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Civic Strike

Today, on the anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in 1981, protests (labeled a “Civic Strike”) are being held all over Poland.  The organizers issued a statement that I’ve translated below (the original is here).  Following it is an excerpt from an interview given in response to this statement by Jarosław Kaczyński. Finally, I’ve translated the list of demands compiled by the organizers of today’s protests.

Here in Warsaw the demonstration will begin in under three hours.  Check back later for my impressions from the event.


Stop the devastation of Poland!

Almost exactly one year ago, on December 12, we protested for the first time against the paralyzing of the work of the Constitutional Tribunal and the violation of the Constitution by the government and the President.

Today we know that a year of the Law and Justice government has been, above all, time for the methodical destruction of Poland, its relations with its neighbors, and its image in the world.  It has been a time for subordinating to partisan interests nearly every public institution: judges, prosecutors, civil servants, and the army.  The authorities have taken over the public media and transformed it into a pro-government organ, which does not hesitate to lie and manipulate. PiS wants to make it more difficult for us to gather and protest

Today Polish society is, as never before, deeply divided.  We feel above all anger at the actions of the government, the parliamentary majority, and the President. The authorities have methodically destroyed that which we managed to build over the previous decades.  It is also destroying us as a society—setting us against each other, trying to divide and conquer.

Destructive laws prepared without any consultation and passed in haste have only one goal: to increase the power of PiS at the cost of civic liberty. The PiS government is systematically ruining Polish culture, hampering economic development, carrying out an assault on women’s rights, and now preparing the imposition of reforms that would create massive chaos in Polish schools.

Therefore we call upon everyone—men and women, teachers, parents, health-care workers, miners, farmers, business people, artists, journalists, judges, prosecutors, police officers, soldiers, and also NGOs, political parties, local self-government, unions—to join together in opposition to all this.

Today the moment has arrived to renounce obedience to these authorities. [Dziś nadeszła chwila, by wypowiedzieć posłuszeństwo tej władzy].

On the 13th of December we will take to the streets of all Polish cities and towns, and show that we do not accept the destruction of Poland.  We will protest against the arrogant autocracy of PiS.  But we will also show that we can stand together.  And we will not (as on December 13, 1981) allow ourselves to be set against each other, we will not allow any confrontations.

We will not surrender our liberty.  We will not surrender our culture, education women’s rights, labor laws, self-government, NGSs, media, farms.

Enough discrediting of Poland on the international stage! Enough cracking down on liberty and democracy!  Enough of this madness!

  • Sławomir Broniarz
  • Władysław Frasyniuk
  • Krystyna Janda
  • Jacek Jaśkowiak, Prezydent Miasta Poznania
  • Jacek Karnowski, Prezydent Miasta Sopotu
  • Mateusz Kijowski
  • Marta Lempart, inicjatorka Ogólnopolskiego Strajku Kobiet
  • Płk dypl. rez. mgr inż. Adam Mazguła, były dowódca wojskowy, harcmistrz
  • Ryszard Petru, Przewodniczący Nowoczesnej
  • Krzysztof Pieczyński, aktor, stowarzyszenie Polska Laicka
  • Grzegorz Schetyna, Przewodniczący Platformy Obywatelskiej
  • Aleksander Smolar, Prezes Fundacji im. Stefana Batorego
  • Lech Wałęsa


Reacting to this statement, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said “This is an appeal of an anti-state character, and basically we are dealing here with a crime.  This is an appeal to commit a crime…For our part, there will certainly be efforts to bring some order to the activities of the opposition, though again I fear that this will be treated as…an attempt to limit democracy.…Nonetheless, we will put forward such proposals soon.  And they will be proposals aimed at ensuring that the political conflicts natural in a democracy are conducted as they ought to be conducted, not as they are at the present moment.”


A more detailed lists of demands by the organizers of today’s protests can be found here.  They are as follows:

  • The resignation of the government of Beata Szydło
  • The cessation of activities aimed at constraining the functioning of state institutions, particularly activities paralyzing the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal and the general courts
  • The cessation of activities weakening women’s rights and suppressing the Convention Against Domestic Violence
  • The withdrawal by the government of the harmful and ill-prepared education reforms
  • The upholding of the constitutional principle of the separation of Church and State
  • The hiring of people for administrative positions based on qualifications and experience, not party loyalty.
  • The consistent repudiation of all manifestations of fascism, nationalism, and xenophobia
  • The political independence of cultural institutions and the public media
  • The preservation of complete freedom of assembly
  • The preservation of the autonomy of NGOs
  • The return of full property rights, particular regarding rural land (that is, an end to the threat of nationalization) as well as an increase of the limit on tax-free earnings for everyone
  • The cessation by the government of the exhumation of the victims of the Smolensk catastrophe whenever so requested by their relatives
  • The cessation of the formation of the Army of Territorial Defense in its current form—that is, with the possibility that it might be used against citizens of the Polish Republic.



