Aug 14th 2008
Don’t be beastly to the Poles
IT IS a fair bet that no British newspaper would print a column that referred to chinks, coons, dagos, kikes, niggers, spics, wogs, wops or yids. Indeed, a writer who tried using these words would probably find himself looking for a new job before the day was out. Yet Giles Coren, a leading light of the Times, last month referred to “Polack[s]” in a piece about his great-uncle’s funeral, and seems entirely unrepentant about it.
Nobody would deny that the history of Jews in Poland is tragic. But to assert, as Mr Coren did, that it is a place where people celebrate Easter by locking Jews into a synagogue and setting fire to it is a preposterous smear.
The article has provoked a furore in Poland, and many letters of protest to the Times. But Mr Coren returned to the fray a week later, saying that this just proved his case. He was condemning Poland for denying its responsibility for the Holocaust, and here was the Polish ambassador to London, he claimed, doing just that.
Arguments based on facts and reason may beat plain ignorance, but they are not necessarily the best weapons against attacks based on prejudice. Mr Coren seems truly to dislike Poles; an ancestor fled from there a century ago, and his family memories, etched and perhaps amplified by the passing decades, are of misery and persecution.
One could ask him why he thinks more Poles are honoured at Yad Vashem than gentiles from any other country. One could also point out that Poland was under foreign occupation during the Holocaust, and that Poles, unlike some other places occupied by the Nazis (Norway, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark or the British Channel Islands, for example), proved extremely unwilling to collaborate with Hitler’s war machine. One could note that the allies won the second world war thanks in part to Polish bravery and brilliance in smuggling out the Germans’ Enigma cipher machine.
But that would probably be pointless. For many people, ethnic prejudices are unshiftable. Sometimes they are harmless (Scots who will applaud any country that beats England in a sporting contest). Sometimes they are loathsome or even lethal. The real issue is why the Times, a respectable mainstream newspaper, permitted the slur to be published; and why, once it had been printed, nobody felt the need to apologise.
The answer is that anti-Polish prejudice is still socially acceptable, in a way that anti-Jewish prejudice, say, is not. That is partly a legacy of Soviet propaganda, which liked to portray all east European countries as benighted reactionary hotbeds that had been civilised by proletarian internationalism. It is partly a knee-jerk reaction of people who dislike the Roman Catholic Church, and particularly the last pope (described contemptuously by a leading British scientist as “an elderly Pole”, as if that disqualified him from having an opinion). It is mostly because being rude about Poles carries no risk.
That won’t change quickly. But before Poles feel too aggrieved about this, they should realise that they are in good company. British journalists (and, it must be said, some Polish ones) feel no shame in using anachronistic Nazi allusions when writing about Germany. English football fans disconcert (they think) German teams by humming, en masse, the theme from “The Dambusters”, a British war film.
Germans may even be called “Huns” in headlines; the French are sometimes “Frogs”. That is rude and tiresome. But the best reaction to such insults is a mixture of patient pity in public, and ostracism in private, for those silly enough to resort to them.