The paradox of progressive conservatism and the defeat of the image of Poland

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In the European Parliament, another debate on Poland took place, concerning the rule of law and judicial reforms. As usual, there were many statements about the respect for democracy, the need to separate the judiciary from the executive, and the guarantee of independence of the courts. There were also such that showed that the whole debate is not about the reforms taking place in Poland, but about the need to discipline and punish a state that hasn’t yet “grown up to live in a democracy” and undermines “European values”.


For instance, Sophie in’t Veld, an MEP representing ALDE, stated that “this is not about the retirement age of judges, it’s about the party that creates an authoritarian regime in Poland”. The Dutchwoman also said that the Union should pay attention to, among other things, the issue of women’s rights as well as media independence in Poland. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP, said that democracy was being questioned in the very heart of the European Union, and the Polish government elected in 2015 questioned its values.

On the very same day on the other side of the ocean, in New Jersey, a city of 250 thousand people, the dispute between the city’s mayor local Polonia, i.e. Polish diaspora, came to an end. It concerned a monument commemorating the 20,000 Polish officers murdered in 1940 by Soviet communists, among whom nearly 1000 were of Jewish origin, including the chief rabbi of the Polish Army, Major Baruch Steinberg. Mayor Steven Fulop wanted to move the monument to a warehouse, in other words, to get rid of it.

On the occasion of exchanging blows in social media with protesting Polonia, the mayor called the Speaker of the Polish Senate an anti-Semite, a white nationalist and a man who denies the Holocaust. Fulop obviously don’t know Marshal Karczewski, nor has he any idea even what views he has on any matter, and even more so, what his attitude towards Jews is or his knowledge of their extermination. He also knows nothing about Katyń, where Poles and Polish Jews were murdered. He doesn’t know anything, he doesn’t know the leader of the Polish Senate, but that doesn’t stop him from throwing at him the toughest of accusations possible.

These seemingly distant issues – the debate in the European Parliament and the scandal about a monument that ended happily with a different place for it being found – do actually have a common denominator and a common cause. It is the terrible image of Poland around the world, because only thanks to something like this, one could resort to accusations that are unreasonable and contradict reality. The generally prevailing opinion about Poland makes even absurd accusations possible, so the American mayor needn’t justify his accusations, whereas the Dutch MEP can act in defence of women’s rights. Even though women in the Netherland gained electoral rights much later than Polish women did. They had to fight for them for several dozen year, while Polish women didn’t have to. Nevertheless, it is Poland which must explain its actions and prove that it is not a place where attachment to tradition means moving back into the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Both cases show what a catastrophic failure in terms of its image Poland has suffered over the last 30 years. The country that birthed Solidarność, inspired the peoples of Europe to free themselves from communist regimes, and made the cold war end, is perceived as backwards, xenophobic, populated by extreme nationalists, anti-Semites and enemies of all goodness brought by liberal democracy. It is difficult to find in Europe another nation that squandered its image to such an extent, allowing to attribute to itself such a completely unfair bad reputation.

For this total failure, all Polish governments since 1989 are to blame. Poland joined both NATO and the European Union, it’s one of the very few countries on the Old Continent that is developing, yet it is perceived as anti-democratic, having problems guaranteeing rights to its citizens, electing governments with authoritarian tendencies, and thus bringing back all the worst from its former communist past. A country recognising liberal European values only slightly more than Belarus.

Responsible for this state of affairs are virtually all governments, including those, or perhaps especially those, liberal ones, which always carried European values on their banners. Of course, the PiS (Law and Justice) government is to blame too, thanks to its clumsy tactics while implementing a program that is a mix of socialism and conservatism. (Its economic program is thoroughly socialist; with a penchant for statism and social privileges, the PiS government is similar to any other government in Western Europe. However on the other hand, it cultivates tradition, Christian values, national patriotism – all that what Western Europe rejects today.)

