Most Poles living in Chicago have been disappointed with the way the Chicago Tribune covered the recent visit of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński. Many expressed their disappointment by generating “a steady trickle of e-mails and phone calls”, as reported by Don Wycliff, the Tribune Public Editor in his article, “Did the Tribune snub Poland’s president?”, published on February 16, 2006.
In defense of the way the Tribune covered the visit of the Polish president, Don Wycliff reasoned that for Poles in Chicago, that event was a “spectacle” in “celebration” of the “mere presence for a couple of days of the leader of their beloved homeland.” It is clearly beyond Mr. Wycliff’s comprehension that when translated into Polish – not the Polish language, but the Polish way of thinking – his article would be read to mean that Lech Kaczyński took a few days vacation and came to Chicago to socialize with his fellow countrymen. It apparently did not even cross Mr. Wycliff’s mind that the visit by Poland’s president to the U.S., and in particular to Chicago, could actually be a trip to conduct meaningful business. For example, if President Bush stopped for a couple hours in Warsaw, the press would take it to mean that some important business was going to be conducted there. However, Mr. Wycliff’s article implies that a couple days’ visit by Poland’s president in Chicago was just a meaningless celebration. For Don Wycliff, local Poles seem to do nothing besides, not worth reporting, holding spectacles to celebrate their beloved country.
For a moment, I wondered that I might be overreacting to Don Wycliff’s reasoning – until I read Mr. Wycliff’s punch line: “Too much head, perhaps, and not enough heart? Or maybe just not enough heart to balance out the head.” Mr. Wycliff had great nerve assuming the role of mentor, advising us to use “more head, less heart”. If he had any idea how insulting his comment was, he would not have written it. Ignorance breeds arrogance.
This form of mentoring from the assumption of superiority is common among the American political elite. There are so many Americans, and Mr. Wycliff seems to be one of them, who when dealing with a foreigner, feel a mission to lecture on the superiority of whatever they perceive as being an American.
Without a doubt, the USA is the greatest country on the globe. Its vast territory is full of natural resources and fertile land, and it has enjoyed lengthy peaceful growth mostly because two oceans protected it from enemies. It is the pure good luck of today’s Americans that about two hundred fifty years ago – by the random coincidence of numerous circumstances – the great democratic system was created right here (not, for example, in South America). However, when Mr. Wycliff replied to Maggie, a Polish reader of the Chicago Tribune who responded negatively to the Tribune’s coverage of the Poland’s president visit, he demonstrated that by virtue of being an American, he felt anointed to talk from the position of someone who can take personal credit for all of the America’s greatness. Without the blink of an eye, he felt entitled to lecture someone who obviously could not be as smart as he, because she came from a country much smaller and poorer.
I am devoting so much time to Mr. Wycliff’s response because it is our local Chicagoland example of the mainstream thinking of the American political elite. When talking to foreigners, whether it is an editor of the Chicago Tribune or a politician from Washington, these members of the political elite talk as if they were the ones who put the Founding Fathers together and inspired them to write the Constitution. They talk as if they are the ones who put two oceans on the both sides of the continent to protect it from aggressors. They talk as if they put the coal, iron ore, and oil under American soil, and then were so smart and hard working as to dig it out and build the country’s industry. They talk as if they personally nurtured the greatest American achievements of Rockefellers, Edisons, and Gates’ – even the landing on the Moon.
Mr. Wycliff, and others like him, conveniently forgets about one of the fundamental principles the American system is built upon, that all men are created equal. Somehow, for the mainstream American political thinking, this principle was transformed into “all Americans are created equal”. For Mr. Wycliff and most Chicago Tribune readers whom its editors serve, Maggie (as well as other Poles including Poland’s president) is not equal to them. This is the reason that the Tribune showed its disrespect by barely mentioning the visit of the Poland’s president, and why later, Mr. Wycliff did not hesitate before giving his “kind-hearted” lecture to those pretentious and childish Poles who flooded the Tribune with phone calls and e-mails.
The greatness of America manifests itself in this: that America can still be great even when many individual Americans, like Mr. Wycliff, are not. If we would envision America as a train put in motion by the Founding Fathers, and if we would consider who today is contributing the most to keep this train in motion in its original spirit, I would challenge Mr. Wycliff that his contribution is much less than that of a Polish lady who cleans his office or that of a Mexican busboy that swabs the table after his lunch. Both of them might be illegal aliens. Contemporary Americans, born to the prosperity of their nation, tend to focus on securing their own share of the wealth accumulated by the previous generations. In this sense, Mr. Wycliff and others like him are fare dodgers on the train called America. Immigrants, legal or otherwise, are perceived as taking away the inheritance of natives.
