Poland

The New York Times team assumes Polish Catholics are justifying anti-gay violence

The New York Times team assumes Polish Catholics are justifying anti-gay violence

Let’s start with the obvious: Poland is not the United States of America.

Whenever people try to tell me that America is a “Christian nation,” I argue that America is not a Christian nation — it is essentially a Protestant nation. It’s impossible to pin one religion label on the founders, whose perspectives ranged all over the place. (yes, including the views of Deists and the Thomas Jefferson enlightened Neo-Unitarian crowd).

No one perspective would rule. But the free exercise of religious beliefs and convictions would be protected — at the level of the First Amendment.

That said, the most religious corner of the American Bible Belt has nothing in its cultural DNA that resembles the history of Polish Catholicism, especially in the 20th century. Believers there know what a tyranny of iron looks like. They have fears and concerns that Americans cannot understand.

Obviously, this history includes hellish, horrible wrongs committed in the name of religion — like Polish individuals who cooperated with Nazis to crush Polish Jews (while others, like the future Pope St. John Paul II worked to protect Jews). The Catholic DNA in Polish life has also led to almost transcendent moments of constructive, positive action in public life. Think Solidarity.

So what is happening in Poland right now, with the clashes between Catholicism and the cultural armies of the European Union, “woke” multinational corporations and American popular culture?

It appears that editors at The New York Times are absolutely sure they know what is happening, as demonstrated in a recent story with this headline: “Anti-Gay Brutality in a Polish Town Blamed on Poisonous Propaganda.” Here is the overture:

BIALYSTOK, Poland — The marchers at the first gay pride parade here in the conservative Polish city of Bialystok expected that they would be met with resistance.

But last week when Katarzyna Sztop-Rutkowska saw the angry mob of thousands that awaited the marchers, who numbered only a few hundred, she was shocked.

“The most aggressive were the football hooligans, but they were joined by normal people — people with families, people with small children, elderly people,” she said.

They blocked her way, first hurling invective, then bricks and stones and fireworks, she said. From the balconies, people threw eggs and rotten vegetables. Even before the march started, there were violent confrontations, and by the time the tear gas cleared and the crowd dispersed, dozens were injured and Poland was left reeling.

First things first. It’s obvious that horrible violence took place, while different groups inside Poland may argue about the details. Second, it’s easy to find “poisonous propaganda” in Poland on LGBTQ issues.

But here is the big question raised in this story: Can readers trust the college of cultural cardinals at the Times to draw an accurate line separating violent opposition to European-style gay rights and the actions of Catholics — Pope Francis, even — who fear that some LGBTQ “reforms” are a form of aggressive Western colonialism in new garb?

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Populist surge continues in Europe: Was Pope Francis a big loser in these complex results?

Populist surge continues in Europe: Was Pope Francis a big loser in these complex results?

After elections gave right-wing populists sweeping victories in the Catholic nations of Italy, Poland and France in the European elections, it seemed clear that the biggest loser wasn’t the political left or moderate political parties.

The side that suffered the biggest defeat was Pope Francis.

In Italy, The League party snagged 33 percent of the vote, a remarkable achievement given the country’s fragmented political system. The pro-European Democratic Party could only muster 22 percent of the vote, while the left-wing populist Five Star Movement finished third at 18 percent. The League victory highlighted the divisions within Roman Catholicism. Party leader Matteo Salvini — known for his nationalistic and anti-immigration rhetoric — didn’t shy away from his faith. On the contrary, he used church symbols to win seats.

It isn’t the first time in European history that the Catholic church, and the papacy, has been viewed with disdain. Over the past few years, the political populism that has enveloped Europe has sought to blame much of its social and economic misfortune on elites. While many of these elites traditionally hail from the political left, the doctrinal left — and with it the current Vatican hierarchy headed by Pope Francis — has also become a target in recent elections.

The election results capped off a bad week for the pontiff. While having to deal with populism undercutting Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis denied he knew about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct with seminarians in an interview with Mexican TV network Televisa. The scandal has plagued the papacy since last summer.

The European election, contested every five years, firmly places populism among the continent’s most powerful political forces. Never shy about brandishing a rosary or invoking God’s help, Salvini has provided Italians with an alternative to the pro-migrant stance and the church’s traditional social teachings put forth by the pope.

“I thank the man up there — with no exploitations,” Salvini told reporters, while kissing a rosary he was clutching in his hand, as results came in on May 26.

