What I’ve learned from cowboys, clerics, and communists
Looking back, it seems I’ve been learning about leadership and community building for so much of my life. Tonight, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned as a scholar and as a person from three of the C’s—this being Santa Clara—in my life.
Growing up in the culture of the Old West, I had the traditions of my grandparents—a cowboy homesteader and his wife, once a “Missouri girl” and a lumberjack. Traditions were passed on to me by my parents, as I watched them create community around them and lead as I was growing up in Phoenix, Arizona.
I lived in New York City as the girl next door to a community of Jesuits whose seminary closed down in the woods of Maryland; they moved to New York City after Vatican II so their seminarians could live in a multicultural and interdenominational environment where they were part of lay life.
I lived and researched in Poland and elsewhere in the once-communist, now post-communist world, where my research has been asking people like journalists, high-level bureaucrats, and old Communists and dissident leaders—what they did and why—because I love to talk to people and hear their stories.
The other two C’s in my life I want to mention are my children, the greatest joys and “teachers” in my life. All of them are here tonight, which is an honor and a problem. They’ve heard and lived most of my stories and believe only some of the ones from the old days.
One, Andrew, is a freelance journalist in Berlin, a place my Polish mother used to refer to as living with “those people.” The second, my son Matthew, is a 2007 Santa Clara law graduate turned teacher and comic. He leaves me in the dust in terms of humor. And finally, my daughter, Megan, is studying art therapy. She did listen to a run-through of this speech last night and assured me that people would think I was sane after I gave it.
The final C was my college life, where we signed a pledge when we began that we would “uphold the standards of the college and use our educations for the betterment of the world” and where, if I did not already know how to do it, I was taught to question everything and challenge authorities if we thought they were wrong.
Lessons from cowboys
First, what did I learn from cowboy and lumberjack culture funneled through my very professional parents? Or, put another way: How does the State Secretary of Youth for Goldwater and a rider and a champion in Little Britches Rodeos end up as a Polish specialist?
As Henry Kissinger once told a group of us: What we researched and how we researched were reflections of where we came from and our values. In my case, that was really true.
You see, people like my grandparents left their families to build a better world. My grandfather, who was a drover and homesteader, left his hometown as a teenager because he didn’t want to live in a place where they lynched people. They built new communities in places that were not easy to live in. Their past, most often, did not follow them. So you were how you behaved and you survived because your community survived.
As I learned when I began research in Poland, the values I learned from my family “fit” Polish values. After all, the war and then the imposition of communism in Poland destroyed the old social structure and left many on their own to rebuild their capital. Shortages meant: If you didn’t work together with everyone from the store clerk to your friends with power, you would be hard put to survive. Also in Poland, where communism engendered a great deal of fear, everyone, it seemed, had an idea about what was wrong and how things could be done better.
I also must admit, from my first stay in Poland in 1967, when I was a very young college student on the first exchange “behind the Iron Curtain,” through the 1980s, putting that I was of “cowboy” background in the spot on the registrations forms for your family background made me very special to the bored ladies in the registration office for foreigners.
Somehow, I got my requests to leave the country and come back—yes, required even for foreigners who wanted to go to Berlin for two days—approved in far less than the standard two weeks. At the registration office for foreigners, they were always glad to see “the cofboy” even when I had failed to jump some bureaucratic hoop on time.
In the tradition of the West, what mattered was that you kept your word. If you promised to do something, you did it no matter what. If you did not keep your word, you would not be trusted again. That mattered because cattle and timber were sold on the basis of trust and a handshake.
How you were seen was a matter not of who you were but of what kind of person you were. Or, as my high school history teacher, the only member of the American Federation of Teachers in Arizona in the early 1960s, told us: “Really smart people can’t talk to, learn from, and make anyone comfortable. So, don’t think you are special; think others are special.”
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Phoenix on one of two streets that were in town and, at the same time, where the acre lots were zoned for livestock. Our streets drew everyone from the head of the ABA to a lady who tended bar all night—and got home just in time to take us to school if our mom’s cars did not start or we missed the bus. We helped each other and celebrated holidays together. The old rancher hosted a “watermelon bust” for all the kids on the Fourth of July, and the bartender held Easter egg hunts for all the kids in the neighborhood.
