Friday, 22 February 2013

Far-Right Disrupt Lecture at Warsaw University

A group of masked far-right nationalists disrupted a  lecture at Warsaw University. The lecture was given by the centre-left politician Magdalena Środa. The protestors shouted 'anti-communist slogans (such as - Hammer and Sickle, Red Rabble - Raz sierpem, raz młotem czerwoną hołotę). The demonstrators were eventually removed from the building and the lecture allowed to go ahead.
Organisers claimed that they were protesting against the prevoius cancelling of a  debate at the university, organised by the Independent Students Association, where three leading representatives of the far right had been invited. The meeting was cancelled after the Rector of Warsaw University expressed his discomfort at the Students Association organising a meeting that looked like a gathering of the far-right. The fact that the main representatives of students in Poland could contemplate organising such a meeting is a scandal in itself and reveals much about the state of political awareness and activity amongst students.
The far-right is now saying it will disrupt further lectures made by those from the left until they are able to hold similar meetings themselves. They claim that this is a matter of free-speach. However, there should be no basis for free-speech for those that promote the politics of hate and agression. A recent report made by the organisation 'Never Again' has revealled that the number of attacks by the far right has increased sharply in recent years. In 2011-2012 there were over 600 recorded xenephobic and homophobic attacks and far-right crimes committed in Poland. According to the authors of the report:
During the past two years we have seen a marked increase in aggression from extreme nationalists throughout the whole country. Neofascism is no longer restricted to the margins.  This is an extremely disturbing tendency, which demands a decisive reaction. How far the fascists have gone has beenshown by Tuesday's attack on the lecture of Prof. Magdalena Środa at Warsaw University.' 
There can be no platform given to the far-right who target and attack those due to their race, religion or sexuality. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Papal Fallout


Weaving his way through the crowds in Edinburgh, Benedict stopped for the classic PR moment after being handed a baby from the crowd. The mother of the chosen child was interviewed on television shortly afterwards. She was a young Polish woman who, with an acquired Scottish accent, explained the significance and emotional importance of this experience.

The Pope has not always received such a warm welcome during his visit to Britain. 15,000 marched in London this weekend (led by their chief apostle Richard Dawkins) - protesting against the Pope's visit. The march of secularists and humanists was a demonstration by the liberal middle-classes against the conservatism of the Catholic Church. The Pope was the hated figure of the crowd and has been personally held responsible for child abuse, AIDS in Africa and denigrated as being a former member of the Hitler Youth.

These accusations and condemnations have not just flowed in one direction. Benedict opened his trip to the UK by warning against the threat of 'extreme atheism' and historically relating such ideologies with the rise of Nazism. This is not just factually incorrect but is also deeply offensive to those who do not share a religious faith. They have also helped to enrage the hostilities of those opposed to the state visit of the Pope to Britain.

There is certainly much to be appalled about by the ideology and practice of the Catholic hierarchy. The revelations of sexual abuse in recent years has further undermined a conservative moralism which is out of touch even with the practices of its own followers. However, the blanket condemnations by the protestors contain their own prejudices. The barrier placed against the distribution of condoms by the Catholic Church is indeed a crime against humanity. However, the spread of AIDS is a wider social and political problem as shown by the fact that the three countries with the highest HiV rate in Africa have minority Catholic populations. Likewise child sexual abuse is a social problem that exists in all institutions that are insulated from the public gaze – not least the family. Also the claims that Benedict was a Nazi sympathiser is factually incorrect and shows a complete misunderstanding of the situation faced by a 14 year old growing up under Nazi tyranny who is compelled - by law - to enter the Hitler Youth. No consideration is given to the progressive policies of the Church such as opposing nuclear weapons and the war in Iraq. 

The point here is not to deny the malpractices and reactions of the Catholic hierarchy but to understand how many of its opponents seem to want to paint the Catholic Church (or perhaps religion as a whole) as being the source of all evil, thus expressing their own variation of intolerance.

The history of xenophobia and prejudice towards Catholics in Britain has a long history. This has often been driven by hostility and racism towards minority communities. Most obviously this has been connected with racism towards Britain's Irish population - a community long denigrated as part of the occupation and partition of Ireland. More recently Britain's Catholic population and churches have been swelled by the influx of Poles into the country.

While largely successfully integrating into British society, the danger of a rise in prejudice towards the Polish community exists. This does not just come from the far-right but also from some on the left (under slogans such as 'British Jobs for British Workers'.) It also has a liberal version that contains its own anti-Catholicism. We have observed in recent years how the rise of Islamophobia has sometimes been justified through referring to ostensibly liberal and secular values. There is therefore a real possibility that anti-Catholicism will be deployed to excuse prejudice and discrimination against Poles in Britain.