For example, a Polish immigrant, even with no or a little education, can somehow manage to get a job within the first week after arriving in Chicago. It is likely, that even with English very far from perfect, that person will earn the means to buy a six-flat five years later. As a result of the success of immigrants like this Pole, natives feel that those jobs and those six-flat properties are being taken away from them. Therefore, their thinking is that with fewer immigrants, there will be more jobs and more six-flat buildings left for Mr. Wycliff and others like him.
And so we come to the real reason why the Chicago Tribune practically ignored the visit of the president of Poland: the issue of visas. Poles demand that the United States government abolish the requirement of visas for Polish citizens wishing to come to the U.S. Currently, Poles need to obtain a visa in order to come to the U.S. However, Poles want to travel to the U.S. freely, without any visas, exactly the way Americans can visit Poland now. This was one of the topics on the agenda of Poland’s president during his visit in the United States.
Seventeen years after overthrowing communist rule, Poland is doing fairly well, mostly due to the entrepreneurial spirit of its people and to old-fashioned hard work. After joining the European Union nearly two years ago, Poles are free to go to work in Great Britain, Ireland, and Sweden. As one can read in the Chicago Tribune, (“Poland may need those plumbers”, by Tom Hundley, February 19, 2006), many Poles found jobs outside of their homeland, but the prophets of doom were proven wrong. For example, the small country of Ireland was able to absorb the influx of 160,000 Eastern European workers, what constitutes about 4% of their total population. (For comparison, 4% of the U.S. population is about 12,000,000.) Those foreign workers helped the Irish economy to grow, and as a result, unemployment in Ireland slightly decreased. Poles got richer, so did the Irish, and both governments spent less on unemployment. In addition, some funds saved by Polish immigrants will be reinvested in Poland, creating new jobs there. With the outflow of qualified workers, those who stayed behind in Poland are getting better pay, as Poland needs to keep some plumbers as well. Everybody benefits when the magic forces of the free market are left alone.
If the Chicago Tribune would mention that Poland’s president wants U.S. visas for Poles to be abolished, then it would need to answer a troubling question: Why wouldn’t free market forces work here as well as they did in Ireland? One might even notice that Poland in no way could generate 12,000,000 new immigrants (4% of the American population); probably even Mexico could barely do it. This could lead some Tribune readers to the iconoclastic thought that America might be better off if Mexicans didn’t need visas too, which would generate an avalanche of calls and e-mails from all of the fare dodgers of the American spirit. Handling disappointed Poles was the much lesser evil.
I have a close friend who is a successful businessman in Poland. I invited him to visit me here. He refused to come, saying that he did not want to go through the difficult and often humiliating process of obtaining a U.S. visa in the American embassy in Warsaw. The system at the U.S. consular offices in Poland is an affront to Poles’ pride, and a very important reason for demanding the abolishment of visas. The consular offices are open only for a few hours per day. To make an appointment, one needs to call a pay line, an equivalent to a 900 number here. Last but not least, every applicant needs to pay $100 regardless if a visa is granted or not. This is a legislated form of that principle discussed earlier that ”all Americans are created equal”. The arrogance presented in Mr. Wycliff’s article flourishes in Poland backed by the full strength of the U.S. government.
Some Polish politicians suggest that Poland should retaliate and introduce visas for American citizens. Others say that it would be improper to do something like this to friends. My suggestion would be to introduce a border-crossing fee of $400 for American citizens only. I recommend this amount because, due to the difference in the economic situations, for most Americans $400 is equivalent to $100 for someone living in Poland. If Americans shamelessly demand a dollar just to make an appointment and then skin $100 from everybody who dares to apply for a U.S. visa, should not Poles get some cash as well? If the Chicago Tribune had to spend $400 every time that its correspondent, Tom Hundley goes to Poland, and if it became known that this fee was in response to U.S. discriminatory policies, the Chicago Tribune would treat Poles with much more respect. Mr. Wycliff is completely wrong in saying that this about head or heart. It is about cash.
Visas are a hot subject for Poles who now want to come here for work or enjoyment. Many Poles settled in the U.S. mostly because of the promise of freedom offered by the country where “all men are created equal.” Consequently, many of us – thankful for the opportunity – very seriously assume responsibility for maintaining those freedoms, so that the train called America does not collapse under the load of fare dodgers.
There is only one answer to the question, “Did the Tribune snub Poland’s President?” Yes, it did. However, the president is gone. We stay.
A version of this text was published by Polish Daily news in Chicago – Dziennik Związkowy