As a result, it never dawned on me that neighbors were supposed to be just like you. I thought that you were supposed to live with all kinds of people and see them all the same. It did not seem strange that my father would sit and talk to each of the fire jumpers he was going to direct into a forest fire about their families and their hopes and who he was before he sent them in to a fire.
No one told me it was unusual that I spent a week or so every summer on the Apache reservation where my aunt worked. She was the social worker and much adored. She let me run around the reservation and play with the Apache kids who were home for the summer.
Another basic of Western culture was: If someone needed help, you helped. I never heard my parents say they could not help because they were busy or did not have the resources. Instead, when I cleaned out closets in our home, I found letter after letter thanking them for helping pay someone’s college or paying for medical treatments. And, they were not rich.
I also discovered from those letters that my mother was one of the only white Red Cross recreation workers in the West Coast region who would go and work at the black military hospital. When I asked why she worked there, she looked at me like I had asked one of the most absurd questions in the world. She said, “They need staff.”
My English teacher and counselor mom, and my dad—first a Forest Service supervisor and then the regional officer charged with managing multiple use of land—taught me: No matter how much you know, it’s better to include everyone in a decision that affects them than to decide on your own. So although he had written the official manual on multiple use—“sustainability” in today’s parlance—and taught it at Michigan State University, he never made a decision without bringing all the players together—cattlemen and sheepherders who fought bitter range wars with each other, recreation people, lumber people, and so on—to talk until they came to a consensus, no matter how long it took sitting in his office or in our living room and dining room.
In my parents’ and grandparents’ world, if you thought there was a problem, you spoke up and did something about it. Pioneers, after all, had gone west to make new lives, and they only survived if they worked not to keep things the same but to make things better in the towns they built. For me as a college student in the late 1960s, it took a while to figure out that my parents wanted me to stand up for what I believed in and solve problems. They just wanted me to do something practical, not just protest. Being in protests did not pass muster. Running a first aid tent in the Poor People’s March did.
One of my most memorable experiences happened when I went with my parents and “a man from New York” to Sunday brunch at the Biltmore resort in Phoenix. Keep in mind, I was 10 years old, well mannered, and easily embarrassed; my father was 6 foot 8 and built like the Marlboro man. When we were told at the door that there were no tables, it seemed strange—as I could see there were a lot of empty tables. But the waiter was clear. My father simply said, “We’ll take that table over there,” and we walked all the way across the dining room with, it seemed to me, everyone watching us. I can still feel the mortification. How could my father see that he was not supposed to come in?
Years later, when my father complained about my hippie clothes and protests, I pointed out that he had mortified me all over a table at a restaurant. He simply said, “It was not about a table, it was about the Biltmore not serving Jews. The ‘man from New York’ was Jewish. He had every right to eat there and we were not going to go anywhere else. Remember, you need to stand with others, not stand by.”
Just to be honest: I got my dad and mother’s love for the outdoors, I just did not get my dad’s love of roughing it in the outdoors. That said, my daughter tells me that where I travel and how I travel is probably equal to wilderness backpacking. That’s because I carry so much stuff—in the old days it consisted of supplies and treats for the family and everybody I knew or might befriend in Poland.
My father also did not give me the chatty gene; that did not come from him. He did teach me to think before I acted. It may not fit the John Wayne or shoot-out at the O.K. Corral image. My dad ended my fan club for John Wayne and constant references to him by pointing out that John Wayne used a women’s saddle.
Lessons from clerics
My next set of lessons came after I moved to New York City for graduate school and ended up living with an amazing group of Jesuits as one of the “girls next door.” That story is a little Forest Gump-ish.
My roommate and I moved into a rent-controlled dig in New York City at 299 Riverside Drive. Since we were both from Arizona, all we had was some dismantled furniture from my college friend’s parents and no screwdriver to put it together. At our new apartment, Joann waited until someone came off the elevator and asked to borrow a screwdriver. She came back, screwdriver in hand, to tell me that there were nine gorgeous guys and two old ones living next door.
We were single and quite curious. Then one of the gorgeous guys came over to see how Joanne and her mother were doing. I pointed out that she looked young and that I was not her mother. We sat our visitor down to find out who lived in the building. He told us about a third were old New York socialists who would knock on our door every day to find out if we were going to whatever demonstration was scheduled, and that we should not tell them we were sick because they would make us eat chicken soup. Then we asked about the rest of the building. The answer: About a third were different kinds of people, you know, kind of a random collection.
