I am now in Wroclaw, Poland, having just arrived from Paris – at home abroad, to borrow from one of my favorite New York Times columnist of the past, Anthony Lewis. I find following American politics and culture from afar particularly illuminating. I enjoy being in the middle of things at home, sometimes in the middle of politics, and then moving out for a while and looking back. Special insights result. With regular teaching and lecturing in Europe, I have been doing this for over thirty years. Being away has offered special critical insights, even as it has sometimes obscured important political and cultural details.
This was most dramatically the case when I lived in Communist Poland in 1973-4, when I was doing my research on independent politics in culture there, while the Watergate scandal raged in the U.S. I got my news from old issues of The New Yorker (given to me by a junior officer at the American Embassy in Warsaw) and from the Voice of America. Access to western news was severely restricted. The New Yorker supply was a prize, which I passed on to my Polish friends. Voice of America came in with some irregularity thanks to jamming by the Polish authorities. Yet, even when it got through, it was not reliable. Part of the Watergate revelations was that VOA was heavily censored back then. Long articles by Elizabeth Drew provided my basic information and perspective. I read accurate updates, a bit delayed. Because of distance and time I didn’t really appreciate how severe the constitutional crisis of that time was.
But on the other hand, by living in a truly undemocratic society, I came to appreciate the way democratic norms and values persisted in American life even in a crisis. There was Nixon, but there was also the Watergate hearings and the eventual forced resignation of the President. The way “high crimes and misdemeanors,” democratic ideals, propaganda, skepticism and cynicism interacted and defined the American experience helped this then young New Leftist to learn about political complexity and its importance.
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