Monday, 11 June 2012

OPINION: Piotr Żuk-- A Country For The Rich, A Democracy For The Few


Due to Euro 2012 the academic year here in Wrocław was shortened, finishing at the end of May. In Poland as a whole, we might soon reach the point where lack of funds for education and research lead not only to shorter academic years but even the closure of colleges and universities. The so-called Kudrycki reforms, long prepared and finally passed last October, were supposed to cure Poland's educational ills. In reality, they have resulted in chaos and extra administrative burdens on educators. As we speak work is underway on reforms of the reforms-- business as usual in other words. The current situation in higher education, however, is the most serious since 1989. The main source of income for further and higher education instiutions, part-time students who attend at weekends, is slowly drying up. All that is left is minimal funding, minimal pay and the self-satisifed PO government.

The desperate need to attract students is leading to a decline in standards-- entry is open to anyone who can pay for the privilege of an increasingly worthless degree.

When the state spends more on weapons, surveillance and security than education then it ceases to be a true democracy and starts to evolve into a police state.


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

EURO 2012: Lviv Prepares (J. Kit)

Panorama of Lviv's historic centre.

Background: Lviv (Polish: Lwów) is the principal city of western Ukraine, with a population of around 760,000. Now a Ukrainian city with an almost exclusively Ukrainian population, before the war it was a Polish city with a mixed but predominantly Polish population. Anywhere between 7,000 and 30,000 people who identify themselves as Poles still live in the city. Lviv will host 3 matches during the 2012 European football championships.
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  When UEFA president Michel Platini announced that Ukraine and Poland would co-host Euro 2012, the inhabitants of Lviv knew at once that thier hometown would be one of the host cities. Lviv's football tradition stretches back to the 1930s. Polish football was born in Lviv and the Pogoń club was one of the giants of pre-war Polish football. Today, the club has been resurrected thanks to the efforts of the city's Polish community. In the 1970s another Lviv club, FK Karpaty, won the Soviet championship. FK Karpaty currently play in the Ukrainian premier division while the city's second club, FK Lviv, play in the second tier. The Ukrainian national team particulary like playing in Lviv as it is the only stadium where the whole crowd sing the national anthem before international games.

After the initial pride of being amongst the host cities had worn off, however, the inhabitants of Lviv have begun to wonder if their city can really afford it, and whether they are really capable of competing with Western European cities.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

POLAND / HISTORY: Operation Vistula-- Through The Eyes Of A Deportee (B. Czeluśniak)

Deportees during Operation Vistula, 1947.

After reading the articles concerned with Operation Vistula in 'Przegłąd' issue (20/2012) I cannot help but feel that these texts were written on the orders of politicans. I write these words in the knowledge that they will provoke a hostile reaction from many of my compatriots. Nonetheless, I would like to try to explain my controversial point of view.

My father, Grzegorz, was born into a Polish-Ukrainian family but he considered himself to be a Pole. In those days the goverment officials responsible for matters of nationality maintained a policy in which boys of mixed marriages would inherit their father's nationality whilst girls would inherit the mother's. My father lived near Przemyśl. He was fluent in both Polish and Ukrainian and he was not ashamed to to speak in the latter, even though his neighbours often made fun of him for doing so. In the Przemyśl region there were many mixed marriages. Both nationalities lived together peacefully and nobody gave much attention to the issue of nationality. As well as Poles and Ukrainians, there were Jews, Lemkos and Tatars. After the war everything changed. Ukrainians began to be seen as second-class people, worthy of disdain. The fate of my father was decided by various factors. Firstly, he had a friendly attitude towards other nationalities (something which he had inherited from his father) and secondly he married a Ukrainian woman, something which in the post-war years was beginning to be seen as treacherous behaviour. I also add that when war broke out my father was mobilised and served in the Polish Army, fighting in the Silesian Beskids.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

POLAND / HISTORY: Operation Vistula-- A Necessary Evil (P. Dybicz)

Ethnic Ukrainians being deported from a village in SE Poland during Operation Vistula
Background: Operation Vistula (Polish: Akcja Wisła)  was carried out by Poland's Communist government between April and July 1947 in the south-eastern corner of modern-day Poland. The objectives were twofold: the military supression of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the deportation of ethnic Ukrainian civilians, as well as the related Boyko and Lemko ethnic groups, to resettlement in areas of northern and western Poland which had previously belonged to Germany.

Some argue that the operation was an unfortunate but necessary measure to prevent further inter-communal violence in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands. It can also be seen as a response to the various massacres of Polish citizens carried out by the UPA during the war. Others argue that Operation Vistula was a shameful act of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing carried out by a totalitarian regime. The following article makes the former argument, whilst a second article to be translated and posted some time soon(ish) makes the latter argument from the point of view of an eyewitness who was deported as a child.

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Although 65 years have now passed since Operation Vistula, it does not provoke any less discussion and controversy than it did in the past. One could even say that it creates more debate now than when it was carried out...

Monday, 28 May 2012

OPINION: Piotr Żuk-- On France, Greece and Poland



The French are the latest electorate to go and let down the Polish media by choosing a leftist President. For Pemier Donald Tusk, who could not find the time to meet the Socialist candidate during his visit to Poland, the French election results must have come as a big disappointment. The same can be said for most of the Polish commentariat. Jacek Pałasiński, host of 'The World According to Jacek' on TVN, said on the eve of the election, "it will be interesting to see if the French re-elect Sarkozy and then breathe a sigh of relief, or if they decide to think short-term and elect Francoise Hollande, who will lead them into further debt." Witold Gadomski, the economic expert for 'Gazeta Wyborcza' and guardian of neo-liberal purity, said "Hollande, like Socialist leaders all over Europe, knows that he does not have the possibility to implement radical reforms in the economic sphere. Socialists criticise modern capitalism but they do not have a real programme for change... They rail against the dictates of the financial markets and the ratings agencies but at the end of the day they are dependent on them. They know that the markets do not mess around. For electoral reasons they play up to the left-wing gallery but they do so without too much conviction, in order to let the markets know that they do not really mean it."

It is mainly in this spirit that the 'free media' in Poland have analysed the French elections. To their minds, the politcal left should simply not exist but if it does have to exist then it should at least not meddle in socio-economic matters. In the socio-economic sphere the market fundamentalists have a monopoly on absolute truth. What does it matter that blind faith in the power of the invisible hand of the market has led the world into crisis? If anyone attempts to present a serious left-wing economic agenda then the Liberal-Conservative pundits say that they are faking it, or that they are populist, or that they are simply economic illiterates who have not read the sacred texts of Friedman or heard the sermons of Balcerowicz. One way or another, they are a dangerous heretic who should be fought against tooth and nail with no quarter given.

Friday, 18 May 2012

POLAND / HISTORY: Freemasons And Anti-Masonry In Poland-- An Interview With Prof. Tadeusz Cegielski

Tadeusz Cegielski, Professor of History at Warsaw University, Freemason and  Honorary Grand Master of the National Grand Lodge of Poland.

Q: Archbishop Józef Michalik-- leader of the Polish Episcopate and doctor of  Dogmatic Theology-- has accused Freemasons of attacking the Catholic Church. Where does this fear of Freemasonry, which seems to have been handed down by generations of Polish clergy, stem from?

A: Fear and suspicion of Freemasonry arise from the need for a symbolic enemy on whom all problems can be blamed. A scapegoat in other words. In Poland we once had 3 types of 'internal enemies': Jews, Freemasons and Bolsheviks. Since the fall of the USSR Bolsheviks are no longer seen as a threat. Anti-Semitism has been formally condemned by the Catholic Church. Even here in Poland it is hard to imagine the Church hierarchy openly pandering to anti-Semitic prejudices. Who is left to use as a scapegoat? Freemasons, of course!