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Historians and the Politics of Memory (part two)

After the meeting of historians of modern Poland held last Saturday in Warsaw (described here), the organizers issued a statement of principles, which I’m translating below. The original Polish can be found here.

For the most part it is a valuable document, but in my personal opinion it contains one line that raises concerns: “Historical policy, also known as memory policy, should build the national and civic community based on a plurality of worldviews and respect for diverse points of view.” I fear that this concedes far too much, because it accepts a national project as both inevitable and necessary. We now have more than three decades of scholarship analyzing and critiquing the concept of nation, pointing out the political and ideological agendas at its foundation, and (more recently) showing how profoundly it oversimplifies the complexity of identity. If it is true, as I argued in my last post, that the discipline of history is based on a search for the historicity of all of our political, social, and cultural institutions, then surely a critique of the concept of nation is included in that.

A historian can certainly use the past to convey certain values, and as scholars we carry our values into everything we do. For example, knowing that the ideal of racial equality has its own history, and teaching about the ebbs and flows of that ideal over time, I can both promote that ideal and explain it.  The same is not true about the nation, because accurately and honestly teaching about it would demonstrate that it is a recent historical construction without any consistent definition.  I suppose that one could proceed from that starting point to an argument about the ethical or moral utility of the nation as a form of political organization well suited for the modern world, but that hardly sounds like a solid basis for “building the national community.”  That phrase seems to me to inherently encompass the spinning of mythologies linking selective communities from the past together in order to form communities of identity in the present.  Describing how that process works in social and political life is the historian’s job, but performing that process strikes me as a violation of the mandate that we critically analyze every historical construct. Once you historicize the nation, how can you then turn around and participate in its construction?

Some values (for example, equality, liberty, tolerance) function independently of their historicity. They remain important values even when we recognize them as recent constructs. Other values are at some level embedded in a claim that they represent something transhistorical (for example, claims that nations, gender norms, or racial hierarchies are grounded and stable).  The latter must wither under the historians gaze. Once historians demonstrated that concepts of femininity and masculinity are fluid over time and place, rather than embedded in any consistent understanding of “human nature,” we could not then take as our project the construction and defense of any stable understanding of what a “proper woman” ought to be. Knowing what we do about the history of gender, we have no choice but to be the critics of any such attempts to fix that which is inherently mutable. The same goes for nations. The historian is not and cannot be a nation-builder, but rather a perennial deconstructor of nations.

Here is a translation of the official statement. (I’ve emphasized precision rather than eloquence, so some of the wording might seem a bit awkward in English).

We advocate the autonomy of historiography, the academic world, and cultural institutions, for their independence vis-à-vis the authorities without regard to political orientation.  We are opposed to the instrumentalization of history for purposes of current political objectives or anyone’s particularist interests. Historical policy, also known as memory policy, should build the national and civic community based on a plurality of worldviews and respect for diverse points of view. The foundation is a respect for historical facts, which come from the critical analysis of sources and an awareness of the complexity of our history.  The ethos of the scholar has no space for the selectivity of knowledge or its banalization, and even less for insinuation or invective. Divisions and disputes are the essence of a democratic public life, including in the realm of history, but they may not negate the principle of mutual respect, or lead to treating as enemies people with different views of the past or the shape of the national community.  We will not introduce the methods and attitudes that we know from the world of politics to the scholarly community.  We value dialogue and the search for understanding in the most important questions. 

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Historians and the Politics of Memory


Today in Warsaw, a few hundred historians from all over Poland met in one of Warsaw University’s most distinguished rooms, the aptly named “Sala Kolumnowa” (see the picture above). It was an unprecedented gathering—perhaps the largest assembly ever of specialists in modern (mostly 20th century) Polish history. But this was not a scholarly conference in the traditional sense: it was an emergency meeting, organized to address the growing crisis surrounding the Polish government’s “polityka historyczna.”

That term can be alternatively translated as “historical politics” or “historical policy,” and both senses are appropriate. Since coming to power last year, the PiS government has:

  • replaced the leadership of the yet-to-be-opened Museum of the Second World War, on the grounds that the planned exhibit would present the war from a comparative, international perspective, thus diminishing the distinctive heroism of the Polish nation;
  • purged the administration of the Institute for National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, or IPN), which manages the archives of the communist-era political police, investigates “crimes against the Polish nation,” and carries out public history efforts dealing with WWII and the communist era;
  • replaced the editorial directors of the journal Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość, a scholarly periodical associated with the IPN;
  • launched plans to rewrite the history curriculum for primary and secondary schools, with the goal of promoting national identity, patriotism, pride, and unity;
  • announced a law (now in its final stages in the sejm) that would make it a crime subject to up to three years in jail to “ascribe to the Polish nation or the Polish state responsibility (or co-responsibility) for Nazi crimes carried out by the Third Reich, or other crimes against peace or humanity, as well as war crimes.”

A group of historians planned a meeting for early November to prepare a joint protest on behalf of the profession, but this gathering was delayed when a number of scholars complained that such a move would be inappropriate, given that the profession was in fact divided on this matter. After a series of unpleasant e-mail exchanges, it was agreed to hold a debate on the more general question of “polityka historyczna,” including both those who oppose the current government and those who support it. That event was held today.

