Polish Politics

Gdansk, Poland

Want to share what I think is an insightful article on the current state of politics in Poland in The American Interest. It’s by Gazeta Wyborcza columnist Katarzyna Wężyk. Read it here.

Here are some quotes:

Polish “Neo-authoritarianism … accepts democratic elections. But … only as a way to give the majority a mandate to govern unencumbered by minority rights.”

“We ‘normal’ people have to stick together, the pitch goes, form an impenetrable front against dangerous outside forces, and not let our unity be eroded by pity for the undeserving.”

“Polish neo-authoritarianism is … based on shared hostility toward the elites and the weak—women, refugees, those with ‘pathology’ (that is, the poorest, people with alcohol or drug problems, broken families)—and bound by the sense that “normal” people have a right to dominate these groups.

The figure of a refugee— the ultimate Other, so different as to be barely recognizable as human and thus dangerous—was significant in ensuring a PiS (Law and Justice Party) victory. (PiS leader Jarosław) Kaczyński warned during the campaign that migrants carry ‘all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which, while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here.’”

“Law and Justice gave its supporters … a kind of empowerment, albeit an empowerment that comes from the ability to humiliate, belittle, and bully others, and then to feel justified in so doing. It offers a surface narrative of regaining dignity, acquiring national pride, and restoring justice; but its underside exudes darker undertones of punishment, exclusion, and contempt.”

Warsaw, Poland and the Vistula River

Weekend Reading

Only one must-read this weekend from here in soon-to-be-stormy Appalachia:

A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come, an epic, semi-autobiographical article by historian Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic magazine.

Ms. Applebaum has written extensively on the former Soviet Union and East Bloc, including a book that was really seminal for me, called Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, about a 1991 road trip across just collapsed eastern Europe. A Washington Post columnist married to Radek Sikorsky, a former Polish Foreign Minister, she’s uniquely positioned to write a first-person account of the changes in Poland over the past not quite thirty years.

And there have been astonishing changes. On my first trip to Warsaw, in March and April of 1992, state-owned enterprises, the stores in the buildings that lined the streets, had largely gone bust, and newly private commerce from Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to Tiranë, Albania on the Adriatic, was largely carried out through an ad-hoc system of hastily-assembled kiosks between the storefronts and the streets, Here is an example from near the Warsaw train station, a snapshot from 1992:

Today Warsaw presents as a modern, if still Stalinesque architecture-afflicted city.

But all is not well, in Poland or as Ms. Applebaum describes, Hungary and other parts of eastern Europe as well. Her article is well worth your time as a marker of the state of the region today. Especially if, as we look to be here, you are shut indoors with a storm raging outside.

Next week we return to Africa with a post on 3 Quarks Daily at the beginning of the week. I will repost it here next Wednesday. See you next week.

 

 

Live Tweeting World War Two

A man who works at the Museum of London named Alwyn Collinson is live-Tweeting (for the next six years!) events as they happened on this date in 1939. Here is his Twitter feed.

If You Know the Words Zapad & Suwalki…

… you’ll enjoy the photographic essay, Inside the Suwalki Gap by Timothy Fadek at RoadsandKingdoms.com. It’s a nice orientation to the region where the quadrennial Zapad (“west” in Russian) Russia/Belarus military exercise has been underway for two days now.

The photo above is Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The only border between the Baltic states and another NATO country is the 64 mile wide Suwalki Gap, where Lithuania touches Poland. See more Poland and Lithuania photos at EarthPhotos.com.

System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.

Rock Star Pope

KrakowChurch

One afternoon in the autumn of 1978 I came screaming across Atlanta in my Chevette, rushing from a job fifty miles up the road, hurrying to meet my friends at the IHOP. My adulthood so far was a scramble of post-college roommates, general naïveté and a bad job, with all the self confidence that just having been turned down for a VISA card would allow.

I paid no attention that day, October 16th just like today, when a puff of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel announced the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years. Karol Wojtyla, the vicar of Krakow (his church, above), chose the regnal name John Paul II.

If we’d said things like that back then, looking back I’d have said, Whoa, dude. It was a pretty darned fateful day. 

•••••

Josef Stalin scorned the church. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” he would sneer. The year he said that, 1935, was a long time ago. But on December 1st of 1989, eleven years one month and fifteen days after that puff of smoke in Vatican City, Stalin’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, came hat in hand to Vatican City, pleading that the Pope return the favor with a visit to the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s heir needed the Pope more than the other way around, and John Paul II was noncommittal, replying that he hoped “developments would make it possible for him to accept.”

•••••

I do not believe in Catholic doctrine. That autumn day in 1978 I didn’t believe in much beyond my disc-jockey job, rock bands of the moment and girlfriends. But with hindsight, with time enough to have visited Krakow and Gdansk, and Warsaw as both Soviet satellite…

WarsawThen

and today…

WarsawToday

I respect that Polish Pope for his hand in shaping the events that puff of smoke helped set in motion back in October 1978.

•••••

Pope John Paul II came to visit Dubrovnik, where we happened to be visiting, on my birthday in 2003. We stood close enough to the Popemobile to be able to read his watch.

Pope

Web Resources for War News

RussianTroopsTweet
Me, I got this uneasy feeling. It may be that them what know ain’t saying and them saying don’t know, but the Polish PM and NATO are queasy, and when the Russian UN ambassador calls for “humanitarian intervention” and the Putin team uses RT to wail it, it looks like boxes are being checked for an invasion. The U.S. Defense Secretary is in the region, saying as much. It’s a good thing everybody’s got so much confidence in our president.

I’d guess it would start overnight one night, and since we’re seven hours earlier here on the U.S. east coast we might find ourselves up all night one night soon working the internets and the news channels. Just in case, here are a few internet resources and live TV feeds from the region:

The Interpreter translates news from Russia
Espreso.tv from Kyiv has a live feed
TV5, Kyiv live feed
UkrainianJournal.com, in English
The Kyiv Post
The Carnegie Moscow Center and especially Demitri Trenin and Lilia Shevtsova (click “latest analysis”)
Tons of links from Johnson’s Russia List
Life News live TV from Russia. Some call it the information arm of Russian intelligence.
Russia24 live feed
Ukraine News1 in English
The Warsaw Voice in English
thenews.pl, news in English from Poland
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, which runs a live Ukraine blog during the day, CET
NATO’s blog
Live stream from Spilno TV. Not always on.
Ukraine at War blog in English.

I’ll add more as I find them. Please suggest others, if you like.