Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part II)

Smoking! Lech Walesa leaves Gdansk's Shipyard to meet with Pope John Paul II.

Smoking! Lech Walesa leaves Gdansk’s Shipyard to meet with Pope John Paul II.

Yesterday kicked off a series of posts about the orientalization of Poland among Western scholars. The term “orientalization” denotes an image of a culture as “Eastern,” meaning exotic, backward, uncivilized, and possibly dangerous. The term has been used to describe Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern Muslims, but recent scholarship has expanded its semantic field beyond Edward Said’s original intentions in his seminal work Orientalism. The very notion of Poland belonging to “Eastern Europe” invites such analysis, especially since residents of the region have always insisted upon being called Central Europeans, residents of MItteleuropa, because that would, of course, allow them to orientalize the ever-threatening Russians.

Orientalism: the French think there are polar bears in Poland; the Poles think the Russians are polar bears.

Orientalism: the French think there are polar bears in Poland; the Poles think the Russians are polar bears.

My meditations on Poland are not meant to take Poland down a notch. Instead they’re meant to introduce the reader to a much more differentiated understanding of Polish Catholicism–its weaknesses, but also its strengths.

I should return to yesterday point about  religious diversity, especially the part where I said “Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased the country’s traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up.” There is so much of diversity, when compared with the relative homogeneity of Western Europe, that I forgot to mention the Eastern Catholic churches that emerged out of the Union of Brest. Of course Eastern Catholic frequently feel forgotten by the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, and, well, I unfortunately didn’t buck the trend.

Let’s fast forward to the 1980’s when Solidarity was breaking ground as a non-violent trade-unionist movement set against a totalitarian government. With this we’ll continue to explore Polish religious particularities that are too difficult for Westerners to understand. Although a few of them have written books about it, as we’ve noted elsewhere.

The left and Church came together.

Solidarity: The left and Church came together.

3. Solidarity was both a Catholic movement and a somewhat secular movement. However, there is almost no doubt that it was politically the single most successful worker movement in history. It helped to topple, irony of ironies, a socialist regime. Granted, that regime had declared martial law, was armed to the teeth, and its tanks and guns were aiming at civilians.

Solidarity was composed of simple pious workers, leftist intellectuals (such as Michnik, author of The Church & the Left) who were fellow-travelers of the Church, and finally clergy. The Church played a decisive role here, because churches, thanks to the sweeping influence of Polish clericalism and papist internationalism, were the only place where free debate was permitted to everyone (including the non-believers).

Solidarity went through several phases until this mixture of diverse groups began to splinter under communist pressure and this only continued once power was transferred to them.

4.  Consumerism: The unusual mix of intellectuals (not that they were all secularists) and the pious masses could not hold in Poland as the 90’s became a kind of Hobbesian free-for-all. The Gdansk shipyards, which anchored the whole movement, were precisely the sort of unwieldy state-run outfit most likely to collapse under the free market. Governments of both left and right cycled in and out, some out of of existence. The only constant was the austerity measures that caused misery for a decade and laid the groundwork for a relatively stable Polish economy, the spread of consumerism, and a creeping secularism.

This turn of events either demonstrates the power of consumerism as a natural opponent of religion, or it exposes the weakness of the earlier synthesis, or both. Either way, the seeds of destruction were probably planted in the movement of liberation that was Solidarity. Which is unfortunate, because the kind of collective communication, cooperation, and reconciliation fostered by Solidarity at its zenith is precisely the sort of thing snuffed out by an increasingly technocratic economy and style of governance in Poland.

Before our next installment of this series, take a look at yours truly trying to make sense of Krakow’s Solidarity past within the parameters permitted by capitalism:

For those of you interested in reading more about Solidarity and its legacy: there is a complete free issue of the Tischner Institute journal Thinking in Values devoted to those topics.

The Solidarity issue.

The Solidarity issue.

The third installment in this series will appear here, The first installment can be found here.

