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Sunday, September 13, 2009


Poles have a reputation and they do a good job upholding it. Polish politics are fractious. To put it mildly. Polish politics are a contact sport. The level of name-calling, petty muckering, silly and vindictive obstructionism is without parallel in the universe. That's what my Polish friends will tell you. They have no idea. In an article in this week's Polityka, on the 20th anniversary of the commencement of Poland's first non-communist government, its first post-communist Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, spoke to journalist Jacek Zakowski about these past twenty years of democracy. "It was very hard to fight for freedom over the years," he said, "and then it turned out that the building up of freedom was not easier." [crude translation mostly mine] Jerzy Baczynski, chief editor of Polityka, wrote this week of "verbal aggression," and the excesses of popular opinion, putting party above all else, and "not only in Poland." Oh, preach it brother. There has been an awful lot of drama during this peaceful transition. So it goes. "The quality of Polish politics, and Polish politicians has broken down during these past 20 years," he writes, and then, in a truly Polish touch, celebrates that, in fact, this is only normal, "normality." This is how it goes in times that are "not extraordinarily serious or romantic," like too many times in the past, WWII, the Partitions, failed insurrections. This is normal, is the message. And an important one. This is what democracy looks like, acts like, sounds like. Nevertheless, all three men lament, we can do better, we have missed opportunities because of our failures to work together. But, in spite of the missed opportunities and deterioration of the quality of public debate and leadership, the Poles -- and the journalists credit Mazowiecki especially -- have "disrupted the fate of Poles over two hundred years" that rarely succeeded and stopped the run of "heroic failures and big initiatives that ended in tragedy." "Poles have argued forever," he writes. Of course. Fractious. Contentious. Shoots self in foot. But they have made something out of, well, not out of nothing but out of not much. Their transition from communism to market capitalism and democracy is nothing short of a miracle, especially that it has come to pass without any road map, no precedents, and no violence. And believe me, the dangers were not absent. They've done enough, listened enough, reformed enough. You will hear me complain -- on their behalf, of course -- of Poles not getting their act together sufficiently to build a decent national highway system. The process of privatization lags. And the current President has been known to send Polish foreign policy entirely off the rails in the course of an afternoon. It's not always a pretty sight. But, they did it. They do it. Somehow. So. Here we are. I'm thinking we have sunk beneath the level of normal. We Americans have, without question, grabbed the trophy out of the Poles' hands, the trophy that is for stupid, reckless, self-defeating politic rhetoric. "Verbal aggression," and "slander of the state is incredibly harmful," Mazowiecki says. Amen. We are all drama all the time. Never mind substance, let's go for theater. Children's theater, at that. As I listen to the discourse about our need to reform health care I am distressed almost to the point of complete despair and cynicism by the lack of respect that I hear coming from the red side of the aisle's populist supporters and, to an extent, the political leaders themselves. How on earth are we going to get something this complex figured out if we don't listen to one another? How can we succeed if we don't stop repeating as fact those things that have been proven false, beyond a reasonable doubt, or even, to use the lesser standard, by a preponderance of evidence? How can we make something good for ourselves and all our citizens if we do nothing more than hurl accusations, inflame passions, and misrepresent and malign the goodwill of those who have different proposals? To paraphrase Steve Jobs in his bid to recruit John Scully to Apple, "do you want to keep selling sugared water" -- in this case, poisoned water -- "or do you want to change the world?" We need respect. We need restraint. We need fairness and honesty. And, if it's not asking too much, I'd even like to request some good humor. We need to be worthy of this great gift we've been given, this history, this treasure of democratic freedom. We are in the gutter. And we're rolling around in mud. Can we stop now? I'm not sure who in this country has the moral authority anymore to call us to account, as Mazowiecki does, as an institution like Polityka does. Let's take a lesson or two from the new Polish democracy. They will be flabbergasted we asked. {And speaking of trophies, we were, weren't we, how about we send Caroline Wozniacki home with the big one from the U.S.Open.}

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