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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.


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Bibliography of Polish History

I have a request for all readers of this blog.  I’m working on an up-to-date bibliography of Polish history, with an emphasis on the most innovative new scholarship (in either Polish or English). I’m including older works and a few “classics,” but only when they contribute something that is not available in more recent scholarship.  In other words, I’m not trying to create a comprehensive bibliography of Polish historiography, but a reading list for people today who would like a reference guide to the most important, path-breaking, interesting titles.  Since the discipline of history is so capacious, my list includes several works in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and other fields, insofar as they help illuminate Poland’s past.  The first draft of this bibliography is available by clicking here. I hesitated before deciding to share this, because I’m certain that I’ve left off many obvious seminal works, and I am horrified that someone reading this will take offense if their own writing isn’t included.  Please forgive me–and remind me to add whatever I’ve forgotten!  That’s why I am risking such embarrassment: the only hope of making this inclusive is to make it a collaborative project.  There are many times and topics that are beyond my own expertise, so I really need help in those areas.  In particular, I currently have very few items dealing with Polish history prior to the Partitions, and this is simply a reflection of my own ignorance.  So please send me any corrections and additions at Once I’ve received all your recommendations, I will post the bibliography on my website for everyone’s use.  Thanks!

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A Children’s Charity vs. a Conspiracy Theory

Last night (Sunday, January 15) was the annual Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (WOŚP). The title doesn’t translate well: it means “Great Orchestra of Holiday Help,” but it’s not an orchestral concert and it’s always held a couple weeks after the holidays. It was first organized in 1993 by Jerzy Owsiak, a musician, artist, promoter, and host of several rock music shows on radio and TV. He’s also the organizer of one of Poland’s largest music festivals, “Przystanek Woodstock.” The annual WOŚP is a massive fundraising campaign that helps provide hospitals with medical equipment for children and the elderly. At the “Grand Finale” each January, events large and small are held all over Poland (concerts, runs, auctions—just about anything that could possibly be turned into a fundraiser). This year they raised over 62 million złoty (about 15 million dollars). If anyone would like to donate, you can do so on-line by clicking here.

This should be about as controversial and partisan as apple pie. Of course, in today’s Poland nothing is nonpartisan. Many on the far-right are opposed to WOŚP because of Owsiak’s association with rock music and a “hippie” lifestyle. It is indeed true that Owsiak has promoted a message of tolerance and individual lifestyle choice, which some in the Catholic Church describe as the absence of moral principles. It follows, for them, that WOŚP itself lacks a moral foundation, which means that its charitable work is tainted and should be shunned. I should emphasize that this position does not represent the mainstream opinion among Polish Catholics. In fact, Caritas (the leading Catholic aid organization) joined together with WOŚP in this year’s campaign. Among the general public, a 2015 survey showed that WOŚP was viewed positively by 79% of Poles, with only 11% opposed (and 10% having no opinion).

But among the far right, hostility towards Owsiak is a useful litmus test for true believers. So the PiS government announced that (unlike every other government since 1993) it would not provide any support for WOŚP. For example, the army’s own musical group has traditionally performed at the grand finale in Warsaw, but they didn’t this year. Most importantly, TVP (Telewizja Polska, or nowadays better identified as TVPiS or TVPropaganda) refused to broadcast any of the WOŚP events. Fortunately, a private media still exists in Poland, and the TVN network picked up the coverage. That was doubtlessly a great business decision for them, because all the A-list stars appear in these concerts (for free). I was at the Warsaw show last night (see a few of my pictures below), and I can confirm that it was an absolutely amazing concert. Attendance figures haven’t been announced yet, but Plac Defilad was absolutely packed, all the way across Marszałkowska. For those of you who don’t know Warsaw: that’s a lot of people.

So what did TVP broadcast instead of the WOŚP Grand Finale? They showed a new documentary called “Pucz” (Putsch, or Coup). I’ll simply quote the publicity blurb for that show:

“From the moment PiS took power, in democratic parliamentary election, the opposition (PO, Nowoczesna) has tried to overthrow the legal authorities and call early elections. Over time, the means employed in the struggle against the state have become more extreme. The most recent act in this struggle was a failed coup attempt in the Sejm, planned over several months and carried out on December 16. This documentary will show the motives, the plans, and the methods of the conspirators. Who prepared the coup, and when?”