Based on my very impressionistic assessment of the patterns of applause, and on the balance of opinions expressed by those who spoke out at the meeting (over 30 people took the floor), it seems that those who oppose recent government interventions outnumber those who support them by a significant margin. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that a large minority of those present sympathized with the broad goals of the regime, if not necessarily with each of the aforementioned actions.

The texts presented today will be posted soon at The organizers are also working on a resolution that might smooth over all the differences of opinion, or perhaps a protest letter that individual scholars can decide to sign or not sign. At the end of the meeting, it was still not entirely clear how this would play out. A consensus statement would refer very generally to the value of academic freedom and independence, and the need for a plurality of opinions and perspectives.

Very generally, those who support the current government argued that democratically elected authorities have a right and a responsibility to monitor how public funds are spent, and to use those funds to pursue the policies and values endorsed by the electorate. They made a distinction between freedom of research (which they too claimed to value) and the public history efforts of museums, monuments, primary and secondary education, and other activities of commemoration and memory. Precisely because those things were public and (to a greater or lesser extent) publicly financed, then they should be shaped by the policies of the state. Perhaps most importantly, they argued that every government has a “polityka historyczna” whether they admit it or not. The only different now, they insisted, was that the government was restoring a historical vision that prioritized national solidarity and unity, that promoted pride and collective dignity, and that focused attention on the crimes of the past so that the individuals, movements, and worldviews that buttressed the Polish People’s Republic (as well as the III Republic from 1989-2015, some would add) could be exposed and delegitimized. As I overheard one person say away from the microphone, it will finally be possible to use history to “differentiate between the heroes and villains,” and establish “moral clarity” about the past.

The historians who opposed all this articulated various degrees of anger, frustration, and fear. They mentioned the principles of academic freedom, the need for diverse perspectives, the professional norms of respect for those with differing views, and above all, the foundational value of nuance, complexity, and empathy in all historical research and writing. Several speakers evoked the memory of the Polish People’s Republic (a personal memory for many of them), saying that the moves of the current government are disturbingly similar to what happened then. Recognizing that during the communist era a gathering such as today’s would have been impossible—making any precise analogy hyperbolic—they argued that using state power to enforce one and only one perspective on the past was authoritarian and antidemocratic. Several speakers described the historical vision of the regime as “infantilized,” too simplistic, too ideological, and based on mythologies and half-truths.

Every reader of this blog knows that I am harshly critical of this Law and Justice (PiS) government. I am outraged by precisely the issues discussed in today’s meeting, and I’ve written about that on this blog, on multiple occasions. The propagandistic use of history to promote nationalism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and authoritarianism is worthy of contempt and should be opposed in every way possible.

And yet….what is the moral foundation for my opposition? One speaker who supports PiS leveled the charge of hypocrisy against those who today are calling for tolerance and diversity of viewpoints, because prior to 2015 these very same people were trying to marginalize and ostracize those who challenged the scholarly consensus about, for example, Polish-Jewish relations or the value of the peaceful transition of power in 1989. He’s right: those who refuse to accept that Poles murdered Jews during WWII (at Jedwabne, for instance), and those who believe that Lech Wałęsa was a communist agent who participated in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the nation in 1989—those who make such arguments are widely considered unprofessional (to put it mildly), and not worthy of the label of “historian.” In my opinion, justly so.

It follows that I don’t really value a “diversity of viewpoints” in an absolute sense. I accept that Holocaust deniers, racists and antisemites, apologists for slavery, purveyors of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, etc. deserve to be ostracized. The American Historical Association has a code of ethics, and while some of its language is less precise than I might like, I would definitely agree that anyone who violates that code has stepped outside of our scholarly community and should be treated as such. Consider this section of the AHA’s code:

Historians understand that all knowledge is situated in time and place, that all interpretations express a point of view, and that no mortal mind can ever aspire to omniscience.… Furthermore, the different peoples whose past lives we seek to understand held views of their lives that were often very different from each other—and from our own….Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present.

Amen. But notice that this argument precludes anyone who would argue, for example, that the point of history is to cultivate social cohesion, or that history should be used to demonstrate the way God’s will works through His creation, or that the past demonstrates the continuity and centrality of the nation as the primary agent of history, or any number of other viewpoints that are quite common among those who would support today’s Polish government.

In other words, the AHA’s code of ethics, and the values that most of the participants of today’s Warsaw meeting hold dear, have their own ideological foundation. It is one that takes diversity to be both inevitable and good, that values tolerance and pluralism, and (perhaps most important) considers humanity to be irreducibly mutable and contextualized. Within those values, there is a lot of space for diverse political views, but not for all political views. A vanishingly small number of historians in the US supported Donald Trump in the last election, and it is undeniable that we are “biased” against the views he articulated during his campaign.

