Ph.D. Octopus

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Senate vs Sejm, or Paul Krugman’s Polish History Error

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Paul Krugman had another column today criticizing the incompetent American Senate. He’s right on the money there. But Krugman goes astray when he compares the senate to the Sejm, the Polish legislature of the 17th and 18th centuries that gave each nobleman veto power (he also does so here and here). Well, Krugman is right to say that the American Senate is similarly dysfunctional. But he’s wrong to point to the Sejm’s procedural pitfalls as the cause for Poland’s periodic dissolution. As Matt Yglesias points out, “Poland is located in an unfavorably geographical position that makes conquest by Russia and/or Germany a very likely outcome.” In the late 18th century, the expansionist Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Czarist empires carved up the Sejm-run Poland, in the mid-20th century, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did the job, when the Sejm was long gone.

More interesting is the poem Krugman cites:

a Polish officer serving under Napoleon penned a song that eventually — after the country’s post-World War I resurrection — became the country’s national anthem. It begins, “Poland is not yet lost.”

I’m no expert on Polish history, and I’m not familiar with this piece. But I am familiar with Pan Tadeusz, the book of epic verse written by Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish ex-patriot living in Paris  in 1834. The poem, which according to wikipedia is considered “the national of epic of Poland” begins with this line:

O Lithuania, my country, thou
Art like good health; I never knew till now
How precious, till I lost thee.

Mickiewicz hearkened back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the very same entity controlled by the Sejm, which lasted from 1569 to 1795, when the three neighbouring powers dismembered it for good. Mickiewicz was a Polish-speaking noble, but he was born in a the Russian empire, in a town currently in Belarus. He felt an affinity for the Lithuanian section of the old Commonwealth. Today, he is claimed not only by Poland, but also by Belarus and by Lithuania. And that Commonwealth encompassed parts of Ukraine as well.

The point here is the Poland was, to borrow from old St. Benedict of Anderson, an “imagined community,” namely it was imagined in the heads of Polish nobility who sought to reclaim something they once lost. But that old Commonwealth was populated by all sorts of people, many of whom would not have called themselves Poles. This is all documented very effectively in the brilliant if tragic book, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, by Timothy Snyder.

Equally interesting is work that chronicle the formation of Polish identity in Galicia, the section of Poland governed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, called Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Polish Peasant National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848-1914, by Keely Stauter-Halsted.  This book shows how the Polish identity, formerly associated with noblemen like Mickiewicz, transformed into a peasant identity to win the hearts of the Polish-speaking masses, who had formely allied with the Austro-Hungarian state against the Polish nobility. Indeed, it was the very same Polish nobility who led the way in this identity transformation because their power was waning in the face of the Austro-Hungarian state and they knew they needed peasant allies.

The point is that Poland would have been difficult to govern, Sejm or no Sejm, because it was so big and made up of so many different peoples and sandwiched between aggressive, expansionist empires. But this should not distract from Krugman’s basic point that the American Senate is fucked up and that the Republicans are obstructionist.


Written by David Weinfeld

February 8, 2010 at 09:49

One Response

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  1. But if Krugman had to acknowledge the complicated reality of Poland, what simple historical allusion could he have used as his column lede? 😛


    February 8, 2010 at 18:04

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