Q: Where and when did the idea of the 'evil and godless' Freemason first appear?

A: Anti-Masonry in its current form first appeared in the era of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. In 1789 in Rome, then the capital of the Papal States, there appeared an international adventurer, fake count and fraudulent alchemist-- the infamous Alessandro di Cagliostro, also known as Giussepe Balsamo. This very talented Sicilian Jew was active in Masonic cirlces and he created  Egyptian Rite Freemasonry in 1782. Possessed by messianic ideas, he announced the advent of a 'New Israel'. In Rome he was denounced by his own wife and was arrested and tried by the Inquisition. The trial caused unheard of levels of publicity and reports of it were published all over Europe in many different languages, including Polish. In France the revolution was in full swing and the gullotine was claiming victim after victim. Cagliostro claimed-- somewhat against his will-- that the Masons had killed the French royal family in revenge for the fate which had befallen the Knights Templar.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

POLAND: Bałtów's Jurassic Park-- Community Spirit In Action ( K. Kapiszewski )

Bałtów's Jurassic Park attracted 70,000 visitors in its first year and employs 54.

Not everyone has heard of Bałtów, but plenty of people have. The commune, with a population of 4,000 including 600 in the main village, has appeared twice on 'Dzień Dobry TVN'. It might be day-time TV but it is also nationwide TV. The media like Bałtów because it is a good example of how to make something from nothing by working together. The commune attracts half a million tourists a year. Despite the name, Bałtów is not a seaside resort. It is located in the north of the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, far from the main transport links. How did a small commune, down in the doldrums, transform itself into a place where anything is possible?

 Poland's transition from Communism to capitalism was not kind to Bałtów. Unemployment reached 40%. There was no mobile phone coverage and no internet. Both the library and cultural centre were closed down. In 2001 a campaign against the opening of a new nightclub brought together a group of people, mostly teachers and local business people, who wanted something different for Bałtów. Together they founded 'Bałt', a grassroots organisation aimed at encouraging development. The founders all realised that the only chance for their commune lay with tourism.


Thursday, 26 April 2012

OPINION: Jerzy Domanski-- On The 2nd Anniversary Of The Smoleńsk Disaster

The 2nd anniversary of the Smoleńsk disaster was marked by angry protests. The Donald Duck head is a reference to PM Donald Tusk, whilst the placard underneath reads 'Murderers'.

At the graveside silence should reign. Always. There can therefore be no excuses for those who wish to exploit the dead for their own political ambitions. What type of principles can people have if they decide to mark the deaths of the Smoleńsk victims by demonstrating, brandishing pictures of nooses and denouncing thier opponents as traitors and criminals? The anniversary could have been marked in many different ways but the way in which PiS chose to do so, by confusing mourning with rabble-rousing, is worthy of the fiercest criticism and words which I would rather avoid writing. Perhaps I omit these words out of a sense of shame for those who have earned them. Unfortunately, the more one bites one's tongue, the more aggression and vitriol spew from the other side.

" Solidarity in Mourning"-- that was the headline which we put on the front cover of 'Przegłąd' on 10th April 2010, just a few hours after the catastrophe. That was what we thought at the time, in spite of the deep divisions between us and those on the right. Could we have maintained that mood of unity, the feeling of solidarity? We could have done. I thought we could, because it never occured to me that it would be killed by those who should have cared for it the most. They should have preserved it for political gain alone, even if they lacked the humanity to do so for more noble reasons. The solidarity of mourning elevated their leaders to a status infinitely higher than their achievements merited. Sadly, barely two years later it seems as if the leader of PiS is trying to turn the coffins into trampolines, trampolines from which to jump back into power. It is the first time in our history that someone has tried to attain power in this way. An election campaign with coffins as the central argument can only be successful if a large enough portion of society accept PiS's aspirations.

Those who support the government regard such a scenario as absurd. They might be right today but if one listens to the wider social mood instead of just the hysterical screams then it becomes clear that many of those falling under the sway of the Smoleńsk campaign have every reason to feel bad in today's Poland. People fear for the future. They are unemployed, or they could lose thier jobs at any moment. Low slaries do not allow people to make ends meet. People feel alienated in their own country, they are disappointed and angry. They are overwhelmed by their powerlessness to overcome thier problems. From these fears comes a readiness to seek scapegoats, and from there it is a small step to being manipulated. Looking for a place to stand, they gravitate towards those who claim to understand their problems. Now they have jumped from the frying pan into the fire because they have become a mere stepping-stone in a bid for power. PiS wants to gather all the disillusioned and disappointed and build an alternative state. In the person of Jarosław Kaczyński we have an alternative president and premier in one, the real president-premier.

The paranoia of one side does not justify hushing up the negligence of the other side in the organisation of the Smoleńsk flight and earlier.

Mistakes were made, a lot of them. We know this from the Miller report. If there were mistakes then those who made them must take the responsibility for them. Continually postponing this process will only lead to even more absurd conspiracy theories which in turn only increase the likelihood of political conflict spilling onto the streets.

Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine

Monday, 23 April 2012

POLAND / HISTORY: 'This Is Not The Poland They Fought For' (K. Pilawski)

Lech and Danuta Wałęsa with their 8 children. Would such a large family make ends meet in today's Poland?

What strikes the reader most about Danuta Wałęsa's autobiography? The rapid self-betterment of 2 people who were born into very poor, large families in small, remote villages. 2 people who from childhood did primitive physical labour....

HOUSING

Danuta Wałęsa-- a girl with only elementary education who had worked for 5 years as a farmhand-- finds herself in Gdańsk. She finds a husband and in 1972, at the age of 23, she is a wife, mother of 2 children and in charge of a flat which, although small, is posessed of all the comforts of which she was deprived during her 19 years growing up in the country. She is able to give back 14,000 złoty which her parents have given her as a stake in the housing cooperative because the Wałęsa's flat has been given to them by the Lenin Shipyard (in 1972 the shipyard granted its employees 591 flats). Nowadays, a 36-metre 2-room flat is nothing out of the ordinary because such properties ( developers call them 'compacts' ) are in demand. One has to pay a price, however. The current market value of the Wałęsa's old flat in the Stogi neighbourhood is 170,000 zł. At today's prices it is out of reach for a family of four with only a single bread-winner, especially a blue-collar bread-winner who, like the Wałęsas, cannot rely on any parental support. Without money, which bank is going to offer them a mortgage?


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

SCIENCE: 'We Need Antarctica'-- An Interview With Polar Scientist Stanisław Rakusa-Suszczewski

Arctowski, Poland's Antarctic research station on King George Island

Q: What are Poles doing in Antarctica?

A: The wealthiest more and more often come as tourists but scientific research is still the main reason why people come here. It has been 35 years since the foundation of our research station, named after Henryk Arctowski, on King George Island and it has been in operation continously since then. I have had the honour of being its founder, builder and, for almost 20 years, its director. Over 20 people work at the station in summer and between 7 and 10 in winter. A ship sets sail once a year from Gdynia (Polish seaport-CK), usually in November at the start of the Antarctic summer. It carries supplies and the new personnel, and it brings back the returning scientists. It is a journey of almost 16,000 km. and it lasts more than a month. The summer group work from November to the end of March, and then they travel by ship to Ushaia, and back to Poland by plane. The winter group stay for the whole year, until the ship returns.

Q: So much time at the end of the world. I suppose it can get boring?

