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Living the Life of Riley in Poland

Living the Life of Riley in Poland
Kevin Hannan

Before I started school my parents indulged my passion for drawing. Father periodically would bring home a thick roll of slick white paper meant for wrapping meat. Each new cylinder was round as a bucket and as tall as I was then. I carefully unrolled the paper on the kitchen floor, like a scroll, and blocking off all motion through the kitchen, I transcribed my vertically and horizontally advancing fantasies. After starting school I continued that interest, filling pages during class as my teachers droned on, creating labyrinths with high-rising towers and scraggy ascending cliffs as if from a Byzantine icon.

As I look back on those years, it seems to me now that already then, drawing my endless pictures, I had some premonition that I would wind up in £ódŸ, working at the university and inhabiting a Spartan flat in a towering university blok. It is in Poland where, as my students often say, using their idiom which sounds quite awkward in English, “I found my place.”

I have just begun my sixth consecutive year of teaching in Poland. My first visit took place in 1983. I came then by way of Prague, Moravia, and Zaolzie, with a detour through Slovakia, for the purpose of attending the wedding of a distant cousin in Karvina. I found real-life Poland and Czechoslovakia quite different from all the reminiscences on Old Country that the elders used to repeat in Texas. I feel fortunate today that I could observe life in communist Poland and Czechoslovakia.

My doctorate was completed at the University of Texas, Austin. I wound up working as a manager on large construction projects (I had learned the electrical trade while working as a college student), a job I disliked intensely. In truth, I became sick of America, its commercialism and consumerism, its politics and hypocrisy. Then came the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. America’s large construction projects ground to a halt, and before the end of the year, my career as construction manager had ended. In 2001 I headed for Poland.

My experiences working at the University of £ódŸ have been positive (though I can’t say the same for some part-time teaching stints at private institutions in Poland). There are significant differences between the systems of education in America and Poland, however, and this requires some getting used to. An obvious difference between America and Poland is the attitude of respect which surrounds the Polish university and everything associated with education. It’s quite a different story in America, where the masses idealize the “self-made man.” (Newspaper readers are often reminded that billionaire Bill Gates never finished college). America’s Andrew Jacksons and Abraham Lincolns never needed a college diploma for success.

Another difference between America and Poland is that the focus in American education is more specialized. By the time they start high school, most American students have chosen some specific area of studies, depending upon their talents and interests. In America there is less emphasis on theory and greater emphasis on a practical application of specialized knowledge. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Polish students acquire a broader knowledge than their American counterparts. In that sense, Poles receive a better education than Americans. This is seen among Polish children who emigrate to the United States with their families. A newly-arrived Polish child is often placed one or even two classes ahead of American students of the same age.

A disadvantage of the Polish system is that students are required to learn about subjects that do not interest them and which may never have practical application in their lives. I suspect that the widespread practice of cheating on exams, tests, and assignments, which Americans find shocking, can be blamed, in part, on the demands of such a broad scope of education.

My general attitudes towards the Polish university and towards Polish students often differ from those of my non-Polish colleagues who teach here. One provocative perspective is found in David Pichaske’s 1994 book Poland in Transition 1989-1991. The American author spent several semesters at the University of £ódŸ as a visiting Fulbright Scholar. Though Pichaske writes with some insight about the realities of life in Poland in 1989-1991, I disagree with much of what he writes about the Polish university.

Pichaske dismisses the abilities of his Polish students: “My Polish students are good at watching films, and very good at throwing parties” (p. 132). He enumerates three main concerns about Polish students (pp. 132-134): (1) They are “sheep,” incapable of thinking individually; (2) they are “genuinely lazy”; and (3) none of them are concerned about planning a career beyond graduation.
Pichaske writes that a Polish colleague at the university warned him that Polish students are “very clever at
lying their way out of any situation
.Polish students are the best liars in the world” (p. 131). And his general stereotyping of Poles is unflattering: “Poles are clever tricksters on one hand, naïve children on the other
” (p. 27).

Pichaske’s analysis is often arrogant and superficial, the assertions of an American who understands little about Polish culture and history. Of course, if an educator in America made such sweeping statements about one of America’s privileged minorities, he would lose his job. Yet I must agree in part with Pichaske’s observation on the lack of independent thought among young Poles. When discussing current events, many students repeat the popular opinions they have heard from their peers and elders. Discussing touchy social issues, students in the classroom repeatedly tell me point-blank that “Poland is a poor country,” as if somehow that might excuse Polish hooliganism, vandalism, and graffiti. My response always is this: “Afghanistan is a poor country. Poland is not.” I find it disturbing that few students know the details of Polish history after 1939. Most of them have never discussed the communist period with their parents.

