In total, about 20,000 people simultaneously protested in Warsaw, Lodz, Berlin, London and Prague that Saturday, marking the third major protest campaign since the national conservatives came into power. The protesters included gay and lesbian activists, environmentalists and veterans of the anti-communist movement that existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as Catholic conservatives and ordinary citizens. They are united by the same fear: that the national conservatives will transform the country to suit their agenda and will curtail freedom in the process.
Immediately after its election victory in late October, the government began its “national revolution,” using Hungary as a role model. Its goal is to orient the government, the media, the judiciary, education, government-owned businesses and even theaters and museums toward a single center of power. And this power center is essentially one person: PiS leader and founder Jaroslaw Kaczynski, officially represented by President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.
But Poland is not Hungary, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski now faces opposition from a protest movement which seems to be gathering more and more supporters by the week. Unlike the Hungarians, Poles are accustomed to success. Their economy has been growing steadily for the last 25 years, creating a self-confident, affluent, pro-European middle class which is now taking to the streets to defend its freedom against Kaczynski.
But unlike KOR, KOD is mainly a movement of older people. At 31, Joanna Erbel is one of the group’s youngest activists. She lives in Mokotów, a former working class neighborhood that is attracting many young Poles, partly as a result of Erbel’s efforts. She has been involved in the local self-administration for years and campaigns on behalf of streetcars and bike lanes. She fights to preserve old buildings and traditional milk bars, which serve inexpensive borscht and pierogi.
She has just baked a spice cake, or an anti-PiS cake, as she calls it — vegan and dairy-free. The cake is a direct response to a recent comment by the foreign minister, who said that vegetarians and bicyclists are not real Poles. The national conservatives also believe that promiscuity and the “mixing of cultures and races” are ruining Poland.
“A decent Pole eats cutlets and pickled pork, drives a car and marries young. That’s what the PiS wants the whole country to be like,” says Erbel. “The health-conscious, globalized middle class on bikes — that’s the bogeyman.” In other words, people like Erbel, who emcees a male strip cabaret in her free time and is engaged to a Protestant pastor, who also has a male partner and helps organize annual gay pride parades.
The conservatives reject anything that smells like the West, says Erbel. “In doing so, they are capitalizing on the dissatisfaction of all those who feel that they have not benefited sufficiently from the post-Communist era.” Those include not just blue-collar workers and the elderly, but young people too. In fact, the PiS owes its election victory to younger voters. The party’s social promises hit home both in eastern Poland and among many Poles born after 1989.
Gosh, I can’t imagine why Poles are reluctant to let their country be run by a class represented by male strip club emcees engaged to bisexual liberal Protestant pastors.
In the U.S. before the rise of Trump, the emerging schisms on the right—globalism versus nationalism, elitism versus populism, diversity versus solidarity—were mostly papered over by Republicans for the sake of putting up a united front against Democrats. But Poland’s recent history is revealing because the left is so discredited there (in last October’s parliamentary elections, the top five parties, which won 83 percent of the vote, were all more or less on the right) that the tensions among 21st-century conservatives already dominate national debate. This was exemplified by the Polish rightist parties’ clashing over how to respond to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s diktat to invite a million-Muslim mob into Europe, which wound up with a single party winning an absolute majority in parliament for the first time in the history of modern free Poland.
Polish politics tend to baffle Anglophones because the spelling of the leaders’ names is so eye glazing. Moreover, to a slightly lesser extent than Hungarian, Polish is a language little known by outsiders, so it’s hard for Anglophones to get an unbiased sense of what’s going on politically in Poland or Hungary. Most of the opinions we hear out of Poland and Hungary come from English-speaking cosmopolites who find the populist policies backed by the majorities deplorable.
Or, in Spiegel‘s case, German-speaking cosmopolites. Sailer adds, “Poland is everything you are not supposed to be in the 21st century: a conservative, religious, and homogeneous nation-state.”
In truth, I don’t know enough about the situation in Poland to take sides, but this controversy raises a good question, or rather, two closely related questions:
What is Europe? What is the West?
