Hating your country is an act of patriotism.
The first democratic country in the post-communist bloc, which is now at the forefront of authoritarianism in Europe. A country whose Independence Day is the saddest event of the year. A country aiming to be the leader of the region, yet doing everything to achieve precisely the opposite. A country whose people stood up to two totalitarianisms, yet are now fighting each other over a supermarket discount. Poland.
There are many things to hate about my country, and the above are just a few. There will be many more mentioned in this article, because one thing that Polish people are really good at, is complaining.
For example, take arguably the most popular contemporary Polish film, the Day of the Wacko (Pol. Dzień Świra, prod. 2002) by Marek Koterski. A bitter tragicomedy, whose narrator and main character, an ambitious, but unfulfilled teacher of Polish literature, is doing nothing but telling us how frustrated and angry he is with his neighbors, his city, his country, and his life.
A movie that is on its way to break the all time box office record in Poland, the Clergy (Pol. Kler, prod. 2018) by Wojciech Smarzowski is a fierce criticism of the Polish church, exposing it's corruption, hypocrisy and cases of paedophila. Not that the director is particularly anti-clerical. In some of his previous films he attacked - with no less vehemence - the Polish police (The Traffic Department, Pol. Drogówka, prod. 2013) or Polish society in general (The Wedding, Pol. Wesele, prod. 2004).
And not to mention older Polish films - a satire on the absurdity of life in the communist Poland The Teddy Bear (Pol. Miś, prod. 1980) by Stanisław Bareja, or Andrzej Wajda's internationally recognized masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (Pol. Popiół i Diament, prod. 1958), which is a gloomy poem on the fate of the post-war Polish society. It seems that the most popular or critically-acclaimed Polish movies are also the ones containing the most guilt, self-criticism or disenchantment.
But the Polish sarcasm doesn’t end with the movies. Polish Internet has produced many high-quality memes and quasi-celebrities, and according to my personal sense of humor, as well as to how often they appear in social media, the best ones (and at the same time, the ones that are not dead memes already) are also the ones that make fun of the Polish nation.
If you look at the Polish coat of arms you will see a proud, white eagle - a legendary symbol of my country. However, for the time being, it might have been dethroned as the national symbol of Poland by the animal you can see in the thumbnail of this article - the proboscis monkey. It is a bizarre looking creature, which has now become a meme-representation of a Polish citizen, who, according to the stereotype, is envious, drunk, narrow-minded, racist, hypocrite, poor and catholic. I am not sure how it exactly happened, but some allege that it’s because of this animal’s looks, supposedly resembling a typical Polish man: unshaved, cheap beer-drinking, wife-beater-wearing individual, jealous of his neighbour’s newly-bought second-hand Volkswagen Passat - a symbol of status of a stereotypical Pole. The meme seems obscure, but if you have some Polish friends on facebook, I can bet that you have seen it.
I found it really hard to find some decent English, comprehensive presentation of the meme, but failed, since it might be the biggest inside joke in the history of Poland. Find a compilation here - you will not understand it, but I hope you'll at least get the gist of it.
In 2015, Zbigniew Stonoga, a chief of a minor political movement in Poland, recorded an angry, profanity-ridden video commenting on the parliamentary election results, with which, as you perhaps expect, he was not very satisfied (his party got 0,28% of the vote). The film, in which he calls Poland a prostitute (although using a much heavier wording), alleges that Polish people (the ones that didn’t vote for him) deserve to be screwed over by the government, and that the Auschwitz ovens need to be turned on again for them, has become a viral hit, and sparked off tens, if not hundreds of satirical remixes. Here is the original video, and here is the most popular remix. Mind the view-count: 3 million hits!
And let’s not forget about the legendary - mystical, some people say - Polish Internet figure, Łukasz Stanisławowski, aka Testoviron. This Polish immigrant to the US, which has posted dozens of vlogs on several YouTube channels has based his entire premise on hating the Polish nation. He claimed to have earned a lot of money in America, which became a reason for him to laugh at his poorer compatriots staying in “shit-hole Poland” - and taunt them, call them worms, dogs and trash, laugh at their “useless university degrees” and “prostitute-girlfriends”. He never monetized his fame, never showed his face in a video, and finally, several years ago disappeared from the Internet. His “legacy” however, prevails, and he has his own wikia, where he is called "a golden figure on the firmament of human history". It is also assumed that Testoviron was the one that started the proboscis monkey meme, which makes him even more legendary.
Poland is a country in which everybody seems to be disappointed with the government, yet only half of the people, or less, are taking part in the elections. A country, where you’re always voting for the lesser evil. A country, in which the only reasonable choice for the mayor of the capital city is a guy promising every citizen a free supply of pineapple pizza.