My major complaint about Polish students is that many are infatuated by American popular culture and by the cultural garbage that I fled when I came to Poland. We all thirst for the exotic in our lives, and I understand the historical reasons for Poles’ fascination with America, yet that attraction is blindly naïve.

The attitude of my students towards Poland and Poles has been shaped by their elders, especially, I suspect, by Polish intellectuals and artists. Particularly difficult for me to understand is the figure which I call the “self-hating Pole,” a member of the intelligentsia who has traveled at least once beyond Poland’s borders and who believes that Poland and Polish culture are somehow deficient in comparison with all other “civilized” places. The self-hating Pole takes most of his ideas from Gazeta Wyborcza, and mindlessly he idolizes and imitates everything which he imagines to be “of the West.” An example is the Polish writer who proudly informed me that periodically she is forced to escape Poland and her fellow Poles, as if poisonous gases hover everywhere above the Polish soil. Perhaps she hoped to impress me with her statement, though she appeared pathetic and deluded.

In my opinion, Poles have always been a bit self-deluded about their own country, its history and culture. If only Poles could overcome their obsession with proving Poland to be part of the West! Historically and culturally, of course, Poland has little in common with America and Western Europe. Poland remains for me, above all, Sarmatia, a Shqiperia on the Baltic, an outpost of Byzantium. Studying the continuum of Eurasia, a foreigner is justified in concluding that Poland has nothing in common with Germany, much less with any land to the west of Germany. In reality, Poland is more an extension of Ukraine and Russia (or else one might explain that Ukraine and Russia are extensions of Poland). I mean that positively. The Polish intellectual’s inability to come to terms with Poland’s separation from the West has caused and will continue in the future to cause great anguish and despair.

Polish intellectuals are fond of disparaging Polish Romanticism, an essential reality of Polish culture and history. Yet many educated Poles are unable to see that their own naïve infatuation with America and the West is a worse sort of romanticism. It is simply pathological that some Polish intellectuals measure their country and its culture according to America and Western Europe.

According to a definition of genuine multiculturalism, every human culture has something positive to contribute to civilization. One must not confuse that idea with the political propaganda of the American ideology of multiculturalism, which teaches that certain privileged cultures are morally superior to others. American multiculturalism is intended to privilege certain groups, while it discriminates against others. One Polish-American scholar has noted that American multiculturalism teaches that “Europeans have a propensity for doing bad things.” According to the American ideology, Poles and Polish culture are culturally and morally deficient in comparison with America’s privileged cultures.

I have found the perfect antidote to America in Poland. I am an admirer of Poland, its history, people, and cultures. The Polish stereotype for me includes many more positive than negative characteristics. To be an admirer of Poland and Polish culture does not mean that one cannot or should not acknowledge the shortcomings that are apparent in every human culture, including Poland. I sense something irrational in my attraction to Poland, as the anarchy, lack of order, and inefficiency do not repel me as perhaps they should. But a Poland that is precise and well organized would not be the Poland in which I feel at home. Rightly or wrongly, I am careful to criticize Poland and reluctant to tamper with the Polish shortcomings and imperfections. I cannot live in a Poland that is a false imitation of Germany or America.

If Poles would accept the presumption that each human culture has a contribution to make to civilization, then they might focus on the positive aspects of their own culture and history. While I encourage my students to travel and to experience America, the West, and other countries, I trust that finally they will succeed in evaluating their own country objectively. As I see it, my mission in Poland and at the university is to help Poles appreciate their country for what it really is.

Poland-Ukraine (or Ukraine-Poland)

A recent issue of the Polish edition of Newsweek (25. III. 2007) describes the problems and humiliations that Ukrainian citizens face when crossing the political border from “Asian” Ukraine to “European” Poland. Among the many inconveniences, it seems that Polish border guards regularly address Ukrainians with the familiar (impolite) form ty (Poles visiting the Czech Republic complain of the same treatment on Czech trains, for example, where Czech officials, feeling some cultural superiority, regularly address “inferior” Poles with the familiar ty).

Poland today is part of the European Union. Ukraine is not, and there is no definite assurance yet that Ukraine will ever be a part of the Ukrainian Union. It seems more likely that the Asian, historically anti-European Turkey has a better chance at European Union membership than Ukraine, a sad fact for anyone who knows both Ukraine and Turkey.

