Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999
I N T E R V I E W:
A Different Sort of Dissidence
Adam Michnik on Poland today
Adam Michnik, former Polish dissident and current editor-in-chief of one of the best-selling and most respected dailies in Europe, Gazeta Wyborcza, has been a regular at each of the thus far three Forum 2000 conferences held annually at the Prague Castle. He usually stands out among the crowd of world "thinkers" not only because his place around the discussion table usually contains a pint rather than the customary bottle of Mattoni, but also because his straightforward, yet jovial air is rather at odds with the prevailing obtuse, infuriatingly "intellectual" environment. Perpetually smiling and endearingly down-to-earth, Michnik does not maintain a stage manner as do many of his fellow participants, and seems just as comfortable talking with former dissident pals, intellectual big shots or utter strangers. Central Europe Review caught up with a slightly "spirited" Michnik at the conference and posed a few questions.
Central Europe Review: Toward the end of your talk (at the Forum 2000 conference), you stated that the old division between left and right no longer exists and that it has been replaced by a division between those who support the notion of an open society and those who support a closed society. What do you mean by this?
Adam Michnik: The idea of left and right emerged from the European tradition of feudalism, monarchy and bourgeoisie. From the moment that the formal equalization of rights was established, this division stopped having the right to exist. It had the right to exist in terms of social rights, but even [within this context] the situation has changed. Today, you can no longer say that the left is on the side of the poor and the right is on the side of the rich. We can see perfectly well that the populist right, the Christian Democratic right, is no less concerned with the rights of the poor than the Social Democrats are.
CER: But don't you think that replacing the existing political paradigm of left and right with the concept of pursuing open versus closed societies creates too narrow a definition which does not allow for dissent, reminiscent of the idea that "those who are not with us are against us?"
AM: Of course. This is right. It's a strong argument. Every type of this kind of global division is a schema. But you can, for example, say that in Austria Joerg Haider is against an open society - against European integration, against multiculturalism. In the United States, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan is against an open society. In France, Jean Marie Le Pen is against an open society. So while, of course, this is a schema which may consequently be muddled, it is nonetheless also rather correct.
CER: In terms of the social disturbances currently being experienced in Poland, including the recent mass strikes and protests...
AM: Strikes are experienced in every democratic country, including Poland.
CER: Do you think it is strictly the fault of the current government? Or is it the result of the cumulative failings of all the governments that have held power since 1989?
AM: So long as there is democracy in Poland, there will be strikes. Poles are a rebellious nation, regardless of who is governing. There is nothing to prevent this. As to concrete causes - it is a bit of this government's policies and a bit of the last government's policies.
CER: Do you think that steps could have been taken earlier to ease the transition, to lessen the impact on the general population. That somehow the intelligentsia failed, which resulted in the alienation of the working class?
AM: No. No, this is a waste of time. There occurred a normal separation of interests. This was inevitable. And, of course, a larger segment of the workers were unhappy with the direction of this (political and economic) evolution - toward privatization, (free market) competition, etc. - because, and I said this as well in my speech yesterday, the underlying ethos of Solidarity was, indeed, that of emancipation of workers, of equality. But this could not be safeguarded. At that moment, if one wanted to follow the Western path toward capitalism and a free market, there was no alternative. The conflict was sad and dramatic but inevitable.
CER: Regarding public television in Poland, you said...
AM: [laughter] ...that there will be no BBC in Poland, because we don't have Brits. This is true. We Poles don't have the British political culture. This idea of pluralism, of tolerance or common sense. We don't have it. This is why we are sentenced to destructive, stupid conflicts, whereby every political faction wants television for itself. No one understands that objective and honest public television is for the common good. No political formation understands this. Each successive formation destroys the basic concept of public television. But Poland's chance lies in a different direction - in the fact that we have many stations. This follows not the British but the American model. There are many stations, and as a result, all the news becomes exposed to public opinion. A different model won out here - the American, not the British.
CER: But even in the US there is PBS - the public television station.
AM: But it isn't the most important. CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC - this is something else. Public television in the US has never had the same importance as the BBC does in Britain.
CER: If, as you say, it is an aspect of Polish political culture that prevents the adoption of a strong public television system - such as the BBC - does this mean that it cannot change?
AM: It has to change. Not in my lifetime. It is unfortunate. So many things we have been able to attain - but this we could not. It is the shortcoming of the Polish transformation. Unless of course you only want me to say positive things about my country - then you will have to find someone else to talk to.
CER: What do you think about the criticism that Forum 2000 is simply something akin to an elite club?
AM: Well, since I am here, it cannot be elite.
Joanna Rohozinska, 13 October 1999
Click HERE to read the speech Adam Michnik presented at this year's Forum 2000.
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