And there was some silence about that last third. So, we probed. The answer was not what we expected: “We’re Jesuits.” Neither of us was too sure what a Jesuit was. I had some vague sense that it might mean they were Catholic priests. So I asked. Well, they were in their last three years of studying for the priesthood. My initial hope was that they were like Bing Crosby in Going My Way. Then I thought—this being 1971—that they might be radicals. Indeed, we were told Dan Berrigan was often in hiding in the building. But he added that John Foster Dulles’ son lived next door and would die before he would vote Democratic. Since I was becoming an expert on communism, the son of the icon of the Cold War seemed potentially interesting.
Little did I know that, within weeks, we would be part of that community and those friendships would continue for the ensuing years. I also learned immediately that there was no “Jesuit type.” My neighbors included an artist, scholars, good guys with a real sense of social justice, radicals, and Republicans.
Dinner was a daily event—amazing graces, good food (most nights), and at least three or four arguments going on all at once. Conversations crisscrossed. No ideas were sacred. We were so engaged that we cut in so no one, it seemed, ever finished a sentence because people were interested enough to interrupt our new idea or question. If I had not learned to hold my own in college, where I was known for being able to talk and politic through two dinner seatings, I certainly learned that no issue was not worth a discussion and that the highest compliment was to care enough to add on or disagree.
All this was overseen and egged on by Avery Dulles, S.J., then a famous theologian of 59. Trust me, it was a test for our dates to survive—and anyone that could not interrupt and deal with interruptions really worried Avery. He was clear that those were not men we should get involved with. When I asked him what we should do if someone got upset and walked out, his response was “not invite them back.”
The only thing that got all of our attention and silenced us was when somebody said, “I have a problem.” Then everyone was all ears and full of suggestions.
Life was never bland or predictable. Sometimes people would be brought in from the street and given a place to stay with the Jesuits. Gina was a case in point. The Jesuits upstairs rescued her from playing guitar on the street. When her sad songs got to them, they passed her on to a young banker whose depressed sister was already living with him. Somehow the Jesuits who had rescued her and Al, the young banker, decided Gina should go to college and got her through the hoops to go to Sara Lawrence on a full scholarship.
Years later, I met her in the airport. She had finished college and become one of the writers on the television show Friends. “The good stories,” she said, “often came from the years at 299.” In all of what seemed at times like chaos, major books got written, Jesuits got ordained, and I got through most of my graduate work. In the process, there seemed to be no projects the Jesuits and we girls next door would not take on: babysitting, feeding a hamster—until it was so fat that its little feet didn’t reach the ground, so it had to be sent to the small animal veterinarian for emergency care to slim it down before its owners got back—and taking care of the building’s recluse when he ended up in the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged.
When I took Avery Dulles back for one last look at the place more than three decades later, the legends of those days remained.
Each of the guys next door taught me lessons, heard my problems and joys, and made me laugh. But Cardinal Avery Dulles—as of 2001—taught me some very specific lessons about leadership and being part of a family and community. He was the senior member of the community, but he never told us what to do or imposed his views or his theology on us. Instead, he took more than his share of teasing as he “led” us with his humility, his ability to listen and put things in context, and his quiet pride when what we did succeeded.
My first lesson came when we watched Nixon land in China and I pointed out that it had taken decades to make up for Avery Dulles’ father’s rudeness as secretary of state when China went Communist. I thought it was a real bonding moment, because I thought his parents had not approved of his conversion and becoming a priest. Little did I know that I would spend most of that night being given a lesson in how editors change meaning, as he went through his father’s manuscript and the editor’s revisions. I learned that family mattered and was not to be criticized.
Years later, when he was about to become a cardinal, Avery was interviewed by Tom Brokaw, who asked him about his parents’ opposition to Catholicism and to his being a priest. He could have made any number of clever responses. But, instead, Avery said he was sure they were proud and smiling “from up where they were.” It was a lesson in family loyalty and in forgiveness for me.
Avery was already one of the most famous theologians by the 1970s. But he never pulled rank. He had never been to a grocery store before he chose to move into one of the apartments where the residents did all the chores and shopping. That meant his original job of doing the shopping was a real project for him. He took a lot of teasing when he could only find facial-quality tissue where they told him toilet paper was.
Then, he took on cooking on Sunday nights when the least people were home. There were lots of disasters. But he plowed on and developed two or three safe dishes he could make. He took feeding us quite seriously.
