was unveiled at the Council of Ministers building, only those affiliated with PiS were named.

The crowd at Piłsudski Square was organized by a group called “Obywatele RP” (Citizens of the Polish Republic). This is not affiliated with the better known and much larger Committee for the Defense of Democracy [KOD], though the two groups share the same basic goals. The difference is that ORP engages in peaceful civil disobedience with the goal of exposing the regime’s brutality. Paweł Kasprzak, the group’s informal leader, was an anti-communist activist before 1989, and now he’s brushing off his old techniques.

He is rather pessimistic; as he said in his speech yesterday, the defenders of democracy in Poland today are in the minority, and even if PiS is removed from power the social forces behind PiS will still be there. I don’t entirely share his view on this point, but it’s undeniable that there are millions of people in Poland who have lost faith in liberal democracy. And it is also probably true that big marches won’t accomplish much, particularly since the recent ones haven’t really been big enough to create any kind of political challenge.

Obywatele RP are emphatically non-violent, and even their approach to civil disobedience is remarkably polite and respectful. The goal yesterday was to quietly join the crowds watching the Smolensk anniversary ceremony, holding up signs that said “Mourning Unites Us, Political Demonstrations Divide Us,” or “We Remember All The Victims of the Catastrophe” or “I Continue to Believe in Empathy, Not Revenge.”

They were ready to chant “Constitution, Liberty, Democracy” if the moment called for it, but they also practiced going silent on cue. One of the most important things, Kasprzak said, was not to interfere with anyone’s prayers, so during the religious parts of the ceremony they were to be silent and respectful, and only get noisy if the PiS supporters did so first. Kasprzak said that PiS was trying to divide the country into “true Poles” and “traitors,” so the goal of ORP must be to display unity and compassion—even with their opponents.

The police were out in force, surrounding the ORP protest and taking pictures of everyone who was present (though plenty of activists were taking pictures of the police in turn).

Kasprzak told his supporters to treat the police with respect, because they were just following orders. He emphasized, however, that those orders were unconstitutional, and that the police had a duty to disobey such orders. Specifically, he was referring to a new law stating that no demonstrations could be held within half a kilometer of any other event expressing an opposing point of view. The law included mechanisms to ensure that pro-government events would almost always be given first dibs on important times and places, thus relegating opposition events to the margins. The consensus opinion by Polish legal experts was that this law was unconstitutional, but now that the government has seized control of the high court, it was implemented without any problems. Yesterday was the first big test of that law.

Throughout what followed the ORP leaders remained in constant dialogue with the police, who for their part allowed the demonstration to march right up to the edge of Castle Square. At that point, however, they were met by a double-cordon of policemen, blocking every possible entrance to the entire historical district of the city. Waiting to the sides were even more police, who were quickly redeployed to whichever point of access the ORP demonstrators tried to used. The protestors had been instructed to speak to the police with a respectful tone of voice, and try to give them a pamphlet that explained how the new law was a violation of the constitutional right of free assembly. At one point Kasprzak said to the police commander, “do you sincerely think that we are a threat to anyone, or that we are going to disrupt the service?” It was clear from everything they had done so far that they were going to avoid any such disruption. When any sort of prayer was in progress, the ORP activists held up signs reading “silence!,” and to that point there had been no chanting or singing. To Kasprzak’s exasperated question, the police officer replied with startling and revealing honesty that he wasn’t worried about what the ORP people would do, but what the PiS supporters might do to them.

The stand-off lasted for a long time, as Kasprzak and his supports searched for ways to reach Castle Square, while hundreds of police kept the group corralled. Finally Kasprzak told his people to disperse, because nothing more was going to be accomplished that night. The media was there to record the whole episode, so his goals had been (mostly) achieved. As Kasprzak put it, a public event to commemorate a shared national tragedy was being held in a public space, but the government was preventing a peaceful, respectful group of citizens from taking part. I think Kasprzak was hoping that either PiS supporters would attack them, or that the police would try to break up the ORP demonstration by force, but the highly professional tactics employed by the police ensured that it never got to that point.

As I was following one group of demonstrators away from the event, a small confrontation did break out. The police were still there in force, so the two sides were separated by a double-cordon, but volleys of chants were exchanged.

The difference between the two sides was eloquent. The ORP protesters chanted about Democracy, Liberty, and the Constitution, while those on the other side shouted “Traitors” and “Jarosław”. One side had lofty values, the other had invective and devotion to their leader. I don’t want to idealize Obywatele RP, nor do I want to demonize the rank-and-file supporters of PiS. But the contrast really was striking.

Earlier, Kasprzak was telling his supporters about the need to respect everyone, and to maintain dignity and calm even if things got confrontational. Democracy, he said, entailed courageous civil action aimed at persuading fellow citizens, and it was essential not to make the already deep divides even deeper. As he was speaking, two PiS supporters who had been standing next to me stormed off, and one said in disgust, “fucking lefties.” The other replied “yeah—you can see the sort of people we have to deal with.” At that moment, I was proud to be standing with the fucking lefties.

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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.