My point is not to endorse the idea that there is an equivalence between the way right-wing historians have been treated, and the way liberal and leftist historians are being treated by the current Polish government. Professional criticism, even general ostracism, are not the same as systematic institutional purges. But let’s face it; when PiS eventually falls from power there will be a reckoning: the leadership of the WWII museum and similar institutions will be replaced, the IPN will be either deeply reformed or even (as more and more people are arguing) liquidated altogether, and editorial boards of leading journals will be changed. This will happen, because those currently installed in all those positions do not respect the values discussed above, and thus they have violated key principles of our profession.

But let’s own the fact that this is based on a set of specific values, and that those values are not ideologically or politically neutral. Let’s embrace the idea that our profession is necessarily committed to the idea that all human phenomena change over time (including foundational things like gender relations, family norms, definitions of race and ethnicity, economic relations, etc.). If you believe that, certain conservative principles are indeed foreclosed, in the same way that the discipline of biology forecloses a belief in creationism, or the discipline of climate science forecloses the denial of global warming, or the discipline of anthropology forecloses a belief in fixed racial hierarchies.

There’s a lot of room for ideological diversity among historians. But not endless diversity. The limits of that diversity are grounded in what I hope are shared values, not just a content-free acceptance that people can use historical arguments in whatever way they wish.  These shared values insist that there really is such a thing as historical falsehood, even if there is not (cannot be) one single and unalterable historical truth.  The belief in never-ending and all-encompassing historical change, and in the irreducibility of historical experience to singular narratives, is fundamental to our discipline.

And those beliefs have ideological and political consequences.  As scholars and citizens, we must be ready to defend those consequences, because today they are very seriously threatened. That’s our polityka historyczna.



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Freedom of Assembly Undermined in Poland

In September, Jarosław Kaczyński told members of his party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) that they should prepare themselves psychologically for a significant increase in tension towards the end of the year, and be ready for a true test of their will. I think we know now what he was talking about.

With the catastrophic American elections, then the Austrian and Italian elections, then the ongoing fiasco of Brexit, then all the other events of this year’s horrible November rushing past us, few outside of Poland have noticed one of the most frightening developments since PiS took power one year ago.

In the middle of November a new law on public assembly was proposed, and it was rushed through the lower house (the sejm) this past week. It is now before the senate, moving as quickly as it did in the lower house. After the president signs it—which he will, because he must follow instructions from Kaczyński—it will then become law. The Constitutional Court is powerless to stop it, because earlier this year the government established the precedent that it will simply ignore court rulings it does not like. But the unconstitutionality of the new law seems beyond question.

The law might seem benign at first glance: it purports to establish rules to secure public safety by empowering the government to prevent competing public gatherings from overlapping. One can imagine, for example, that the police might want to avoid rallies by neo-fascists and anarchists at the same place at the same time. Fair enough. But that’s just the fig leaf covering the most profound violation of the right of free assembly seen in Poland since 1989, because the meat of the legislation is a provision establishing a prioritization for resolving scheduling conflicts. According to the new law, if the government or the Catholic Church announces a public event, then no other event can legally be held at the same time or place. Moreover, the law is retroactive: an official event will force the cancellation of any previously scheduled non-governmental event.

When an opposition senator protested that this was a return to restrictions that Poles struggled against during the period of martial law in the early 1980s, Senator Waldemar Bonkowski (PiS) responded that there was no comparison, because “that government was imposed on us by foreigners. This is a democratically elected government. The majority of society supports this government, and it has a duty to protect the security of the citizens.” He went on to say that there were protests in Poland all the time, so how could anyone speak of a threat to democracy? Yes, there are lots of protests, but now the government has given itself a framework for blocking them.

If there was any doubt where this was heading, TVP (the regime’s propaganda organ) has recently been spreading blatant lies about the intentions of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji, or KOD). We are to believe that this organization is planning to use violence to overthrow the government of Poland, and that they are posing a serious threat to public safety. Obviously no one who has seen a KOD march or knows anything about the organization could believe such absurd disinformation, but those who live outside the major urban areas might. Given the media bubbles of our post-fact world, such deceit takes on new power.

On December 13 KOD is planning a major protest demonstration, scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the declaration of martial law in 1981. Then as now, December is a good time for autocratic Polish governments to crack down on the opposition, because the cold weather and early darkness makes it a lot harder to mount any sort of public protests. We’ll see if that tactic works this time.

One way or another, the struggle for democracy in Poland has entered a new phase.

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E pluribus unum — or maybe not.

