Washington Post writer bungles Poland

The Washington Post has published an opinion piece on Poland that rehashes and amplifies the usual matrix of invective hitherto reserved for Hungary.  We are informed that Poland’s newly elected government, led by anti-Semites, Europhobes, and conspiracy theorists, is about to abandon democracy and the European Union.  This ill-researched and ill-tempered article is so baffling because its author, Jackson Diehl, while a mainstream liberal, is usually quite fair-minded.

Diehl correctly avers that the current electoral victory in Poland is a reaction against previous governments, and that the left remains “discredited.”  “But Poland’s turn is also part of a growing popular backlash against European institutions and their ideology of tolerance, one that extends from Greece to France.”  In fact, it is a backlash against cultural nihilism, moral relativism, and other liberal pathologies.

What so upset the WaPo author?  The populist-conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i. Sprawiedliwość – PiS) party seriously trounced the centrist Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) in the last election.  Consequently, the center-left coalition government of PO liberals and their allies, in particular post-Communist agrarians (Polish Peasant Party – Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe [PSL]), was replaced by a PiS administration.

While Diehl incorrectly refers to the outgoing PO-PSL coalition regime as “center-right,” Diehl calls PiS “right-wing” and “more extreme right” then the previous government.  However, PiS is really an anti-Communist and anti-post-Communist party.  That means it opposes the Communists and their collaborators, who, after 1989, transformed themselves into “social democrats” and “liberals.”  In other words, PiS stands against the manifold pathologies of the post-Communist transformation, including corruption and impunity for the evildoers.  Mildly Euro-skeptic, it supports national sovereignty, NATO, and Transatlanticism.  It is staunchly pro-American.  Law and Justice is a broad post-Solidarity coalition.  It does contain conservatives, but it is mostly a populist and statist party, one where Reagan Democrats would be quite at home.

This is an important distinction for the American reader, because “right-wing” in conjunction with Diehl’s other revelations sounds positively nefarious.  The author warns us that prime minister Beata Szydło (and not Szydlo – get Polish diacritical marks right) is only “nominally” in charge.  That’s an allusion to the looming presence of the PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński (and not Jaroslaw Kaczynski or Kaczinski), who allegedly controls everything from behind the scenes.  Thus, the new government “has installed a new chief of the secret security services who was previously convicted of abuse of power for prosecuting political opponents, replaced five members of the Constitutional Court in order to avoid challenges to that first appointment, and named as defense minister an outspoken anti-Semite.”

First, Mariusz Kamiński, the minister coordinator of secret services, was indeed sentenced for abuse of power to three years after politically motivated prosecution.  His case was somewhat similar to Texas Representative Tom DeLay’s ordeal.  Here, Poland’s center-left government modified the law to get Kamiński.  However, before the sentence could be appealed, Poland’s newly elected president, Andrzej Duda, cut the legal nightmare short and issued and act of clemency for the politician (who was elected to parliament despite the court verdict).  Kamiński was not amnestied; he received an act of clemency (somewhat akin to presidential pardon).  Parenthetically, a libertarian would point out that Kamiński and his party supported the often superfluous regulations that eventually served as technicalities that allowed the politician to be sentenced.

Second, three months before the elections, the center-left PO-PSL governing coalition rammed through the lame-duck parliament a new law expanding the number of Constitutional Court justices from three to five.  And the government packed the court with its supporters in anticipation of the coming electoral defeat to prevent the new administration from changing the constitution.  Thus, one of the first things the PiS cabinet did was to revert to the status quo ante – to the great howling of the liberals, of course.

Third, Diehl called defense minister Antoni Macierewicz “an outspoken anti-Semite.”  The man is a veteran human rights fighter.  He defended Jews intrepidly during the anti-Semitic campaign by the Communist party in 1968.  Later, in 1976, he founded the Committee to Defend Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników – KOR) which contained many Jewish activists.  Macierewicz was a staunch defender of Jews.  Why would Diehl accuse a person with such a stellar record of anti-Semitism?  In 2002, while on talk radio, the Polish politician fielded a question from a listener quite undiplomatically.  The listener asked about the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a concoction of lies by the Tsarist secret police purporting to show that “the Jews” were involved in a clandestine conspiracy to take over the world, a pathological phenomenon which Norman Cohen correctly referred to as “the warrant for genocide.”  Macierewicz, who is a trained historian, responded that he had read the Protocols, which is of course legitimate in our profession.  Then, regrettably, he went on to mumble a convoluted explanation, which in its sophisticated form is known in the United States as the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis about “the Israel Lobby.”  Does that slip qualify Macierewicz as “an outspoken anti-Semite”?

