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What a Pole sees in a mirror?

Published on March 12, 2011 by: in: Society

Our experience of the world, of relations between our countrymen and strangers is quite specific, characterized by some kind of introversion: Poles usually feel more at ease with their own countrymen than with strangers, even with those towards whom they do not feel any hostility. This is why abroad they immediately create their own group, want to be with their own countrymen, regardless of how this coexistence looks like. It is extremely important and curious that we seem to be characterized by psychological closeness, surely there is a particular link between me as an individual and what makes me a social human being. As if my cultural-national equipment was exceptionally precious value. This phenomenon was clearly visible in the last 3-4 years when Polish citizens started to go abroad to earn their living there. It turned out that wherever they are – Ireland, Scotland, England or Spain – they immediately create their own national group, where the conflicts spark off right from the beginning. Despite this we concentrate, isolate, create our own environment which is crucial for our well being as individuals. It can be seen also in the United States, in subsequent waves of immigration, in which individualism, connecting various ethnic, national and formal groups is very flowing. For example Hungarians who come to the United States in big numbers do not create such closed associations as Poles do. It seems to be included in our mentality, which results from the heritage of the past, from the way in which we experience being Polish and what follows, being a human being. It is connected with experiencing the national identity. It is restrictive in its symbolic significance – it draws clear borders between “being a Polish” and loyalty to the Polishness.

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European young Pole

I would like to introduce a generation censorship into this diagnosis. When I see people from the generation of 20-year-olds they seem to be far more the citizens of Europe than for example I am. I still cannot get over the resistance against the availability of the contemporary world. I am thinking – how is it possible? Can I simply buy a ticket and fly to England, France or Greece? I am still amazed how easy is this, after twenty years. The experience of Communist captivity has influenced and is still influencing our mentality greatly. I can see it on my own example – after all an open-minded person who travels quite frequently.

Generation gaps in the relations with Europe are visible also in ability of using foreign languages. Increasingly bigger number of young people speak foreign languages. No longer ago than in the 90s such an ability was not visible among students. Nowadays even in not the most prestigious schools maybe not all but a vast majority of students speak well or very well at least one foreign language. It is a good indication which can prove to how big extent young people can feel European every day. Linguistic abilities give freedom of travelling, knowing others and enjoying these experiences. World is becoming small and open for you, young generation. I also think that the experience of emigration will bring positive results. Experiencing differences and way of life of others can be an example worth following.

Thanks to the contacts with abroad we have a chance to know the otherness, to learn how to accept it, to know social and national pluralism, not being afraid of such diversity. Of course it is not always successful. For the Poles diversity most often seems to be threatening if they invariably concentrate in those Polish herds. In our country we underline the necessity for unity – we have to be united, the same. Such attitudes are very popular. Last events showed that a dream about unity is still present among the Polish.

A Pole in a spectacle of identity

There is a liberal tradition which focuses exclusively on the individual consciousness, experience, guarantees of individual freedoms and human rights. It turns out however that if the human rights are to be truly successful, apart from legal regulations, there have to be also collective and cultural guarantees. It turns out that the national consciousness cannot be deconstructed. There are very good examples of such a thesis in the contemporary Europe. The roots of an identity, need for local and national community is characteristic even for a nomad who works for half a year abroad and for half a year in his country and who cannot imagine not going for holidays abroad. It is a national affiliation however that gives people feeling of having roots in life and in the world. Proper understanding of national experience and the need for community seems to be crucial then.

When I recalled emigration of millions of Poles, mainly inhabitants of small towns where the xenophobic stereotypes are strong and widely spread, I meant experience which will destroy one of the way of categorizing people into our countrymen and strangers. I have the impression that it would be difficult to imagine united, cooperating and open Europe without a certain crucial transformation in constructing national identity and experiencing it every day. Putting people in the boxes of our own countrymen and strangers leads to building a group, national identity on the notion of superiority for the reason of real or more often imagined virtues. The identity is then constructed in opposition to others, which always leads to apologia towards our own group: we are different from them, we act better.

Discovery of different way of building and experiencing identity is a huge accomplishment of the European Union and the basis for building European community. It is not based on the picture of our own nation in opposition to a different one, on self-affirmation and creating the distance: we are not like them. It is more of a national identity created as presentation of ourselves: here we are, such and such, we have our successes and achievements, our own fate, experience which we want to show others, share it, boast of it at the European common forum. I think that in Poland the tendency to boast of special achievements, values, our specificity is becoming more and more popular, replacing tendency of defining ourselves in the opposition against somebody else. We do not have to construct our identity on the basis of conflict and opposition. United Europe gives the opportunity for everyone to speak, to offer something which they can contribute to a general human heritage: specific values, self-consciousness, experience. It is a chance to create an enormous, global spectacle of identity.

