Normally the idea of politicians doing nothing – that is not interfering in things they do not understand (a pretty wide field these days, alas) – would be welcome. Of course, set against this is the fear – very real in the case of most politicians – that the devil finds work for idle hands. It must, therefore, have been a very quiet week in 2011 when the political party Your Movement, led by Janusz Palikot whose name the party originally modestly bore (it’s habit forming – this week a former justice minister (please see Tea and Sympathy) launched Jarosław Gowin’s Poland Together) decided to take court action to have the crucifix removed from the wall of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament.
This week a Warsaw appeal court dismissed the party’s appeal against the original court decision in January this year which had rejected the application. At the first hearing, the party had claimed that as atheists, the presence of a cross violated their rights to freedom of conscience and religion arguing that the presence of a cross (actually a crucifix) favoured one religion. Since, it was argued, the cross was “neither a universal symbol nor a symbol of the Polish nation” its hanging in the Sejm represented “the domination of one religion, while democracy means the respect for minority rights.” The judge thought otherwise, sensibly deciding that the presence of a religious symbol in a public place, such as parliament, did not violate freedom of conscience. Besides, the majority of the population, as represented by the parties in parliament, did not believe that the issue required any kind of action which was also clearly demonstrated by a poll conducted in late 2011, in which 71 per cent of respondents said that they were against the cross being removed from the Sejm. Rather alarmingly, according to one of Your Movement’s deputies said that the judge had come to “an entirely wrong” conclusion that the majority may impose its will on the minority. Really?
The appeal court once more rejected the applicants’ argument that the presence of the cross in the Sejm violated their rights to freedom of conscience and religion, under both the Polish Constitution and EU directives, holding that it does not infringe the applicants’ personal rights and stressing that while the cross is a religious symbol, its importance as a symbol of national identity and culture could not be ignored. Palikot tweeted after the decision: “We’re going to take the cross case to Strasbourg. The law must be observed. We are not going to give up.” In other words we are in a minority, the court has upheld the law and the majority view but we will still appeal to a foreign power to get our own way – and this from a party with only 10 per cent of the seats in the Sejm in any case.
The importance of this case is two-fold. First it is another illustration a tendency in modern democracy whereby the tail seeks to wag the dog and which holds that the majority view must, for that very reason, be wrong even where it clearly represents the settled will of the majority. A view which holds that the minority must be accommodated whatever its demands to the extent that its rights are to prevail over those of the majority. In other words, toleration is to give way to domination. It is not sufficient that you tolerate my point of view and let me follow my own way but you must, and more important must be seen, to have been inconvenienced in the following of your own way. You must tolerate me but, having taken advantage of your toleration, I do not have to tolerate you (please see Silence of the Lambs)
The second, not unrelated, point is the constant attack on symbols of our culture. European civilization is built on Christian values and at a time when European civilization is under attack – literally, in some case – we do little to safeguard it if we casually denigrate its symbols. Democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and toleration, to name but four of the values of European civilization, are too precious to be lost through carelessness. Faced by militant Islam, for example, we are all weaker if the extremists are able to use the argument: “see, they do not respect their own culture so why should we?” Your Movement no doubt thinks it is being very á la mode by attacking the crucifix, safe in the knowledge other Poles are not likely riot, declare the equivalent of a fatwa or put anybody’s life in danger but those who share his view, throughout Europe and beyond, are ever reluctant to attack the symbols of those peace loving folk who march under the banner of the crescent moon. Yes, we are so brave that we only hit those who turn the other cheek (although the issue is wider than Christianity, of course). And yet faced with, for example, Universities UK, the body which represents UK universities issuing guidance on the segregation of the sexes at meetings with external speakers held on university property if the speaker requests segregation, instead of declaring such practices to be wholly unacceptable, we do need to do more to protect our values. The politicians’ favourite of appeasement in the hope of a quiet life is no answer – in the words of Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The freedoms we take for granted others seek to take away.
Perhaps there is a simpler explanation. Could it be that for some politicians – those self-styled public servants – the comparison with Him who died on the cross is simply too painful to bear?