Friday, June 10, 2011

Fallacies in Accepted Theories Applied to Polish-Jewish Relations


This is part of a series of posts addressing the intellectual foundations of the Brute Polak stereotype.

This series of blog posts travels inside the mind of an anti-Polish bigot. Much of this is discussed in "Bieganski," a book that offers an x-ray into the anatomy and physiology of bigotry.

1.) The first post offers an introduction.

2.) The second post discusses the concept of universal human progress, its nineteenth century refiners, and its modern-day adherents.

3.) The third post points out echoes of ideas of universal human progress in discussions of Polish-Jewish relations, and points out that these echoes are fallacies.

4.) The fourth post mentions facts that prove the bigots wrong. Polish peasants are entirely capable of ethical behavior.

5.) The fifth post points out that Polish moral leaders responded appropriately to atrocity. Polonia has not adequately communicated their story, and their efforts have been all but forgotten.

***

What's all this theorizing got to do with Polish-Jewish relations and the Brute Polak stereotype?

We hear evidence of a belief in universal human progress when people say things like "There is STILL anti-Semitism in the world."

Well, of course there is. People hate. People hated thousands of years ago, and they will hate thousands of years into the future, if humans are still around then. Contrary to the belief of universal human progress, there is no unseen hand that makes humanity a kinder species in 2012 than it was in the First Century, when Romans crucified thousands of Jews.

We can hear evidence of a belief system in universal human progress when people say that "EDUCATION is the answer." In fact, many top Nazis were highly formally educated, and many peasants, who had only traditional, home-based education, were rescuers of Jews.

We hear evidence of a belief in universal human progress when people call sadistic killers "savages," "animals," "peasants," or "barbarians" In fact, animals don't engage in the mindless, pointless torture that humans do, and while some primitive peoples do engage in torture, not all do.

We hear evidence of a belief in universal human progress when people use the words "medieval," "The Middle Ages," or "The Dark Ages" to talk about atrocity. In fact, in Poland, anyway, the Middle Ages were not a time of significant religious persecution, relative to other times. In subsequent centuries, Poland was known as a "state without stakes" and a "haven for heretics."

Things got bad in Poland, in terms of the number of witch trials and blood libel trials, in the eighteenth century – The Enlightenment – after The Deluge, a time of repeated attacks. The lesson here is that when people feel vulnerable and overwhelmed, they are more likely to persecute others. That has nothing to do with the march of time, but, rather, with the march of armies and of microbes. We modern Americans will discover this when and if a significant part of the American population feels vulnerable, overwhelmed, and as if they have nothing to lose.

Lyndal Roper made a similar point in her excellent book, "Witch Craze." It wasn't the Middle Ages, or domination by the Catholic Church, that caused the deaths of accused witches. Rather, it was societal breakdown in the wake of the Reformation, bad weather – the Little Ice Age – petty local jealousies, and misogynist contempt for post-menopausal, isolated women. There's a sobering lesson in Roper's book. We modern Americans also nurture grudges against our neighbors and contempt for post-menopausal women. If we had our own version of the Little Ice Age, we could turn on each other with ferocity matching that of the witch trials.

We hear evidence of a belief in universal human progress when people say, "Of course there is anti-Semitism in Poland. It is a very Catholic country."

Perhaps the single most notorious and tragic expression of this fallacy is Freud's 1937 statement. When warned of the threat posed by the rise of the Nazis, Freud said, "The Nazis? I'm not afraid of them. Help me rather to combat my true enemy…Religion, the Roman Catholic Church."

Nazism was rooted in science, the most widely accepted anthropological theories of its day. Those in charge of mass murder were often very well educated men, not peasants. Nazism considered itself scientific, not religious.

Roman Dmowski, the leader of Endecja, the most significant anti-Semitic faction in interwar Poland, was a well-educated biologist and Social Darwinist. Dmowski was contemptuous of the Gospel's "love thy enemy" teaching. His focus was on Darwinian struggle for survival. Dmowski's eventual promotion of Catholicism as part of Polish identity was a politically pragmatic move, not one of deep spiritual convictions.