Here and here are two articles that came out this past week, and should be essential reading for those trying to make sense of the current crisis. The articles deal with the US, but the broad principles apply to Europe as well. I’m not personally endorsing every component of these two pieces, but when taken together they characterize an argument that we all need to grapple with. This argument consists of a few main points:

  • The left and center-left has long focused its concerns primarily on the poorest third the population (or thereabouts), which is entirely justified and understandable. However, we’ve lost the middle third. The policy proposals of the Democrats in the US, Platforma Obywatelska in Poland, and many other similar parties will not provide much assistance to that middle third, on the grounds that limited resources need to be directed to those who need them the most. That’s fine, except the middle third has also seen its situation worsen, and people there feel neglected. Pundits rightly point out that the typical voter for the far right is not at the bottom of the income scale, but in fact is at or a little above the average. It doesn’t follow from this fact that their fears are unwarranted or hypocritical.
  • The left and center-left has come to be identified with professionals, the intelligentsia, the urban communities where cultural diversity and “sophistication” is valued. Those of us who live in such communities insist (correctly) that the real elite of society, the actual holders of power, stand far above us. This is the foundation of the rhetoric of the 99% vs. the 1%. The problem is that people in the aforementioned middle third see absolutely no commonalities with us educated professionals. They look at us and see people who are much more prosperous than they are, but who don’t appear to understand “hard work” (insofar as work is seen as the production of something of economic value).
  • For our part, those of us in the professions value education and expertise over the pursuit of economic value for its own sake. In fact, when someone claims that universities should justify their existence by preparing people for the workforce, we insist that our vocation cannot be reduced to mere job training. We are highly attuned to identity politics, but only the identity politics of those who are in that poorest third. When those in the middle third evoke identity politics or nationalism on behalf of whites, we (correctly) decry their racism and white nationalism. Even those of us with origins in the middle third are very angry right now. When people of the white working class complain that we educated professionals hold them in contempt, they aren’t entirely wrong. Over the past year they’ve voted for Brexit, for Kaczynski, for Trump, and in doing so proven to us that they are, in fact, advocating values that we find repulsive.

But here’s the problem: the only possible way to preserve both liberal constitutional democracy and broadly distributed economic justice requires an alliance between the poor, the middle, and the professionals. We all need to recognize that identity politics will not get us to that alliance, regardless of how much we talk about allies and intersectionality. The identity politics of the universities and the big cities will sustain an alliance with the most exploited and oppressed segments of society (blacks and Latinos in the US, refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe). The identity politics of the white middle and working classes will lead them only to a dead end of all-consuming hatred with no effective policy options to actually improve anyone’s lives. The nationalists in the US and Europe will learn the hard way, and we just have to pray that the world survives their lesson.

Prosperity, stability, and democracy will be on firm ground again only when we all recognize that the foundation for politics must be that which binds us together, not that which rips us apart. E pluribus unum only works if we both acknowledge the “pluribus” and also pursue the “unum.”  Those on the left have recently been celebrating the first part of the phrase while assuming that the second would take care of itself, while those on the right think they can enforce the second by quashing the first. How do we convince everyone to move back towards the entire aphorism?

If I had a good answer to that question, I’d be optimistic about the future.


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Today’s Teachers Protest, and the Fight Yet to Come

Below I’m posting a few images from today’s protest by the Związek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (Polish Teachers’ Union, or ZNP). Around 50,000 people attended, despite a driving rain and cold. Their slogan was “No to Chaos in the Schools.” If you aren’t familiar with the issues, they summarize their complaints here. The actual specifics of the proposed reform plan from PiS are (in my opinion) not the main issue here. The plan is so ill-formulated and so hastily thrown together that it will indeed bring chaos to the schools, with very little apparent justification or sense of direction. I think there are two possible interpretations: 1) the Ministry of Education is incompetent, and promised to implement reforms before the start of the 2017/18 school year without understanding that it would be impossible; 2) the whole point is to deliberately explode the educational system so that it will be possible to move forward with a massive purge of school directors and teachers. Under interpretation #2, none of the structural reforms matter: it’s all about creating overstaffing in some schools and understaffing in others, which will allow mass firings without directly violating the ZNP contract. I don’t know all the legal or contractual nuances here, but that’s probably not the point: confusion will allow PiS to bypass those details. Kaczyński has always prioritized placing loyal followers in key positions, from the national level to the local level. And for him, nothing is more important than education, because he has said repeatedly that the future depends on creating a generation of “patriotic” Poles steeped in Polish martyrology and religiosity. The general outlines of the new curricular changes are actually much more disturbing than arguments over how many years the kids go to elementary school, and how many to secondary school. While many of the details are yet to be announced, the general program will significantly expand the hours devoted to history, mostly eliminate the other social sciences, cut back a bit on the hard sciences and math, and severely restrict the hours that used to be available for electives. That framework will set the stage for replacing education with indoctrination, but that plan will only work if the right teachers are in place. People of Kaczyński’s generation know all too well that during the communist era, teachers often told the students that certain propaganda had to be parroted back for exams, but that the truth was otherwise. To avoid a repetition of that old pattern, a purge is essential. If I’m right, then today’s protest was just the opening salvo.protest-znp-11-19-16-14 protest-znp-11-19-16-13
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A Coup to Save Democracy? Obama, Trump, Piłsudski, Dmowski, and the Value of Ahistorical Analogies

Last week brought an interesting conjunctions of dates: first the catastrophic US elections on November 8, and then, just three days later, the celebration of Polish Independence Day. The way each of these days played out got me thinking about historical memory and analogy, about Obama, Trump, Piłsudski, and Dmowski.

