The Glory of Poland, a lesson from and for history
From Roger Cohen’s editorial piece in today’s Times—in response to the crash of the Polish delegation in Russian, but apropos of questions of vengeance and forgiveness raised in each of the three plays read this coming end of week in Wrestling with Angels.
My first thought, hearing of the Polish tragedy, was that history’s gyre can be of an unbearable cruelty, decapitating Poland’s elite twice in the same cursed place, Katyn.
My second was to call my old friend Adam Michnik in Warsaw. Michnik, an intellectual imprisoned six times by the former puppet-Soviet Communist rulers, once told me:“Anyone who has suffered that humiliation, at some level, wants revenge. I know all the lies. I saw people being killed. But I also know that revanchism is never ending. And my obsession has been that we should have a revolution that does not resemble the French or Russian, but rather the American, in the sense that it be for something, not against something. A revolution for a constitution, not a paradise. An anti-utopian revolution. Because utopias lead to the guillotine and the gulag.”
Poland should shame every nation that believes peace and reconciliation are impossible, every state that believes the sacrifice of new generations is needed to avenge the grievances of history. The thing about competitive victimhood, a favorite Middle Eastern pastime, is that it condemns the children of today to join the long list of the dead.
For scarcely any nation has suffered since 1939 as Poland, carved up by the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact, transformed by the Nazis into the epicenter of their program to annihilate European Jewry, land of Auschwitz and Majdanek, killing field for millions of Christian Poles and millions of Polish Jews, brave home to the Warsaw Uprising, Soviet pawn, lonely Solidarity-led leader of post-Yalta Europe’s fight for freedom, a place where, as one of its great poets, Wislawa Szymborska, wrote, “History counts its skeletons in round numbers” — 20,000 of them at Katyn.
It is this Poland that is now at peace with its neighbors and stable. It is this Poland that has joined Germany in the European Union. It is this Poland that has just seen the very symbols of its tumultuous history (including the Gdansk dock worker Anna Walentynowicz and former president-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski) go down in a Soviet-made jet and responded with dignity, according to the rule of law.
So do not tell me that cruel history cannot be overcome. Do not tell me that Israelis and Palestinians can never make peace. Do not tell me that the people in the streets of Bangkok and Bishkek and Tehran dream in vain of freedom and democracy. Do not tell me that lies can stand forever.
“What do I care that none are to blame and that I know it—I need retribution, otherwise I will destroy myself. And retribution not somewhere and sometime in infinity, but here and now, on earth, so that I see it myself.”—Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’
(The direct link being to Kushner’s piece, but there’s rather an uncanny connection to each play of “Wrestling With Angels,” here….)
Old original footage (in Farsi, fair warning) of then-Iranian President and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting and talking with one of the US diplomats held hostage in the Tehran Embassy for 444 days (back in ‘79-‘81). With some contextual framing from Andrew Sullivan. The American diplomat talking to Khamenei is Amb. John Limbert, whose Negotiating with Iran has been cited in this thread previously and forms a part of the context framing our reading, has also been in conversation with Motti Lerner, the author of Benedictus, about various elements of the play’s background. Just to bring things interestingly full-circle.
Envisioning the Next Iran: The Indispensable Interplay of Human Rights and Democracy
By Reza Pahlavi
Following is an extract of a speech given on March 27th at The International Society Of Human Rights conference in Bonn, Germany.
[With the Concert Reading of Benedictus just around the corner, this aptly appeared in a post on Huffington Post; so, adding it to the mix here as we’ll probably add it to the mix for the cast to consider when they assemble in just over a week.]
The relentless pursuit of human rights is the essence of democracy. And, without democracy, human rights cannot, by definition, prevail.
With that premise in mind, the establishment of the clerical regime in Iran has grossly compromised both democracy and human rights. Since its inception, this regime has oppressed the Iranian people, and 2009 was one of the most challenging for millions of my compatriots — a year in which the world witnessed the most flagrant violations of both political and human rights of our citizens.
Yet every time the people attempt to in some way soften the regime, the results yield a swift and unforgiving government response. This is precisely why few would argue today that the thought of reforming this regime — whether it be a domestic attempt or a foreign expectation — has proven to be unrealistic and unattainable. The very nature of clerical leadership, the very essence of its existence is in direct conflict with the principles of democracy and human rights. This regime’s survival depends on denying what the people of Iran demand for themselves. Thus, it is my longstanding belief that so long as this regime remains in power, Iran will not reverse its course.
So what is the alternative to Iran’s clerical regime, and how would a new system uphold the indispensable principles of democracy and human rights? My vision of a future Iran is inseparable from these two interdependent ideals and principles.
I believe in a constitution that is predicated on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration has established a standard interpretation of all of the listed principles in addressing all of our social, cultural, religious and political concerns. As exhibited by the current regime, without a secular democratic system, the fundamental principles of the Declaration are difficult, if not impossible, to implement.
Ironically, Iran is the nation credited with the first-ever documented Declaration of Human Rights, dating back 3,000 years to the time of Cyrus the Great, the replica of which adorns the Great Hall of the United Nations. However my compatriots now yearn for their most basic human rights. In today’s Iran, when an Iranian woman has half the right or voice of an Iranian man, equality is lacking. When a Kurdish or Balouch Sunni Moslem faces discrimination by a regime that denies him the right to erect a Sunni mosque, justice is lacking. Today, when an Iranian Jew or Bahai is been persecuted, simply because of his faith, freedom is lacking.
Which brings us to the next question: Where, in a new Iran, would religion exist? The ruling clerics have repeatedly accused those of us striving for a secular alternative of leading a campaign against religion. This is, of course, not true. On the contrary, it is in the interest of religion and the clergy itself to maintain a separation of religion from government. Separation allows the sustainable existence of both church and state. For years, many of Iran’s high-ranking non-governmental clergy men have often attested to this fact. Today, Iran’s traditional clerics lament about their loss of reverence and empty mosques. In fact, since the advent of Islam in Iran, the biggest harm done, not only to people, but to the faith itself, has been under this so-called Islamic regime - which I frankly prefer to call the anti-Islamic regime.
The reality is that the great majority of Iranians are no longer influenced by the desperate rhetoric of a regime that has lost both its political and religious legitimacy. Instead, they believe, like me, that we should move beyond this regime and secure our aspiration under a secular, democratic system of governance which will guarantee all that this regime has denied us as a nation.
Democracy and human rights for Iran is not just a slogan; it is our unique hope for salvation and long-term political stability. It is our enduring campaign to put our nation back on the track of modernity, progress and prosperity. Iranians have come a long way, particularly in this last century. We have paid a heavy price while learning valuable lessons. As such, we are stronger as a society, and perhaps clearer in our collective vision of a better future.
Yet my vision of a new Iran is not complete without reference to a final critical dynamic: the role of the international community, particularly that of western democracies. Campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience in many countries were ultimately successful as a result of tacit support from the free world. Today, Iranians expect, and I might add deserve, the same degree of commitment and support from democratic societies. Specifically, we expect the world to realize that the central issue for us is not the peripheral so called “nuclear issue,” but in fact the question of human rights and political freedom, and lack thereof in Iran. There is no question that change will have to come at the hand of the Iranian people. But the cost could be heavily reduced as a result of the tacit participation of the international community. As Dr. Martin Luther King has said, “In the end we will forget the words of our enemies, but we will remember the silence of our friends.”