Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015
This article is a counterpoint to Poland’s Shift to the Right: Poland First, Europe Second
To some, the progressives are at democracy’s gates, battering them down with overzealous liberalism and all the ironic nuance of a puerile Donald Trump campaign speech. As this new political correctness, with its at times fanatical efforts to whitewash, seems to tighten the straightjacket around American society, what is ostensibly a new minority breed of political crusader has emerged in reaction – the anti-political correctness far-right. Though the name leaves much to be desired, it is an apt description for a class of politicians, editorialists, and activists who seem to stand for nothing other than the defiance of the new political correctness tide lapping at their feet and of societal change that appears nigh unstoppable. It is also a phenomenon that worryingly finds common cause with a wide-array of European leaders and their constituents.
Looking beyond their bombastic rejections of constraints upon language, this malignant subclass is not so much the voice of reason against conscientiousness run amok, but the seldom considered far-side of the spectrum. “This is not conservatism,” as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan refreshingly and bluntly stated, but rather something found within the darker depths of the political woods – Donald Trump, Marine le Pen, and Viktor Orban.
Rather than offering well-reasoned critiques of the new political correctness as many have done, this insidious and vocal minority is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, nothing more than yesterday’s bigotry veneered with a shiny rhetorical gloss of intellectual honesty, populism, and stability. The far-right is exploiting a time of economic uncertainty, sociocultural instability, and palpable security fears across the Western world to systematically coopt the stand taken against an overreaching left, using the anti-political correctness language of the center and the right to merely repackage nativism and nationalism – and it must be exposed for what it is before its damage becomes irreparable.
These neo-Know-Nothings have taken no stronger a stand than that against the admittance of refugees into countries ranging from Hungary to the United States. It is the ideal battleground, offering the ultimate combination of immigration, security, economy, and just enough moral outrage to ensure that taking any stand in opposition will likely draw a knee-jerk riposte from the self-appointed wardens of offensive speech. Into this toxic quagmire inadvertently stumbled a recently published Diplomacist article, “Poland’s Shift to the Right: Poland First, Europe Second.” It is not so much the nature of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, itself more conservative than far-right, but rather the language and manner of the article’s defense of PiS’ refugee policy that vividly highlights the interplay of political correctness and far-right politics.
Of Poles and Rumors of Polls
The question of refugees is addressed in a section titled “Security vs. Humanitarianism,” a speciously dichotomous framing of the issue at hand before the apologia can even begin. The argument that follows is comprised of three components: assimilation is unworkable in Poland, foreign and public policy decisions should be majoritarian, and Polish politicians, chiefly regarding security, should kowtow to no one – least of all to Mutti Merkel.
The argumentation is so readily dismissive of all rebuttal that it is difficult to determine where exactly to begin. It attempts to preemptively parry the most likely counterarguments, asserting that while PiS policy may not be “politically correct,” it may instead be labeled the rather polite sounding “anti-humanitarian.”
The section begins with the assumption that the socio-cultural and economic assimilation of diverse refugees is more than likely unworkable in Poland, noting that:
“The majority of Poland’s population, of which 94% identify as Catholics, are against ‘non-white’ immigrants. As a senior PO politician explained, ‘People just don’t want immigrants here. They don’t understand them, they don’t like them, and believe that their maintenance is too expensive.’”
Aside from the fact that the quote selected by the author is in part a near verbatim definition of xenophobia, this ahistorical stance directly contradicts ample, readily accessible evidence to the contrary. Not only have massive Syrian refugee populations relocated to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, in proportions as high as one-third of the total population in Lebanon, but they have robustly contributed to the local economies of these countries. In the case of Turkey, where policy has viewed refugees as an economic opportunity and has allowed them to integrate as legitimate economic stakeholders, gains have followed.