The road we entered is globalizing a local world, it shows that we are on a big stage, on which the more collective, national characters there are, the more interesting it becomes. Those characters can participate in an enormous spectacle of coexisting with various national groups, extremely seductive not only for the elites, but also for common people. For those who had to go to for example Ireland in order to improve their own individual existence, but can gain something valuable from the experience of emigration in order to come back later and say: I want it here, in Poland, to be the same as there.

When Poland was joining the European Union there was a backlash from various environments. It turned out very fast though that those who opposed Polish accession to the European Union changed their mind. Expectations and hope appeared that rules and principles which apply in the countries of the European Union will force similar behaviors upon our politicians: more care for people, respecting the public opinion or liquidating political corruption. These tendencies were reflected in the public opinion research carried out by sociologists. On the basis of this tendency as well as surprisingly high acceptance for the European Union we can think about the European community as the one which guarantees certain values such as civic rights to even more extent than our own state.

A Pole tormented by the romanticism

What is creating the framework of our national notions about ourselves right now? What content is included in the picture of the Polishness? Martyrdom-romantic model of the Polishness is invariably the basis for experiencing the Polishness, our national identity. Even Roman Dmowski did not manage to get rid of the importance and up-do-date status of this model. The national martyrdom which either is included in this model or results from it united Poles to the biggest extent. It is shown in all the research I have done over years. Possibly the phenomenon diminishes and we are able to notice suffering of others but it is still present. A picture of a Pole who suffered in the past is deeply rooted in our mentality. Even if we oppose it, situations such as catastrophe in Smolensk activate it again and we give in. It is a very good example of how certain stereotypical, mythological images are present and important in our culture, we breathe them as we breathe the air sometimes failing to notice how strongly they influence us. Anyway, I would pin down to our self-consciousness, especially the national one, numerous lacks resulting from failures of our self-awareness.

National mourning showed how important this martyrdom-romantic version of experiencing the Polishness is, how easily it can be updated and how it is socially cheered. Surprising, senseless catastrophe, which caused death of the President and the representatives of whole, diversified political elite, required social activities, unity in the face of tragedy and threat that it caused. Positive outcome of this hank of experiences boiled down to the fact that Poles realized that the representatives of the state died and it is a very sad but also very important event. It made people think about the state as something ours, which is a common value, regardless of the current evaluation and attitudes towards the state and the politicians.

What makes me think is the scarceness of the reflection and discourse in the media, especially in TV. It proves the level of our public discourse and especially of journalism. I am wondering now how the Western journalists would react in such a situation? Would they limit their activity to creating enormous national spectacle about unity in suffering (national one obviously) or would they focus on portraying reality? How socially interesting it would be to reach the first people who came to lit up the candle in front of the Presidential Palace. I am curious why they did it, if they were supporters of the President or just random people? Or what was happening in the backstage of the celebrations? It could turn out that this whole national unity de facto was not so unequivocal. In the shadow of the television show of mourning and national unity a very powerful, vulgar and sometimes aggressive conflict was neglected – a conflict around burial of the presidential couple at Wawel, which updated two, completely opposite versions of the national identity.

A Pole – attempt at redefinition

I remember a few discussions about the concept of Polishness and national identity which took place throughout last twenty years. Some of them were intellectually provoked, others resulted from the political conflict, as it happened in 2005 on the occasion of the elections. The discussion usually burst out when the Poles as a nation, as a society were accused of something, mainly of anti-Semitism and hostility towards others (debate around the film of Lanzamann, later around the issue of Jedwabne and accusations of behaviors of Poles after the war and common according to Gross programs of the survivors from the extermination of the Jews, later accusations of cruel and unjust treatment of the German civil population). These discussions do not strike me as conclusive however, surely they did not manage to create any certain canon of thinking. Above all they did not lead to any specific debate on the Polish identity. I could bear a grudge against myself as well that I did not pay enough attention to strenuous, intellectual, reflective work on the national identity, on the issues important for the Polish people. We should reflect upon how the identity works and ask the question if we can construct a common model which would combine romantic, messianic tradition with the modern one as well as the positivist one, which Stefan Bratkowski and in a sense also Bohdan Cywinski wrote about? Surely it is a challenge for the elites. The fact that various contents of the national awareness and national beliefs are involved in the politics results in politicizing any debate concerning these issues. It is very difficult to reach any concrete results because everything what is said is immediately qualified as a political declaration in favor of one option or another, therefore any deeper meaning of the reflection is lost.

Translation: Martyna Bojarska

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About Ireneusz Krzeminski

Sociologist, professor at the University of Warsaw. His interests include the changes in contemporary democratic societies as well as antisemitism in Poland.

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