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Friday, January 22, 2016

Dangerous Times

My life straddles the Atlantic, one foot in America and the other in Britain and Europe. Because of this, I get to see politics unfold at close range in each spot. Although on the surface there seems to be no theme; actually I think there is a disturbing one.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, David Brooks talked of a widespread “anxiety of impotence.” A large majority of people feel they are powerless. As Brooks writes: “The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse…The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do.”

This feeling of helplessness is creating dangerous political trends among the opposition parties, and those former opposition parties that have now come to power. In America, the opposition Republican Party is splintering into the “Trump/Cruz” crazies and the increasingly defensive traditionalists. It is hard to see a reconciliation happening in the next few months. Similarly in the United Kingdom where the Labor Party is in opposition, the far left “Corbynistas,” lead by Jeremy Corbyn; is alienating the party’s more mainstream New Labor “Blairites.” Even parties in power are having insurrections. Bernie Sanders is sniping from the far left in the Democratic Party in the United States; Nigel Farage’s far right UKIP haranguing the Conservatives in Britain.

 This “anxiety of impotence” creates a desire for a “savior,” and there are many firebrands lining up for the job. Their strategies have one common thread; create a villain. For Trump it is the incompetence of the political elite, or alternately Muslims. For Cruz it’s Washington insiders. Bernie blames Wall Street; Corbyn, capitalism. The targets around the world include many minorities: Blacks, gays, apostates, crusaders, the “West”, or the “one percent.” Any “other” that taps into the underlying alienation will do. Institutions are also in the frame: the EU, the UN, or the Supreme Court.

Saviors promise quick solutions to simple problems. Unfortunately our current challenges are not simple problems caused by some bogyman; they are a function of displacement by technology, globalization and poor education. Quick fixes are therefore an illusion, albeit alluring to a disgruntled populace.     

Europe may give us some insight as to what might be heading our way in America and Britain: Hungary’s Victor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Russia’s Vladimir Putin and most recently Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. These leaders are elected saviors – all very popular and each has told their people who is the bogyman and that the solutions are simple. These regimes have given rise to a new term: “illiberal democracy,” coined by Fareed Zakaria in 1997.

Princeton’s Jan-Werner Mueller insightfully challenges this label in a recent blog on “Project Syndicate.” There is no place for the word “democracy” in the description of these governments. A more descriptive phase would be “illiberal authoritarian.” In every case, under the cover of some vague populist rhetoric, national courts have been packed or muted, the media muzzled and minority opposition squashed.   

In early 1918, Mussolini called for the emergence of a man "ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep" to revive the Italian nation. Fascism was born and plagued the world until after World War II.  I am very worried that our “anxiety of impotence” might usher in some form of populist neo-Fascism for much of the world. This will not solve our problems, merely complicate them. And in the process cause untold misery on many a minority - careful, you might be one of them. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Kraków: December 2015

Right before the New Year, we took a three day trip to Kraków. From our base in Budapest, it’s a 400 kilometer trip, mostly non-motorway; so the journey takes about six hours each way. The route is almost due north following Route E77 most of the way, bisecting Slovakia en route. The countryside is not very scenic; much less so than Croatia; we passed through innumerable hardscrabble small towns and villages. It really didn’t matter; we were enveloped by fog and mist most of the way there so our visibility was shrouded. We had booked the Sheraton Kraków for our stay, contemporary, sleek and soulless; but it was convenient for sightseeing and had onsite parking.

Before Warsaw became Poland’s capital city in 1596, Kraków was the seat of power for the previous six centuries – and most believe it is still this nation’s spiritual heart. Today the city has 750,000 residents and a well preserved historic center. Kraków, like most European cities, suffered dramatically during World War II, but endured much less infrastructure damage – more on this later.
The Wisła River forms a winding southern border for the Stare Miasto, or old city, and sightseeing is centered on three areas. The anchor is clearly the Wawal Castle, positioned at a sharp bend in the river – a strategic vantage point for millennia. Heading north from the castle, the pedestrianized Grodzka forms the spine of the old city, leading to the Market Square, or Rynek Glówny. Finally, south of the Wawal Castle is the historic Jewish quarter.

Since 1038 this plateau has been a citadel of sorts and a seat of power. In the 16th century rulers transformed the Gothic fortress into a magnificent Renaissance palace, hosting coronations and royal burials over the ages.
Kraków Cathedral Exterior
Kraków Cathedral
The highlight of the castle complex is the Kraków Cathedral. Even before the present cathedral was built (1320 – 1364), two earlier churches stood on the site. The current Gothic structure was built in the form of a triple-aisled basilica with a transept and a chancel, built on a rectangular plan, with an ambulatory. The exterior seems pasted together from several competing plans, but somehow pleasingly comes together.

