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by Agnieszka Tennant

Why Adam Michnik Is Afraid of Theocracy

Confessions of a Democrat-Skeptic.

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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.

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