He took the vow of poverty seriously as well. No pair of pants or shirt was too old for Avery to wear. When he was named a cardinal, he told me he was upset that a lot of money was being paid for his robes when he had found a South Bronx tailor who could have done it very cheaply. But he always had great Christmas gifts for our family.
His humility led me to believe that I could call famous people in Poland and ask for interviews. You see, he would sit me down, in those days or whenever I saw him, and give me his new article or manuscript to read. He wanted to know what I thought. What I really thought was that I was neither Catholic nor had any idea about theology. All I had was a course on religion in college. But I did as he asked, and I gave him my feedback, which he took down in detail in what seemed to be an ancient pad that must have been his father’s or grandfather’s. Later he would show me the finished article and remind me of my comments.
His lessons to me were offered in the form of lectures or theology, but in stories of his family and his own misadventures. There was nothing, it seemed, that he did not have a story for—all of which made clear that he and I, or whomever he was talking to, were very human. In this way, he led by example.
One of his great points of pride was that he was my older son’s godfather. None of Andrew’s achievements went unnoted, I’m told by the Jesuits who lived with Avery. From the time Andrew was little, Uncle Avery took him on adventures ranging from the children’s part of the Bronx Zoo to driving in a luxury car Andrew had rented, and nurtured him through his christening and confirmation in the Congregational Church.
For me, he was a father figure. He gave me advice when I asked what to do about what he once called “the soap opera of my so-called life.” He was proud I went on to teach at Santa Clara, write books, and, more important, I suspect, that I was the mother of his godson. On many formal occasions, he would introduce me along with his family, bishops, cardinals, and fellow scholars as the mother of his godson and a teacher at Santa Clara. He was simply and profoundly humble and human.
Lessons from communists
All of these lessons from my cowboy background and the Jesuit clerics in my life prepared me for the research that has been at the core of my career: talking to, surveying, and reading about journalists, bureaucrats, dissidents, and leaders in the Communist Party and government in Poland, and then in other parts of Central Europe. Most recent I traveled in Ukraine and Georgia—where people had massed on the streets and brought down dictatorships in the Rose and Orange Revolutions—to find out why people took the risks of demonstrating. To do this, I interviewed over 250 people, including not only those protesting on the squares but also the political strategists on both sides, and those involved in the secret negotiations between the opposition and the rulers.
I learned from what people told me and I learned from living “on the economy” and from the friends and families who took me in.
To be honest, like my Jesuit experience, my introduction to Poland was totally serendipitous. In 1967, I went on the first student exchange—one-way that it was—behind the Iron Curtain. My choice was to live with a family in Poland or live in a Soviet sports camp. I did not do camp or sports, so I went to Poland to improve my Russian. Little did I know, the Poles hated the Russians, so I did not use what Russian I spoke. I lived with a journalist and her family that summer. They have been our Polish family since then.
I went back two years later as the first undergraduate Fulbrighter to go behind the Iron Curtain. I was part of a small coterie—seven to be exact—of Americans studying or researching there. I had fallen in love with Poles and the “craziness” of Poland. I continued to go back every time I got a grant or a Fulbright to do research or teach—inadvertently timed so that I was there before every one of Poland’s major upheavals, from 1968 until 1989. Now I go back to lecture them on the old days and democratization.
I initially wanted to learn how journalism worked in a country where the press was directed and controlled. To this day, I’m sure some bureaucrat made a terrible mistake. I was the first non-Communist to step across the journalism school’s threshold. The directors of the school were none too happy when the students turned to me and asked if the United States was really that bad.
To understand my Polish lessons, it is important to remember that, although it had the same system as the Soviet Union and the rest of the Soviet Bloc, it was always more open than the other systems. Afterall, Poles were used to fighting repression. Over three centuries, their land had been split between Germany, Austria, and Russia So, they learned to work together to get their independence back and to fight against and survive the horrors of World War II. And, most continued to push back from communist rule in their daily lives and, when it was possible, with open revolts, take each others’ problems on as their own.
Most of their communist leaders were far from determined repressors. Most of them believed Poland had to be communist, because as General Jaruzelski, Poland’s last communist ruler and the former second in command of the Warsaw pact forces, put it to me: “If you saw how brutal the Soviet Union was and what Germany did to Poland, wouldn’t you follow the Soviet line?” During World War II, his father was killed by the Soviets in front of him. As a prisoner in the Soviet Union, he worked in the mines in Siberia, where his eyes were burned, causing him to wear special glasses later in life. Then, he made his way back to Poland to fight the Germans.
