Hidebound Habits


Poles displaying the national flag during the state funeral of President Lech Kacynski in 2010.

I’m going to take the liberty here to manufacture a new word: polonologist — a Poland expert.  I keyword searched it and, to my surprise, found no mention of it.

Mind you, I don’t purport to be one — a polonologist or Poland expert — but as an amateur student of history, I’m reminded time and again of that timeless maxim, “Old habits die hard.”

That maxim applies not only to irritating personal habits but also to longstanding national predispositions and ideologies, whether these happen to be adaptive or hidebound ones.

It certainly seems applicable to the current political situation in Poland.

Writing in the New York Times, Piotr Buras, who heads the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, explores the current cultural and cultural cleavages in Poland. He contends that these divisions do not reflect a lurch to the nationalist right but rather the struggle between liberal and traditionalist sentiments that has ensued in Polish society for centuries.

Poland has made immensely impressive material strides since the fall of communism, and, ironically, one of the factors most associated Polish communism’s conspicuous failures — the country’s low-wage structure — has played a significant part in the nation’s economic renaissance.  But like all economic miracles, it has produced winners and losers.  The average wages of Finns and Britons are roughly twice as high as those of Poles, and this has left many Poles deeply embittered.

And predictably, some Polish politicians, notably Jaroslaw Kacynski, leader of the conservative Law and Justice Party and twin brother of the late President Lech Kacynski, are making political hay out of these disparities.

Kacynski has even raised the political stakes, claiming a Russian conspiracy behind the death of his brother in the crash of his presidential plane near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, and dismissing countrymen who discount this conspiracy as Poles not worthy of the name.

As I said, while I claim no expertise as a polonologist, I agree with Buras.  Much of this has a distinctly familiar ring.  These cleavages have been manifested throughout hundreds of years of Polish history.  They were certainly evident following the emergence of the Polish Second Republic of World War I, when Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, who embraced the old multi-religious and multicultural traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath, squared off against, Roman Dmovski, who emphasized Polish ethnicity and the nation’s historic fidelity to the Catholic faith.

And at the risk of digressing a bit, I’m intrigued by how similar divisions between secularism and traditionalism have played out in other parts of Europe, notably France, with whom Poland maintains a close historical and cultural affinity.  France’s deep divisions were laid bare during the Dreyfus affair, the effects of which mortally weakened the French Third Republic in the years leading up to the Second World War.

And we Americans have struggled with our own divisions that, while somewhat unique to the American experience, have been no less wrenching.  One could even make the case that since the rise of the New Left and the conflagrations of the 1960’s, these divisions are increasingly expressed in ways that resemble the Old World — “one nation, two cultures,” borrowing historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s apt characterization.  The rise of deeply divisive political rhetoric and our increased ideologized party system further testifies to these deepening cleavages.

My oldest daughter, wise and perceptive beyond her years, speculates that these animosities manifested throughout the Western world are merely birth pangs of a more pluralistic, tolerant civilization.

I admire her optimism, and I hold out hope that it will be borne out over the next few decades.   Consider for a moment what has been achieved throughout Europe and the world since Pilsudski and Dmowski were locked into a titanic struggle over the future of Poland:  a continent united on the basis of democratic values, increasingly economically integrated, and with a prosperous, assertive and tolerant Germany at the center of it all.

I, for one, remain convinced that there is for more cause for hope than despair. Perhaps the West is undergoing another cycle of birth pangs.  And perhaps these birth pangs really are the harbinger of a future in which the West not only the leads but also inspires the rest of the world on the basis of one of its most enduring values — intellectual and cultural pluralism — which will be universally regarded years from now not as a fatal weakness but as one of inestimable value.

Old, divisive and self-destructive habits don’t die, but perhaps they do become hidebound and discredited for long stretches of time.  At least, that’s my hope.



About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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