What’s the matter with Poland? (And everywhere else …)

While the Republican Presidential Nomination is the obvious car wreck to watch, I find myself more compelled by

1)  The American student protest movement

2)  The South African student protest movement (which I have also written about in brief here)


3)  The trend towards autocracy in Poland. (Which you can also quickly read about here )

There may be a number of things that they have in common, but I think the common denominator for me psychologically is the way to which they all call into question – and rather terrifyingly – the assumptions on which we base our notions of progress.

In each case, we are seeing societies split over issues that conventional wisdom thought had been fundamentally solved decades ago.  No, of course only a fool thought we had “ended racism,” but reasonable people with considered opinions believed that we had made sufficient progress, of a sufficient type, that there were certain kinds of fights we no longer needed to have.

No one thought, as Nelson Mandela ascended to the presidency of South Africa, that South Africa would require another mass movement, in less than 20 years, to demand desegregation. And none of the “wise men” in American foreign policy thought for an instant that Poland, which began the Solidarity movement that toppled communism and was an early leader in democratic reforms and which has prospered greatly because of it, would barely 10 years later be facing a constitutional crisis brought on by a major political party advancing the claim that Poland was too free.

In Poland and South Africa we thought we had clear working examples of societies that had discovered best practices for overcoming institutional racism (through Truth and Reconciliation) and oligarchy (through phased in liberal democratization).  For both those societies to be up in arms so soon about the exact same issues not only forces us to re-examine what success looks like but to wonder whether the methods which had held up as being successful actually solve anything.

The new movement of American campus activists is in fact an explicit rejection of the “victories” that had come before.  No one is looking to the 60s for tactical guidance or moral authority – quite the contrary, the Baby Boomers who last stormed the barricades for social justice are often seen as part of the problem.

Now maybe these are natural hiccups in what must naturally be a long process of reform and healing.  Sure, that’s possible.  But it strikes me as being too sanguine:  we need to take seriously the idea that we do not, in fact, know how to achieve lasting progress in the major social struggles of our time.  That at the very least we need to conduct a thorough self-examination to see if, in the face of this new evidence, our assumptions about what works is optimistic.

If we don’t know, or at least have a clear idea, of what methods to use to make progress in integrating populations and creating effective legal frameworks for governments, then, what exactly are we doing, and why?