A: In Antarctica you do not have even 5 minutes to get bored. Batteries, snow vehicles, boats, scientific equipment-- you have to check everything, re-check it, maintain, refuel, repair.... Everything has to be kept in working order. You are up to your eyes in work. Once a year Arctowski announces job vacancies. The station needs a doctor, a chef, an electrician, a radio technician, a mechanic, a tractor operator amongst other jobs. Scientific research is carried out mainly by employees of the Department of Antarctic Biology of PAN (Polish Academy of Science-CK) ,which is part of the Biochemistry and Biophysics Institute of PAN, and scientists from Polish universities involved in various international projects. Sometimes, however, researchers from other organisations and institutes can work at Arctowski if their projects can be sychronised with the PAN researchers, and if they have adequate funding. We also have an underwater research programme, which is why we have divers at the base. Generally, there are more applicants than there are places. The final decision on who gets to work at Arctowski is made by the recruitment commitee.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

ECONOMICS: 'Grow or Die'-- A Dangerous Dogma (L. Pawłowski)


Krzysztof Kęciek's article 'Reagan's Timebomb' from the March 18th edition of 'Przegłąd' magazine has compelled me to write in response. Like many Poles, I was a fervent admirer of Ronald Reagan in my youth. During numerous visits to the USA I was surprised to find that most academics had distanced themselves from the Reagan administration.

In recent years I have become professionally involved in the problem of sustainable development. Reading academic papers concerned with the challenges facing our civilisation, I am becoming increasingly convinced that modern liberal capitalism poses many grave dangers. One of the principle dogmas of today's capitalism is 'grow or die', which leads to a constant growth of production, demand for which is fuelled by advertising rather than genuine need. This would be harmless if it was not for the fact that massive growth in production inevitably involves increased depletion of the planet's non-renewable resources. At current levels of consumption we have enough oil to last us for a further 40-50 years, gas for 60-70 years and coal for around 140 years. The outlook for other resources such as metals is not any better. Even if these estimates are overly pessimistic, the fact remains that the spectre of resource exhaustion in an economy based on 'grow or die' is a real possibility rather than a theoretical one. It is a problem which could occur within the lifespan of one generation, and it is only the first of several problems...


Saturday, 7 April 2012

INTERNATIONAL: Ucontacted Tribes-- Endangered By Civilisation (J. Piaseczny)

Amazonian tribesmen aim their bows at a helicopter somewhere near Brazil-Peru border.

In isolated pockets around the world there still live some 100 tribes which shun contact with modern civilisation. These tribes account for roughly 50,000 individuals. About 70 such tribes live in the Brazilian rainforest. In Amazonia they are called isolados (isolated, uncontacted). Isolados know about the existence of the outside world of clothes, aeroplanes and metal tools yet they do not wish to be a part of it. They feel that contact with civilisation can lead them to ruin.

In 2008 the world was treated to pictures of tribal warriors painted red and black launching spears and arrows at a helicopter flying overhead. On board the helicopter was Jose Carlos Meirelles from the Brazilian government agency FUNAI, which protects the rights of indigenous peoples. "When they saw us the women and children ran into the forest. They thought the helicopter was a giant bird. In such a remote location as this, no-one had ever flown over before. On another day we appeared over the village at a later time, just as the men were returning from a hunt. When I saw that they were painted red I was happy. Red is the colour of war, it means that the Indians are happy, healthy and ready to defend their territory" says Meirelles.

In the photo of the village one can make out a child with a steel machete and a metal dish. This shows that the tribe, who live somewhere on the Brazil-Peru border, have indirect contact with the outside world through trade with other tribes. However, it is clear that they do not want any direct contact with civilisation.


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

EUROPE: Spain Struggles As Recession Bites (K. Kęciek)


23 year-old Abigail Serrano from Cordoba is a coroner's assistant but she has never worked in her profession. After being unemployed for a long time. she eventually started working as a waitress. "It was only possible because of some contacts. I was really lucky." Abigail is right to use the word 'lucky'. In Spain almost 1 in 2 people aged 16-25 are jobless. Young people are eagerly learning foreign languages and are dreaming of emigrating, mostly to Germany. Spain looks set to experience a fuga de cerebros, or 'brain drain'. The most dynamic and best educated are leaving, at great cost to the economy. Luis Oliveros, an aerospace technician from Madrid, is heading for Germany. Since finishing his education he has only worked in casual jobs. Luis has tried numerous times to find a job via the job centre but without success. "They only offer courses, courses and even more courses but no jobs." Last year more people emigrated from Spain than immigrated there, the first time this has happened.

Spain is the Euro zone's 4th largest economy but it is suffering acute unemployment-- the highest in the EU and maybe even in the whole industrialised world. According to government figures, 410,000 jobs have been lost in the last 12 months. Unemployment grew by 112,000 in February alone. 4.7 million citizens are without work, the highest rate since 1996, when a new method of measuring unemployment was introduced (according to other figures the number of unemployed stands at 5.3 million.) The Spanish Employment Ministry does not publish unemployment statisitcs as percentages but the European statistics bureau Eurostat said that in January the unemployment rate was 23.3% overall and 49.9% amongst the young.


Thursday, 29 March 2012

POLAND: The End Of The Shale Gas Dream? (A. Dryszel)


Are our shale gas dreams set to end in disappointment? 21st March sees the publication of a report by the Polish Geological Institute which should give us a more accurate and realistic estimate of our potential shale gas reserves. The report might spell the end for the dream of Poland becoming a shale gas giant. According to estimates published in April 2011 by researchers from the US Department of Energy, Poland might have around 5.3 trillion cubic metres of shale gas. This was an estimate of how much gas could probably be found in our shale rock. It was not based on exploratory drilling but was instead based mainly on analysis of Poland's geological structure. There was no indication of how much gas could actually be extracted using current technology. The more exploration wells are drilled, the more it seems that there is little shale gas to be found.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

INTERNATIONAL: Nowruz-- Persian New Year (B. Dżon)


Washed carpets, clean windows, scrubbed floors, holiday napkins decorated with pictures of wheat, goldfish, eggs and the Koran-- this is how Iranians welcome the Persian New Year, what to us is the first day of spring.

Iranians wish each other Nowruz mobarak bad!  from 6.14 am (CET) on 20th March, the start of the new Persian year 1391. Nowruz, or Noruz, Nuruz, Norous, Norooz, literally means 'new day'. The festival is celebrated by 300 million people from north-western China to the Mediterranean, in Iran, many parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and amongst the Kurds. It is celebrated by Zoarastrians, Muslims, Christians, Agnostics and Atheists. In the ruins of Persepolis, near the present day city of Shiraz, there are a set of reliefs depicting people ascending the stairs to the apadana, bearing gifts for the king. According to some experts, these reliefs are an early depiction of the Nowruz ceremony.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

ECONOMICS / HISTORY: Reagan's Time-Bomb (K. Kęciek)


President Ronald Reagan cut taxes for the rich and benefits for the poor. He greatly reduced social spending, defeated trade unions and left Americans at the mercy of ruthless market forces. He sent single mothers into low-paid jobs, bringing about the feminisation of poverty. He left behind an enormous budget deficit. He revived a predatory brand of capitalism, free from effective control and focused entirely on profit and the commodification of everything.

George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, authors of 'America: A Narrative History', pointed out that under the Reagan administration, the construction of affordable housing was stopped whilst at the same time slums were being demolished, thus leaving many homeless. Hospital care for the mentally ill was scrapped, resulting in countless beggars and tramps living in cardboard cities-- scenes more often associated with Calcutta than with the cities of a superpower. 'Reaganomics'-- the moniker used to describe the economic policies of the 40th US president-- were a time-bomb which in the end went off. The effects are to be seen in the current crisis of capitalism and world finance, whose final consequences are hard to predict.