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One More Nortre Dame Book on/and the Legacy of Solidarność

solidarity

Last night I went back and checked the Notre Dame Press overstock site on a hunch.  I wanted to check whether they publish one of the few books I know of in English about the legacy of Solidarity from a theological viewpoint.  Indeed, they do.  Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity describes its task as follows:

“Using Poland as a case study, Beyer explores the obstacles to promoting an ethic of solidarity in contemporary capitalist societies and attempts to demonstrate how the moral revolution of the early Solidarity movement can be revived, both in its country of origin and around the world. Recovering Solidarity is widely interdisciplinary, utilizing Catholic social tradition, philosophical ethics, developmental economics, poverty research, gender studies, and sociology.”

The “gender studies” stick out like a sore thumb.  Gender studies don’t seem to apply to 80’s Poland, which, I suppose, is all the more reason to inflict it upon those people and times (yet, what Beyer wrote about John Paul II in the Huff Post here is on the mark).

sign of cross

This dissonance was amplified by my bedtime reading of Colm Tóibín‘s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.   The subtitle might be a slight misnomer, especially since the chapter on Poland, “The Memory of War,” deals with the author doing his best to ignore and dismiss everything about Polish Catholicism.  That’s because he’s mainly there as a globalist tourist expecting to have an Auschwitz epiphany.  He initially bypasses the great centers of Polish culture, nearly a thousand years of history, and heads straight for the crematoria as if there’s nothing else to see in Poland.

In my darker moments I feel the Germans won the memory wars by planting their worst concentration camps in Poland, instead of on their own soil.  This intuition is best exemplified by the New York Times “Polish concentration camps” controversy.  Not that Tóibín is any different from our wedding guests in Krakow, some of whom headed for the sites of mass extermination the day after our nuptials.

Tóibín only changes tracks sporadically to become irked by the naive “mildness” of Poland’s practicing “Solidarity Catholics” of the 90’s and mocks them for their remembrance of the Katyń massacre.  He totally ignores the fact that in excess of 2.5 million Polish Catholics were killed during World War II, because their suffering somehow doesn’t count–even though Timothy Snyder points out they, not the Jews, were initially selected for extermination.  Perhaps the catholicity of suffering in history is too messy for us too take in?

I’ll come back to the topic of memory and World War II some other time, because I’m convinced that Eva Hoffman was right when she told me in private conversation that a balanced understanding of Poland’s history in the West is impeded by competing Jewish and Polish martyrologies locked in a zero-sum game.

There’s also a lot to be said about Tóibín’s discomfort with how much the liturgical calendar set the pace of life in 90’s Poland, and how much he could “relax, feel at home” (last words of the chapter) once he got back to the 24/7 consumerism of Western Europe. He might take comfort in the liturgies of capitalist secularism beginning to dislodge Catholicism in present day Poland.

The sometimes over-the-top clericalism of Polish culture might need some competition to clean house, but I fear the real gains of important historical episodes, for example, Solidarność, will be lost in the shuffle.  Dariusz Karłowicz, no stranger to these pages (I’ve written about his work here, here, here, and here), outlines the practical and theological contributions of Solidarność in an essay I translated a while back for the Tischner Institute in Krakow.  He concludes with questions I’d like to see Gerald Beyer’s book address:

“The qualified unity which shows itself during pilgrimages or f loods finds few outlets during day to day dealings with others. To judge from its past f lashes, the hidden potential of solidarity is still immense. Will it be utilized? Without a doubt, its guardian is Pope John Paul II. Will the Church be its future guardian or maybe the developing world of social institutions and non-profits? It’s hard to say.”

You can find the rest of this essay here on the Tischner Institute site.  There’s also an essay by the philosopher Charles Taylor I had to re-translate into English on the same site here (all because the original got lost and the Polish edition was the only one left).

z9433517AA,Ks--prof--Jozef-Tischner

Jozef Tischner, the chaplain of Solidarity. He had a way of grabbing your attention. More about him in future posts.