So it made sense that Stalin said: “Making Poland communist was like putting a saddle on a bull.” For me, that resistance meant that scholars, journalists, politicians, dissidents, and even state bureaucrats talked to me and befriended me and my whole family, making the most amazing things possible and ensuring that we were never “on our own.” Poland, its press, many of its political decisions, and its theaters, movie festivals, and arts were what many others from the Soviet Bloc and the Soviet Union looked to when they dared to glimpse a little window on “freedom.” The Catholic Church in Poland had a university, seminaries, intellectual groups, and open services from the 1950s on. Even the Communist Party headquarters was closed for Christmas. All this, while Czechs were stopped if they went in just to see a church there; the East German women I was in translators’ school with were sanctioned for going to the Warsaw International Film Festival with me.
But this liberalism had its tradeoffs. Poles were not happy; they had the worst economy in Central Europe. Most of the time that I was there until the late 1980s, we lined up at 5 a.m. for food; nurtured our connections to get meat and milk off the truck or from someone who kept a stash under the counter; and watched every window or line to see what there might be. And we got things in most incredible ways. There are so many stories, many of them even our children cannot imagine.
Phone calls and often conversations in cafes and restaurants were not private, if the phones worked. There were people who listened and sometimes they would join in the conversation and correct whoever was speaking; or we could hear the whirl of tapes recording everything that was said. Years after the end of communism, I asked the former minister of internal affairs, who headed the secret police, “What happened to those tapes and all of my conversations with my husband when I was adopting my daughter?” He said, “Janey, did it make it difficult for you to do your research?” I had to admit that it was horrible. In the old days, if I really wanted to call a dissident, I had to really search for a working pay phone and then stand on the corner, sometimes in the snow, to talk. The other option was to go to someone’s house and hope that they were home. The former Minister of Interior summed it up: “The recording served its purpose.” All this, I always knew, was ultimately an adventure for me; but, for Poles, it was their life and would be—it seemed—forever.
The willingness of Poles to take risks and time to get involved and make amazing things possible taught me lessons about creating community. Even foreigners had to create communities in order to survive, find things, and—often—get our research done. No matter how different we were, we shared our stories, concerns, and Polish contacts with each other—creating lifelong friendships. Poles did the same for each of us.
I never seemed to take the simple road. First, I did not want to sit in an archive to do my dissertation in the mid 1970s. I wanted to get phone numbers of leading journalists so I could find out what they really did and thought. It was no simple project; journalists were not really supposed to talk to Americans, and there were virtually no telephone books other than ripped up ones in the main post office. But my Polish mother strong-armed a journalist in her building to give me some numbers. Then, virtually every journalist I called to ask for an interview in my best—heavily accented and broken—Polish agreed and shared his story with me. Then, they gave me contacts to their friends and co-workers. I ended up with a book and wonderful friends.
Then there was my most famous project, the one that really transformed my life. I had gone to Poland during martial law with a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old on a grant to study bureaucrats. What I also wanted to do while I was there for three months was to adopt a baby girl. That would have been a major project even in the best of times—when it would take months if not years to adopt. It should have been impossible in the middle of martial law. Private phones and even many government phones had just been turned back on; soldiers guarded train cars and domestic flights; the United States didn’t even have good enough diplomatic relations for there to be an exchange of ambassadors. Well, I was not to be deterred.
Poles’ willingness to get involved made it happen. My old friend, once a prominent editor turned deputy prime minister, said he’d help—and did to the very end. I knew a pediatrician who found her. Friends and strangers supplied me with clothes, diapers, and formula, since the ration cards for all of those things were given to women when they were 18 months pregnant. And by the way, the rations were not very much: 18 cloth diapers per baby. So, people, some I hardly knew, would bring me three and say, “My wife thinks we can part with just this many.”
The result was my daughter had the best supply of clothes, diapers, and baby formula in the entire city of Warsaw. People even donated canisters of rationed gas so I could use a car to go get her.
And after a battle with the INS and the Polish passport office—which ended up a story in the Los Angeles Times—Megan got her passport and visa. I came back with three children, a puppy my son had gotten from a dear friend in the process, and more luggage than Suleiman the Magnificent. I had taken all that luggage to Poland so that we had special food for my son who was allergic to milk, presents and necessities for our friends, and all I could imagine we would need. And, then, everybody who knew there was an American going back home brought me presents to carry to their relatives, most of whom I did not know, in the United States.
