Saturday, 12 May 2007

Dramatic Crescendo in Polish Battle over Democracy

(Sorry for the 3-day silence - more blog entries to come over the next days, so be sure to check back!)

The Polish Constitutional Court struck down important parts of the so-called “lustration” law Friday, thereby temporarily derailing the government's anti-communist witchhunt, which many consider a danger to democracy. A battle between institutions has ensued, and is likely to determine the political future of the country.

As discussed in this recent blog entry, the law, proposed by the Kaczynski government, would have required Poles to sign a declaration about whether they had any involvement with the Polish secret services during communism. Failure to comply, or past collaboration with communism, would have been punished by suspension from work for ten years. The forms, now obsolete, had already been sent out and were due back by May 16th.

The government had made it amply evident that it fully intended actually to remove anyone who did not return the questionnaire in time from their work. This would have included revoking the mandate of MEP Bronislaw Geremek, an opponent of the Kaczynski government who had been a famous dissident during communism.

Frustrated in their scheme by the Constitutional Court's ruling, the government immediately tried to question the court's legitimacy in a full-blown smear campaign against its judges – demonstrating just why its unhealthy obsession with the past could spell real trouble for Polish democracy.

Even before the verdict was officially announced, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, who initiated the “lustration law”, accused two judges of having worked for the Communist secret service. The allegations have since turned out to be ill-founded, but not before the court had excluded the judges from deliberation on the case.

The reputation of the judges has survived intact, but the government thereby demonstrated its readiness and ability to use privileged access to state archives for partisan political advantage. Worse, it has reinforced fears that the “lustration law” functions more as a declaration of allegiance to the Kaczynski twins than a serious attempt to gather information about past wrongs.

The fierce broadsides the government fired against the Constitutional Court over the last 48 hours have also raised fears that it might not respect the judges' institutional prerogative to ascertain whether laws are in conformity with the constitution. Comments by both Prime Minister Jaroslaw and President Lech Kaczynski, who insisted that "we're not through with this case yet", were seen as an indication that a power struggle between executive and judiciary may be fast approaching.

If the executive prevails, Poland's first democratic constitution since World War II might soon have as little to do with reality as Socialist declarations of human rights.

The stand-off between the ideological follies of the Kaczynski government and democratic forces such as the judiciary has undergone a tense crescendo over the last forty-eight hours. In the best case scanario, the Constitutional Court has reigned in an ailing government, helping Polish democracy to survive until more moderate forces are elected. In the worst case scenario, the wrath it now faces will make Poland's judiciary – and, along with it, political liberty – obsolete.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Burning down McDonalds – the Dangers of Ideological, and Pragmatic, Political Reasoning

There still is a breathtaking presence of police in the streets of Paris. Yesterday, 30 heavy buses full of baguette-eating (literally) cops were making their way, police bumper only few inches away from the next police bumper, towards Bastille. A few hours later, people were regailing each other with stories of carnage wreacked there by anti-Sarkozy protesters. But when I got to Bastille, everything was quiet. Apart, that is, from a bombed out McDonalds. Hmm.

Why? After all, these are supposed to be protests against Sarkozy, and somehow it's not easy picturing him ordering Chicken McNuggets with much culinary anticipation...

The protesters, I suppose, associate Sarkozy with neo-liberal policies, neo-liberal policies with the US, and America's influence on the world, including France, with McDonalds. Or something like this. But if what's at issue is the economic world order, wouldn't banks – of which there are many around the Bastille – make the more natural target?

Each of the steps linking Sarkozy to McDonalds are, needless to say, quite tenuous. Presumably, those who threw the Molotov-cocktail at McDonalds weren't particularly conscious of their own reasoning, either. Once something is associated with evil in a particular way, the reasons for this association are only rarely questioned, particularly when you're about to dispose of an explosive in a street battle...

All the more troubling that the kind of ressentiment which leads the far-left to a blind hatred of McDonalds is characteristic of much ideological thought. Ideological thought often is more focused on an enemy than on a substantive goal – not to mention the absence of any serious reflection about how to achieve the goal in question. It attaches great symbolic value to relatively irrelevant issues, with the tacit assumption that a victory in this small vanguard battle would lend huge momentum to the overall cause – hence, perhaps, McDonalds rather than banks as a target. And it has a tendency to see anything, including particularly new information, from the perspective of a grand overall theory – making it so infuriatingly oblivious to thoughtful distinctions and careful reasoning.

The alternative to ideological thought would seem to be pragmatic thought. This certainly has very great attractions. Instead of interpreting any small fact in light of an overall view of the world, pragmatists pride themselves in seeing things for what they are. They then swiftly proceed to think about possible solutions to problems they have identified, focusing their energies on detailed reflection about the means to rectify the concrete situation at hand.

But this mode of thinking has dangers of its own. Because pragmatists look at every situation for what it is, they spend little time asking themselves whether it might have less-than-obvious interconnections with more general problems in the world. Neither are they necessarily critical towards their convictions, as their episodic reasoning about isolated problems can make very great injustices, which are composed of many small ills, look trivial. A similar problem may arise for pragmatic solutions. Even though they often involve more critical thought about the roots of a particular problem as perceived in isolation, pragmatic solutions can be little more than a drop of water on a hot stone if they don't dare to tackle the real, vast, forces at play.