Thursday, 15 March 2012

OPINION: Piotr Żuk-- On Class Discrimination


Identical social phenomena are often lablled with different names. It all depends who they are associated with. The language used everyday in the media, government announcements and casual conversation is full of prejudices and stereotypes. Whenever we hear about poor neighbourhoods in the media, the same connotations appear-- dysfunctional communtites inhabited by alcoholics and broken families where one should think twice about venturing into at night. According to capitalist morality and market culture, poverty itself has become a pathology.

The smiling faces we see in countless adverts are usually middle-class faces. They are the heroes of our time. They act as role models for the rest of society, most of whom aspire to be like them. They display the greatest virtues one can have in our contemporary capitalist society-- flexibility, entrepreneurship, assertiveness, creativity, innovation and other traits from the Newspeak dictionary.


Thursday, 8 March 2012

OPINION: Bronisław Łagowski-- On Russia's Elections


According to reliable polls Vladimir Putin is set to win Russia's presidential election in the first round. By the time you read this he will already have won, much to the dismay of most of the Polish media. Opposition groups in Moscow have said that if Putin dares to win in the first round it will be proof that the vote has been rigged. Massive anti-Putin demonstrations are already planned.

For there to be democracy, there needs to be a government which does not rig elections and there needs to be a society which respects election results as binding. This sometimes makes it hard to decide which side is behaving undemocratically. In many African countries elections often end up with body counts rather than vote counts. It is not unsual for free elections to lead directly to civil war. After Piłsudski's May coup in 1926, Poland did not see free and fair elections until 1989-- all the others, whether under the Sanacja regime or the Communist People's Republic (PRL), were falsified in one way or another.

 The French, who are so keen to promote free elections worldwide, have an electoral regulation which means that a party which for years has achieved around 14% of the votes sometimes gets 1 seat in the National Assembly but more often ends up with none. The National Front's presidential candidate has 20% support and 70% of those polled believe she should be allowed to take part in the presidential election. Nonetheless, the establishment have closed ranks and she is unable to collect the 500 signatures of local government officials which are necessary to join the race for president. When Grigory Yavlinsky was barred from taking part in elections on a formality, it was seen as evidence of a lack of democracy. France, on the other hand, is by definition democratic so every aspect of its electoral system is democratic.

Monday, 5 March 2012

ECONOMICS: The Book of Genesis, 'The Matrix' and Magical Glasses of Beer-- an Interview with Czech Economist Tomáš Sedláček (Highly Recommended)


Q: What is wrong with the economy?

A: It has become a tool without a soul. In other words, the question isn't whether or not the economy works but whether or not it works as we would expect it to. That is a difficult question to answer because first we must decide how the economy should work.

Q: How would we like it to work?

A: First and foremost it should be fair. The problem is that we need to start making value judgements. As I try to show in my book, Economics was always based upon values but we have tried to escape from this in modern time. The title of the book-- 'Economics of Good and Evil'-- is provocative because, supposedly, Economics should not concern itself with good and evil. The first rule of 'Fight Club' is not to talk about 'Fight Club'. The first rule of Economics is not to talk about good and evil, but in real life we do talk about them.


Wednesday, 29 February 2012

POLAND: Does VAT Promote A Poor Diet? (B. Tumiłowicz)



'Tell me what you pay VAT on and I will tell you which lobbyists have your government's ear.' This rule can be easily applied to Polish VAT-- the taxes added to the price of goods and services which are the main source of income for the national budget. It is especially true when it comes to VAT on foodstuffs and beverages. With food and drink there are 3 VAT bands- 5%, 8% and the full 23%. Why certain products enjoy the lower levels of taxation is a question which has caused considerable comment and suspicion because many of these products are ones which a healthy diet could really do without. VAT is 5% on corn chips and 8% on crisps, instant noodles and ketchups which include a high level of chemical substances and even some cancer-causing agents. At the same time, healthy products which are recommended by dieticians, such as mineral water, are taxed at 23%. Where is the logic?



AFRICA: Somaliland Takes On The Pirates (S. Opryszek)





The walls of Hargeisa's prison loom over the city, giving shade to the peddlars and bored soldiers who sit and chew hallucinogenic khat leaves. Opposite the prison a barber works like crazy while the mechanic next door tries to fix a bike using a rock.

"Get outta here! F**k you!", shouts one of the soldiers, brandishing his rifle. In his faded uniform and red flip-flops he cuts a rather comical figure. His colleagues do not react so he takes matters into his own hands and attempts to scare me off by himself.

He is not fooling around. The fight against pirates, who fill the prison, is a very important matter for Somaliland, which lies on the Gulf of Aden-- a piracy blackspot. Since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has never had such a good chance to make friends with Western governments.


INTERNATIONAL: The World v. Big Tobacco (W. Raczkowski)



The Uruguayan government, concerned with the health of its citizens, has declared war on cigarettes. It has forced tobacco giant Phillip Morris, owner of the Marlboro Brand, into relocating one its factories across the border to Argentina. This is not an isolated incident-- more and more countries have launched similar anti-tobacco campaigns.


AMERICAS: Deadlier Than Afghanistan-- Mexico's Narco Wars (K. Kęciek)



Mexico's northern borderlands are a war zone. More people die here than in Afghanistan. Drugs cartels wage war for market share and for control of the smuggling routes north. The gangsters kill police officers, politicians and journalists. They corrupt and intimidate the authorities. They have gained control over entire cities. The chaos is added to by a host of paramilitary organisations and countless guns for hire. The price of a life is around 1000 pesos-- 85 dollars.


OPINION: Jan Widacki-- The Poets Have Gone, The Philistines Remain



Wisława Szymborska has died. Her last wish was to be buried  in a secular ceremony at her family plot in Krakow’s Rakowicki cemetery. The National – Catholic RCight has a problem. Had she asked to be buried in the crypt of the Church on the Rock, like fellow Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, there would be a pretext for controversy, protests and to remind everyone that she had once written a poem about Stalin. Hell, who needs a pretext? That poem about Stalin will be dragged up anyway but such a request would have made a scandal much easier to create. Now, there is not much to be angry about. The Nationalist Right know that the greatest living Polish poet is Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, who has been forgiven for his past membership of the Union of Polish Youth (communist youth movement-CK) because he has become a Kaczyński supporter and has written a poem about the Smolensk disaster. He also has a beautiful name. The name of a true Pole, the truest of Poles..


EUROPE: Bulgaria Says No To Shale Gas (M. Karolkiewicz)



Bulgaria has unexpectedly pulled out of an agreement to allow the exploration and extraction of shale gas in its territory. On 19th January the parliament in Sofia passed a bill outlawing any exploration or extraction using the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing.
The ban applies to the whole country, including Bulgaria’s territorial waters in the Black Sea. Any company which violates the ban will face fines of up to 66 million dollars, as well as confiscation of equipment.


AMERICAS: Clinton, Lord of Haiti



The Miami Herald has called him ‘the czar of the recovery effort’. Esquire magazine has labelled him the ‘CEO of a country without leaders.’ German magazine Der Spiegel describes Clinton as the lord of Haiti, ruling through his former aide Gary Conille, the current Haitian PM.

The former US president is directing the reconstruction of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, which was devasted by an earthquake in 2010. So far he has been doing so with some success. He has attracted business people and investors and has been able to count on the help of numerous FOBs (Friends of Bill) amongst the political and business elites of the USA. Clinton’s wife, Hilary, is head of US diplomacy and through this direct link he is trying to make sure that the US does not forget the country which, due to its poverty and turbulent history, has been called the ‘cursed island’.