My research taught me two important lessons: One was that a system does not work if it is peopled by yes-men and -women reporting whatever the leader wants to hear, is not transparent about decisions and why they were made, and does not make people feel included. The other communists did not fit the stereotypical image of dictators that we had. Indeed, nobody—save the one top leader who drove the system into bankruptcy and revolt because he did not know enough to work around the sycophants—trusted the Soviet-imposed or lived the ideology.
Yes-men were key to the decisions that were made that then caused the communist economic, social, and political system to collapse. They were the men and women in the party’s huge bureaucracy. From the very top down, they were selected for being loyal communists—or at least people who never said anything out of line. They made their careers by only reporting that everything was working wonderfully and, when there was a problem, that it was the fault of some foolish saboteur. They applauded whatever the leaders said or did. As time went on, rather than deal with problems, they created more and more positions to direct policy, propagandize, and report back the wonders of the system—even as it was clearer and clearer that nothing worked. Those who would lead everything, from daycare centers to the military, the so-called nomenklatura, were members of the Communist Party, employed to follow orders and toe the line. Those people, to cover for the fact that they could not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, either exaggerated what they produced and how well things worked so that everything looked glorious, or they just did not put out the statistics when things were too bad. As a result, the statistical yearbooks grew anorexic when things were bad and, after communism fell, there was no way even to estimate what a factory produced, as the statistics were so overblown. When something really did not work, they covered by holding parties and celebrations to celebrate failures as successes.
The stories are legion. But here are some of my favorite examples involving the dangers of surrounding yourself with yes-men and yes-women—who really use their jobs as roads to power and get things from special stores for the nomenklatura or personal connections.
One of my favorite stories comes not from Poland but from Georgia. When people protested on the main square of Tbilisi over election fraud and the failures of the system to work in 2003, the yes-men surrounding the president, Eduard Shevardnadze, told him it was just a bunch of “ruffians.” When he went to talk to the protestors on his own, he was booed. He was so upset he called all his cabinet and staff together. There, only three of the 20 told him that people were furious with him and his regime and would not give in. Those who told him the truth were fired. Suddenly, even his chief of staff could not get through on the phone to him. In the end, demonstrators rushed into the parliament as he was speaking and he was dragged off the stage. It was an ignominious end for the man who, as Soviet foreign minister, had ended the Cold War.
In Poland, an American friend of mine and I would watch the news to see what grocery store they showed as having stuffed shelves and freezers full of meat. Then we’d race to the store. We always got the same answer when we found the shelves and freezers empty: They were stocked and photographed for that night’s news, then the food taken away. This “Mahler symphony” of supposed successes fooled no one and infuriated everyone.
The yes-men around Eduard Gierek, the leader who drove Poland into bankruptcy, convinced him that buying more equipment with Western currency—that Poland did not have—or building a plaza or palace were the solutions to the country’s problems, even though workers did not get the salaries they needed to live. He was the only leader who did not realize that he was trapped by a system run by yes-men. Under him there were two major revolts; the last one ended with the creation of Solidarity—a union intended to make sure that he could no longer ignore the problems or back down on his promises.
The other leaders had connections into the “real world”—old friends from outside the establishment, wives who worked, and children who went to school and made their own way. They told the leaders what people were saying on the streets and all the problems there were. These leaders knew, before they rose to the top, that they could not rely on their own bureaucrats or the media that came through censorship. They relied on Western media, Radio Free Europe, and the “secret” journal—called Signals—that was produced by the censors of the articles they had censored. General Jaruzelski—who tried to work with Solidarity, imposed martial law 13 months later, and then, almost a decade later, began roundtable talks with Solidarity—read through every RFE transcript, censored story, and Western report. He sent his minions out to deal with the problems they reported. He even set up his own public opinion center to report the truth on how much people liked or hated the system, no matter what.
The good leaders also tried, as their regimes dealt with unrest, to bring in independent thinkers and respected specialists. But yes-men had so tarnished working in the political establishment that few were willing to be identified with the rulers or lost their public credibility when they did.