It seems to me that people who hope to think about the world in a critical yet honest and differentiated manner must be both ideological and pragmatic. They must be aware of the strengths of both modes of thought – whilst consistently interrogating themselves whether they are managing to avoid both their dangers. A momentuous task, which perhaps explains, but does not excuse, some of the causes for the McDonalds-wrecking stupidity.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A French Night a la Sarkozy

The party, I guess, would have been better if Sarkozy had lost. On my TV screen, the Royal supporters seemed like they knew how to celebrate into the night. Whereas the Sarko camp, as assembled by the Concorde and cheering to a pathetic (in both senses of the word) rendition of the Marseillaise, reminded me of your average Morgan Stanley investment banker. “We work hard, but just look at us and you'll see how hard we can play, too... Fanaa!”. Not my cup of tea.

Just before eight, when the results were to be announced, I walked around the Bastille. Never have I seen so much police out in the streets – especially not in a democratic country. Hundreds and hundreds of Gendarmes Nationaux with huge machine guns and full body armour.

I suppose they already knew that Sarkozy would win; and it wasn't difficult to guess how the far-left would react. The battles we saw in Paris' streets today nearly seem like a promise of things to come. All foreign correspondents seem delirious that Sarkozy won – more out of professional self-interest than political conviction. Whereas five years of Royal might have been boring from a headlines point of view, five years of Sarkozy promises to deliver excitement and confrontation.

On my way home, some thirty minutes ago, I had a taster of this. Fifty or so protesters – I guess they had been driven away from the main anti-Sarko rally at the Bastille – were monopolising the Quai des Grands Augustins near Saint-Michel.

In their brightly-coloured alternative clothing they seemed approachable and non-threatening. As I turned off towards my tiny appartment, one of them, a beardy middle-aged man who could equally well have been Hippy or Hobo, told me: “On est des non-violents. Pour l'instant.” The second phrase sounded more heart-felt than the first. Congratulations to the French press corps, I suppose!

P.s: I will delete the “Royal” tag in a moment. It won't be needed any more. Unless we're talking about the American equivalent of a “Big Mac” – see Pulp Fiction – which, though it involves cheese, isn't all too French.

Poland Plays with Fire

In politics all is rarely well when the most heated debates erupt over symbolic acts, not policies. When disagreements about flags, declarations and history are in the news, tempestuous times often lie ahead.

How quickly a symbolic act, carried out in the full conviction of acting rightly, can turn into rioting and international tensions was demonstrated by the Estonian authorities a few days ago. Chaos and unnecessary misery ensued when Estonia announced its intention to remove memorials to Soviet soliders who had freed the country from Nazi rule during World War II. Any sober mind that followed this sorry spectacle might have concluded that, at least when they are hardly about to wake up and bite you, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.

The Polish government, however – in any case not particularly renowned for its soberness – seems to have drawn the opposite conclusion. Engaged in what has justly been described as a “witch hunt” against intellectuals who have co-operated – or, as likely, been forced into pretending to co-operate – with Communist authorities, it took the events in Estonia as inspiration to take its unhealthy obsessions another step further. As a result, the catalogue of unsavoury and dangerous measures against ideologically "suspect" Poles is growing day by day.

The Kaczynski twins, respectively President and Prime Minister of Poland, have for some time been orchestrating a “lustration law”, according to which all state employees (including university professors) and figures of public life (including journalists) have to sign a declaration about whether they had any involvement with the Polish secret services during communism. In case they refuse to fill out the government questionnaire, or are judged to have lied, they will be suspended from their work for 10 years.

The eminent British historian Norman Davies has rightly called this a “threat to freedom”. Not, however, because a serious investigation of crimes committed during communism is unnecessary; but rather because under a surveillance system akin to that depicted in The Lives of Others countless people were pressurised into signing declarations that they would co-operate with secret services, yet never passed on any information. Superficial glimpses into secret service archives are therefore bad guides to historical guilt. What is worse, the de facto declaration of allegiance demanded by the “lustration law” replicates Communist rituals of ideological cleansing – and runs the danger of being used primarily as a partisan weapon against political opponents.

In the last days the Polish government has taken further, equally worrying, steps, which demonstrate that in its fanatical fight against all things communist it will not leave untouched even the battle against fascism. First, it tentativley followed the Estonian example by loudly considering to authorise local government agencies to remove monuments to Soviet World War II soldiers. Now, it is removing veteran status from Poles who had fought against fascism on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war.

A great majority of those unjustly dishonoured by this symbolic step have died long since – only five Polish veterans from the Spanish Civil War are still alive.

A declaration signed by important intellectuals in Poland and abroad, and published in the country's most important daily, the Gazeta Wyborcza, has called upon the government to reconsider its policies. “We appeal to public opinion throughout the democratic world: don't turn your eyes away from what is happening in Poland. For the sake of your, and our, freedom”.

Indeed world, and especially European, opinion will have to decide how to confront the Polish government's actions. Whilst the European Union appears unwilling to meddle with the way its member states deal with their past, it cannot turn a blind eye to the ideological prosecution of individuals unfolding within its territory.

Neither can the EU remain silent about other policies activley pursued by the Kaczynski brothers, such as legislative projects which clearly discriminate against homosexuals. According to a law currently under consideration by the governing coalition, for example, school teachers could be dismissed if they publicly admitted to their homosexuality.

If the EU is to be a society defined by shared values, rather than merely a common market, it will have to find effective means to stop these ideas from becoming law. If public opinion in other European countries fails to rise to this challenge, the Polish government's pyromaniac penchant for symbolic politics could burn down a piece of the European project as well as political freedom within Poland itself.

The authors of the recent declaration are right. All of us must engage with current events in Poland to safeguard liberty – and to protect the credibility of the European project.