POLAND: ACTA- The Argument Against (M. Romanowski)



If anything positive can be taken from the decision by the Polish goverment to ratify the ACTA agreement, it is the protests that have been sparked by it. It is the biggest wave of protests that Poland has seen for a long time. We have witnessed the unusal sight of anarchist banners being waved alongside the white and red Polish flag. Most of the protesters are young people who, angered by the way they have been ignored by the government, have taken to the streets for the first time.  Unfortunately, the scale of the protests bear witness to the bad news—the ACTA agreement affects everyone, to a greater or lesser degree.


POLAND: ACTA-- The Argument For (J. Mejer)


The discussion over ACTA, like so many debates in Polish politics, reminds one of a publicity stunt, albeit on a larger scale and with more emotion involved. People have taken to the streets,there have been chanting and shouting, opposition parties are trying to ride the wave of discontent and the ruling coalition are trying to pretend that nothing is happening. In all of this there has been precious little rational debate over the issue at hand. ACTA is not a charter for internet censorship. The treaty is concerned chiefly with counterfeit goods and does not really focus on the internet at all. Only 10% of the whole text deals with digital content and the rules it states merely repeat the laws which have been in force for years.


OPINION: Piotr Żuk-- The Active Citizen: An Endangered Species?



When analysing the current situation in Poland, the experts and pundits ask themselves what the authorities are likely to do—how the premier, president or certain minister will react to circumstances. Occasionally the speculation focuses on the politicians in opposition. However, one thing which is never taken into consideration is how Polish society will react. It is as if society did not exist and that politics was a form of theatre to be played out only in the buildings and offices of the powers that be. Can it be that the citizens have ceased to be an active subject in public life and do no longer have even the slightest influence on the course of events?


Thursday, 26 January 2012

WATCH THIS SPACE



Coming soon - Czarny Kot's Weekly Review.

A weekly digest of articles form Poland's 'Przegłąd' weekly translated into English by Czarny Kot (plus some original thoughts and music videos.)

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Norman Davies on Kaczynski, Katyn and Smolensk



The week of national mourning is over and so the opinions and analysis now spring forth in earnest. I bought all the important Polish weeklies on Monday so there is a mountain of material which could be of interest. How much of it gets translated depends on me-- judging by recent from I wouldn't expect too much.

First up is Norman Davies being interviewed by TVN24:


Q: You knew the president personally. How do you remember him?

ND: I didn't really know president Kaczynski. I knew him better as the mayor of Warsaw and as the founder of the Warsaw Uprising museum. We only met a handful of times.

Q: Did you lose any friends in the crash?

ND: Yes, my wife and I flew to Smolensk with the government delegation on Wednesday. We travelled with several people who were on the plane which crashed on Saturday. The person I knew best was the wonderful president Kaczorowski (ex-president in exile) He was certainly one of the greatest losses of the tragedy.

Q: I ask you this as someone who knows Poland and Poles but who can also look out this tragedy from an objective distance: Do Poles always have to fight and argue amongst themselves, even in occasions such as this? I'm talking about the controversy over Wawel.

ND: I see that there is a very unpleasant fuss surrounding Wawel. I'm convinced that it is not something specific in the Polish character. However, in Poland there are people who constantly provoke controversies and arguments. Unfortunately, this has been a characteristic during recent years.

Q: Is it a Polish characteristic or can it be observed everywhere?

ND: In general I don;t believe that there is such thing as a national character. It is a great myth. Every nation is made up of millions of people who each have thier own temperament and personality and who all react differently, even to the same experiences.....

Q: You are a honorary citizen of Krakow, you have an honorary doctorate from Jagiellonian University, and you are an expert on Polish history. Is Wawel an appropriate place for the president to be buried?

ND: I am also an honorary citizen of Warsaw. In my opinion the ex-mayor of Warsaw, the national president who ruled from Warsaw, a son of the uprising, should be buried in Warsaw.

Q: How much time will have to pass before history can objectively pass judgement on the achievements of president Kaczynski?

ND: It's hard to say, but we can see right now how a myth is forming before our very eyes. It is impossible to be objective about someone who dies tragically. People feel a natural sympathy towards the deceased. Now is not the time to assess the president or any of the other victims.

Q: Do you think that the improved relations between Poland and Russia following the tragedy will last?

ND: Even before the disaster I had noticed a lot of progress in relations. When premiers Tusk and Putin met in Katyn I was there and I saw it up close. I believe that it is an authentic rapprochement. One effect of the tragedy has been a wave of sympathy towardsa Poland and Poles amongst ordinary Russians. This is a new factor in relations and I doubt it will fade away overnight.

Q: Should we be happy about this?

ND: Of course. Poland, like every country, should have good relations with all its neighbours. I don't see any other priorities in international relations.

Q: How authentic are the words and gestures that we have seen from Putin and Medvedev in recent days?

ND: Putin and Medvedev are politicians. They have their own national and personal interests. Every politician is an actor. One cannot expect otherwise. The step that Putin took in Katyn cannot be reversed. The mere prescence of the Russian president and premier at Kaczynski's funeral will have huge significance because the whole thing will be broadcast on Russian TV. Millions of Russians are hearing about Katyn for the first time. Katyn could become the means by which Russians come to terms with the Stalinist crimes commited against their own nation, which are still not as well known as they should be.

Q: What might be the next step? Will Russia finally disclose the documents for which Poland has been asking for years?

ND: It is not that bad. We already know an awful lot. Why be so negative? There a few missing papers, that's all..... These demands from Poland that Russia should do this and that have no effect and get us nowhere.

Q: But these are reasonable demands.

ND: ...The Russians have their own historical ghosts-- thier own officers and relatives who were also killed. It is difficult for them to hear people from abroad tell them what to do with these documents. It seems to me that Putin and Medvedev cannot now go back to the previous status quo. We'll see where things lead from here.

Q: Let's turn back to president Kaczynski. Do you believe that the Warsaw Uprising museum will prove to be his chief legacy?

ND: Of course. It was his greatest achievement.. It is hard to point to anything else in his career which is bigger. The Uprising museum will, in a way, be his memorial.

Interviewer: Grzegorz Kajdanowicz Source: TVN24 / Angora magazine

Translated by Czarny Kot 22/04/10

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Prima Aprilis



Watching Channel 4 News on the internet the other day, I was looking forward to some absurd stories to mark April Fool's Day. I wasn't disappointed.

Firstly, the creation of a nature reserve in the Chagos Archipelago means that the rights of sea slugs take precedence over the rights of humans.

Secondly, a Lebanese man faces execution in Saudi Arabia on charges of 'sorcery'.

Sadly, neither story was an April Fool's joke. Oh dear.

It seems that the venerable tradition of April 1st is under threat from the increasing absurdity of reality.


PS: For more information about the plight of the Chagossians click here.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Rock the Klasztor



Unless you live under a rock, you will know that the fair city of Plock last weekend played host to the 16th annual 'One-voice' music festival, a 3 day frenzy of religious chanting.

If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be spending my weekend at this type of thing I would have probably downed a bleach cocktail and taken the scenic route down from my 10th floor flat but tastes and interests, like most other things, are prone to change. Anyway, it is all part of my recent attempts to be more cultural, which came about as I somewhat recklessly agreed to give up alcohol for the Lent period. In the last month or so I have also been to the theatre for the first time since compulsory Shakespeare and enjoyed an intimate chamber music evening with rather camp French men playing 16th century Italian music.

Lent finishes next week so normal service will soon be resumed. Until then, here are the 2 acts I saw last weekend: The medieval ensemble Capella all' Antico from Zamość, Poland, and the Orthodox chanting ensemble Sreteniye from Kharkiv, Ukraine (also pictured above.)