This system did not include people in decision-making, creating cultures of “us versus them.” Every side and every person had their own “us” and “them.” Some Sundays I went from a dissident’s apartment—where the “us” were the dissidents who stood up to the system and “them” were the rulers—to the apartment of a Party leader, whose “us” was those who supported or appeared to support the system, and “them” were all the rest. What this meant for politics was that it was always easy to put the blame on “them”—the lazy workers or the stupid leaders—and not take responsibility for your part of the problem.
For all the communist countries’ attempts to talk about being “workers’ states” and of turning to the workers, no one was fooled. Even when Poland opened up its elections to allow more than one candidate for some parliamentary or local government seats, no one took it seriously. Most of the seats still had only one candidate, and he was a Party man or yes man. Even when a few Catholic candidates were allowed to run for seats, everyone knew the candidates had all been vetted by the Party and their protests would not really matter.
There were shows of discussion, but the reality was clear. Parliament made no decisions that mattered. There was no chance for anyone to question the leaders. People could write criticisms of the store clerk or the grumpy bureaucrat with impunity—though it did cause quite a brouhaha the one time I did it. But no one knew if they were heard. People complained to each other and told jokes about the leaders. Where there were serious protests and manifestos, the rulers either remained silent and pretended like nothing had happened; met with Soviet leaders to show they had protection; or sent the police in to break up demonstrations or arrest dissidents.
All this was worsened by the lack of transparency in the media and public speeches. Under the watchful eye of the censors, anything that was negative about the system was kept out of the media. If you read the papers, there was never a flu epidemic, no matter how many people you knew were sick. Workers all worked happily. And when the strikes started in 1980, they weren’t strikes; they were “short work stoppages,” even after two or three weeks. When Solidarity’s demands for reforms were met with an acknowledgment of the truth—that Poland was essentially bankrupt—the response was cynical disbelief: “They have been telling us for years it was wonderful, when it was not. Now, they want us to believe it so we won’t ask for so much money. They want us to think it’s awful and we’ll suffer. It’s surely a lie.” The years of not including people in decisions and not being transparent made even the truth, backed up by translations of Western reports, unbelievable.
Central European newspapers did sometimes publish critical pieces about the least important things or where the real point was veiled. Yet no one believed these were for anything but show. What mattered, they knew, were what the party leaders decided—not the new appointment, the new bad guys, or yet another bureaucracy.
Sadly for the system, hours and hours of time and mental energy were spent figuring out why something had been said. Few took the information in articles seriously. Instead, they focused on what might be the reason something was published, why they made that dictate when they did, and who it was said by that person in that journal and not elsewhere or by someone else. Even as really gullible as I was—and am—some of the reasons people came up with were pretty crazy—and far worse than what I would learn later was the real reason for decisions. Dissidents worked to provide an alternative underground media that told the truth in the hope that, over decades, it would wear down people’s fear of the system. Instead, most people simply checked out of the system.
The popular alienation and the collapse of the economy, as well as the lack of support in the 1980s from either the West—we were sanctioning them for martial law—and the Soviet Union—which, it turned out, had no money to spare— meant that, by 1989, there was no way the system could continue, much less make the hard economic changes that had to happen unless they could get people to re-engage. An unlikely group of Poland’s top rulers—General Jaruzelski; former liberal editor Mieczyslaw Rakowski; and Czeslaw Kiszczak, the Minister of Interior who had interned Poland’s dissident intellectuals and Solidarity leaders—started discussions with the very men and women their system had interned in 1981 when martial law was declared and who they had then arrested over and over for continuing to stand against the government.
There are more lessons to be learned from the end of communism.
There were men and women on both sides who never broke with their friends. Even if they did not agree, they knew each other well enough to begin the discussions. Some were dissidents who had been writing and organizing for change in the system for decades. They had been interned during martial law and harassed in the years before and after. Most had maintained ties with the old friends who rose up in the Party. Until the declaration of martial law, a social gathering at a dissident’s or outspoken journalist’s apartment began with those on their side and, as the evening wore on, Party and government officials they had known “forever” came. Their old friends on the establishment side were there to help begin negotiations.
In most cases, martial law so divided the friends that old acquaintances were shunned if they stayed with the government. Yet humanity remained. When a once-prominent and respected journalist turned up as spokesman for the martial law regime, he was hated and shunned—until his son was diagnosed with brain cancer. Then I found myself being asked, by the men he condemned publically when they were interned, to call my friend in the States whose husband also had brain cancer and see if there were any treatments. Their goal was to help his son get the treatment, whatever the cost, to survive.