One also has to question quite why secularists in Britain are targeting the Catholic Church. After all the Catholic Church in Britain is a marginalised institution which has little impact on the practices of the government and state. This is unlike in Poland where the Catholic Church is expanding its symbolic and institutional intrusion into public life. The secularist demands for the separation of the Church and State in Poland therefore has to be directed towards the Catholic Church (whilst recognising the reality that the vast majority of Poles are believers in the Catholic faith.) In Britain this is simply not the case.

When the head of the Vatican flew into Britain he was met by another head of state who is also the leader of the Church of England: Queen Elizabeth II. There is no full separation of the Church and State in Britain and furthermore there continues to exist an institutionalised discrimination against Catholics - for example the Monarch can neither be a Catholic nor marry a Catholic. Perhaps liberal secularists in Britain should seek to address these issues before taking the moral high ground against those holding a different set of beliefs from them.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The End of Palikot?

Maybe Mrs Nowicka  wants to be raped, but this will not be by me as I am not a person suited to such an act’.

These words have possibly spelled the end of the political career of Janusz Palikot and his ill-named Palikot Movement. He may explain that they were intended as a joke or perhaps that they were taken out of context;  however there can be no excuses for such a statement. The fact that Palikot claims to be the new leader of the left and of a political movement that represents women and sexual minorities in parliament make them even more shocking.

First some political context. A scandal recently broke out when it was revealed that the four deputy speakers of the house of parliament had been granted 40,000 zloty each in bonuses. This understandably caused some controversy in these times of economic austerity. One of these Deputies was the representative of the Palikot Movement – Wanda Nowicka. The Palikot Movement announced that it was withdrawing its support for Nowicka and a bill was presented to parliament on Friday for her to be removed from her post. This resolution was however decisively defeated, as the MPs from other parties (smelling political blood) voted against the Palikot Movement’s resolution.

Against expectations, Nowicka then announced to parliament that she would not be resigning from her post. Palikot had already declared that the transsexual MP Anna Grodzka would be standing in her place and a political storm within the Palikot Movement ensued.

The Palikot Movement has decided that it will not vote on whether Nowicka should be excluded from the parliamentary club until the middle of next week, with Palikot announcing that he will be recommending her expulsion. Nowicka meanwhile stated that when she told Palikot that she would not resign if she won the vote in parliament that he threatened her by saying that she would be finished politically. It was when referring to these comments made by Nowicka that Palikot made his scandalous remarks about rape.

And now for some background. Wanda Nowicka is a well-known and renowned women’s activist who has campaigned consistently for the rights of women in Poland. Before the last election she had been promised a prominent place on the electoral list as a candidate for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). After this promise was broken, Palikot stepped in and offered her the chance to stand as a candidate for the Palikot Movement. This was one of many shrewd moves made by Palikot, that helped his movement to win a greater share of the vote than the SLD  in the parliamentary elections. Nowicka's reputation as one of the most politically important and experienced Palikot Movement MPs, was then underlined when she was appointed as a Deputy Speaker.

Despite these initial successes, and Palikot’s claim to be building a new party of the left in Poland, the Palikot Movement has failed to develop as a coherent and consistent political force. The Palikot Movement is a liberal populist party current – despite the presence of some genuine left-wingers – that combines liberal economics with liberal cultural policies. It represents the frustrations of a stalled middle class, promising to remove  the constraints of the state in economic and social life.

The problem for the Palikot Movement is that this only appeals to a minority of society. Despite upsetting the political status quo in 2011, the Palikot Movement now struggles to reach 5% in the opinion polls. Recently he has been trying to repeat the tried and failed strategy of cementing an alliance with sections of the social democratic left outside of the SLD (primarily with ex-President Kwaśniewski). Although the SLD continues to face its own political and organisational difficulties, it is once again cementing itself as the main party of the left and consistently leads the Palikot Movement in the opinion polls.

Like any other good populist, Palikot has repeatedly resorted to political showmanship and organising happenings in an attempt to increase his movement’s popularity. However, these have brought no discernible political success. As its name suggests, the Palikot Movement has remained permanently controlled by and associated with its charismatic leader, despite the fact that he is one of the most distrusted politicians in Poland.

These contradictions were exposed when Palikot believed that he could get some short-term political gain by making a political scapegoat of Nowicka and show how the Palikot Movement is unlike the other parties in parliament. He believed he could move some of the major political players in his party (such as Nowicka and Grodzka) around like pieces on a chessboard. This political arrogance and placing of style over substance then backfired on Palikot. Seeing his plans fall apart and serious politicians like Nowicka refusing to play by his rules, he reacted like an angry patriarch let down by those who should submit to his wishes.

Recently, the conservative right has won victories in parliament over issues such as the funding of in-vitro treatment and the legalisation of same-sex partnerships. This has been dependent upon the votes of the conservative wing of the ruling Citizens’ Platform (PO), making a farce of the idea that it is a progressive force in Polish politics. However, the latest traumas within the Palikot Movement show how it is not capable of leading those opposed to conservatism, let alone build a new party of the left.  This probably signals the beginning of the end for Palikot as a serious player in Polish politics, although the task of building a credible left alternative in Poland remains.