Those invested in the Brute Polak, Bieganski stereotype say: There is STILL anti-Semitism in Poland because Poles were largely peasants and devout Catholics lacking formal education.

Their solution: Poles must abandon or at least vitiate their Catholic faith, and must receive formal education from the West. Poles must evolve.

As "Bieganski" shows, Poland's identity as a nation associated with peasants and with religiosity has been used in attempts to locate blame for the Holocaust exclusively and essentially in rural, Catholic, Poland, and to deflect blame from more secular, modern Germany – and, by extension, to relieve modern, secular, formally educated audiences of the Holocaust, like modern Americans, from ever examining their own natures in relation to atrocity.

Atrocity, in this stereotype, becomes something that other people, less evolved people, commit. Dirty peasants. Not clean, modern people like us.

There's a further development of this stereotypical narrative.

Those who embrace the Bieganski, Brute Polak stereotype argue that outsiders, non-Poles, must travel to Poland to educate Poles. To clean Poles up. To drag Poles into the modern world. To introduce primitive Poles to modern ideas like human ethics, like the idea that atrocity is morally wrong.

Those invested in the Brute Polak stereotype really believe that if they did not travel to Poland, grab Poles by the lapels and lecture and harangue them in this way, Poles would never figure it all out for themselves.

Rabbi Joseph Polak's essay, "Silence Lifts on Poland's Jews" models this narrative. Danielle, an informant for "Bieganski," also demonstrated this attitude. Danielle knew very little about Poland. Though she claimed she had received a "comprehensive" education about the Holocaust, and was herself a Jewish Education teacher, she had no idea who Jan Karski was. She said that the only way she would go to Poland would be to "educate" Poles."

When and if Poles resist being kindly educated in how debased Poles are, they are denounced as "pogromists and expellers of Jews."

Those who cling to the Brute Polak stereotype cannot admit that perhaps it is they who are the bigots. When caught in their own bigotry, they accuse Poles.

This Bieganski, Brute Polak narrative is signaled by variations on this formula: "In the past, Poles were incapable of feeling any sadness at the loss of Jews. They had this problem because they are unevolved. They were peasants and Catholics. With outside guidance, they have evolved, and are coming to realize what a tragedy the Holocaust was."

The idea is that high-minded people must force Poles to evolve. Poles are religious; they must evolve into less religious people, or at least atheists. Poles work the land; they must take showers and clean their fingernails.

There's a problem with this theory.

It is false.

Facts prove it to be false.

Poles have not required modern, atheist, evolved, superior outsiders to cause them to feel horror over the Holocaust, or to try to right wrongs committed by fellow Poles who were anti-Semitic and who did commit acts of anti-Semitic violence.

If people like Joan Mellen and Rabbi Polak and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and Presbyterian Elder Bill Tammeus really wanted to contribute to Polish-Jewish relations, they would not speak to, and about, Poles the way E. B. Tylor spoke about nauseating Irish peasants. They would not say, "We are the more highly evolved people, here to educate you and uplift you violent savages who completely lack any sense of right and wrong." Rather, they would defer to the righteous people already in Poland, who have been there all along, working against hate and for improved Polish-Jewish relations.

Poland is not well known in the West. Unfortunately, Polonia has not adequately communicated Poland's story in academia, journalism, and the arts.

Informed people know some names of elite Poles who responded to the Holocaust with outrage, horror, heroism, and calls to action. These include the Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, the social worker Irene Sendler, and the diplomat, Jan Karski.

It's good that some know these names.

That's not the whole story, though. That's nowhere near the whole story. It's just the tip of the iceberg.


To view the next post in this series, Polish Catholic Peasants, Rescuers of Jews, Because, not In Spite of, Their Identity , click here

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