Tuesday, October 27, 2009
To choose what is difficult all one's days, as if it were easy:
That is faith. Words of the poet, W.H.Auden that underscore a photograph that has been on my desk since 1982. Why do I love Poland? What has drawn me there again and again? It is this, the capacity, the ability and fortitude to choose what is difficult. All one's days. As if it were easy. Faith. When I landed in Poland the first time, in 1980, during the tumultous days in the Gdanks shipyards, as Solidarity was born and a careful agreement was crafted between this new social phenomenon -- a free trade union -- and the Communist government, it was immediately clear that nothing was clear. Everything was clouded, complicated. Complex. I met people who walked a thin tightrope between success and disaster, between integrity and moral illegitimacy. Nothing exemplified this more than the journalism. Poland is what it is today -- and Eastern Europe is what it is today -- in no small measure because of the crafty and clever, brilliant and incisive investigative journalism that was carried out by a weekly newspaper in Poland, Polityka. That is no exaggeration. I arrived in Poland assuming what I'd heard to be true, that there was no possibility of a free media, of any kind, to any extent, in Soviet Eastern Europe. The newspapers were all propaganda. The Polish press, I had been told, was to Poland what the L'Osservatore Romano is to the Roman Catholic Church, the official instrument, the party rag. Sadly, to great extent that was true. But. But not entirely. In 1957 there had been born a political weekly that was, officially, communist and was an organ of the ruling communist party. But. But. From the start, Polityka had an edge. Its founding editor was a clever man and he found and fostered the development of the best journalists anywhere in the Soviet bloc. This is not just a matter of opinion. It is widely recognized. These journalists were encouraged to find ways to tell the truth, between the lines, around the edges, to raise more questions than they answered. I got to be there again two years ago, when Polityka celebrated its 50th anniversary with public forums and, of course, a giant cake. Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the giant who guided Polityka through most of the communist period, and became the Polish Prime Minister and the last First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, believed in "socialism with a human face," in the principles of democracy and justice, of fairness and also of market capitalism. He walked a thin line between "Reality," which is to say, the enormous and uncontrovertible presence on the Polish border of a nation known as the Soviet Union, ready to use its might to make Poland its 17th Republic, and the future, a different future, of freedom and prosperity and dignity. He was a pragmatist, but also a kind of idealist, in that he never lost the vision for what might be. He had aged dramatically in the twenty-five years since I'd first met him, in the Polityka offices where I was accompanying one of his journalists, a friend of mine, but he was as sharp and gracious, and witty, as I remembered. He made then and kept making those difficult choices all his days, between the possible and the preferable, with a sense of unwavering patriotism and integrity. He was not universally beloved by the time he left public life in 1989, having served as Prime Minister, having been part of the apparatus that imposed Martial Law on Poland in December, 1981,and taken a hard line against Solidarity's demands in the mid-80's. He was not perfect in walking that fine line. I can't imagine that anyone ever is. I was deeply impressed by the mission of Polityka from the day I was introduced, as you would be. Never writing propaganda (there were other newspapers for that), and always finding a clever way to insert the hidden truths behind the facts and figures pressented in black and white, smuggling in the truth -- hidden in plain sight. I admired the heck out of my good friend who did this week after week for years. I also grieved for him, the harrowing necessity of it. I've been trying to find a way to illustrate the levels of creativity, integrity, and brilliance to which he and his colleagues rose and finally found a fun story for you. In 1986, after the Chernobyl explosion, high levels of radiation were released into the atmosphere, making food products, including milk from dairy cows, in the region unsafe for human use. Officially, as you may remember, there was no crisis. No danger. The press was not allowed to report that. Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a Solidarity leader, was in jail with other opposition leaders when Chernobyl exploded. Soon after, they began to receive rations of milk and fresh vegetables. "Hurrah!" they thought, there must be an amnesty coming, an agreement with the authorities, release. They waited for their mid-weekly delivery of news, including Polityka. Frasyniuk recalls searching carefully for some mention of a political resolution, the amnesty agreement that would bring his release. Nothing. Scoured the paper, nothing. But down in a corner, tucked into an article about something else, was mention that stores had received equipment to measure radiation in the atmosphere. It was clear -- even though it wasn't -- that Chernobyl was a nuclear disaster. And their surprise food was likely contaminated. Good enough for prisoners but withheld for the safety of the general public. "Aha!" so, no amnesty, just radiated food. The prisoners rejected these special rations, and that enraged the prison officials,who searched the cells for clandestine radios, accusing them of having learned it from Radio Free Europe. Oh no, Frasyniuk laughed, we learned it from Polityka. And so it was, all through that grim era. Truth was told. Not in straightforward reports, not with bold headlines. You had to be a skillful reader -- and that's too bad. I'm not excusing the regime's firm grip on information. Rather, in the midst of that oppressive environment, it was possible to find out what was really going on. It was a nervy, nerve-wracking existence. It involved tough decisions about personal purity -- shall I refuse to have nothing to do with this process because it is so corrupted? -- and the art of the possible, to find a way around the harsh reality of Soviet tanks still on Polish soil. I learned a great deal from my Polish friends in those days. About what it means to have faith. In something larger than oneself. To sacrifice oneself for a greater good. To be faithful. Mieczyslaw Rakowski died just a bit less than a year ago. This will be the first All Saints' Day when Polish patriots will leave flowers and candles at his grave in the national cemetery in Warsaw. I would too, if I were there. He taught me a lot. Peace to his memory. His protegees and colleagues, who continue to lead Polityka today, have been my teachers too. Such gratitude I have for them. Thankfully, they labor today in much better circumstances. And perhaps they can remind us why journalism, good, hard investigative journalism, is absolutely critical to the health and freedom of a people. The link to Polityka is on the right side of this blog, beneath the first two photos. Check it out. No matter it's in Polish, I think you'll be impressed with the way it has morphed into a successful (still!) weekly magazine, still attracting the very best journalists and the most thoughtful readers, and now free to write anything. About anything. Very cool. Very very cool. Keep it up, you guys.