For those who haven’t been following the news, you can read more about the actual events of recent weeks herehere, or here. If you feel nostalgic for the propaganda of the communist era, or if you enjoy watching a show that is so bad as to be self-satire, you can view “Pucz” by clicking here.  The audacity of the lies in the state media is truly jaw-dropping, and this example is no worse than what is shown every night on the news.  They’ve gone far beyond merely “spinning” events in their favor, and are fully occupying a post-truth universe.  Arguing with someone locked in that world has become both impossible and pointless. When one tries to do so, the responses are just smirks and eye-rolling, along with reminders that the “Lewacy” (“lefties,” but used as an insult) have lost power, so their version of reality is now irrelevant.

This was eloquently reflected in a recent survey by IPSOS, which asked people which TV news show was the most trustworthy (wiarygodny). 36% chose TVN (which generally supports the opposition), 25% went with the state-run TVP, and 23% opted for Polsat (which strives to be less partisan). In terms of viewership, the first two stations are roughly tied, with Polsat well behind. The partisan nature of this media landscape was made painfully obvious by asking people who deemed each station reliable what party they supported.  72% of those who trust TVP are PiS supporters, with another 7% going to Kukiz15, which is informally allied with the government. In contrast, among the viewers who trust the main news program of TVN, 64% support either PO or Nowoczesna (the main opposition parties), and only 6% support PiS. Only Polsat retains a mixed viewership—though it’s worth noting that 38% of those who trust that channel say that they don’t vote at all.

Yesterday’s competing television programs—a charity concert vs. a “documentary” about an (imagined) coup attempt—give us a perfect metaphor for Poland today. This is not simply a divide between two visions of reality, because such a description would fall into the trap of false equivalencies. We scholars are drawn to that trap, because we want to maintain a reputation for objectivity and distance. In Poland today, however, that would be a serious abrogation of our intellectual duty. The world presented by media like TVN (or Gazeta Wyborcza, Polityka, or Newsweek Polska, etc.) is weakened by “spin” and many unconscious biases.  But the world presented by TVP (and by extension, the world occupied by supporters of PiS) not only suffers from those problems, but also unvarnished disinformation and cynical manipulation.

The TVP/PiS worldview characterized is by dark conspiracies against Poland, in which anyone expressing opposition to the current government is anti-Polish, corrupt, and anti-democratic. For those who believe in these fantasies—and that seems to be just over a third of the Polish population, and nearly all of those in the government—there can be no dialogue, negotiation, or compromise. There can only be victory or defeat.  And since PiS has clearly embraced such a world view, their opponents are left with fewer alternatives of their own. And that makes me very frightened for the future.

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Here’s an interesting coincidence: 
  • Trump’s approval rating as he assumes the presidency: 37%
  • Percentage of the votes for PiS in 2015: 38%
  • Most support Hitler ever got in a free election: 37%
My theory: in any country at any time, it’s possible to get around this many votes for a dangerous demagogue.  The rise of such characters to this level of support doesn’t even need a complicated sociological, economic, or cultural explanation.  In a secure democracy the center-left and center-right then grit their teeth, and join together to prevent tyranny, even though this means that some will end up supporting a politician (or rival) they vehemently disagree with. Consider what happened in 1990 in Poland. When Lech Wałęsa ended up facing an unhinged demagogue named Stanisław Tymiński (who, come to think of it, was strikingly similar to Trump) in the second round of the presidential elections, 74% of the voters banded together to support Wałęsa. Surveys taken shortly afterwards showed that only 49% actually supported the new president; the rest supported democracy, and were willing to put up with one term of a bad leader in order to preserve the system. If only the wisdom demonstrated by Poles in 1990 was more common today.

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Closer to Confrontation

The ongoing crisis in Poland is reaching a dangerous moment, and a forceful confrontation has become a real possibility. The details of the current parliamentary dispute (which you can read about here, here, or here) are less important than the rhetoric, because the latter has been characterized by a frightening escalation. Jarosław Kaczyński, who will ultimately determine how this crisis is ended, is framing the controversy in a very disturbing way. Yesterday he said at a press conference that the opposition’s attempt to block the parliamentary podium in order to enforce a filibuster was “entirely illegal and counter to Polish democracy; it is deliberately aimed against Polish democracy, and the entire struggle that is now underway is a struggle against democracy, against the idea that a parliamentary majority can decide what’s in the interest of ordinary people, can decide what is in the interests of the Poles.” Later Kaczyński gave a speech to supporters in front of the Presidential Palace, but had to contend with a loud counter-protest. Pointing to his opponents, he said “the day will come when Poland will once and for all free itself of all that, of the sickness that we see here. And no shouts, no screams, no sirens will change that. Poland will be victorious against its enemies, against the traitors.” For their part, the opposition is moving rapidly towards a consensus that Jarosław Kaczyński, President Andrzej Duda, and Prime Minister Beata Szydło must be held to account for their violations of the Polish constitution, and that when this is all over it will be necessary to form a State Tribunal to judge them. Some prominent voices are going even further. Yesterday Krzysztof Łoziński (one of the co-founders of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, though not currently serving on its board) said in an interview, “in a few months we will either have a complete dictatorship and a terror state [państwo terroru], or Jarosław Kaczyński will be sitting in prison. There is no third alternative.” I certainly hope he is wrong, because right now Poland desperately needs a peaceful way out of this stalemate.

