After two weeks in Poland—learning its history, speaking to as many Poles as would speak to me—I was struck with this irony: after centuries of being torn apart physically (by outsiders) the country is now being torn apart emotionally, from within.
The reason so many grown children no longer speak to their parents? The reason dinner parties turn into shouting matches? Half of Poland believes their current government—right wing and authoritarian—is good for them; the other half believes that government is crushing Poland’s long-sought, hard-won democracy.
Returning to the U.S., I slid into the Kavanaugh hearings—and saw our own country being torn apart.
Clearly, the hearings were about more than Kavanaugh.
I will tell you what they are about for me.
I did not endure sexual abuse. But the dread that pinned me to the couch for every minute of the hearings came from a different kind of abuse: where people in power insist no one cares more than they about the institution’s values—yet go on and violate those values, for their own agenda.
I grew up in a family like that.
One brief example: My parents touted “family loyalty” above all else. Yet my mother demeaned me constantly, often in front of others. When I protested, my parents would denounce me as “disloyal.” Like all children—all powerless creatures—I wanted to stay in the system, so I ended up thinking I was wrong. Ignoring what my eyes saw and ears heard almost drove me nuts. But it also gave me a gift: the ability to identify even the subtlest instances of people in power looking virtuous but acting otherwise.
And this is what I saw last week at the Kavanaugh hearings.
Republicans said all the right words—“decent,” “just,” “fair”—and struck all the right poses. They pretended they were doing what we citizens grew up believing senators are supposed to do: put the very best, wisest, most dispassionate judge on the Supreme Court. But their actions showed the Republicans had another agenda.
I watched the hearings at the house of a friend, who was taking care of her 12-year-old grandson. Sam cares about soccer, not politics, but he sat himself between us on the couch and consulted his phone. Apparently, he could still hear, because the first time Kavanaugh answered a question with a sneering outburst, Sam looked up. “Hey, wait a minute! That man didn’t answer the question. Isn’t it the rule that he has to?”
Republicans had upended our usual rules—and covered that fact with a million red herrings. They accused Democrats of “smearing” the nominee (it was clear Ms. Ford came forward on her own); of breaking rules by wanting to wait a week (when Mitch McConnell broke every mold of fairness by delaying Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for 8 months).
When Republicans excused Kavanaugh’s irate ranting by saying “He’s upset because he’s been unjustly excused,” Sam exclaimed, “That’s crazy! If everyone who thinks he didn’t do it gets to yell over people, wouldn’t courtrooms be too noisy?”
When senators all seemed to accept Kavanaugh’s apology for “answering a question with a question,” Sam wasn’t buying. “That’s not the wrong thing he did! Why don’t they make him answer that question?”
That was the Emperor’s New Clothes moment.
But no one stood up and said what Sam had said. No one at all.
Poland and Us
The difference between us and Poland is that we are used to democracy. We think it will last forever somehow. They know different.
Back in 1791, inspired by the new United States, Poland’s leaders wrote a democratic Constitution. Four years later, Poland was invaded. On and off, for the next 200 years, Poland remained occupied and oppressed.
“This is why our Constitution, the one written in 1997, means so much,” says Halina, a high school teacher. “It is our dream.”
The Law and Justice Party—the current government—changed that Constitution recently to give itself more powers. Now Anna, a model, says she will not talk to her father. “He likes Kaczinski! [leader of the Law and Justice Party]. Who changed our constitution! Without asking us!”
Kamil, a taxi driver, hates the lies the government tells. “Lech Walesa was a hero!” he bursts out. “Now the government is saying he was nobody. How can they tell a different history from the one that is true?”
Democracy is fragile because it rests on honor. In a democracy, we are honor bound to try, as best we can, to see and say the truth.
We’ve long been used to politicians’ petty lies about money or sex. But when they lie about reality—when they say they’re searching for the truth when in fact they are doing something else—then democracy starts to fade away. Like a dream.