Shrine of St. Stanislaw
The interior is awash in beauty beyond the soaring columns: the Shrine of St. Stanislaw, a silver coffin containing his relics; theZygmunt Chapel, a masterpiece of 16th century Italian craftsmanship; and the ornately carved baroque stalls in the chancel.

MARKET SQUARE (Rynek Glówny)
From the castle, one moves north along the Grodzka. About half way or so, there is a smaller square housing the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, twin domed and one of the most beautiful examples of early Baroque in Poland.
St.Adalbert's Church
Continuing, the pedestrianized boulevard opens to one of the largest squares in Europe: Rynek Glówny. In its center stands Cloth Hall, an ornate market hall dating to the 14th century, restored in the Romantic style in 1879. Toward the southwest corner, the Gothic City Hall Clock Tower is all that remains of the old municipal building; and in the southeast, the small and now out of place St. Adalbert’s Church, which predates the current square’s massive proportions. Still, it is a Romanesque jewel.
The Christmas markets interrupted the square’s natural lines of sight, but the façades were all pleasant; many restaurants and shops dotting the ground floors. Leading out of the northwest; there is a fashionable street, Ulica Floriańka, which ends at the medieval royal gate and the old “king’s road” to Warsaw.

Church of St. Mary
All these interesting sites circling Rynek Glówny are dwarfed in size and beauty by the Church of St. Mary; its brick Gothic exterior majestically rising 260 feet to Hejnal Tower and its ancient trumpet call to arms (made famous by Eric P Kelley’s 1929 children’s book, “The Trumpeter of Kraków”).  The church was started in the mid thirteen hundreds, its main patron Casimir III the Great; but building and renovation continued to transform it well into the 16th. The Baroque entrance is a grand pentagonal porch from the 18th century. Neo-gothic paintings cover the walls among the many side chapels. All this is capped by the Altar of the Virgin, a great three meter carved polyptych completed in 1489. We visited twice.
Altar of the Virgin

THE JEWISH QUARTER (Kazimierz District)
Kazimierz was founded in 1335 and soon developed into a thriving Jewish neighborhood. Czech and German Jewish refugees joined the community in the 15th century; the area bears witness to centuries of co-existence with Polish Christians. The Jewish population centered on Szeroka ulica, later known as New Square; a hub of Judaic culture and learning. Synagogues dot the surroundings. We only visited the Temple Synogogue, but walked the streets to see many others including the Old Synagogue and the adjacent Synagogue on the Hill; and the High Synagogue, unfortunately in much distress. There is also a large walled cemetery on Jakuba ulica.
Much of this area suffered greatly in the early months of Nazi occupation, but it has recovered somewhat, even if more slowly than the other areas of the old city. Galleries, cafés and bars are numerous.

Early on in the war, Kraków became the capital of a Nazi pseudo-state, which included the southeastern half of present-day Poland, and southern Ukraine. Overseeing it all was the infamous Hans Frank, who took Wawel Castle as his base. The Nazis under Frank’s leadership delivered a reign of terror on the populace, but infrastructure was preserved. The Jews suffered most; in 1941 the Kraków Ghetto was established in the Podgorze district south of the Wisła River.
The ultimate horror that followed is well known. At the nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau, just 70 kilometers west of Kraków,  one and a half million people were murdered, a quarter of those who died in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow us a visit here.

But we did visit a death camp in 2004. On May 2 of that year, we travelled to Buchenwald, 8 kilometers northwest of Weimar in Germany. The day fit the visit - dark, cold and drizzling; as we remembered where 250,000 passed through and 50,000 perished. The memorial, including the crematorium, barbed wire, foundations of prisoner barracks and the museum were a moving experience that still sticks with us.
These were not mankind’s best moments; nor are the present barbarities of ISIL. But we also can take some hope from the past; Oskar Schindler saved hundreds of his workers at his Kraków enamelware factory from extermination. The Schindler Museum is now located in the sprawling administration building of the defunct plant at Lipowa ulica, 4; in the city’s grim industrial district of Zabłocie on the right bank of Wisła River. It seeks to retell his story against the backdrop of such horror.

We saw a lot in what amounted to just one full day of sightseeing. The drive was long, but our memories will be longer. The city has an upbeat vibe; people seemed to walk the streets with purpose. Capping things off, we had a few good meals. A nice dinner on our first night at “Szara Kamienica” in Rynek Glówny; and even better, dinner on the second evening at the Relais & Chateaux’s “Restauracja Copericu”. Nicolaus Copernicus, the renowned Polish mathematician and astronomer lodged in this residence during his stays in Kraków in the 16th century.  The food was “heavenly.”
Kraków at Night