The ruling party - Law and Justice - has formed the most harmful government in Poland since the collapse of communism. They’ve invaded the independent judiciary and many fear that the free media will be their next victim. The economy is a mess, being suffocated by new regulations, taxes and handouts. Their electorate voted for them not realizing that they were being bribed with their own tax-money. The price for all this will be paid for by generations to come, yet it’s not an obstacle for the Law and Justice to call themselves a pro-family party.
The mainstream opposition, aligned mostly around the Civic Platform party, lacks charismatic leaders and is divided into several alliances struggling to cooperate with each other. What’s the saddest, is that they don’t really present any real alternative to the current government - their leader even stated that should they get elected, they will not only keep arguably the most burdensome program of the Law and Justice government, but also expand it. And it’s quite ironic that today they are considered the lesser evil, while three years ago, when Law and Justice, their rival party, got elected, it was precisely the opposite.
It seems that even being a rebel is not worth it in Poland. The only anti-establishment party that claims to favor some systemic change in the political system is also the biggest pro-Kremlin hub in the Polish politics, with its top members attending pro-Putin events in the occupied Crimea, and its leader praising Ramzan Kadyrov, a brutal tyrant and Putin’s satrap in Chechnya. Not exactly the best choice for a liberty-minded individual like me. And not to mention the numerous reports of financial fraud in the party, accusations of sexual misconduct, constant PR flops and an absolute lack of professionalism in virtually every aspect of political activism. Ironically, this party’s name is “Freedom” (Pol. Wolność). I’d say it’s a good representation of the freedom situation in Poland nowadays.
Poland now is perhaps the most divided in its newest history, and Poles can’t even unite on 11 November, the Independence Day. Instead of sparking a joint celebration of Poland’s resurrection after 123 years of partitions, this gloomy, late-autumn holiday provokes the nation to yet another argument, and deepens the already deep separation between the tolerant and the traditional - two visions of Poland that for many, seem impossible to connect.
And in the middle of all this is me - and perhaps thousands, if not millions, of others - frustrated, disappointed, but at the same time too busy, too proud and too sarcastic to get involved.
As my frustration grew, I started wondering which level of hating my own country I am on. Remember the memes I mentioned above? As profane as they might seem, memes are also elements of culture (for some, memes are the only form of culture they will consume), and like all products of culture, they have a certain significance in your life. Yes, people create culture, but to a large extent, culture also creates people.
So memes are not only the content you post on your facebook wall. They reflect the way people see their country and themselves.
I found myself to be a Poland-hater. Luckily for the sanity of my facebook friends and my image in social media, I didn’t post any anger-ridden videos on my timeline like Zbigniew Stonoga did. But I was a hater nevertheless.
Realizing it was a gradual process. Because of my personal connections, I am a frequent visitor to Ukraine. I love this country and I might even say that I consider it to be my second homeland. I admire Ukrainian courage and spirit of liberty, and the way Ukrainians managed to overthrow a bloody, corrupt dictator during the Euromaidan Revolution. I thought to myself: Viktor Yanukovych didn’t want to sign an association treaty with the EU, and Ukrainians started a revolution, dying on the streets under police bullets. The Polish government is turning the country back into communist-era, destroying all what we've built since 1989, and we are doing almost nothing about it.
So I realized that I am not hesitant to endorse Ukraine on Facebook, but at the same time, I am ashamed to promote my own country on my timeline, for example by putting a Polish patriotic filter on my profile pic. Even though Ukraine is still a much worse place to live than Poland.
Later on, I got pissed with almost all rotten fruits Poland had to offer. People burning garbage in their furnaces, making the whole country drown in smog. Buses and trains that are constantly broken, dirty or late. Trash-entertainment that is being played in the national TV. Low wages. Lack of prospects. A nation, whose people are often claiming to be a “civilised alternative” for the “rotten EU”, but are too lazy to clean up after their dogs.
Like sir Stonoga, who vowed to leave the country in his viral video, I wanted to emigrate - to the US, Germany, UK or Norway. Like Testoviron, I would burn dollars instead of cigarettes, drink expensive champagne, sit in front of a TV with two Rolexes on my wrists and laugh about the gullible Poles that I have left rotting in this God forsaken country.
And then I realized that such self-hatred was not only a dickish attitude to embrace in your life. I was simply not honest with myself, and with Poland.
Yes, Polish economics is in decline. Yes, Polish government might still put you in jail over something as trivial as a forbidden plant you grow in your basement. Yes, you need to have a gas mask on when jogging in the city, and there is still a risk that you will step into a dog shit while doing it.
But life is not black and white. And neither is Poland.