Other Polish offenses, according to Diehl, are no less grave.  “The new Polish culture minister tried to order a state-funded theater not to stage a play by Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek, claiming it was pornographic.”  Well, it is, and it shows how precipitously the standards of the Nobel committee have fallen.  Further, Jelinek was a Communist party member, which is offensive to the victims of Communism.  We have already had similar debates in the United States.  Should Robert Mapplethorpe’s classy self-portrait with a whip in his anus or Andres Serrano’s lovely art piece entitled “Piss Christ” be subsidized by the taxpayer?  The minister of culture of Poland clearly thinks no.  But he also transgressed against the post-Communist media: “When a television reporter questioned whether his edict was legal, the minister promised a purge of the reporter’s network as well as other state-supported news media.”  Again, when the post-Communists and liberals were in charge, they packed state-owned media with their own people.  One would seek in vain American mainstream journalists who objected to it.  Why would now the newly elected PiS administration keep leftist propagandists at taxpayer-funded jobs?  They had their run of the place for 25 years, and before then 45 years under Communism.

Diehl is further sore that PiS wants “to put former Prime Minister Donald Tusk – the current president of the European Council, the E.U.’s executive body – on trial.”  Is Tusk above the law?  If he committed crimes, he should be investigated.  That is the essence of democracy, which is predicated on rule of law.

Then the WaPo author takes Prime Minister Szydło to task for reneging “on an E.U. plan under which 4,500” Muslim refugees would be sent to Poland.  First, Poland has agreed to accept Christians from the Middle East.  Second, Poland has already welcomed 400,000 refugees from Ukraine.  Diehl is silent about this.  He also compares Jarosław Kaczyński, another veteran human rights activist, to Donald Trump for his allegedly anti-Muslim remarks.  “He’s claimed that immigrants have imposed sharia in Sweden and that they might cause epidemics.”  Yet, a few weeks ago, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other venues published articles expressing a well-founded fear of epidemics brought into Europe by migrants from the Middle East and Africa.  As for sharia in Sweden and elsewhere in Western Europe, one only needs to visit some of the Muslim quarters of Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, or Malmo to see that Islamic norms are enforced daily, notwithstanding their incompatibility with EU laws.

Diehl believes that “such rhetoric” translates into “nasty anti-immigrant protest.”  He singles out a demonstration in Wrocław, where “an effigy of a Jew dressed in Hasidic garb and holding the E.U. flag was burned.”  This is true so far as it goes.  However, we investigated this case and found out that the anti-Islamist demonstration was organized by All-Polish Youth (MW) and the National Radical Camp (ONR), small organizations that attract high schoolers, university students, and other very young people.  The arsonist, a fifty-something-year-old, showed up at their demonstration uninvited.  The fault of the kids was that they did not chase him away.  Our sources tell us that “this was a provocation.”  We thought the arsonist was an idiot, and not an agent provocateur.  Perhaps he was both.

Yet, to back his opinion about xenophobia allegedly encouraged by Kaczyński, the WaPo author quotes rabbi Michael Schudrich (and not Schudich, as it was misspelled) to the effect that “anti-Semites … are under the belief that they have support from this new government for such actions.”  But the rabbi is mistaken.  The nationalist youth generally disrespect Kaczyński.  They think he is a progressive who disingenuously stole their electoral victory, draping himself in the mantle of patriotism. On November 11, some of those kids marched in Kraków and chanted: “We are Poland, and not Kaczyński and his pigs!”  Riddle me that.

