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by Agnieszka Tennant

Why Adam Michnik Is Afraid of Theocracy

Confessions of a Democrat-Skeptic.

As I turn off the TV in my hotel room, I notice reports from the celebrations of the 17th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Outside, there's a faint scent coming from crispy leaves that Virginia's 72–degree sun bakes under my feet. I remember the smell from Poland, where as a kid I used to bury my face in piles of leaves that, thank God, no one thought of removing with a blower.

At the top of the hill, in a rotunda, awaits an encounter with living history. In addition to the date, the setting, too, is fitting for a lecture series titled "Democrats, Dictatorship, and Intellectuals." It is the campus of the University of Virginia, the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson. His advocacy for the separation of church and state meant that the grounds of the university, in defiance of custom, would have at their center a library (housed in a rotunda), not a chapel.

Adam Michnik, my compatriot and one of the anti–communist leaders of the Solidarity movement whose thinking bulldozed the Berlin Wall, should feel at home in Jefferson's space. Michnik, who now edits the largest newspaper in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette), is here to give the Labrosse–Levinson Lectures. In the three–lecture series, he will defend the separation of church and state while asserting that religion gives democracies a conscience. His presence here is one of the many good things that happen thanks to the university's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and its Center for Religion and Democracy. Headed by James Davison Hunter, the influential sociologist who in his 1991 book popularized the idea of culture wars, the institute is an interdisciplinary meeting place for scholars who are "seeking to make sense of our times."

As the 60–year–old Pole walks into the Rotunda, his joviality is contagious. He recognizes several people, laughs boisterously, shakes hands with men and kisses women on the hand. Sporting his trademark slightly unkempt look, each day he wears the same tawny jacket and a different shirt; they don't really match.

He is just as unreserved when answering questions following the lectures. One question brings out his Polish bluntness, and his response shows the way one of the most respected intellectuals in Europe thinks. The inquiry is convoluted, but essentially it comes down to this: Is the porn that's flooding Poland a kind of soft totalitarianism?

"I'm not sure I've understood your question," Michnik says (and I interpret, more or less loosely, with paraphrases here and there, as I will throughout the article). "But if I did, I don't know what world you live in. I am very sensitive to the ailments of democracy; I only disagree with calling corruption totalitarianism. Words are not neutral. You can falsify the world with them and dehumanize your adversary. When I hear totalitarianism, then I see at least a jail cell, but not pornography. By the way, totalitarian regimes have never liked pornography; I don't know why. I notice the corruption in the market system. I see an ally in Ratzinger. But I oppose state coercion. If you can with the help of censorship fight with godlessness, then it means that you can employ censorship to fight with culture. When some Polish bishops wanted the Polish parliament to mandate public TV to defend Christian values, I voted against it. It doesn't mean anything. Are Macbeth and The Man without Qualities in agreement with Christian values? I am not afraid of nihilism that results from godlessness, I am afraid of nihilism that results from hypocrisy."

To about 100 people gathered in the temple of knowledge that is the rotunda's dome, Adam Michnik is a kind of saint. He has earned this status in jail cells. He spent, altogether, six years in prison. Unlike many other political prisoners, this dissident turned down a "get out of jail" ticket when it was offered to him in 1982, because it was conditional on him leaving the country. When he was eventually released from prison, he received a phone call from the American Embassy: the ambassador and his wife (present at the lecture in 2006) were inviting him to dinner. When he arrived, he noticed plenty of other Polish dissidents. "It was there, at the American Embassy, that I, for the first time, saw what free Poland looked like," he says.

Although the human rights activist may be admired on university campuses in the United States, in Poland he is a controversial figure. Many still haven't forgiven him for taking part in the 1989 Round Table negotiations, during which party leaders and dissidents sat together at the same table and worked out a compromise—a compromise that to some purists in Poland meant treason.  "The authorities were too weak to trample us, and we were too weak to topple the authorities," Michnik later explained. "And out of those two weaknesses a chance arose for a compromise resolution." The negotiations paid off, leading, eventually, to free elections in which the communists were defeated. Another sign of Michnik's supposed betrayal of Polishness is that the paper he edits has championed forgiveness, or amnesty, for non–criminal members of the communist party; exposed anti–Semitism; advocated on behalf of equal rights for homosexuals; and castigated the political power and corruption of the Catholic Church in Poland.

The three lectures are framed as Michnik's interactions with Pope Benedict XVI's writings from the perspective of a democrat–skeptic, as he calls himself. Refreshingly hard to pin down, Michnik is a friend to the Catholic Church in Poland, but the kind of friend who'll tell you when he thinks you're acting like an idiot. He has supported the war in Iraq (see "We, the Traitors" at http://www.worldpress.org/Europe/1086.cfm for his defense of this decision), but he is pleased by the headlines on the days of the lectures—November 8, 9, and 10—which announce the Democrats gaining control of the U.S. House and Senate.

"We know the ailments of young democracies: corruption, the chaos of demagoguery, miraculous healers, ordinary political hooligans who invoke the truth and Christian ideals," Michnik says. "The democrat–skeptic will applaud Ratzinger when he speaks of the need for truth and conscience in politics," but "man lives in community… .  Does not conscience dictate that politicians seek compromise?"

Michnik lives in a country where two–thirds of the adult population say they go to church every Sunday, and where about 1.2 million tune in daily to Radio Maryja ("Radio Mary"). They are not fans of compromise. The station transmits extreme nationalist, xenophobic, anti–Semitic, anti–EU, conspiratorial, fundamentalist Catholic propaganda. It has been an embarrassment to Michnik, to Poland's politicians dealing with the European Union, and even to the Vatican, which doesn't quite know what to do with it.