I mentioned Poland in my article, cause it’s my country. I am responsible for it. But people are fighting over discounted TV-sets all around the world, and so they are complaining about their politicians - so if you replace Poland with your country, there's a big chance you will relate. Unless, of course, your are one of the many people still living in a constant threat of starvation, death, rape, or political persecution. Compared to that, Poland seems to be a promised land. And well over a million Ukrainians immigrating to Poland from Ukraine, a country ravaged by corruption and Russian aggression, seems to be a proof for that. Somehow, the low Polish wages that Poles complain about don't seem to be so low for them. And finally, I realized that the fact that I am free to complain publicly - not worrying about the possibility of being put in prison - is alone a reason to feel privileged.
Poland is not Switzerland, Norway, or Singapore. It’s a middle-sized, post-communist, developing country in Central Europe, with its own problems and challenges. But as much as there is much to hate about Poland, there is also a lot to be proud of.
Poland started the domino effect that led to the fall of communism in Europe. We have suffered the most rampant transition from a centrally planned economy to a free market. It was painful, but we can now boast the title of "Growth Miracle" among the post-communist countries. We might not be as rich as Germany, and some people still have to work for a week for the price of a decent London dinner, but we’re still better off than our neighbors. That’s something to be proud of, and at the same time, something that needs to be protected at all costs.
In 1683, Vienna, and most likely most of Europe, would have fallen to the Ottoman invasion, if not the succour of the Polish army led by the King Jan III Sobieski. Didn’t hear about the bolsheviks march through Europe, spreading the communist revolution in the Western countries? It’s because Poles stopped them in 1920. During the II World War, Poles fought on every European front, and they were so badass that an actual bear served as a private in the Polish army. Poland has given the world heroes such as Witold Pilecki - a man who volunteered to go to Auschwitz in order to organize a resistance in the camp and to collect intelligence on the genocide. So remember about it when posting another video of Zbigniew Stonoga advocating - jokingly or not - opening Auschwitz ovens again.
Poland has given Europe its own school of economic thought, not less valuable that the Austrian school of Mises and Hayek, or the Chicago school of Friedman. Sure, it’s not very well known nowadays - its founding father, Adam Heydel, was killed by Nazis in Auschwitz, and others were later stifled by the brutal Soviet reign in Poland. But it’s now our job to promote them again.
Based on my own experience, Polish people travelling in the West tend to be quite timid when spekaing English, but actually, according to the 2017 EF English Proficiency Index we are speaking English better than Belgians, and not much worse than Austrians or Germans. The first woman to receive the Nobel Prize was Maria Curie-Skłodowska. Nicolaus Copernicus was Polish, and so were Fryderyk Chopin and John Paul II. Polish scientists actually cracked the enigma code before Alan Turing. We are the world champions in volleyball and ski jumping. Fancy a good beer? Poland is at the forefront of the craft beer revolution. I cound go on and on, but again, the Poles are still complaining.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.
After such a gloomy, sarcastic beginning and a sudden twist in the middle of the article, one might expect a moralizing ending, in which I condemn those obnoxious, anti-Polish memes and all people that share and consume them (myself included). That’s not going to happen.
In 2016, in the United States, American football players started “taking a knee” during the national American anthem played before the games. A gesture recognized by many, including Donald Trump, as "unpatriotic and disrespectful". It’s a bit confusing to me.
Another nice thing about Poland is that we also have American football here. Nothing compared to the NFL, sadly, but popular enough so that when you feel like watching a game, you will find it in every big Polish city.
I worked as a cameraman with an American football team in Poland. One of the things I remembered the most, is that each time a player got injured, the game stopped, and the rest of the players kneeled while he was being served by the medics. Taking a knee was a gesture of solidarity with their fellow player that got hit too hard.
That’s why I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the NFL players of disrespect. They simply believe their country is injured - and taking a knee is their way of showing support for a nation they deem to be in distress, and to complain about things they hate in their country.
So I am not really worried about the fact that my nation seems to be overly-sarcastic. I believe that it's our own, bitter, and sometimes obnoxious way of creating the healthiest form of patriotism - one that makes us proud of our nation's achievements but at the same time, doesn't blind us from seeing what's wrong.
Furthermore, I am not urging anybody to get a camera and record an angry video about their country that the whole Internet will laugh about. Calling your country a prostitute also might not be such a good idea. But don’t hesitate to speak up. You have a right to be angry.
And finally, I am not saying that we shouldn’t complain about other countries. But if our house is on fire, we should be the first to react. Sure, just complaining is not enough, you have to act accordingly. But you can’t really act without complaining in the first place.
That’s why hating your own country is an act of patriotism.
The picture of the proboscis monkey comes from here, and is on the CC0 Public Domain license.