Therefore, the only country in the world that never criminalised homosexuality, must today answer for alleged persecution of sexual minorities. In Poland, in contrast to all Western European countries, including the United States and Canada, women never had to fight for electoral rights, because they received them at the same time as men did. Before World War II, almost 50% of university students were women. Today, women constitute almost 50% of all owners of Polish enterprises. Women have no problem reaching for the highest positions in the country and they also presently rule in the two of the largest Polish cities. In all European statistics on domestic violence and violence against women, Poland ranks best, yet it is perceived as a country where women’s rights are at risk. In this supposedly fanatical Catholic country, 2 out of 5 presidents were declared atheists. Just as half of the prime ministers. One was a Lutheran.

Today, Poland faces Brussels and international organisations, defending itself against completely false and absurd accusations, such as the persecution of sexual minorities, curbing of women’s rights, the destruction of freedom of speech, intolerance etc. The Union completely misunderstands Poland, because it draws from its own experiences, from its own dark past. It doesn’t understand the paradox of Polish conservatism, whereas Poland seems unable to effectively explain it. According to Brussels, Poland is conservative, thus it is enmeshed in its old traditions and customs, that is, in all that what the Union recognises as backwards, dogmatic, and reactionary.

The paradox of Polish conservatism means that in Polish tradition and ancient customs, there lies a fundamental tolerance, thanks to which homosexuals have never been second-class citizens, women could invest in themselves, and virtually no-one was persecuted for their religion, race, and skin colour. For what kind of a new, better, more progressive paradigm should we change such outdated traditions?

The PiS government seems to be completely helpless against all these accusations. On the one hand, it wants to take care of its image, which is manifested by the unfortunate law on punishment for falsifying the role of the Polish state in Nazi crimes. And on the other, not only does it not have the tools ready to defend itself, but in panic it withdraws from every “row” for the good name of Poland. Poland doesn’t have any institutes around the world that could promote our culture, as do the British Council, the German Goethe-Institut, or the Spanish Instituto Cervantes. We don’t have an institution that could organise large international cultural events, conferences, that could sponsor films, books, festivals abroad – in other words, one that every other European country with the same economic and cultural potential as Poland has. As a state, we don’t even execute ordinary promotional campaigns. All activities are executed spontaneously and rather by active citizens themselves or private organizations, not state institutions responsible for such activities.

Helplessness against absurd and simply stupid accusations is also a consequence of fundamental ignorance of sorts in selecting people who should take care of the image of Poland abroad. On the one hand, the ruling Law and Justice government stimulated national and patriotic communities that want to fight for Poland’s reputation as if they were to shed blood on the barricades. Communities which completely don’t understand the mechanisms governing the Union or international institutions, that don’t have a clue how modern propaganda is done around the world. Which are satisfied with “moral victories”, because their indignation at the world’s unjust judgments makes it impossible for them to act effectively. On the other hand, there are those like the current Polish diplomacy who would like to carry the Polish message abroad and who even understand the mechanisms, but retain a servant’s attitude towards the outside world and especially the Union, succumbing to pressure and taking every opportunity to retreat with their tails tucked between their legs. There is also a ‘third hand’, which for clarity’s sake can be described as opposition towards PiS. They, in turn, would thoughtlessly like to duplicate all that’s European, including the worst of solutions, so why should they care for the international image of Poland if provides them with the legitimacy to be in opposition. It is easier to go to Brussels, complain about backwards Poland and get a grant just to prove how backwards Poland is, rather than face the heart of the problem.

All hitherto methods used for the last 30 years have failed. If Poland fundamentally, that is with the help of institutions, and slow, arduous, and systemic processes, doesn’t take care of this problem, then for the next several decades, we will suffer from bad rep with a great detriment to our own interests. If we don’t find the right people, professionals whose virtue is not only “lofty patriotism” or willingness to incompetently copy solutions that work so well in Western propaganda institutions, then we will have wasted many billions zloty more, and this bad rep will only get even lousier.

Author: Dariusz Matuszak

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