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Local Music for Local People: Polish Folk Music



I haven't had much time for the internet over the last couple of weeks but I've just got time to direct your attention to this radio programme I stumbled upon yesterday.

Mentions of Płock are rare enough in Poland, so to hear it being discussed on the BBC ( OK, it's Radio 3 but still..) is a proud moment. Reprezentacja!!

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Life of Others



An interesting article from last Sunday's El Pais.

French, Arab, Polish, Turkish, Hungarian, Chinese, Romanian, Portugese...These and many more languages can be heard in a small room in Madrid's police headquarters. In this room translators spend hours listening to conversations and transcribing them. Sometimes they have to listen to unpleasant things-- threats, arguments, accusations.. At times they listen as the same person who was shouting threats tells their mother that they love her. It is a hard job in which, eight hours a day, one lives the life of others.

Immigrants translate the phone-tapped conversations of foreign suspects for the Spanish police. The Romanian translator is a pious Catholic and has only been with one man in her life: her ex-husband. Ironically, everyday she has to listen to calls between pimps and their prostitutes. She works for a police taskforce investigating sex traffickers. When she translates the conversations she tries to omit swear words or sexual references but sometimes this is impossible and she goes bright red as she writes. At first she was surprised to hear that the pimp called all the girls by the same name, Irina. Afterwards she discovered that Irina was the name of the pimp's wife and using only this name avoided problems at home.

The Hungarian translator was the coach of the Hungarian women's swimming team when her country was still part of the Eastern Bloc. 15 years ago she had to emigrate to Spain and since 5 years ago she has not been once to a swimming pool-- it brings back too many memories. Her physical build attests to her history as an athlete, as well as to the use of anabolitic steroids which she says was common practice in those days. The USA had to be beaten at all costs. The human body has its limits, however.. She is married to a Spaniard and when she goes home to him it is sometimes difficult not to talk about what she has been listening to all day. But she can't. Nobody can know. When people ask her what she does she tells them that she works in an accountancy firm. This sounds so boring that no-one asks her for more details.

The oldest translator is a Turkish woman. Single and attractive, she always tuns up with full make-up on. She turns the heads of the policemen as she walks past. She has a teenage son and she works extra hours to support him. As she has no time for her own life she spends the day living that of others: those that kill for money, those that smuggle in contraband from Turkey and those who commit credit card fraud. She knows all of them by name, she knows who their parents are and what they say to their girlfriends before going to sleep at night. She understands them, translates their words and hates them, all at the same time. Life is not black and white she says, but sometimes it is too grey.

The Arabic translator is a doctor of Philology and has 3 sons. Her husband stays at home with the children while she works. It wasn't thier plan but she found work before he did. She is familiar with every type of hashish and with all the different ways that it can be smuggled into Spain but she has never once rolled or smoked a joint. One day she arrived to work looking pale and almost fainted. She was fasting for Ramadan. People asked her if she was very religious. She replied that she wasn't but that it was more of a tradition than a religious practice. One doesn't have to be a practising Catholic to celebrate Christmas, all Spaniards celebrate it.

A group of police officers burst into a clandestine laboratory where kin, a Chinese drug similar to ketamine, is produced. The police needed to catch the dealers red-handed so the translator had to spend all night listening to phone conversations until he discovered the location of the laboratory. The translator is the only man in the translating room but he doesn't stand out. Quiet and efficient, he never takes off his headphones, not even to eat. He speaks Spanish with a Madrid accent. He was born and raised here and has never been to China, not even for a holiday. The truth is that he still misses China but does not know why.

All these stories are real. They are not taken from the violent streets of Baltimore portrayed in 'The Wire' or from the old East Germany as seen in 'The Life of Others'.
They come from a small room in police headquarters located at Cuatro Caminos.

I know all of this first-hand because for a while I was an inhabitant of that small room. I was the Portugese translator. I was so engrossed in my work that I talked of the people on whom I eavesdropped as if I really knew them. The other day I thought about each and every one of those people who I got to know in that room. I thought about all the stories I heard and all the moments we shared. I would like to dedicate these lines to them. There are people in the real world who do things which would surprise us in the world of fiction. With headphones on and brains alert, they live the life of others without missing a word.

Carla Guimares is a Brazilian writer living in Spain Translated by Czarny Kot 01/03/08 Source: El Pais

Monday, 22 February 2010

Lech loves Czech but does Czech love Lech?



According to the legend, there were once 3 brothers: Lech, Czech and Rus. Lech went north, settled down and founded the half-mythical, half-historical Piast dynasty. His descendants are now called Poles.

Czech went south and settled down in Bohemia and Rus went far out to the east. Relations between Rus and his 2 brothers are well-documented but little attention is paid to the relationship between brothers (and next-door neighbours) Lech and Czech.

A quick sample of Polish and Czech language, cuisine and other cultural aspects shows that both nations are cut from the same cloth. For most of history the 2 countries have followed very different paths but in the last century they have similar experiences-- independence after WWI, occupation during WWII, Eastern Bloc, fall of Communism, entry into EU.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these similarities Polish-Czech relations have never been a shining example of brotherly love. True, there are none of the bad feelings which occur in relations with Germany and Russia but neither is there any real sense of kinship or solidarity. Why could this be?

From the Czech perspective grievances could include the disputed Cieszyn / Tesin region and the involvement of Polish troops in the supression of the Prague Spring.

From the Polish point of view jealousy (not a vice which is alien to Poland as even proud Poles will admit) probably plays a part. The Czechs are better off, have a nicer lifestyle and in many areas-- beer, supermodels, football etc..-- they always seem to be better, despite their small population.

Another reason could be language. Although Czech and Polish are very similar, Czech does bear an unfortunate resemblance to toddler-speak to Polish ears. Even the best-intentioned Pole might struggle to keep a straight face whilst listening to Czech. Obviously this does not go down well with the Czechs.

I recently went to Prague for my first trip to the Czech Republic (not counting a cigarette break in Brno bus station a couple of years ago) and I am happy to report that there are signs that the 2 brothers might be getting closer. First of all, I have never heard negative comments about Czechs in Poland, just people laughing at thier language (and mullets). Secondly, people in Prague, who were already friendly enough, became a little bit more friendly when they saw my wife's Polish-Czech phrasebook on the table. Perhaps they were just happy to meet some tourists who didn't automatically speak to them in English...

By a happy coincidence, the very day I set off for Prague Przegłąd magazine published a piece about Polish-Czech relations. Here are 2 opinions taken from the article...

Q: Why do Poles like Czechs more than before?

Mariusz Szczygieł (Pole), scholar of Czech literature

I don't know why other Poles like the Czechs but this is why I like them:
1) The Church in the Czech Rep. plays no role in political, social or private life.
2) Every town and village tries to look like it comes from a fairytale.
3) Even in very small towns you can hire a bike.
4) On Fridays most people, even though they are at work, think about the weekend and make plans which involve more than just sitting at home.
5) They treat culture as an anti-depressant.

Hana Brusova (Czech), correspondent for the Czech Press Agency

I couldn't say why as I have only been in Poland for a few months. However, I do know why Czechs are not so crazy about Poles-- they simply do not know them very well. There are no bad feelings but most Czechs cannot see anything interesting about Poland. When Czechs travel or learn about other countries they are more interested in places like France, Germany or England.

Source: Przegłąd magazine Translated by Czarny Kot 22/02/10

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A Tale of Two Cities



Leaving Prague by train at night and waking up to a winter morning in Warsaw's Zachodnia station is enough to make even the most patriotic Pole, or fervent Polophile, a bit embarassed..

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Apocalypse Then: Haiti circa 1502 AD.