Because of the clout marshaled by the radio station, the threat of theocracy in Poland seems very real to Michnik. I doubt theocracy will take place here United States, but I receive Michnik's indictment with concern for my motherland. Radio Maryja's muscle was behind Lech Kaczynski, who won the last election. Listen to some of Michnik's report:

"We are witnessing an alliance between a significant part of the clergy and those forces the democrat–skeptic calls 'the new populism.' The rhetoric of the new populists is Manichaean. They claim to be serving the absolute good rooted in the Church's teachings and fighting the absolute evil present in the theories and practices of their adversaries. They intoxicate themselves with the cult of their own sinlessness, narcotizing the public opinion with campaigns against ever new threats, with attacks on ever new scapegoats, with ever new witch–hunts.

"They often declare their ardent anti–communism, and yet they are genuine children of the communist mentality, with its obsessive suspiciousness and its contempt for truth and the law. There lives in the 'new populists' the spirit of homo sovieticus, with its primitive egalitarianism, its collectivistic aversion toward the heretics, its belief that the state should regulate all mechanisms of social life and that the state's will is the source of morality and truth about the world. This becomes particularly powerful when the state—that is, the ruling é;lite—refers to the Chruch's teachings, and the Church consents to that."

The rise of the extreme Right was also the reason why, after having written a book titled The Church, the Left, Dialogue, Michnik wrote an article titled "The Church, the Right, the Monologue." "In these titles dwell my hope and my anxiety," Michnik says.

The worry that underpins Michnik's lectures is that the new populists sound awfully like the Nazis. So it is helpful that during the lectures, Michnik interacts in large part with writings by someone who grew up in Nazi Germany, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger sees Pilate's condemnation of Jesus, for example, as the result of liberal democracy unchecked, in which the leader gives in to the majority that is in the wrong. To the pope, Pilate's question, "What is truth?", represents a politician's skepticism. To this Michnik replies that no democrat will claim that truth doesn't exist. Democrats don't want to live where everything is permitted, but they are skeptical toward those who see truth as revealed. So, Michnik concludes, blame the opportunism of Pilate, not liberal democracy, for the verdict on Jesus.

Guided by the same opportunism, the church hierarchy in Poland "tolerates the extreme Catholic right while it attacks liberalism," Michnik continues. "Today the coalition of orthodox Catholic rhetoric and nationalism rules Poland. They never quote Ratzinger's words, 'Nationalism has brought Europe to the brink of destruction. It opposes what Europe stands for.'"

"There's nothing in Ratzinger of the brute crudeness of the Catholic right," Michnik says. "Ratzinger sees the division between faith and law as a positive phenomenon. It demands respect for moral values and for God to be given a place." Michnik agrees with Ratzinger that democracy can only function when conscience works. But he sees the Catholic fundamentalism, the new populism, as a threat to democracy. He asks "If you write into the constitution that God is the highest value, will it improve the state of public morality? No. No legislation can make this happen. A Polish democrat–skeptic has to voice his skepticism."

Take the symbol of the cross for example. Referring to the recent battle over the display of crosses in Polish schools, Michnik quotes Ratzinger's explanation that during communism, crosses were the symbol of the little that remained of our freedom, a guarantee of humanity. "The country needs public symbols of what it guarantees." Then Michnik asks: "Does Ratzinger mean that public schools threaten the humanism, the freedom, the foundations of the democratic state? During totalitarian dictatorship, the sign of the cross was a symbol of protest against violence and lies. But 20 years later, … all public offices and schools have crosses in Poland. Now, when sentences against journalists and artists have been passed [for offending the Catholic Church], the cross can be a sign of administrative and religious coercion."

Context matters here, says Michnik, recalling that Ratzinger's frame of reference is the Nazi era. In 1941, the Nazi governor of largely Catholic Bavaria ordered crosses removed from schools and replaced the prayers that began class–time with songs from the Hitler Youth. Cardinal Faulhaber protested, saying that the cross was a symbol of faith. Ratzinger comments that totalitarian movement negated the liberal spirit of tolerance.

All well and good, says Michnik. The Jacobins, who created the reign of terror, also saw the Catholic Church as the enemy. The Enlightenment tradition gave us the Declaration of Human Rights but also terror and guillotines. The democrat–skeptic is not the enemy of God, but he does not like it when God is being pulled into political disputes. God is absolute, politics the territory of what is changeable and disputable.

"Moral absolutism, which rejects compromise, can be a virtue in extreme situations, but becomes a misfortune when government aspires to it. It is often a mask for hypocrisy, always the means of discriminating against others. … That is why the democrat–skeptic does not trust moral absolutes in politics. He prefers compromise. For him this is not moral relativism. It is an act of faith in compromise as democracy's daily bread."

And compromise needs a conscience. Michnik admits this as he remembers "the intellectual acrobatics of liberal friends" who rationalized their approval for dictatorial regimes. It was conscience, not compromise, that tore down the Berlin Wall.

Amid Michnik's on–the–one–hand–on–the–other, one group, mentioned only briefly, earns his unqualified respect—and not a hint of skepticism. They are not rationalists, democrats, skeptics, compromise–seekers, or Catholics of any stripe. They're people with conscience, and with humility: "The democrat–skeptic bows his head before the memory of the evangelical churches in Westphalia, which confessed their participation in the Nazi crimes, admitting to cowardice and to preferring their own safety."

Perhaps there's a lesson here for evangelicals in a very different set of circumstances.

Agnieszka Tennant is a graduate student in the international relations program at the University of Chicago.

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