Others they turned to were old communists who had been true believers when communism was instituted—and then lost faith in the system. They, and many of the old generation who stayed in the system, never had profited from their positions. Their apartments were those of old European intellectuals, not palatial at all: The walls were lined with packed bookshelves. In many cases, any art owned had been hung over the bookladen shelves. Those who turned away from the system were not allowed to teach, even if they were internationally famous scholars. But they remained true to their ideals and often found themselves secretly giving advice to one side or the other.
The dissidents, and those who joined when martial law ended any faith they had in the system, then stood together against the system—but they were not of one mind about what should come next. What they did agree on was that, in spite of having been interned, jailed, harassed, and unable to work in their professions, they were going to create a new system and not do to others what had been done to them.
One of my favorite people, the author Andrzej Szczypiorski, played a major role in articulating this. He had been classified as the “most dangerous” of the opposition by the secret police because, it was said, “he was the one who got along with everyone and the most ethical of all—he would never bend on his principles.” He, like the rest of the opposition, knew he was watched and reported on; for what he did, he was harassed all the time. But they created their own community and were dedicated to working for peaceful change.
In power, he and the other dissidents—no matter how much time they had served, no matter how disrupted their lives had been, no matter how many passports had been turned down, or how many times they couldn’t get an apartment—were the ones who forgave their jailers and oppressors. They forgave the bureaucrats who had punished them for their political opinions, and they worked with the old leaders and the men and women from the old system.
These men and women who had struggled with the system began by being representatives of Solidarity in negotiations with the government, first, on how the Roundtable would work and, then, publically, on how they would change the system to make it inclusive. The elections that followed, where Szczypiorski was elected senator, were a debacle for the communists: Solidarity won every seat where they had been allowed to run candidates, and the parties that had allied with the communists since the 1950s abandoned the Communist Party and joined with Solidarity. Even though the communists still controlled the government, the police, and the military—and Poland was still surrounded by the Soviet Union and other communist states of Central and East Europe—they accepted their defeat and handed power over to the Solidarity coalition, beginning an unexpected collapse of communism all over the Soviet Bloc and then in the Soviet Union.
The senior dissident and Catholic intellectual leader that Lech Walesa proposed to be prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who died this fall, was appointed. He committed himself to not looking back and to drawing all sides into his cabinet: the men who had been responsible for interning him for almost three years, his colleagues from the dissident movement, advocates for peasants and small businesses, and the economist who was committed to making Poland’s economy capitalist no matter what the cost. They met weekly as a cabinet and argued about each major policy for hours and hours until all sides had been heard and, after making their cases, agreed to support the tough new policies.
They were transparent in their discussions and their differences. Leszek Balcerowicz, who was in charge of the economy, unleashed capitalism with shock therapy, which initially triggered 500 percent inflation. The Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, Jacek Kuron, ran soup kitchens and sold family antiques to help fund the soup kitchens on the street corners. People on all sides knew the facts and what the discussions had been. They felt represented, that it was their system—whether they were communists, Solidarity people, or capitalists. General Jaruzelski served as president and did what Mazowiecki and others asked of him “for the good of the nation.”
There is a lesson here: The old system of decisions delivered from the top—without letting people know what really happened or including them in the process—had to end, because rulers can’t rule for long if they have no support. The new system, because it included all sides and was public about the facts and its discussions—and failures—got—and was able to maintain—support for truly draconian changes that impoverished much of the population but made Poland, in the long run, an economic powerhouse. Those who were willing to share power had nothing to fear.
Things were not perfect. Democracy requires the trust between people and between the government and governed that had been destroyed by 40 years of a leadership system of men and women who got their positions because they were “Communists” and ignored the population’s interests. It took time to rebuild. Constructing political parties takes time. But the support from the new system never wavered even as politicians fought with each other.
The lessons I learned from my family and the Jesuits with whom I lived helped me fit in when I went to Poland. Because the values I had learned were played out in what was a far more dangerous setting in communist Poland, I saw them in starker relief. The negative lessons of communist rule are striking: about damage done by yes-men who were in positions of power not for their competence but for their membership in and proclaimed loyalty to communist rule; and alienation caused by decisions made at the top without including all sides in the process or being transparent. Among the inspiring positive lessons is the ability of those who have stood up for their cause to forgive and work together with their jailers, which is a model for us all.
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