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As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

Here’s an explosive combination: The democratic demand for freedom of speech and the equally emotionally laden demand that sincerely held religious beliefs not be subjected to indiscriminate insults and scorn.

Religiously speaking, we’re talking about blasphemy, an issue contemporary Westerners are apt to believe is more of a concern in Muslim communities and highly autocratic nations such as Russia — and which they would be correct to conclude.

Journalistically and artistically speaking, we’re talking about the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Both were victims of blasphemy charges by Muslim. The former ended in horrific violence.

Now, Foreign Policy magazine — on the occasion of the Hebdo attacks fourth anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of the blasphemy fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini — has published an intriguing analysis piece on this issue. It ran under this headline:

30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward.

Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.

Here’s a hefty chunk of the Foreign Policy essay.

But despite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after Charlie Hebdo, blasphemy bans have become more firmly anchored in some parts of the continent in recent years. In a recent case, the European Court of Human Rights even reaffirmed that European human rights law recognizes a right not to have one’s religious feelings hurt. The court based its decision on the deeply flawed assumption that religious peace and tolerance may require the policing rather than the protection of “gratuitously offensive” speech. Accordingly, it found that Austria had not violated freedom of expression by convicting a woman for having called the Prophet Mohammed a “pedophile.”

Some have argued that the court’s decision was a necessary defense of an embattled Muslim minority vulnerable to bigotry and religious hatred. But laws against religious insult and blasphemy are generally different from hate speech laws—which are problematic in themselves—that purportedly protect people rather than abstract religious ideas and dogmas.

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Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

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Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

“Who gets to define a nation?,” journalist Anne Applebaum asks in a piece she wrote for the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. “And who, therefore, gets to rule a nation?

For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled — but why should they ever be?”

Newspaper, magazine and broadcast reports attempting to explain the moves toward nationalist-tinged political populism in a host of European nations, and certainly the United States as well, have become a journalistic staple, which makes sense given the subject’s importance.

Here’s one recent example worth reading produced by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat  that looks at the issue in light of the recent Swedish national election. His focus is whether the political center can continue to hold, and for how long?

So why single out this magazine essay by Applebaum, who is also a columnist for The Washington Post?

Because it’s a good example of how a writer’s deep personal experience of living within a culture for many years can produce an understanding that’s difficult to find in copy produced by the average correspondent who, at best, spends a few years in a region before moving on to a new assignment.

Granted, the American-born Applebaum has the advantage of being married to a Polish politician and writer. She herself has become a dual citizen of the U.S. and Poland, and is raising her children in Poland.

As a Jew, however, she retains her outsider status in Polish society. It's from this vantage point that she conveys how Poland’s shift toward right-wing populism has impacted the nation, and her. (Her piece is one of several published by The Atlantic grouped together under the ominous rubric, “Is Democracy Dying?”)

If it is dying, at least in the short run, she argues that in large measure it’s due to the sweeping demographic changes in Europe triggered by the large number of Muslim refugees and immigrants fleeing war, poverty and general chaos in Syria, Iraq, North Africa and elsewhere who have moved there.

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Anti-Semitism in Germany: Prime your sources, Israel-Iran conflict could make it far worse

Anti-Semitism in Germany: Prime your sources, Israel-Iran conflict could make it far worse

The supreme irony of German anti-Semitism is that it took the horrors of the Holocaust and the near-total destruction of German Jewry to banish it from wholesale public acceptance.

These days, anti-Semitism still has a bad name in Germany, at least under the law. It's illegal there to incite hatred against Jews (and other ethnic and religious groups) or to deny and even minimize the nation’s Nazi-era Holocaust crimes.

But that hasn't been enough to keep anti-Semitism from reemerging in Germany in a big way of late, particularly among the far-right and Muslim immigrants. I’ll say more below, but for now just keep this in mind: the Israel angle.

Germany, of course, isn't the only European nation to fall prey to a re-run of what many over the years have labeled the world’s oldest hatred. Examples abound in the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and elsewhere.

Nor is rising anti-Semitism in the West confined to Europe. It's being more freely expressed in the United States -- remember Charlottesville? -- and in Canada, as well.

By way of illustration, here’s a bit from a recent story from Poland by JTA, the global Jewish news wire service. (Journalists and others with an interest in Jewish-related news should read it regularly; it's free.)

Things went from bad to worse following a row between Poland and Israel over Warsaw passing a law in January that criminalizes blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. The dispute unleashed the worst wave of anti-Semitism since the fall of the Iron Curtain, according to Rafal Pankowski, co-founder of the Polish anti-racism group Never Again.