Further afield, historical examples of the successful socio-cultural and economic assimilation of diverse peoples abound in the West, from Denmark’s own resettlement of Balkan refugees to the United States’ integration of over half a million Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam. Indeed, this is only one of numerous, quickly forgotten American examples, which range from the multitudinous to the individual and anecdotal, and generally occurred despite widespread public worry. In these cases, social and economic fears proved to be largely unfounded. The debate is less one of possibility and more one of creativity when the question is socio-cultural and economic costs and benefits. Yet the piece already indicated that its interest, and Poland’s, lies elsewhere.
The second line of defense is offered in quick succession, with a vapid appeal to the spirit of democracy:
“Shouldn’t democratic governments rule in a manner that reflects the will of their people, even if their popular beliefs may not be considered “politically correct” in relation to those of other countries?”
While the debate has already abandoned economic concerns and been implicitly framed as a racial and religious one, the author attempts to hide such undercurrents behind democratic appeal and the cringe-inducing trope of defying political correctness. It is now offered as not only the proper functioning of democracy, but also as a smug act of rebellion, as if planting the “White Catholics Only” sign on Poland’s front yard is an act of heroism in the face of the progressive onslaught, rather than of racially and religiously motivated fear – an unwitting first foray into far-right territory.
It also stands in direct contradiction to basic republican principles. Federalist 10 eloquently lays out the rationale for a republic as a bulwark against mob rule, a state of affairs which “enables [the majority] to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” Inconveniently for the article in question, Poland is a constitutionally mandated republic, not an Athenian democracy as desired by the author. Somewhere in Normandy, de Tocqueville rolls over in his grave.
Delving further into the Polish constitution, it also contains remarkably explicit articles on human rights, international treaties, and refugees in defiance of current public sentiment. Chapter 1, Article 2 states that the Republic of Poland shall, in part, be governed by the “principles of social justice,” which are expounded on in Chapter II, Article 30, which states unequivocally that:
“The inherent and inalienable dignity of the person shall constitute a source of freedoms and rights of persons and citizens. It shall be inviolable. The respect and protection thereof shall be the obligation of public authorities.”
The constitution mentions both citizens and “persons” broadly defined, which may include, as stated in Chapter II, Article 56, Paragraph 2, “Foreigners who, in the Republic of Poland, seek protection from persecution, may be granted the status of a refugee in accordance with international agreements to which the Republic of Poland is a party.”
The application of such international agreements is not subject to the whims of the Polish electorate, as enumerated in several locations throughout the constitution, such as Chapter I, Article 9 and Chapter III, Article 87. The most immediate international agreements applicable here and to which Poland is a party include the non-binding 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose Article 14 in turn gave rise to the binding 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
These agreements state that an individual is a refugee if, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country,” in addition to those fleeing a place of habitual residence with the same well-founded fear. This does not cover economic migrants, who must remain beyond the scope of the current discussion. It does, however, cover Syrians and other peoples fleeing persecution during war. The caprice of the public does not diminish state obligations to assist legally protected refugees, particularly when doing so would violate that state’s own constitution.
Constitutionality, however, has never been a strong suit of PiS, itself having a marred history of unconstitutional governance which it appears eager to continue. It should come as no surprise, then, that in supporting flimsy arguments against the acceptance of refugees, the piece is forced to call none other than Viktor Orban himself to the stand. The section appears to take on a sort of satirically droll feel, leading the reader to generously wonder if it may have borrowed from The Onion or Saturday Night Live for a moment. Yet such hope is short-lived, for it becomes quickly apparent that the defense is deadly serious, and that grave credence is given to Orban’s remarks on refugees.
The invocation of a leading far-right politician – infamous for his explicit intent to create the EU’s first illiberal state and fashion Hungary after Russia or China, his attempts at edging out foreign NGO’s and non-Christian organizations, his self-serving anti-immigrant polling, and his efforts to hamstring Hungarian media and to tax the internet – to defend the rejection of refugees is absolutely ludicrous. To challenge the unacceptability of Polish policy, the author utilizes the anti-refugee policies and rhetoric of a man who is in the midst of a domestic political duel with a party even further to the right than his own Fidesz. Orban’s stridently xenophobic message directly correlates with Fidesz’s boosts in polls, as he attempts not to keep his country safe from possible fifth columns, but to outmaneuver the far-right Jobbik party. This political pandering is not the persuasive support for turning away refugees that the author may believe it to be.