Diehl believes that “Kaczynski [sic! Kaczyński], like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, is the product of an ugly pre-World War II populism, frozen and preserved through the communist era, that mixes xenophobia, anti-Semitism, right-wing Catholicism and autocratic impulses.”  This is quite a mantra, intended to scare the American reader and to appeal to liberal shibboleths.  We would put it as follows: “Kaczyński and Orban stay true to their nations’ Christian and patriotic tradition which helped the Poles and Hungarians defend themselves from Communism and to preserve their national identities under the Soviet and Communist occupation, just as they serve them well today handling nihilism and moral relativism purveyed by some liberal nomenklatura from Brussels.”  It is cartoonish to reduce faith and patriotism – indispensable markers of cultural identity to “xenophobia, anti-Semitism, right-wing Catholicism and autocratic impulses.”

It is also injudicious to put faith in Putin’s propaganda, as when Diehl sneers that “conspiracy theories rule” and supplies, as proof, the new Polish government’s effort to re-investigate the April 2010 Smolensk Polish plane disaster, which killed President Lech Kaczyński (twin brother of the PiS leader) and other notables.  Diehl brings up Russian and PO investigation that blame the crash on “pilot and controller errors during an ill-advised landing at a fog-bound airport.”  Plenty of other experts, however, point out some other factors that strongly suggest foul play  for instance, the fact that the bodies of passengers and crew disintegrated, even though the impact was rather limited, as the plane fell from an extremely low altitude.

Finally, there is a personal angle.  Matt Tyrmand and others have pointed out that until now, Diehl did not reveal himself as an expert on Polish politics.  Tyrmand maintains that the article was an attack piece contrived by WaPo bi-weekly contributor Anne Applebaum in revenge, essentially, for her husband’s falling off the gravy train since his party was badly trounced in the last elections.  I know both Anne and Matt.  I disagree with the latter.  That’s not like her.  That would be just low.  Others remind us that Jackson Diehl was awarded a medal by the outgoing center-left Polish government.  His sympathies are clearly not behind the current administration in Warsaw.  Even so, it does not follow that one should abandon journalistic standards and turn in such an ill-researched piece.  One would think that Diehl would rejoice at yet another cyclical victory of democracy in Poland, uninterrupted since 1989, even if the Law and Justice government is not to his liking.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is professor of history, the Kosciuszko chair in Polish studies, at the Institute of World Politics.

The Washington Post has published an opinion piece on Poland that rehashes and amplifies the usual matrix of invective hitherto reserved for Hungary.  We are informed that Poland’s newly elected government, led by anti-Semites, Europhobes, and conspiracy theorists, is about to abandon democracy and the European Union.  This ill-researched and ill-tempered article is so baffling because its author, Jackson Diehl, while a mainstream liberal, is usually quite fair-minded.

Diehl correctly avers that the current electoral victory in Poland is a reaction against previous governments, and that the left remains “discredited.”  “But Poland’s turn is also part of a growing popular backlash against European institutions and their ideology of tolerance, one that extends from Greece to France.”  In fact, it is a backlash against cultural nihilism, moral relativism, and other liberal pathologies.

What so upset the WaPo author?  The populist-conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i. Sprawiedliwość – PiS) party seriously trounced the centrist Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) in the last election.  Consequently, the center-left coalition government of PO liberals and their allies, in particular post-Communist agrarians (Polish Peasant Party – Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe [PSL]), was replaced by a PiS administration.

While Diehl incorrectly refers to the outgoing PO-PSL coalition regime as “center-right,” Diehl calls PiS “right-wing” and “more extreme right” then the previous government.  However, PiS is really an anti-Communist and anti-post-Communist party.  That means it opposes the Communists and their collaborators, who, after 1989, transformed themselves into “social democrats” and “liberals.”  In other words, PiS stands against the manifold pathologies of the post-Communist transformation, including corruption and impunity for the evildoers.  Mildly Euro-skeptic, it supports national sovereignty, NATO, and Transatlanticism.  It is staunchly pro-American.  Law and Justice is a broad post-Solidarity coalition.  It does contain conservatives, but it is mostly a populist and statist party, one where Reagan Democrats would be quite at home.

