In response to threats made by right-wing “patriot” hooligans to interrupt the grand ceremony, Zygmunt Bauman has recently rejected the honoris causa degree he was to be awarded by the University of Lower Silesia in Wroclaw. He said he did not want to cause any more trouble after his lecture had been interrupted in June by a crowd of young aggressive men, shouting out nationalist and xenophobic slogans. They are becoming a disturbingly familiar sight in large Polish cities. In their eyes, Bauman is not a famous scholar, but a Jewish Communist collaborator, a disgrace to the Polish nation. He is probably the biggest Polish name in the social sciences since Florian Znaniecki, and far more popular than are the hooligans. His books can be found in most trendy bookstores around the world. The university decided to grant him the degree against the “patriotic storm,” but given the swirling controversy, to cancel the customary lecture. The decision was cheered by some commentators, while others accused the institution of exploiting the scholar’s name for its own benefit.
Indeed, Bauman’s past as an officer of the Polish Communist army in the Stalinist period, a time remembered for painful repressions and murders of anti-Communist war heroes, raises questions. In fact, one of the major Polish universities initially wanted to grant Bauman an honorary degree in the mid-2000s, only to ax it when a number of scholars voiced their disapproval. The simple explanation is envy, but Bauman’s past is deeply troubling. His interview, conducted still in 2010, but published in the main Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza a week after the interrupted lecture, explained his involvement in Communist structures as a young man’s infatuation with ideology, but given his close ties to the apparatus of violence, the answers felt to many to be too easy.
The question is, how do you judge outstanding scholars (or artists, or politicians, etc.) who have complicated pasts? According to popular Polish imagination, the nation’s famous figures should be flawless. They are to be “monuments more durable than bronze,” as Horace once described poets. The effect of such impossible standards is twofold: on the one hand, the person’s supporters hide information that could tarnish the perfect image. On the other, the opponents do everything to demonize the person. What is lost is the actual human being. A vivid example of how destructive this approach can be both for the idolized figure, and for people who conceal his less-than-perfect deeds, is the scandal that broke out in the Gazeta Wyborcza after a posthumous biography of Ryszard Kapuściński by a journalist from the daily revealed that some of Kapuściński’s documentaries were, in fact, fiction. The messenger was accused of slandering a dead hero.
Another question is how are people to remember a person brilliant in one particular field, but questionable in others? Given the popular Polish black-and-white approach, this is an intolerable conflict that has to be either ignored or erased, by turning the person either into a saint or a demon. Particularly the latter has been visible in the recent years, largely thanks the Institute of National Remembrance, founded in 1999. It is most famous for housing Communist archives and conducting biased investigations on Communist-era “secret collaborators,” which turned into witch-hunts against political dissidents, such as the symbol of “Solidarity,” Lech Wałęsa, critical of the right-wing PiS (Law and Justice) party. The institute’s investigations set the tone of public debate: “us” vs. “them,” and the atmosphere has not changed much in over a decade.
Bauman’s position in popular Polish imagination was unfavorable from the beginning: he was a Communist and he is Jewish, which are the two worst insults one can hear in Poland. What’s more, the fact that he is a world-famous scholar appears to be more trouble than reason to be proud, because only some believe he should be honored as an academic. It is far easier to claim that he should be condemned as a person. In the popular debate, the two aspects are impossible to separate, and refraining from judgment is beyond thinkable. Thus, while the dominant belief is that the Polish Hall of Fame should be filled with saint-like figures, instead it is a proverbial “Polish hell” of accusations thrown against the potential candidates.
If one looks at this particular conflict over moral purity from a pragmatic point of view, it is Poland, not Bauman, which loses on the international scale. But in the Polish imagination the nation’s assets are not based on sound judgment, but on superficial moralism. This delusional hypocrisy fosters extremisms based on groundless beliefs, making actual discussion increasingly difficult. In this sense, the case of Bauman is another vivid illustration of the growing impossibility of shaping nuanced opinions in key debates in Poland, a society divided into simplistic “us” and “them,” dissidents and Communists, patriots and traitors. And this is to be found not only at the extreme margin, but more tragically at the very center of public life, as the dishonoring of Zygmunt Bauman reveals.