Thursday, February 11, 2010

Europe View 170--Prickly Poles

The furious reaction to the earlier piece on the Polish blogosphere provoked this exasperated response


Better say nothing
Feb 4th 2010

The minefield of writing about Poland

POLAND is the largest and most successful of the eastern European countries. A safe enough statement? Probably not. Someone will immediately start quibbling that “eastern” Europe doesn’t exist. That will start a long argument about whether “east central Europe” or “central Europe” is the best way of describing the ex-communist region (at which point someone else will chip in and say that the term “ex-communist” is anachronistic). “Largest” is dodgy too—not least because it may prompt a discussion about the fragile and tragic foundations of Poland’s eastern and western frontiers. Ukrainians and Russians will be quick to ask, justifiably, why they have been excluded from this notional category.

Most dangerous of all is to praise the achievements of Poland’s current government, as this newspaper did recently (see article). Clearly, some readers said, the author of such an article has never been to Poland. Otherwise he would know that a small and coincidental spurt of economic growth does not make up for pervasive corruption, ineffective administration of justice, two-tier public services and a cartel-like political system in which insiders feast (literally) and outsiders starve (metaphorically). Any possibly praiseworthy reforms are either superficial and belated, or else were introduced by the previous government.Alamy

The same applies to foreign policy. If Poland is friends with its neighbours, has sorted out its relations with America and is seen as a constructive heavyweight inside the European Union, that does not mean success. It means that the sneaky traitors running the country have sacrificed national interest in order to feather their own nests. In truth, runs this argument, poor Poland is yet again being misruled, betrayed and looted. Any claim to the contrary is either the result of pitiful ignorance, or has been ordered into print by the powerful hidden interests that control the world media.

The outsider who dares to voice such criticisms himself, however, will be met with an opposing but equally incensed strain of argument. Clearly, the author of such an article has never been to Poland. Otherwise he would know that Poland is still struggling with the consequences of centuries of tragic history. Any discussion of Poland’s poor public administration, for example, must acknowledge the role of the missing middle class, eviscerated by foreign occupation, mass murder and emigration. And who are these outsiders to criticise, anyway? The author should write about Greece or Italy if he wants to highlight problems in European countries. Why pick on Poland? Ill-will rather than ignorance surely lies behind the writing of such an article. It must have been ordered into print by the powerful hidden interests that control the world media.

Both those allergic to praise and the foes of criticism agree on one thing. The article’s greatest failing is that it does not include every salient point from Polish history, and a book-length analysis of all features of the country’s contemporary political, economic and social development. If the author pleads lack of space, he should demand more from his editors. Writing about a country as important as Poland in an article the size of a postage stamp is an insult in itself.

And so on and so forth. For the record, your columnist was a student in Poland in the mid-1980s, speaks Polish, has relatives in the country and visits regularly. He normally counts as a Polonophile, especially when arguing with other journalists who use phrases such as “Polish death camps” and a “vicious history of anti-Semitism”. He notes that writing about the other 20-odd countries on his beat does not arouse quite the same neurotic reaction. Why is that? Better, perhaps, to leave that question to the Poles.


Maciej said...

I thought sometimes about that matter and found the answer in the Dorota Masłowska's comparison: "Poland is a growing up girl, who cannot accept herself. She would like to have a plastic surgery and transplant everything. She hasn't achieved the point when she could say: 'That's the way I look like, I'm pretty or not, but this is just me."
Very valid, isn't it?

Piotr said...

Two points:

1. When a journalist of major media, say The Economist writes anything, he has guaranteed audience in thousands (hundreds of thousands), millions (?). When an ordinary folk does the same his audience is very little (if any). This is nothing to do with the merits, who’s right or wrong, but comes with a status (resultant from an existing social status quo and basically who controls the media). Therefore it is very likely that “prickliness” is a sign of frustration resulting from such asymmetry which is the best testimony to a pretty feeble value of, what’s called, “freedom of speech”.

2. My experience with the Poles, and I know only ordinary folk of my father's family and friends who left Poland in the 1980's, is that they are like everybody else (more-less) and do not give a toss what Ed Lucas writes about. It seems to me that “our columnist” is too much preoccupied with the Polish “elite” (or rather a dodgy lot there that is called disparagingly like that by ordinary Poles) and does not really mingle with the “downstairs”. But then it is The Economist, isn’t it?

Piotr Pociej (Rimini)

Jonathan Hibberd said...

At risk of upsetting almost everybody, the Poles, along with the Hungarians (possibly Croatians or, in a slightly different way, Russians could also be included here) are seen as being rather chauvanistic by outsiders. For example, in Hungary, a fair-minded discussion of the various ethnic groups in the Carpathian basin is almost impossible, and eventually you are simply told that 'you don't know our history'. Then there are nations whose national psyche is deeply reactionary-particularly the Slovaks spring to mind, perhaps the Baltic states also in some respects. On the other hand, just an ounce of the indomitable spirit and underlying national solidarity of the Poles and Hungarians would do a lot for a country like Ukraine or Moldova, so pros and cons I suppose. And if anyone would like to make similar accusations about western countries (including my own, the UK) I would be delighted to listen.

Aeti said...

Perhaps the question is, what are we arguing about?

That Poland has a long way to go? Sure.
But who does not need to improve?