This is an important distinction for the American reader, because “right-wing” in conjunction with Diehl’s other revelations sounds positively nefarious.  The author warns us that prime minister Beata Szydło (and not Szydlo – get Polish diacritical marks right) is only “nominally” in charge.  That’s an allusion to the looming presence of the PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński (and not Jaroslaw Kaczynski or Kaczinski), who allegedly controls everything from behind the scenes.  Thus, the new government “has installed a new chief of the secret security services who was previously convicted of abuse of power for prosecuting political opponents, replaced five members of the Constitutional Court in order to avoid challenges to that first appointment, and named as defense minister an outspoken anti-Semite.”

First, Mariusz Kamiński, the minister coordinator of secret services, was indeed sentenced for abuse of power to three years after politically motivated prosecution.  His case was somewhat similar to Texas Representative Tom DeLay’s ordeal.  Here, Poland’s center-left government modified the law to get Kamiński.  However, before the sentence could be appealed, Poland’s newly elected president, Andrzej Duda, cut the legal nightmare short and issued and act of clemency for the politician (who was elected to parliament despite the court verdict).  Kamiński was not amnestied; he received an act of clemency (somewhat akin to presidential pardon).  Parenthetically, a libertarian would point out that Kamiński and his party supported the often superfluous regulations that eventually served as technicalities that allowed the politician to be sentenced.

Second, three months before the elections, the center-left PO-PSL governing coalition rammed through the lame-duck parliament a new law expanding the number of Constitutional Court justices from three to five.  And the government packed the court with its supporters in anticipation of the coming electoral defeat to prevent the new administration from changing the constitution.  Thus, one of the first things the PiS cabinet did was to revert to the status quo ante – to the great howling of the liberals, of course.

Third, Diehl called defense minister Antoni Macierewicz “an outspoken anti-Semite.”  The man is a veteran human rights fighter.  He defended Jews intrepidly during the anti-Semitic campaign by the Communist party in 1968.  Later, in 1976, he founded the Committee to Defend Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników – KOR) which contained many Jewish activists.  Macierewicz was a staunch defender of Jews.  Why would Diehl accuse a person with such a stellar record of anti-Semitism?  In 2002, while on talk radio, the Polish politician fielded a question from a listener quite undiplomatically.  The listener asked about the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a concoction of lies by the Tsarist secret police purporting to show that “the Jews” were involved in a clandestine conspiracy to take over the world, a pathological phenomenon which Norman Cohen correctly referred to as “the warrant for genocide.”  Macierewicz, who is a trained historian, responded that he had read the Protocols, which is of course legitimate in our profession.  Then, regrettably, he went on to mumble a convoluted explanation, which in its sophisticated form is known in the United States as the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis about “the Israel Lobby.”  Does that slip qualify Macierewicz as “an outspoken anti-Semite”?

Other Polish offenses, according to Diehl, are no less grave.  “The new Polish culture minister tried to order a state-funded theater not to stage a play by Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek, claiming it was pornographic.”  Well, it is, and it shows how precipitously the standards of the Nobel committee have fallen.  Further, Jelinek was a Communist party member, which is offensive to the victims of Communism.  We have already had similar debates in the United States.  Should Robert Mapplethorpe’s classy self-portrait with a whip in his anus or Andres Serrano’s lovely art piece entitled “Piss Christ” be subsidized by the taxpayer?  The minister of culture of Poland clearly thinks no.  But he also transgressed against the post-Communist media: “When a television reporter questioned whether his edict was legal, the minister promised a purge of the reporter’s network as well as other state-supported news media.”  Again, when the post-Communists and liberals were in charge, they packed state-owned media with their own people.  One would seek in vain American mainstream journalists who objected to it.  Why would now the newly elected PiS administration keep leftist propagandists at taxpayer-funded jobs?  They had their run of the place for 25 years, and before then 45 years under Communism.

Diehl is further sore that PiS wants “to put former Prime Minister Donald Tusk – the current president of the European Council, the E.U.’s executive body – on trial.”  Is Tusk above the law?  If he committed crimes, he should be investigated.  That is the essence of democracy, which is predicated on rule of law.

