Imagine you were lodging in someone else’s house. You would not walk in and start vocally criticising their interior decoration. Nice furnishings, mate, but you should repaint those walls and throw out this old furniture. If you were asked your opinion, you might suggest a few improvements, but otherwise you might seem just a little obnoxious. And that’s why, even though I live in Poland, I tend to avoid writing about Polish politics.
Of course, the first instinct of a writer is to stick your nose into other people’s business. There is no point in bemoaning this, but it can have unpleasant manifestations, in the way they criticise, judge and misrepresent those around them. The same thing applies, to a certain extent, when people write about countries other than their own.
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When I first arrived here, I tried to focus on foreign reporting, by challenging hysterical Western perspectives of Poland. The Government and, sometimes, the people here are often portrayed as being backwards and xenophobic — and I objected to such characterisations. To the extent that Poles are more right-wing than Western Europeans, moreover, I argued, they have the right to be. A lot of American and British commentary appeared to embody what the social scientist Richard Hanania calls “woke imperialism” — the aggressive promotion of progressive pet causes in countries where there is little appetite for them.
I take none of my criticisms back. But on the flip side, it would be unfair of me to obscure the existence of Polish progressives, who have more right to make prescriptive judgements about their homeland than I, an immigrant, do. On the fringes of Right-wing Western opinion there is a caricature of Poland as an ever-strengthening, “BASED”, traditionalist Catholic idyll — leading one conservative commentator from the USA to claim that “the mood [in Warsaw] is unmistakably buoyant”, as if Polish public opinion is not as divided as anywhere else — and I have no wish to feed such clichés. To be a valuable observer you must tell the whole truth and not just part of it.
You must also bear in mind our view of foreign lands tends to be a matter of ideological projection. Nations which appear to represent our beliefs are happy, thriving sunlit uplands, where the rain never falls. They are often presented in striking contrast to one’s own bleak, grimy, cloud-ridden homeland. Communists romanticising far-flung revolutions are an obvious example: Malcolm Caldwell, a British academic who idealised Pol Pot’s Cambodian regime, was invited to Phnom Penh and then murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps, in their paranoid bloodlust, they mistook him for an enemy.
But there are less blatantly irrational examples. Consider how British advocates of remaining in the European Union portrayed continental Europe as a saner, smarter, more compassionate place — less because they were interested in life there, and more to make a comment on Britain. John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better, which bore the insufferable subtitle Notes From a Grown-Up Country, was essentially a book-length stick to beat Brexiteers with. Kampfner contrasted Britons’ “monolingual mediocrity” with Germans, who are “taught two languages at school”. A moment’s thought should have made it obvious that British people are likelier to be monolingual than Germans not because they are less curious and cosmopolitan but because English happens to be the lingua franca in modern Europe.
A more comic case is provided by a man who call himself RS Archer on Twitter. Archer, who is nearing 100,000 followers, claims to be the author of the “David Saunders” book series (which does not exist). He has constructed a fantasy life as an English expat in France, satisfying Remainer prejudices with his tales of civilised bourgeois domesticity in the Dordogne — all wine, snails and jolly local mayors, and the stupid, backwards Brexiteer tourists who bother him. Perhaps “Archer” does live in France (and he certainly has the right to anonymity) but he is not interested in France as it is but as Remainers imagine it — as, in other words, the antithesis of England. They want to sink into a warm bath of oikophobia with a cool glass of “1983 Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva”.
When a country defies our ideological preferences, of course, we cannot hear enough about what a cruel and benighted place it is. A telling example of the sort of credulity this encourages emerged during the Trump years. In perhaps the most outrageous case, an award-winning reporter for Der Spiegel, Claas Relotius, was found to have “falsified his articles on a grand scale”. Relotius’s pieces, many of which explored life in Trump’s America, contained such comically obvious fabrications as a town in Minnesota having a “Mexicans Keep Out” sign on display. You would think Relotius could never get away with printing such unbelievable stories, but he did, for years, because he told his audience what they wanted to read.
And when a reporter for the Right-leaning Wall Street Journal went looking for horror stories in Sadiq Khan’s London, meanwhile, he amusingly mistook an “alcohol restricted zone” sign in Whitechapel as evidence of Islamic rule in the British capital. Unlike in the case of Claas Relotius, this appears to have been an innocent mistake, but it illustrates the dangers of projecting your expectations onto a place.
Accuracy may be a difficult standard to reach, given the incentives against it, but it is also a basic one. A more difficult problem is whether it’s justifiable to make value judgements about nations that are not your own. Almost no one is a pure cultural relativist; can anyone, for example, observe Kim Jong-un’s North Korea with ice-cold detachment? But a newcomer to a country should not dictate how it should be run, as if there is a single means of ordering societies and their enlightened perspective transcends that of their hosts.
Consider the beleaguered Americans. They have had to watch the English Piers Morgan tell them to give up their guns, the English Milo Yiannopoulos tell them who to have as president and the English Prince Harry lecturing them on the First Amendment. (The poor souls even have to deal with James Corden obstructing traffic.) It seems like you can’t turn on the TV in the US without hearing an English voice telling you what to do and what to think, which must be grating if you have no platform from which to project your American opinions about your own country.
An outsider’s perspective can be valuable, inasmuch as if offers a sideways look at familiar problems. And of course, observers can become participants, visitors settlers. It would be wrong to think that a migrant cannot — like a native — love and criticise a country simultaneously. Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, for example, combines social criticism with a deep affection for the people and culture of the mafia-assailed island, to beautiful effect.
As for me, I hope to write more about Poland, but as someone who is learning rather than lecturing. To do otherwise would be to do a miserable disservice to the many varied people who have helped me feel at home.
Humility is key — a humility which never places judgement before knowledge, nor assumes that one’s preferences must take precedence merely by the fact of being one’s own. That does not mean saying what you do not believe — an act which would be worse than saying nothing at all — but being careful with when, how and how much to say it.
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