The third line of reasoning focuses on the relationship between Warsaw and Brussels, or more specifically, Berlin:
“Why should EU members buckle to the views of Germany, whose Chancellor has been nicknamed ‘Mama Merkel’ after rashly proclaiming her country open to all Syrian refugees?”
Merkel is perhaps one of the least rash European politicians in a generation – Mutti is a moniker more on par with Netanyahu’s Bibi than solely a refugee term of endearment. While the point on EU member states’ relations is a valid one, the question of following Berlin’s lead on refugees may not be the firmest of footing upon which to mount a stand. Perhaps it is because Merkel has a basic grasp of demographics, while PiS would prefer to ignore Poland’s total fertility ranking of 216th out of 224 countries, in addition to its rapidly aging workforce. Or maybe it is Merkel’s understanding of and respect for both constitutional and international law. Berlin is also a major leader within the EU, and perhaps it would like to avoid the death of Schengen and the Euro. While the list of reasons is voluminous, this section of the piece culminates with the following remark:
“Poland and Hungary may be the only ones addressing their legitimate national security concerns.”
To suggest that countries currently deploying military personnel by the thousands to Syria and the surrounding countries, dissolving civil liberties in the name of security, revamping national intelligence services, and utilizing the EU to cooperatively target smugglers, finance Turkish refugee camps, and reinforce the EU’s own external borders, among a host of other security and refugee-oriented policies, are doing nothing in light of the current crisis is not merely misguided, but downright befuddling.
This section of the article offers little in the way of a compelling argument in favor of rejecting refugees, and in doing so also inadvertently adopts the language, argumentation, and even a leading personage of the far-right. It is nakedly apparent that all involved, from Polish President Andrzej Duda to President Orban to the author himself, wear no rhetorical clothes – such that the cumulative effect of their transparent and shallow arguments is one of foreign policy’s more unsettling political orgies.
“When I Look Back, I Might be Mad that I Gave This Attention”
Many argue that the far-right is sustained only by controversy and the accompanying media spotlight it generates. As far-right politicians don metaphorical black capes and caper about as so many would-be Batmen, the populist heroes no one wants, but which Western society supposedly needs, the only apparent solution is to ignore them. While there is merit to this claim, it is short-sighted and does not justify silence in the face of clear-cut bigotry.
As difficult as it may be to shift the collective perspective, these politicians are not mere entertainment and punch-line fodder, nor is their notoriety to be cooperatively ephemeral – this is a potent, malicious political force rapidly gaining traction. Despite the directional nomenclature, the far-right is nowhere to be found on the proverbial tennis court of yesteryear – today’s incarnation of the far-right stands atop the soapbox in the market square, beyond the pale of conventional campaigning, rapturously demagogic before a growing crowd.
It is possible that the accusations of bigotry, overuse and dilution of the word xenophobia, and moralizing proselytization – the sanctimonious efforts of a new Millennial-dominated left – serve only to polarize and to block honest dialogue about legitimate issues. It is also possible, and perhaps a tad more threatening, that the far-right has begun to claw its way back into the public light of Western politics. Emerging from the economic turmoil of the Great Recession, the geopolitical upheaval caused by the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the Crimean annexation, and Chinese claims to the South China Sea, as well as the ongoing cultural vicissitudes of the United States and western Europe, its prejudicial invective is heartfelt, real, and running rough-shod over any semblance of normal politics.
The denunciation of this pernicious, home-grown threat to liberal democracy is not, and cannot be, a partisan issue. It is incumbent upon all to reject hateful fear-mongering, wrench public debate free from the far-right’s grasp, and return discourse to a more even keel – and failing that, to take advantage of a more celestial solution.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.
Image Attribution: “Syrian Refugees Strike at Budapest Keleti Railway Station” by Mstyslav Chernov, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0