The island which we now call Hispaniola was the first to be settled by christians. Immediately after their arrival the plight of the natives began. The christians started by taking away the women and children of the indians as slaves. Then they started taking away the food which the indians had produced with the sweat of their brows. They were not satisfied with what the indians offered voluntarily as it was not much (it is their custom to only store enough supplies for the immediate future) and because what would suffice an indian family for a month was devoured by a christian in one day.

All this, and other acts of violence and aggression, quickly led the indians to conclude that these men could not have come down to them from heaven. Some hid thier food supplies. Some hid thier wives and children. Others fled into the mountains, away from the fierce, terrible newcomers. The christians attacked with fists, blades and sticks until they were able to seize the chieftains. Such temerity and shamelessness led to the wife of the most powerful king, ruler of the whole island, being raped in public by a christian captain.

After this incident, the indians began to look for ways to expel the christians from their lands. They took up their arms which are offensively weak and defenisively even weaker. To Europeans, thier warfare resembles little more than a children's game. The christians with their horses, swords and lances inflicted many massacres and strange cruelties upon them.

They would enter villages and no child, old person or woman would avoid being diembowelled and dismembered like lambs in a slaughterhouse. The soldiiers would make bets with each other on who could cut a man in half with one stroke or decapitate him with one blow. They took newborns from their mother's breasts by the legs and smashed their heads against the rocks. Others they threw into the rivers to drown.... others they put to the sword, along with their mothers. They would tie up indians in groups of 13 in honour of Our Saviour and the 12 apostles. Then they would burn them alive. Others would cover individuals in dry straw and burn them that way. Some would not be killed. They would cut off both their hands and send them into the mountains as a message for those in hiding. Chieftains and lords were usually burnt by a slow fire so that they would die slowly, screaming until their souls departed their bodies.

On one occasion I saw a group of 4 or 5 indian nobles burning slowly on a pyre. Such was their shouting that the Spanish captain, either from pity or a desire for quiet, ordered them to be taken off the fire and drowned. The master of arms who was to carry out the order (I know his name and am acquainted with relatives of his in Seville) didn't want to drown them so he opted instead to put sticks in their mouths to silence them and put them back on the fire so they could slowly roast as he wished.

I have seen all the above with my own eyes, and many other atrocities. Because so many indians fled into the mountains to escape from these inhuman, pitiless and ferocious beasts, the Spaniards trained wild hounds which, upon sight, would tear an indian to pieces in the blink of an eye and eat him as if he were a pig. These dogs were responsible for many terrible massacres. Sometimes, although few and far between, the indians would with great justification kill a christian. The christians then decreed that for every one of them killed by indians, they would kill a hundred natives.

Bartolome de las Casas was a Spanish Dominican priest and the most vocal opponent of Spanish atrocities in the Americas.

Translated by Czarny Kot 04/02/10 Source: Brevisima relacion de la destruicion de las Indias.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Neoliberal Newspeak



Do you hate terms like 'elastic job market' and 'human resources'? Have you ever read the 'Economist' and wondered why the word 'reform' is repeated like a mantra? If so, you might like this....

Once again, the start of the new year belongs to the peddlars good news. Although unemployment is rising they tell us that it is OK, since it could be rising faster. The same people regard current GDP growth of 2% as a success story, even though they recently forecast that it would be 5%, and that 3% growth would be a worst-case scenario. Whatever happens, things are good and they can only get better. If necessary, any failures can be presented as successes. Only malcontents and trouble-makers will complain.

It's not only the economy: In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army is fighting for peace and an end to terrorism. In Chechnya, on the other hand, we have freedom fighters and partisans, who Russia is fighting against in a deeply undemocratic manner. That is why sending Polish troops to fight alongside the US in Afghanistan is an honour and a wise investment, even if the few hundred million złoty spent means that scientific research and higher salaries for public workers become a luxury that we 'can't afford.'

Police violence against demonstrators is called 'ensuring public order.' On the other hand, violence carried out by shipyard workers against those institutions responsible for their fate is labelled hooliganism and banditry. Flying the Polish flag with the white eagle at football stadiums is a sign of healthy patriotism. Waving Russian flags in football stadiums is a worrying sign of growing Russian nationalism.

George Orwell had a name for this: Newspeak. The most famous example from '1984' include 'war is peace', 'freedom is slavery', and 'hate is power'.

Now it would appear that 'real capitalism' in today's Poland has its own brand of newspeak: Inequality is repackaged as 'equal opportunites in the market economy'. Laying off workers becomes 'cost rationalisation'. Cutting back on social spending is simply 'keeping public finances in order'. Worker's rights are defended by 'inflexible, self-interested trade unions.'

In a very interesting book, 'Neoliberal Newspeak', French sociologist Alain Bihr identifies 2 main functions of the current propaganda system. " On one hand, the aim is to invert the meanings of words and on the other to blur the meaning entirely....."

One is reminded of the Marxist observation that in every society 'the thoughts of the ruling class are the ruling thoughts'. This is why the rollling back of progressive social reforms, which were the result of decades of struggle, is itself called 'reform'. From the social point of view, reductions in benefits, longer working hours, privatised health care, tuition fees and other neoliberal policies represent a 'counter-reformation' harking back to the 19th century. Yet still the 'free media' clamours for more and more 'reform'.

Citizen! Your pension will be smaller and you will work longer but it is all for your own good. Don't you understand? You must be either an unreformed specimen of homus sovieticus or you do not listen enough to the 'free media'. The media, with the help of 'independent experts' from the Business Centre Club or the Adam Smith Institute will explain to you that working longer for less is in your best interests.

Naom Chomsky believes that propaganda plays a bigger role in democratic societies than in totalitarian regimes.... The stance of the 'free media' in Poland, dependent on large corporations, only serves to confirm Chomsky's opinion. Is it really possible to pull the wool over people's eyes and to silence thier voices? Luckily, not always and not with everyone.

Piotr Żuk is a journalist and sociologist. Translated by Czarny Kot 30/01/10

Source: 'Przegład' magazine.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Poland's Homeless: Surviving the Big Freeze


Like the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, Poland has recently been in the grip of sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow. The worst conditions arrived before Christmas and show little sign of letting up. Whilst the effect on travel has been well documented, less publicised is the challenge that the conditions pose to Poland's homeless. Here is an extract from 'Przegłąd' magazine in which Andrzej Dryszel finds out how homeless people in Warsaw survive the big freeze.....


When the temperature plummeted, the exodus began-- homeless people left streets, empty houses and allotment sheds and moved to heated sewers and train and bus stations. Not all of them made it. On the Saturday and Sunday of 19th/20th December, 42 people froze to death in Poland. This is a record number, but winter has barely begun. Overall, cold weather in November and December 2009 caused the death of around 80 people. In the 21st century. In an EU member state. In a country which avoided the worst of the financial crisis....

"Sudden falls in temperature are a danger to the lives of the homeless, the elderly and those who live alone" warn police authorities. Police spokesman Mariusz Sokołowski has appealed to the public to inform police of the whereabouts of bivouac sites used by the homeless, as it could save lives.

In the North Praga neighbourhood of Warsaw, young police officers Katarzyna Nowosielska and Marcin Zarzyckim are on evening patrol along the bank of the Vistula. Such patrols, which check on how homeless people are coping, have been carried out over the previous few days. The officers carefully observe an allotment garden from a vantage point on higher ground.

"If we see a wisp of smoke then that means that someone is in the allotments and is trying to keep warm. We will then go in and check that they are OK and that nothing bad is happening." Says officer Nowosielska. On this occasion the frozen air is clean, without any sign of human prescence.