While preparing for the commemorations of November 11, Mateusz Kijowski, the leader of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji, or KOD) said that there should be space in the movement for all Polish patriots, both those who hearkened back to the tradition of Józef Piłsudski and those who honored Roman Dmowski. The blow-back was immediate and severe. Since Dmowski’s National Democratic party represented antisemitic authoritarianism and a struggle-for-survival approach to relations among nations and ethnicities, he hardly seemed to be an appropriate patron for a group like KOD. Though Kijowski tried to walk back his gaff, many on the left were so outraged that they refused to participate in KOD’s Independence Day march. The result was an embarrassing contrast between the anemic march organized by KOD and a massive demonstration by the actual heirs of Dmowski, the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, or ONR).

The whole fiasco got me thinking about the competing historical legacies of Dmowski and Piłsudski. Insofar as the right tries to white-wash the legacy of the former, the left frequently downplays some of the darker aspects of the former. Like Americans who struggle with the politics of commemorating our slave-owning “founding fathers,” Poles have to deal with the fact that the people who created an independent, democratic Polish state in 1918 had (at best) a skeptical attitude towards democracy. Just how skeptical was brought home to me when I considered not only the parallel between Dmowski and Trump, but between Piłsudski and Obama. These analogies are grossly ahistorical, but the way in which they are ahistorical offers insights into both 1918 and 2016.

The Polish Second Republic was created in 1918 amidst the turmoil surrounding the Revolution that began in Russia before spreading to most of Central Europe. Virtually every old institution, every traditional source of authority, every hierarchy was called into question. To put it mildly, it was not a time amenable to ideological compromise or moderation. Against that backdrop, the first Polish presidential election in 1922 was won by Gabriel Narutowicz, who was backed by a diverse ethno-linguistic coalition committed to a state in which legal and political equality depended on Polish citizenship, not a nationalist bond of religion, language, culture, or heritage. The right-wing opposition, led by Dmowski’s National Democrats, claimed that Poland should be for the Poles, which they defined in narrow (though never precise) ethnic terms. The supporters of the Endecja (from En-De: Narodowa Demokracja) rioted after the election, claiming that their candidate deserved to win because he had received a majority of the “Polish” votes.

So far we have an interesting electoral parallel to present-day America. The Republicans represent a majority of whites in the countryside and small towns, and they consider themselves the “real America.” The Democrats represent a coalition of all those who believe that being American should not depend on being white and rural. While there are class elements to this, they aren’t definitive: the Republic coalition includes both wealthy businessmen and poor farmers, and the Democratic coalition includes both prosperous urban professionals and impoverished African Americans and Latinos. These latter coalition is larger than the former, but not by all that much. So far, the parallels with early 20th century Poland are strikingly close.

After the 1922 elections, as Paul Brykczyński has so eloquently chronicled, a rhetorical campaign delegitimized President Narutowicz among supporters of the right, spreading misinformation about his “real loyalties” and describing his presidency as a threat to the nation. An Endecja supporter took all this to heart, and assassinated the President. The mainstream right-wing press, like the “gentlemanly” Dmowski himself, expressed sympathy for the “patriotic” but mentally unstable killer, lamenting the murder but approving of the murderer’s justifications. Piłsudski and the mainstream left-wing press, in turn, blamed the Endecja for the assassination.

A few years later, in 1926, the National Democrats were poised to take power in a coalition government with the largest agrarian party. Piłsudski, decrying the political system that could allow those responsible for murder and xenophobic hatred to form a government, organized a military coup. Thanks to that move, the radical right would never take power in interwar Poland, blocking the sort of state-sponsored racism and nationalism that characterized Germany, Italy, Hungary, and so many other interwar European countries. On the other hand, Piłsudski maintained this situation through fraud, censorship, and a politicized judicial system. Poland never went to the fascists, but it certainly wasn’t a democracy.

So the underlying similarities between Poland in the 1920s and America in the 2010s would seem to break down. The American right delegitimized Obama just as the Polish right delegitimized Narutowicz, with disturbingly similar rhetoric. Then both the Republicans and the Endecja managed to use the legitimate mechanisms of parliamentary politics to come to power, even though neither had the support of a majority of the population. No one assassinated Obama, though frankly I wouldn’t make much of this. Narutowicz had none of the security protection that the US President enjoys, and I have no doubt whatsoever that there would have been Americans willing to murder our president had the Secret Service not been so effective.

The real breakdown in the analogy comes when we compare the Spring of 1926 with the Fall of 2016 (which also gives us a nice round anniversary to consider). Actually, the analogy doesn’t really collapse, because the differing outcomes allow us to understand more fully both our current moment and the one nine decades ago. Imagine how you would feel if Obama declared martial law tomorrow, justifying his move by pointing to the political chaos and corruption in the Trump transition team (no exaggerations there), and the fact that Trumpism is based on a vile ideology of white supremacy (no exaggerations there, either). Obama and Piłsudski could justifiably commiserate with the combination of incompetence and evil that each of them faced. Neither could prevent the oncoming nightmare with legal, constitutional means. Piłsudski, never one to doubt his own righteousness and never one to respect the polite rules of elite politics, did what he felt he needed to do. Obama has almost certainly never even considered a similar path.