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Rising Hatred?

2017 is off to a bad start.

On New Year’s Eve, an altercation at a kebab stand in the town of Ełk left one man dead, and the survivor of the fight was the owner of the shop, an immigrant from Tunisia. An outraged crowd gathered afterwards, shouting anti-Muslim slogans and throwing things at the shop. When police tried to intervene they were attacked, and 29 people were eventually arrested. The local bishop appealed for calm at mass the next day, leading a group of young men to storm out of the church in anger, saying that this was a time for “justice” and not “mercy.” One young man standing outside the kebab stand told a reporter “his death will not be in vain; this is a signal to put things in order (robić porządek).” Over the next few days, kebab stands in several other cities were attacked. Several shop owners had to be taken to hospitals for their injuries, and at least one shop was damaged enough to force its closure. Among the victims was a Hindu who had immigrated to Poland from India. As he was being beaten the assailants were shouting anti-Islamic slogans. It would seem that a dark complexion is enough nowadays for the thugs to label you as “Muslim.”

Also on New Year’s Eve (actually, early in the morning on January 1), some Varsovians were at the Café Foksal, just off the fashionable Nowy Świat street in the center of Warsaw. Their conversation turned to the subject of Israel, where some of them had relatives. Accounts of what happened next vary, but apparently they offended the bartender, who told them that she was Catholic and shouldn’t have to listen to their conversation, so they should leave. An argument ensued, and the police were called. While we can’t be sure what sparked the confrontation, the resulting argument and particularly the internet explosion that came later exposed a great deal of undeniable antisemitism.

In response to all this, the current Minister of the Interior, Mariusz Błaszczak, gave us a textbook example of blaming the victim.  He said the violence in Poland was not as widespread as it was in Germany or France (true enough), and he explained this by pointing to the willingness of those countries to accept immigrants from the Near East and Africa.  The real culprit here, he said was “many years of multi-culti policies, political correctness, and open borders.”  He was proud that Poland had avoided this, thanks to his party’s leadership.  Had the opposition won the last elections, he noted, they would have allowed a few thousand refugees into Poland (a country of nearly 40 million), and then the violence would surely be a lot worse. In other words, for Błaszczak, the mere presence of dark-skinned people in Poland would ensure that the locals would commit acts of violence against them, so the best policy is to keep the foreigners out. I thought that the rhetorical brutality and sheer stupidity of the current Polish government could no longer surprise or outrage me, but the fact that the Interior Minister could say something like that precisely at a moment of rising tensions….I’m speechless.

What should we think about events like these? It is very easy to fit them into a picture of rising hatred, spurred on by the current wave of radical-right victories in Europe and America. On both sides of the Atlantic, we have abundant reports of hate crimes in which the perpetrators echoed the rhetoric of Trump, Kaczyński, Le Pen, Hofer, Orbán, etc. It is beyond any doubt that these despicable individuals and the movements they represent have inspired people to say publicly what previously had been relegated to marginal websites and private conversations. 2016 was the year in which the rock of the modern world was turned over, and the maggots underneath crawled out.

But I want to offer a note of caution as we encounter more and more stories of hate crimes, not to mention public displays of prejudice. Among the countless idiocies of the bigots, one of the most annoying is their tendency to extrapolate wildly from anecdotes. A Muslim committed an act of terrorism? Then all Muslims are dangerous. A Mexican committed a crime? Then we need to expel “them” from “our” country. Studies have shown that supporters of the new hatemongering politicians vastly overstate the crime rate and understate the assimilation rate of immigrants, but even the most prejudiced acknowledge that not all the members of group X are bad. Instead, they see the world in terms of cohesive and coherent national groups in which each member of the group is responsible for the transgressions of any of them. The bigots rarely apply that same logic to their own group, but that’s another matter.

The logical fallacies in that worldview are too numerous to count, particularly given the increasing irrelevance of facts, let along reason. But well-intentioned people can and should be introspective enough to avoid making parallel mistakes. We need to ask ourselves whether episodes of hate crimes or hate speech exemplify changing attitudes and/or increased aggression, or whether we are noticing these episodes and giving them greater weight because they fit into the big story of our sad era, the rise of the xenophobic right. The eternal pitfalls of confirmation bias loom large nowadays.