Are Europe and the West to be defined primarily by Age of Faith, or by the Enlightenment? In truth, Europe and the West are both things, but the Enlightenment Europe cannot tolerate its predecessor. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, once had this to say about the European Union:
If Christianity, on one hand, has found its most effective form in Europe, it is necessary, on the other hand, to say that in Europe a culture has developed that constitutes the absolutely most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but of the religious and moral traditions of humanity.
From this, one understands that Europe is experiencing a true and proper “test of tension”; from this, one also understands the radicalism of the tensions that our continent must face. However from this emerges also, and above all, the responsibility that we Europeans must assume at this historical moment in the debate on the definition of Europe, on its new political shape. It is not a question of a nostalgic rearguard battle of history being played out, but rather a great responsibility for today’s humanity.
Let us take a closer look at this opposition between the two cultures that have characterized Europe. In the debate on the Preamble of the European Constitution, this opposition was seen in two controversial points: the question of the reference to God in the Constitution and the mention of the Christian roots of Europe. Given that in article 52 of the Constitution the institutional rights of Churches are guaranteed, we can be at peace, it is said.
But this means that in the life of Europe, the Churches find a place in the realm of the political commitment, while, in the realm of the foundations of Europe, the imprint of their content has no place. The reasons that are given in the public debate for this clear “no” are superficial, and it is obvious that more than indicating the real motivation, they conceal it. The affirmation that the mention of the Christian roots of Europe injures the sentiments of many non-Christians who are in Europe, is not very convincing, given that it relates, first of all, to an historical fact that no one can seriously deny.
Naturally, this historical mention has a reference to the present. To mention the roots implies indicating as well the residual sources of moral orientation, which is a factor of Europe’s identity. Who would be offended? Whose identity is threatened?
The Muslims, who in this respect are often and willingly brought in, do not feel threatened by our Christian moral foundations, but by the cynicism of a secularized culture that denies its own foundations. Neither are our Jewish fellow citizens offended by the reference to the Christian roots of Europe, in as much as these roots go back to Mount Sinai: They bear the sign of the voice that made itself heard on the mountain of God and unite with us in the great fundamental orientations that the Decalogue has given humanity. The same is true for the reference to God: It is not the mention of God that offends those who belong to other religions, but rather the attempt to build the human community absolutely without God.
The motivations of this twofold “no” are more profound than one would think from the reasons offered. They presuppose the idea that only the radical Enlightenment culture, which has reached its full development in our time, could be constitutive for European identity. Next to this culture, then, different religious cultures can coexist with their respective rights, on the condition and to the degree in which they respect the criteria of the Enlightenment culture, and are subordinated to it.
One more excerpt:
At the time of the Enlightenment there was an attempt to understand and define the essential moral norms, saying that they would be valid “etsi Deus non daretur,” even in the case that God did not exist. In the opposition of the confessions and in the pending crisis of the image of God, an attempt was made to keep the essential values of morality outside the contradictions and to seek for them an evidence that would render them independent of the many divisions and uncertainties of the different philosophies and confessions. In this way, they wanted to ensure the basis of coexistence and, in general, the foundations of humanity. At that time, it was thought to be possible, as the great deep convictions created by Christianity to a large extent remained. But this is no longer the case.
The search for such a reassuring certainty, which could remain uncontested beyond all differences, failed. Not even the truly grandiose effort of Kant was able to create the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God could be known in the realm of pure reason, but at the same time he had represented God, freedom and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which, coherently, for him no moral behavior was possible.
Does not today’s situation of the world make us think perhaps that he might have been right? I would like to express it in a different way: The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man’s ever greater isolation from reality. We must reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even one who does not succeed in finding the way of accepting God, should, nevertheless, seek to live and to direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God existed. This is the advice Pascal gave to his friends who did not believe. In this way, no one is limited in his freedom, but all our affairs find the support and criterion of which they are in urgent need.
Poland is now deciding what it means for Poles to be European, and to be Western. From what I have read, I would not wholly sympathize with the Law and Justice Party’s acts and policies. But the protesters who want Poland to march off the post-Christian cliff with the rest of western Europe represent no future at all.