In 1926, the Polish left was momentarily delighted by Piłsudski’s coup. The socialists even used the rail-workers union to prevent military units loyal to the National Democrats from reaching Warsaw. They later came to regret their support, but their allegiance to the niceties of democratic procedures came with 20/20 hindsight. And with our 20/20 hindsight, knowing what we do about what the fascist right ended up doing in Europe, can we really say that the socialist support for Piłsudski was entirely wrong? That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one: I have no idea what the answer is. I challenge you to think deeply about how you would respond if Obama (in a wildly impossible and counterfactual history) did today what Piłsudski did 90 years ago.

This thought experiment shows what historical analogy can accomplish. It doesn’t give us any predictive powers, but it does push us to grapple with the nuances of historical decisions and processes. Even if you conclude that the Obama coup scenario is silly, then explaining why it seems absurd brings us insights into both our current moment and 1926. What we might call “informed ahistoricism” is one of the best reasons to study history in the first place, as well as an effective way to make it interesting for students and the broader public

It also makes me very glad that I’m not in Obama’s shoes right now.


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An Angry White Male

We are hearing a lot today about the angry white working-class men who formed the core of Trump’s support. Throughout this campaign, we’ve been told that we need to get over our urban, coastal, ivory-tower, liberal, elite pretentions and recognize that Middle America offers a perspective that we need to appreciate and empathize with. So many working-class whites voted for Trump, we are told, precisely because they are sick and tired of the arrogance demonstrated by the over-educated elites, sick and tired of being told that they are racists, that they’ve been duped and misled, that they don’t understand their own best interests, that their opinions are incorrect or illegitimate. If we hadn’t been so sure of ourselves and contemptuous of our fellow Americans, then maybe we wouldn’t be facing such a horrifying political crisis.

Fuck that.

I’m a white male too, raised in the Midwest by working class parents. And today I’m mad as hell. I’m as mad as any of the idiots from my home town who voted for Trump. And I have enough respect for those fools to treat them exactly as I would treat a Prius-driving, craft-brew drinking, New-Yorker-reading intellectual—if the latter had done something as obscene and stupid as vote for Trump.

If you voted for Trump because you think he is going to do something to shake up the elites and the powerful, and return America to “the people,” then you’ve been conned and you have just proven that you don’t know what’s in your own best interests. Deal with it.

If you voted for Trump because you believed that Clinton was even worse, because the media you consume has been filled with false equivalencies between her imagined crimes and Trump’s real ones, or because you can’t tell the difference between a typical deal-making smarmy politician and a fascist clown, then you deserve everything that’s coming to you.

If you voted for Trump because you are sick and tired of people telling you that your jokes are offensive, that you should treat women as genuine equals and not as sex objects, that you should accept that most blacks, Latinos, and Muslims have an even harder time in life than you do—if you are sick of being told that, sorry. It’s true, and I’m not going to apologize for telling you that. If every time someone mentions structural racism you think you are being called a racist, I get it—it sucks when you get stuck with overgeneralized labels. You know what other labels really suck? The ones you use to talk about everyone who is different than you.

Coastal elites really can be arrogant and clueless when they talk about people from the rest of the country. I’ve faced that myself. I remember the surprised looks I got in grad school when I admitted that no, my rural high school and mid-tier college didn’t introduce me to the canonical works of literature and social theory. I remember what it was like to not know a red wine from a white wine, or which fork to use at a fancy dinner. I remember what it was like to realize that I should keep quiet about the fact that I enjoyed going to football games and that some of my best child memories are of my Dad taking me to stock-car races. So yeah, the snobs of the world should get over themselves and start to recognize their own implicit biases against working-class whites.

But you know what else I’ve experienced? I’ve felt what it was like to have people tell me that because I was a university professor, I couldn’t possibly understand what “real life” was like. Because I lived in a college town, I “didn’t get it.” Because I only taught two classes a semester I couldn’t grasp what it was like to work for a living. Because I voted for Democrats I wasn’t a “real American.” You want to see some arrogance? Just ask a small business owner from a small town what he thinks about college professors.

Empathy is a good thing. We need a lot more of it in our country, particularly today. But it needs to work both ways. “We Republicans should get over our prejudices against liberals who live in multicultural cities, and try to see the world from their perspective,” said absolutely no one, ever.

Yes, we educated liberals should show true respect for right-wing America and strive to understand their worldview. Then, as equal to equal, as American to American, we have every right tell them that they’re full of shit.

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My Facts are Better than Your Facts

One of the most frustrating aspects of political life today is that we mostly argue about the basic facts, making it impossible to even discuss competing values, goals, preferences, and interests. This is just as true in Poland as it is in the United States.