Hate crimes are increasing in Poland. From January to August of 2016 there were 493 reported incidents, compared to 452 during those same months the year before.  The jump between 2014 and 2015 was even more dramatic: from 698 reported hate crimes to 962. The number of cases actually prosecuted grew even faster, though the categorization used by the Justice Ministry includes transgressions that would be protected under the First Amendment in the US (for example, displaying “totalitarian” imagery or slogans). These numbers are significant, and an outrage, but let’s not jump to the conclusion that Poland is suddenly a totally different place than it was in 2014. In fact, the most important lesson I’ve learned while living in Warsaw this year is that it is still the same city I’ve known and loved for over thirty years. The thugs in power now in Poland make it seem that things have profoundly changed, but in reality the transformations are at the margins (so far). One reason the number of hate crimes has increased so much is because that figure was so tiny to begin with, and given the size of Poland, the incidents remain rare. If PiS holds power for a few decades and succeeds in their desire to homogenize the media and the education system under their control, perhaps things truly will get worse, but that hasn’t happened yet. The situation feels worse, and I catch myself avoiding English in public, noticing ugly and vulgar graffiti that I would have once ignored, and jumping to conclusions when I see young men wearing t-shirts with WWII slogans. Like everyone else, my perceptions are filtered through the stories I’m hearing (and repeating) from the realm of high politics and public life. I’m struggling to resist making too many assumptions, but it’s hard.

I’m not arguing for complacency, and I certainly don’t suggest that we ignore episodes of hate speech (much less actual violence).  But during these troubling times, we scholars in particular (but really, everyone) must be vigilant against overstatement and overgeneralization. That’s precisely what the Błaszczyks of the world are doing.  And he definitely isn’t an example worth copying.




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The “Civic Strike” Protests

In dozens of towns and cities across Poland today, people marched in protests against the current government’s efforts to weaken liberal democracy.  I posted a summary of their demands here. In Warsaw the demonstration included tens of thousands of people (preliminary estimates place the crowd at 30,000), despite the sub-zero temperatures. Flags for the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) dominated, but there were also many banners from the liberal party Nowoczesna (Modern), the teachers union (whose grievances I wrote about here), and several other organizations. I did not personally spot any signs for the other main opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), but several leading figures from that party were present. The march began outside the old headquarters of the PZPR (the communist party), and ended outside the headquarters of the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) party.  The symbolism of that linkage was obvious.

There was a small counter-protest along the route, but aside from some shouted invectives it was not noteworthy.  They chanted taunts like “all of Poland is laughing at you” and “then you were commies, now you are in KOD, but you are still covered in filth” (loosely translated). Later a demonstration was also held in support of the government, which was much smaller than the opposition’s march.  Jarosław Kaczyński spoke, downplaying the opposition as a little more than defeated remnants of the former rulers of the country, who could not reconcile themselves to PiS’s triumph.  He evoked today’s 35th anniversary of the 1981 declaration of martial law, and linked that in turn to the suffering that Poland experienced during and immediately following WWII.  “We must always defend ourselves against such historical tendencies,” he said.  The idea that the Nazis, the communists, and today’s liberal democrats are all part of the same pattern of anti-Polish force is a cornerstone of the PiS worldview.

The theme of the anti-government march was the slogan “we will not be divided,” which was used explicitly to counter the efforts by the government to separate the country into two camps, “true Poles” vs. an “elite” that was just trying to defend its privileges and power. All the speakers from KOD stressed their demands that the constitution be respected and pluralism and diversity honored. There was also discussion of the misguided educational reforms, the erosion of the separation of Church and State, and the increasingly weak position of Poland in world opinion.  There were angry moments as well.  When a television reporter for the state-run pro-government media began broadcasting, he was surrounded by people with vuvuzelas, and others shouting “liars!”  One of the more dramatic moments came when a speaker promised that someday Jarosław Kaczyński, Prime Minister Beata Szydło, and President Andrzej Duda will have to answer for their crimes before a State Tribunal. That promise generated some of the loudest applause of the night. While it seems like a distant, even unreal topic for discussion at this point, that’s undoubtedly going to be a difficult issue that Poles will eventually have to face.

For now, these protests demonstrate that (contrary to all the talk of resisting divisiveness) this country is deeply split.  Attitudes on both sides are only growing more ossified, with the accusations in both directions growing more heated.  Any resolution of this situation seems as distant as it has ever been.