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“If they give you lined paper; write the other way.” I heard or read that line years ago and took an immediate liking to it. It reminded me of my grandfather when he’d wag a finger my way and lesson me to “Be stupid like a fox.” Ja-ja, my grandfather, who came to America before WWI and Stanislaw Lem, the author of the opening line born shortly after WWI, were both Poles in whom I see a sense of rebellion I’ve come to see as a frequent thread running through Polish culture. As a product of WWII with unknown parentage, I’m not touting Polish culture as mine. As an illegitimate I’m not bound by birth leaving me free to consider without the bias of blood. In any case it would not be easy (or rational) to attempt cultural definition in a thousand words. So without asserting any great cultural insight I’ll suggest what connections I can.
Ja-ja came from Polish hillbilly stock, honed his skills as a machinist in nearby Hungary, and worked his way to the US by using his talents. When I knew him as a child he relaxed from machine work by experimenting with and making violins. But, Ja-ja never played the violin. He was strictly a fiddle player. Lem was born in Lwow (Second Polish Republic) in 1921 at a time when Ja-ja was successfully making his way in Minneapolis and then Chicago. Lem was not aware of being Jewish until Nazism. A young man in his twenties, Lem, practicing no religion, went on as if the question didn’t apply to him. In this was he escaped being sent to a camp and survived the war. When Soviet Communism replaced Nazism Lem who had continued study on his own, was initially denied university admission for the stated reason that his family was too middle class or bourgeois. But, no doubt due to a need for physicians, he was allowed to study medicine in Lwow.
If you see a happy ending, keep looking because in 1945 the Soviets decided the Ukraine did not need ethnic Poles and relocated them. Lem was moved to Krakow where he continued medical studies at the Jagielonian University (perhaps the oldest such institution in all Europe). He then balked at completing his doctorate in order to avoid being forced to become a military medical officer. While working as a medical assistant Lem was also writing. This was at a time when all publication had to be approved by the state for suitability of content. Lem, being stupid like a fox, used the science fiction genre as a way around restriction imposed by Soviet orthodoxy. But even so, Lem often had to rewrite things or add passages lauding a communist future. In the late 50’s at the close of the Stalinist period a time known as the Polish October brought an increase of Freedom of Speech. It was then that Lem’s productivity went into gear making him one of if not the leading science fiction writer of the time (though sf was not his only subject).
Recognizing the other way and of being fox stupid come into being despite all the forces of orthodoxy lined up to deny and crush them. Minds like those of Ja-ja and Lem are on the alert for the creeping death of orthodoxy and of the need the individual has for free air and free expression. Don’t think for a moment that proclaiming a grand proletarian future was not seen as a worthy end. Don’t doubt for a minute that banning and prosecuting hate speech isn’t seen as a most necessary and worthwhile aim. Despite the ardency and grand intention of each they are copies of one another. They are imposition. They are “nice” things that lack value of their own.
When I was at the University I got earnestly involved in the Student Peace Union (SPU) and with pride and determination wore the Peace Pin as a symbol of real and true good. But how much did that actually accomplish? I might have grown a petunia or learned to play arm pit music and have the same impact. In the end it seems there is a hard and nasty question each person has to face. It’s not that we (most of us anyway) want to die or be killed in a war. Hardly anyone except a zealot really wants that. For more of us it’s a question of how willing are we to live as slaves bound by physical, intellectual, or emotional restraints. Was it real peace when the individual had to sing the glories of the Soviet collective? Is it actual peace when we glory, instead, at suppression of expression? “Oh, but some things are too offensive and harmful to let pass,” said the good Nazi, the worthy Soviet, and the responsible anti-hate activist. If you have no way to dialog with views you don’t like other than to stop or prevent them then you have nothing to offer the discussion or the debate but repression and force.
Is it well intentioned when an individual wears a proclamation button reading LOVE or STOP HATE? But how much love do you or I owe something that does not suit us? How uncritical do you or me have to be toward an idea or action that we think deserves to be roundly criticized? It is not a loving act to enforce false love on others, nor is it anything but hateful to lumber dialog with guilt that a word or position is considered hurtful and offensive. Speech and expression can be hurtful, but a good deal more damage results when expression is limited to saccharine with no known value, food or otherwise, other than acquiescence. When someone tells me I should curb my words, expressions, or feelings to fit their views I’m reminded of Ja-ja or Lem. I believe the best thing I can do for them is ask in clear terms exactly how often and in what positions they need to have their asses kissed. I ask because that seems all they really want.