There are many obvious and extreme examples of this, but I want to mention one that is much more subtle (but no less dangerous for that).  Last week I discussed some of the trends in party preferences, noting the beginnings of a decline for PiS.  A few new surveys have come out over the last few days, and when reviewing those I noticed that the (unavoidable) differences between competing polling firms had grown startlingly large. Depending on your preferred source, PiS currently has either 30% or 38% support, and Nowoczesna has either 11% or 22% support. survey_firms_-_comparisons

I recognize, of course, that each firm employs alternative methods for collecting, sampling, and weighting their results, so some divergence is inevitable.  But looking back, we see that these patterns have been quite consistent.

survey_firms_-_millward_brown survey_firms_-_ibris survey_firms_-_cbos survey_firms_-_tnsMoreover, the two firms that are most generous to PiS are CBOS (which is a state-owned firm) and TNS (which provides polling data to the state-run television news program).  Meanwhile, Ibris and Millward Brown collect data for media outlets in opposition to PiS.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that somewhere, numbers are being massaged with a specific outcome in mind, but there is no actual evidence for that.  If anyone knows more about the specific methodological decisions that have generated these differences, please let me know.

It might seem trivial to quibble over a few points in an opinion survey, but in fact these subtle differences can have an even greater impact than more obvious lies.  Depending on your source, you could spin either the headline “PiS support falls below 30%” or “PiS support approaches 40%.” That takes us from the world of arguing over statistical methods towards completely different realities.  On one side, the PiS regime is beginning to crumble, thanks to mass protests and EU pressure.  On the other side, PiS’s assertive foreign policy and generous social programs are convincing more and more Poles to accept Kaczyński’s leadership.  Since few people understand the nuances of polling methodology or statistical interpretation, most of us accept whichever result feels intuitively right to us. Or even worse, we throw up our hands and assume what all the polling is being manipulated, so we shouldn’t trust any of it.  I say that this is worse, because at the root of the rise of the radical populist right (Trump, Le Pen, Kaczyński, Orbán, Putin, Modi, Erdogan, etc.) is a loss of faith in public institutions of all varieties.

A certain skepticism towards those in positions of power is vital to a healthy democracy, but when that tilts over to a nihilistic rejection of all expertise, all reasoned arguments, all evidence, then we are on very thin ice. We academics have spent the last few decades promoting the idea that knowledge is always political, and we’ve delighted in debunking the unrecognized assumptions of Enlightenment rationality. I’ve done some of this critical deconstruction myself, and I remain proud of that work. Those opposed to these scholarly trends have accused us of promoting absolute relativism, but that has (usually) been a straw-man argument. I won’t speak for other disciplines, but we historians are too grounded in the habits of using archival evidence to succumb to the more extreme claims of postmodernism. I see these methodological and theoretical innovations, at least within the discipline of history, as undeniably positive. But we have not done as well communicating to our students and to the broader public the difference between healthy debunking and deconstruction on the one hand, and the dangerous nihilism that dissolves the very concept of expertise on the other. We therefore deserve at least a little bit of the blame when people respond to misinformation with a cynical shrug rather than with outrage.

But of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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Halloween and Black Magic in Today’s Poland

I need advice with a problem that combines a common child rearing dilemma with the specific challenges of the cultural politics of today’s Poland. My nine-year-old daughter asked a friend from school if she’d like to come over to carve some jack-o-lanterns. She was eager to share one of her traditions, which excited her because so far this year she’s always been on the other side of that dynamic of cultural exchange. Her friend said that she she’d love to come over, but only if no pumpkins (or anything else related to Halloween) was involved. It turns out that in religion class, the teacher had given a lecture about the evils of Halloween, which she presented as a Satanic ceremony tied to dangerous black magic. I’ve asked around, and apparently this has become a pervasive late-October lesson in religion classes across Poland. I was aware that some in the Catholic Church in Poland opposed Halloween, but I did not realize that this had become such a wide-spread teaching.

Obviously, I want my daughter to gain a respect for cultural differences, and to have a tolerance for religious beliefs even if they might seem strange or even irrational to her. If a friend of hers had turned down a Sunday activity because it interfered with mass, it goes without saying that I’d use that as a teachable moment about the different customs that other families have. If we had to change a dinner menu because a guest was Jewish or Muslim, I’d take the same approach. But this feels different. First, in the past Catholicism has not been opposed to Halloween! Of course it has pre-Christian roots, but no more so than the rituals that Poles practice on November 1. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I’d be surprised to hear anti-Halloween messages from priests in the US, not to mention Ireland. The idea that the holiday is evil has emerged in Polish Catholicism only in recent years, and has more to do with the fear of a cultural import than with any religious teachings. That’s why I said that this is related to recent transformations in Polish cultural politics. But even setting that aside, how do I teach cultural tolerance when my daughter’s own cultural heritage is being attacked (with absurd inaccuracy)? I was really flummoxed when she asked “why would teachers here in Poland lie about what we do on Halloween?”