The author of the Economist article is purely stating

a) the current government is doing a "better" job at governing
b) they have had some success, in terms of quality and quantity of foreign relationships
c) Poland has had the largest growth in the last year (in terms of GDP)

if you feel the need to disagree with that, then state some quantifiable data, please.

Otherwise, the whole conspiracy theory and subjective measure of progress lacks importance and is purely uninteresting. We are interested in measures from a mass perspective here, not what one person still feels Poland must do.

Also, I guess in your eyes, writing nothing is better than
"Writing about a country as important as Poland in an article the size of a postage stamp is an insult in itself."

adski said...

@Jonathan Hibberd

It’s true that some countries are more nationalistic than others. I live in Quebec where Quebecois nationalism is rather pervasive. In Europe, the first place that springs to mind is Croatia, where Nazi sympathizing and pro-Ustashe sentiments are very common. Serbia, Ukraine, the Baltic states and a few countries are also plagued with this disease that is nationalism.

But it is also important not to fall into the trap of Anglo-triumphalism and moral posturing. It is common for the Brits to think that they are tea-sipping gentlemen with impeccable manners, while everyone else is a savage. Let’s not forget that at one point Britain conquered half the world where it severely abused and exploited the colonized people. The same thing goes for France. The French are the first ones to claim moral superiority, but they were probably the worst colonialists that inflicted a lot of harm on the populations they came to control. The Americans had the slave trade and officially sanctioned racial segregation. Even today, racism is deeply engrained in the fabric of American society. To that I could add US foreign policy that is aimed at subjugating the "lesser people".

The Brits should especially remember the harm they once inflicted on their neighbor Ireland and the contemptuous attitude they always had towards the Irish. Sydney Smith summarized it well:

"The moment the name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants, and the fatuity of idiots."

Jonathan Hibberd said...

Aeti-You've made rather a lot of assumptions about the views I may or may not sympathise with. But anyway, fine. I invited criticism and can accept most of it. You haven't told me anything new. Every British person knows about the evils of the empire, slavery, the Irish potato famine, the bombing of Dresden etc. and so they should, but this actually leads to another point. Far from being 'anglo-triumphant', you'll find many people in modern Britain very repentant about these matters. A recent series on national television has been going over the shameful past of the British Empire. People here have no problem with this. In the east however, the response is all too often simply defensive, or in the worst cases, denying basic historic facts. In Hungary people have no idea how they oppressed the Slovaks or Roamanians after the 1867 compromise with Austria. Such details do not turn up in Hungarian school textbooks. In Russia, the crimes of the USSR, of artificially-engineered famines in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and occupation of neighbouring states are swept under the carpet or carelessly explained away, in contrast to Germany, where every child is taught the evils that were carried out under the Nazis. There is a far greater willingness to look at the facts and accept past wrongs in the west. Like it or not, that is a fact.

A bit of patriotism isn't necessarily a bad thing however. If someone is proud to be Quebecois, Catalan, Slovene, Russian etc. it's not a problem. It should be put in some perspective though. It doesn't give us the right to be chauvanistic (or worse) to our neighbours, or to distort the truth.

adski said...

@ Jonathan Hibberd

I meant nothing personally. Sorry if it sounded that way.

It's true that some societies have matured faster than others. Some have accepted their shady pasts, some are still in denial. Germany has never denied its role in the Holocaust end even outlawed denial of it. Similarly, few Brits today will question the role of their country in colonial conquests. On the other end of the spectrum, Francophone nationalists in Quebec refer to English Canadians as “colonialistes meprisant” (contemptuous colonialists) while remaining oblivious to the fact that French Canadians themselves descend from colonialists; the Turks vehemently deny Armenian genocide; Ukrainians joyously celebrate anniversaries and milestones of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army implicated in the acts of utmost barbarity against Polish civilians in WW2; Croatians remain nostalgic for the Ustaša; pro-Nazi sympathies are on the rise in former East Germany. You should have seen how Polish nationalists reacted in 2000 to the revelations regarding the Jedwabne massacre. The approach mirrored Turkey’s stance on Armenians: “deny, deny, deny”.

But although the UK has a rather good track record in recognition of its historical wrongdoings and is never governed by populists, there are still individuals in that country that would conveniently trivialize it, dismiss it as thing of the past, and indulge in their moral superiority. Despite the fact that the current occupation of Iraq is just another chapter of colonization of that oil rich region, that all it took was an economic crisis of the 1980s for the BNP to rise in popularity, that the Bradford riots of 2001 exposed the racist side of the British society and were inevitable given the alienation of British-born Asians in the UK.

We are all humans, and therefore we all have tribal tendencies. It is the role of our governments to curb these tendencies and keep them in check. The governments of Western European countries have been doing a better job at that than governments in other parts of the world partly because these countries have prospered economically and haven’t experienced any military conflicts since the WW2. But the beast is there in all of us. And Bush’s “we are the good guys, and they are the bad folks” simplistic approach might sell well amongst the Fox News viewers, but it has nothing to do with reality.

I agree with you that patriotism is not all bad, because patriotism is not nationalism. I am rather patriotic towards Poland, and a little patriotic towards Canada, and at the same time I deplore nationalism. To me, the best distinction between the two was made by George Orwell in his Notes on Nationalism.

"By 'nationalism'... I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By 'patriotism' I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."