The homeless like to live in allotments. Sometimes they live there so long that they turn the sheds into something approaching real houses. As well as shelter, they can also take advantage of the vegetables grwon on neighbouring plots. However, come winter, it is difficult to survive there. There is no water or power. It is necessary to continually feed and look after a fire, either on the floor of the shed or in homemade stoves. If people fall asleep they can burn to death in the shed or die from smoke inhilation. On the other hand, if the fire goes out, those asleep can freeze to death. Fire and ice are winter's main weapons against the homeless.

It also occurs sometimes that allotment owners come to visit their plots in winter, in which case it is necessary to leave. The owners are very rarely aggressive towards the homeless but neither does their prescence fill them with joy. "These people have my respect and sympathy but the government should do something about this problem. Allotment sheds are not designed to be lived in during winter. In winter, the water and power supply to the allotments is cut of..." says Eugeniusz Kondracki, president of the Polish Allotment Owner's Association.

The best place in North Praga for the homeless in winter are the sewers which contain pipes leading to the power station in Żerań. 3 metres underground it is warm, you know you will not freeze and there is no owner who might come and turf you out. Homeless people also like to seek shelter in Central Station, the best-heated amongst Warsaw's train stations. In the station toilets it is possible to have a quick wash and anyone in difficulties can easily find medical help. On the negative side, it is quite common for homeless people to be robbed there, so they have to keep a careful eye on their belongings. Another problem is that after midnight the security guards empty the station building and underground passages. Those wishing to stay have to far down the railway tunnels where it is cold and dark.....

Andrzej Dryszel is a Polish journalist. Translated by Czarny Kot 19/01/10

Source: 'Przegłąd' magazine.

Socialist Jesus v. The Corporate Church



Another article on religion, this time shifting the point of view from right to left. 'Przegląd' columnist Piotr Żuk with a critical (although not necessarily an atheistic) look at the Catholic Church in Poland...


How would a Catholic Pole welcome Jesus Christ if he were to knock on their door this Christmas time? This character, reminiscent of a hippy, a homeless person or some kind of left-wing alterglobalist, fighting against capitalism and injustice, would probably arouse less than positive feelings in the majority of Catholic Poles.

These are the same people who sit in church and listen to slogans of Christian love but who in their everyday life have little or no sympathy for those with different wolrdviews. Nor are they interested in making the public sphere just and equal for all citizens.

If Jesus lived in today's Poland he would surely rebel against social inequality, discrimination of minorities and the financial privileges and greedy behaviour of many Church officials. And he surely wouldn't support the 'real capitalism' which creates so much social exclusion.

I remember, in Wrocław in the early 90s during a demonstration against restrictive abortion laws, someone had painted on the pavement: 'God is young. The clergy are old.' After almost 20 years, it is possible to say that morally, culturally and socially the Polish clergy are even older. A refusal to open up or react to any changes happening in the wider world is a trademark of the Catholic Church in Poland.

Now, not only abortion is bad. Condoms are a mortal sin, even in a world where AIDS is an ever-present danger, and recently IVF treatment has become a crime in the eyes of the Church hierarchy.

The situation is unlikely to change if the Church, like a political party, does not possess a strong and dynamic intellectual backroom. It is impossible to see any brave new theological thinking which could help with contemporary problems. Individuals who try to shake up the ossified way of thinking find themselves isolated at the margins of Polish Catholicism, or they are forced to leave the Church. Such was the fate of Stanisław Obirek (a controversial liberal Jesuit who described the adoration of JPII as 'idolatry')

The same applies to the lay activities of Catholics, which are as meagre and weak as the rest of civil society in Poland. It is difficult in the current climate in Poland to envisage grassroots initiatives in the style of the international movement "We are the Church " or of similar organisations in the US and Germany. All of these movements are based on progressive theology, lay Catholicism and independent thinking which criticises the conservative and hierarchical structure of the offical church and campaigns for its reform.

It is also hard to imagine a modern version of Liberation Theology taking root amongst Polish priests. This movement, emanating mainly from Latin America, connected the Christian faith with the struggle for social justice and human rights. From this perspective, Jesus was a freedom fighter and a revolutionary against the rich and powerful who control this world. The Kingdom of Heaven becomes a Socialist society or even an Anarchist commune. Even though the conditions exist in Poland for this type of interpretation, one does not hear anything about the Church's battle against arch-capitalism.

Based on all this, it is not surprising that Polish Catholicism is on one hand ritualistic, and on the other is superficial and easy to consume-- like popular culture. It is more about putting on a show in front of aunt Hela and uncle Heńko and other family and friends than about real values. Faithful adherence to rituals played out during christenings, weddings or festivals does not hide the fact that Polish Catholics reject much of basic Church dogma. According to a survey carried out in March, one quarter of Polish Catholics do not believe in either the Resurrection or life after death. One third do not believe in hell....

The Church, which is less and less concerned with the problems of the poor and more and more concerned with its own rights and privileges, is similar to a corporation whose only aim is to increase and maximise its influence and profits.....

If on the side of the congregation we have people going through the ritualistic motions, and on the side of the Church we have only bureaucracy, what hope is there for any charismatic or dynamic leaders? Jesus would certainly be uninspired by the spectacle and would be denounced by the powers that be as an iconoclast and a utopian. He would be criticised for not understanding the ways of the market economy and he might even be accused of offending the sensibilites of the religious authorities.

When we are singing our Christmas carols about a miraculous birth in a poor stable, it is worth remembering who we are singing about....

Piotr Żuk is a journalist and sociologist. Translated by Czarny Kot 19/01/10

Source: 'Przegląd' magazine.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Europe's Suicide





There have been several controversies involving religious symbols and garments in recent years throughout Europe. The latest concerns the rights and wrongs of hanging crucifixes in public buildings, especially schools.

Not surprisingly this has caused a bit of a stir in Poland. Here is the point of view from the traditionalist side of the argument.....


If we are looking for a symbol which really connects all Europeans, we won't find it in the blue flag with 12 stars but in the cross. That is why the decision of the European Court of Human Rights(ECHR)to award compensation to a woman who took offence to the crucifixes on show in an Italian school represents an acceptance of Europe's cultural suicide.

Without the cross, and without Christianity, there is no Europe. The symbol represents Europe not only religiously but culturally. Where there is no longer a roadside chapel, a solitary cross (whether Catholic or Orthodox) or a church with its Gothic tower or onion-shaped dome, there is no longer Europe.....

.....the cross signifies the fact that God sacrificed his son for us... this means that every human being has a priceless value that no-one or nothing can take away....
.... of course Europeans, including Christians, have not always lived according to these teachings but crosses, chapels and cathedrals remind us that we can always return to God, who loves us despite everything.

Now this symbol is under threat. British Airways reprimanded a flight attendant for wearing a crucifix around her neck and the ECHR have decided that the cross can hurt the 'religious' feelings of atheists. ( Perhaps someone could explain to me what 'religious feelings' a non-religious person can have? )

None of this is surprising because the cross symbolises everything that is contrary to the nihilist spirit of post-religious Europe. That is why they are doing everything in thier power to make the cross disappear...

...the cross signifies suffering.. it reminds us that human existence contains pain, illness and unfulfilled desires. Modern Europe is based on the avoidance of any kind of suffering or discomfort...

... and now they should ban the flags of many European countries which may offend the sensibilities of atheists. Malta, Swtizerland, Denmark, Swede, Finland, Norway and the UK will all have to change their flags, as they all contain the cross. And in today's Europe the cross has no place......

Tomasz P. Terlikowski is a writer and philosopher. Translated by Czarny Kot 14/01/10

Source: 'Don Bosco' magazine.