It is not my intention here to discuss “war crimes.” And I do not deny that terrible atrocities were committed against one another by Ukrainians and Poles, and not just in the twentieth century. My argument is that we cannot live in the past. We cannot focus only on the victims of those conflicts, whether Poles murdered in Polesie or Ukrainians/Lemkos expelled from their homes in what is now eastern Poland. Our obligation is to move forward, beyond all resentments and grudges. Our obligation is to provide for our children, for a future which must be better than the present.

Poles have never been good at evaluating political realities. Poles are distinguished by a naïve infatuation with “the West.” One might ignore that infatuation, if it were not for the fact that “the West” never had and never will have any interest in Poland. Polocy! You are Sarmatia, a Shqiperia along the Baltic, an outpost of Byzantium. Poland is an extension of Ukraine and Russia (or else Ukraine and Russia, depending upon one’s perspective, may be considered an extension of Poland). Poles! You have little or nothing in common with your imagined “West”!

Poland, today, like so often in the past, is a vacuum. It is a country with few natural resources and exports (Poles export vodka, potatoes, and in the past, ham). True prosperity will come to Poland only when it has some “hi-tech” industry.

There is something missing in Poland. This is seen in issues of energy (Poland has become dependent on other nations for its fuel resources); security (should Poland now allow American missiles on its soil, in order to protect the rest of the world from America’s imagined threats?); and economy (Poland, as a meat producer, indeed, lives up to standards of the European Union, although Russia claims that Polish meat is substandard and unhealthy). Poland today is caught in a vice, like so many times in the past. Germany and Russia, two great powers of Eurasia, are smooching, and Poland seems expendable. And so it seems we are condemned to a past that cannot be escaped. Germany (dressed up as EU), Poland, and Russia pursue conflicting national and economic issues, to say nothing of values.

If we are condemned to reliving the past, then we should never forget it. And what was one of the noblest experiments of European and Christian (pardon me, if the previous word offends!) civilization? One of the noblest experiments of human history was the Kingdom of Two Nations (actually an alliance of several different nations – in reality, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian,. etc.).

Modernity does not accept this vision.

Poland is, indeed, a Sarmatia, a multicultural alliance of complementary cultures and histories.

Poland’s survival as a nation and as a culture cannot exist in a vacuum. Poland cannot survive just as a valley which separates Germany and Russia. There are demographic issues here relevant for all of these countries: All of these countries have a low birth rate, due in part to political policies which advocate abortion and homosexuality. Will Germany become in one century a country in which the Turkish language and culture predominate? In Russia might it someday be possible that a majority of male ethnic Russians survives the age of 55? Clearly, EU policies which promote homosexuality and abortion do not contribute towards the sustenance of the EU population.

We must accept the fact that Poland is not a part of the “West.” That is something painful for many Poles, especially those who take their thoughts from Gazeta Wyborcza. The reality is that Poland is Sarmatia, a Shqiperia along the Baltic, an outpost of Byzantium.

Poland seems to be in a vice, squeezed between America, the EU, and Russia. The solution here is not to reshape Poland in the form of any of those entities. The solution is in the words of the old hymn: Niech Polska bêdzie Polska. Be true to your values, Poland!

Poland’s survival depends upon Ukraine. Poland cannot exist without Ukraine. Never has there been and never will there be any non-Slavic “Western European” Poland. The only chance for the political and cultural survival of Poland is to return to Slavic roots. Those Poles who want to see some Germanic or Anglo-Saxon Poland will take the country to its demise.

Poland’s eternal enemies are the Germans and Soviets, Merkels and Putins, prusaki and moskale. Don’t be so naïve as to believe that history has changed that reality. Poland, with Ukraine, must exist as the center of Europe. Poland/Ukraine are not the periphery. They are the center of the ancient Indo-European culture. In spiritual values, they are far advanced beyond the other Indo-Europeans and other nations of Europe.

Wstyd! that Poles mistreat Ukrainians at their common border. These are the same people, expect for some history. Those Poles who ignore that border will their own country to become tiny, insignificant, unable to express its values in a EU context. Those Poles who fight for an alliance of Poland and Ukraine insure that a great power, Europe’s true “superpower,” rich in spiritual and cultural values, will arise from the ashes of modernity and the “West.” Spitting upon the “West,” we will survive.

27 marzec 2007

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