Then the WaPo author takes Prime Minister Szydło to task for reneging “on an E.U. plan under which 4,500” Muslim refugees would be sent to Poland.  First, Poland has agreed to accept Christians from the Middle East.  Second, Poland has already welcomed 400,000 refugees from Ukraine.  Diehl is silent about this.  He also compares Jarosław Kaczyński, another veteran human rights activist, to Donald Trump for his allegedly anti-Muslim remarks.  “He’s claimed that immigrants have imposed sharia in Sweden and that they might cause epidemics.”  Yet, a few weeks ago, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other venues published articles expressing a well-founded fear of epidemics brought into Europe by migrants from the Middle East and Africa.  As for sharia in Sweden and elsewhere in Western Europe, one only needs to visit some of the Muslim quarters of Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, or Malmo to see that Islamic norms are enforced daily, notwithstanding their incompatibility with EU laws.

Diehl believes that “such rhetoric” translates into “nasty anti-immigrant protest.”  He singles out a demonstration in Wrocław, where “an effigy of a Jew dressed in Hasidic garb and holding the E.U. flag was burned.”  This is true so far as it goes.  However, we investigated this case and found out that the anti-Islamist demonstration was organized by All-Polish Youth (MW) and the National Radical Camp (ONR), small organizations that attract high schoolers, university students, and other very young people.  The arsonist, a fifty-something-year-old, showed up at their demonstration uninvited.  The fault of the kids was that they did not chase him away.  Our sources tell us that “this was a provocation.”  We thought the arsonist was an idiot, and not an agent provocateur.  Perhaps he was both.

Yet, to back his opinion about xenophobia allegedly encouraged by Kaczyński, the WaPo author quotes rabbi Michael Schudrich (and not Schudich, as it was misspelled) to the effect that “anti-Semites … are under the belief that they have support from this new government for such actions.”  But the rabbi is mistaken.  The nationalist youth generally disrespect Kaczyński.  They think he is a progressive who disingenuously stole their electoral victory, draping himself in the mantle of patriotism. On November 11, some of those kids marched in Kraków and chanted: “We are Poland, and not Kaczyński and his pigs!”  Riddle me that.

Diehl believes that “Kaczynski [sic! Kaczyński], like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, is the product of an ugly pre-World War II populism, frozen and preserved through the communist era, that mixes xenophobia, anti-Semitism, right-wing Catholicism and autocratic impulses.”  This is quite a mantra, intended to scare the American reader and to appeal to liberal shibboleths.  We would put it as follows: “Kaczyński and Orban stay true to their nations’ Christian and patriotic tradition which helped the Poles and Hungarians defend themselves from Communism and to preserve their national identities under the Soviet and Communist occupation, just as they serve them well today handling nihilism and moral relativism purveyed by some liberal nomenklatura from Brussels.”  It is cartoonish to reduce faith and patriotism – indispensable markers of cultural identity to “xenophobia, anti-Semitism, right-wing Catholicism and autocratic impulses.”

It is also injudicious to put faith in Putin’s propaganda, as when Diehl sneers that “conspiracy theories rule” and supplies, as proof, the new Polish government’s effort to re-investigate the April 2010 Smolensk Polish plane disaster, which killed President Lech Kaczyński (twin brother of the PiS leader) and other notables.  Diehl brings up Russian and PO investigation that blame the crash on “pilot and controller errors during an ill-advised landing at a fog-bound airport.”  Plenty of other experts, however, point out some other factors that strongly suggest foul play  for instance, the fact that the bodies of passengers and crew disintegrated, even though the impact was rather limited, as the plane fell from an extremely low altitude.

Finally, there is a personal angle.  Matt Tyrmand and others have pointed out that until now, Diehl did not reveal himself as an expert on Polish politics.  Tyrmand maintains that the article was an attack piece contrived by WaPo bi-weekly contributor Anne Applebaum in revenge, essentially, for her husband’s falling off the gravy train since his party was badly trounced in the last elections.  I know both Anne and Matt.  I disagree with the latter.  That’s not like her.  That would be just low.  Others remind us that Jackson Diehl was awarded a medal by the outgoing center-left Polish government.  His sympathies are clearly not behind the current administration in Warsaw.  Even so, it does not follow that one should abandon journalistic standards and turn in such an ill-researched piece.  One would think that Diehl would rejoice at yet another cyclical victory of democracy in Poland, uninterrupted since 1989, even if the Law and Justice government is not to his liking.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is professor of history, the Kosciuszko chair in Polish studies, at the Institute of World Politics.