In the wake of the fight over the law, he told JTA: “In the space of one month, I have seen more anti-Semitic hate speech than in the previous 10 years combined.”

Ah, another Israel-angle tease. But first, a personal aside to make my bias clear.

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Next up: Look past terrorism to probe Europe's deeper changes tied to its Muslim influx

Next up: Look past terrorism to probe Europe's deeper changes tied to its Muslim influx

You may recall that just last week I wrote about Australia’s reticence to accept Muslim refugees and an apparent New York Times failure to identify Muslims as Muslims in a featured article on the issue.

My guess is that more than a few Australians who are against accepting Muslim refugees felt vindicated in their position when they learned about a new Pew Research Center report on how Muslim refugees are demographically transforming Europe.

My question: What is the appropriate reaction to this historical population shift and oes it vary from one host non-Muslim nation to another?

I'm referring to more than current -- and hopefully just temporary, even if lasts another decade or so -- fears about terrorism committed in the name of Islam.

Not to be misunderstood, let me make clear that I do think those fears are -- in many but not all instances -- absolutely warranted.

But what I’m attempting to address here are the more long-term impacts -- cultural, social and political -- guaranteed to result from this vast human migration from Asia and Africa into the historically white Christian nations of Europe.

Like Humpty Dumpty, the Europe of old will not be put back together again,

There will be so many ramifications ahead that journalists -- religion beat pros and others -- need to start addressing now, and doing it openly and honestly, without fear of offending but with sensitivity and respect as well.

We need to go beyond our journalistic uncomfortableness about projecting future possibilities. 

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Catholics 'clutch' rosaries in Poland? Journalists should pay attention to details in worship

Catholics 'clutch' rosaries in Poland? Journalists should pay attention to details in worship

The big issue in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) was a question raised in my recent post about coverage of a remarkable religious rite that took place on the border of Poland.

Poland is, of course, an intensely Catholic land. Thus, there were several layers of symbolism present when legions of worshipers lined up along parts of the nation's borders to pray the rosary, specifically praying for the future of their land and all of Europe.

Note that I called the participants "worshipers."

Yes, that was a value judgment on my part, a decision that was unavoidable when writing about this event. It was clear in the news coverage (I focused on BBC and The New York Times) that the Poles were, to some degree, mixing religious faith and concerns about current events and trends.

Thus, were these people "worshipers" or were they, oh, anti-Muslim activists?

The language didn't get that blunt in the BBC coverage, but it was a close call. At that global news powerhouse, this was a political event that was using religious symbolism linked to Polish nationalism. At the Times, this was a religious event with strong political overtones.

You can see these two competing narratives in the coverage. In this case, I think the Times did the better job.

However, the podcast raised another issue. Wouldn't it have been good to have included some of the language of the rosary prayers in the story? Might that be linked to the message of the event?

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BBC and The New York Times: Who listened to Catholics who prayed at Poland's borders?

BBC and The New York Times: Who listened to Catholics who prayed at Poland's borders?

If you read up on the life and times of the Polish man who would become St. Pope John Paul II, its interesting to note that he learned so many languages during his life that scholars are not really sure which ones he spoke fluently.

Most lists will look something like this -- Polish, Slovak, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Ukrainian, English and Latin. It is my understanding that, in his childhood, he also knew so many Jewish children that he also spoke Yiddish.

What does this fact say about Poland? At the very least, it's symbolic of the fact that in the past Poland has been seized by more than its share of empires. If you live in a Polish border town, it helps to speak several languages. Again, think of St. John Paul II's life in the time of the Nazis and then Communism.

I bring this up because Poland is a land, and a predominately Catholic culture, with a strong sense of national identity. Yet it is also a land that fears -- with good reason -- being conquered once again.

So, why were legions of Polish Catholics standing on the land's borders the other day saying the rosary? Clearly, this is a religious question, yet one with political overtones. So how did the world's two most powerful newsrooms handle this? Here is the top of the New York Times report, which ran with this low-key headline: "Polish Catholics Gather at Border for Vast Rosary Prayer Event."

WARSAW, Poland -- Polish Catholics clutching rosary beads gathered at locations along the country’s 2,000-mile border on Saturday for a mass demonstration during which they prayed for salvation for Poland and the world.
Many participants described it as demonstration against what they see as the secularization of the country and the spread of Islam’s influence in Europe.

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