The Shallow Modernization

The scandal that erupted after the announcement of sex education classes in Warsaw schools heralded a third wave of modernization in Poland. The only question is whether this modernization would be as ephemeral as the previous two.

“Hands off!”

When in mid-March the mayor of Warsaw Rafał Trzaskowski—a representative of the Civic Platform party (PO), opposition to the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS)—signed the LGBT+ Declaration, no one who follows Polish politics expected a scandal. Firstly, Trzaskowski in his election campaign declared that would do it. Secondly, this point of the declaration, which later evoked controversies—the introduction of sexual education lessons in accordance with the WHO standards (which assumes that little children should already be familiar with knowledge of their body and aware of the intimate sphere of human life) to schools—was already implemented in some Polish cities.

Trzaskowski’s opponents—who quickly began to rally on the Internet, especially on Twitter—said that such ideas were “sexualization” of children. Over the following days, even such absurd interpretations of WHO standards as that preschoolers will be taught masturbation techniques appeared in the public discourse. Trzaskowski’s action was quickly picked up by representatives of the ruling party: during the national convention of the latter, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, said: “Hands off our children!”.

PiS made use of the issue of sexual education instrumentally, as a way to strike at the opposition. The latter did not stand, however, in the firm defense of Trzaskowski. Its leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, avoided official words of support. After an interview given by Paweł Rabiej (deputy President of Warsaw) to Rzeczpospolita daily (in which Rabiej stated that signing the LGBT + declaration involved the introduction of Western standards in Poland, which may in the future allow same-sex marriages to adopt children), Trzaskowski himself forbade him to speak with the media. In a word: the modernization agenda, proposed by the opposition, began to cause trouble even to its representatives.

What does it prove? The fact that if a very late cultural modernization would reach Poland, it may turn out to be shallow—which would not be so strange.

A decade ago, the cultural anthropologist Jan Sowa introduced two theses about modernization in Poland: first, that it always comes from the West, second, it is somewhat of a staffage of modernization than an actual one.

From outside and not completely

A decade ago, the cultural anthropologist Jan Sowa introduced two theses about modernization in Poland: first, that it always comes from the West (also in the sense that the West and its standards are a role model for it), second, that due to the specificity of Polish society, it is somewhat of a staffage of modernization than an actual one.

Two great modernizations of the last decade prove that Sowa was right. The first was the effect of record-high EU subsidies for Poland, negotiated by the government of Donald Tusk. Because of the EU money, Tusk’s government was able to build kilometers of new highways and many sports facilities. The character of this modernization was, above all, aesthetic: it changed the Polish landscape—previously clunky—and provided citizens with more civilized ways of spending free time than buying a six-pack of beer (which the later minister in Tusk’s government, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, criticized in an essay published in 2007). The same Sienkiewicz, illegally recorded during a private conversation in 2014, stated that Tusk’s modernization did not pass the exam: although it changed the aesthetics, most of Poles did not benefit from it. He was right: to ride on new highways one had to pay for it, and most of the Polish roads were not renovated; although the government purchased new, fast trains, in routes other than central, many of the connections were closed.

Poland in 2019 looks like a modernized country, although not actually being one.

The second modernization was conducted by PiS: the government introduced generous social programs, which—according to sociologists— allowed many Poles to feel financial freedom for the first time. Similarly as in the case of the previous one, also here the modernization—although widely presented in the media as a total one—was in fact limited: not all citizens were beneficiaries of social programs, but only those who had two or more children.

Does it mean that there was no modernization in Poland? No. It means that it was, and as an effect of it, Poland in 2019 looks like a modernized country, although not actually being one.

Possible limitations

PiS was not the only one to use the issue of cultural modernization as a political tool; Trzaskowski also did. His signing of the LGBT+ declaration happened shortly after the announcement of the formation of a new Polish political party—Spring. Spring’s politicians claimed to be an answer to the needs of those voters for whom Civic Platform was too conservative. By implementing the postulate of this very formation—sexual education— Trzaskowski weakened Platform’s competitors: initially enjoying high support, in the most recent polls Spring is not as popular as a month ago. After signing the LGBT+ declaration by Trzaskowski, those Poles who wanted to vote for Spring returned to the Civic Platform.

Civic Platform, however, for the coming European and, as one might suspect, also parliamentary elections, formed a coalition with other parties, more conservative. It is therefore difficult to suspect that it will make a strong turn to the left. If Civic Platform were to consequently carry out the cultural modernization in Poland, it can be assumed that it will be a modernization similar to the previous two: limited. This time, however, it will not be due to a lack of funds from the state budget or European subsidies, but because of coalition commitments.

What might this limitation look like? It could mean, for example, leaving the politics which touch upon cultural problems to the discretion of local governments. This limitation in such a variant consists of the official creation of the country of two cultural speeds, which would lead to increased tensions between large cities and the country. Another idea is to create legal regulations that would make participation in modernization a choice for the citizen. This would be, for example, making sex education classes optional for students and preschoolers, not obligatory. Such regulation will lead to something analogous—the creation of two social classes in Poland: a modernized one, whose members send their children to sexual education classes, and a traditionalist—whose members choose to deprive their children of such a chance.

If Civic Platform were to consequently carry out the cultural modernization in Poland, it can be assumed that it will be a modernization similar to the previous two: limited.

When the West experienced its cultural modernization—in the late 1960s—completely different events occurred in Poland. What is sad, is that after half a century since the rebellion of the young generation in London and Paris it is difficult to expect that this “delayed modernity” would eventually come to the country with its capital in Warsaw.

Wojciech Engelking

Wojciech Engelking (born 1992) is a Polish novelist and publicist, and a permanent collaborator with Liberal Culture weekly. He has written three novels, most recently “Nowhere Man”; his articles and essays were published i. e. by Newsweek, Gazeta Wyborcza, Tygodnik Powszechny, and Pismo.

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