I'm half Polish. Both my father's parents were from the region called Galicia – my grandmother from a village named Krystynopol, my grandfather from a somewhat larger town called Brody. They were Poles, and spoke Polish, but, back then, there was no Poland. The places they came from were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Other parts of what should have been Poland were in the German and Russian Empires. The Poles were a substantial people with a long history and a great culture, but they had the misfortune of being located between two massive and aggressive military powers.
My father, born and raised in New York and brought up, as was the practice among European immigrants in those days, to be an American, grew into a man who sounded as if he was from Indiana. He spoke perfect American English, with no trace of a Polish accent (or, for that matter, a New York accent). He was a man of immense humor. He loved jokes. The only ethnic jokes he ever told were Polish jokes. Back then, everyone told Polish jokes.
Sample: “How did the Germans conquer Poland so fast? They marched in backwards and the Polish thought they were leaving.” Or: “Why don't Poles commit suicide? Because you can't jump out the window of a basement.” Or: “How can you identify the groom at a Polish wedding? He's the one with a clean bowling shirt.”
Harmless jokes. I like jokes. I don't mind jokes at the expense of groups I belong to. Gay jokes, whatever. In America, innocent jokes about different groups used to be part of what helped bring us all together. But when I was a kid, the Poles, far more than any other group, were the targets of ethnic jokes. It was so bad that if you mentioned Poland, people would immediately think: jokes! It wasn't fair. Other ethnic groups that I need not name had brought all kinds of negative baggage with them when they immigrated to the U.S. The Poles had only brought goodwill and a longing to breathe free. They'd kept their noses clean. They'd worked hard. They'd obeyed the law. For the most part, they hadn't made a big deal out of being Polish. They were too busy becoming good Americans.
They certainly didn't take America for granted. Coming from sprawling empires where they'd been members of an oppressed, marginal minority – or, later, and worse, from Nazi-conquered territory or from a Poland that was nothing more than a Communist satellite of the Soviet Union – they were fiercely, touchingly grateful for American freedom. On my grandmother's dresser was an eight-by-ten of Richard Nixon, whom she revered for his unwavering anti-Communism. Over her bed was a giant, elaborately framed photo of my father, a newborn, swathed in an American flag. My father himself was named Tadeusz Casimir, after two Polish heroes of the American Revolution: Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski, the first of whom Thomas Jefferson called “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known” and the second of whom wrote to George Washington: “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” Poles have freedom in their blood – and tend to be far more pro-American than most other Europeans.
It was the Solidarity movement in Poland that sparked the anti-Communist movements throughout Eastern Europe; it was Poland's peaceful 1989 democratic revolution that kindled similar revolts across the region. You didn't hear Polish jokes quite so often after all that.
I moved to Europe in 1998, but didn't get to Poland until 2013, when I spent a few days in Warsaw. It was dramatically different from the other European cities with which I was familiar. Two words: no hijab. As I wrote at the time, the lack of any sign of Islam in Warsaw “makes you realize just how accustomed you've become to the idea of an Islamized Europe.” Of course, Poland isn't alone in this regard: most of its Eastern European neighbors have joined it in rejecting mass Muslim immigration, which they recognize as the existential threat that it is. Increasingly, it seems clear that Western Europe is committing suicide, and that Eastern Europe (if Putin leaves it alone) represents the future of Europe, and of freedom.
It was appropriate, then, that President Trump visited Poland before proceeding to stops in Western Europe. And his speech in Warsaw struck exactly the right notes. He paid deserved tribute to a people who, subjected for generations to war and tyrannical oppression, retained their courage, their spirit, and their hunger for liberty. He explicitly rebuked Putin's Russia. And while he spoke of the West as a single whole that included America and Poland and everything in between and that would, indeed, “never be broken,” his praise for Poland's virtues (“In the Polish people we see the soul of Europe”) amounted to an implicit rebuke of Western Europe for what Douglas Murray has called its “existential tiredness” – its lack of appreciation for its own history, culture, and values, its failure to believe in itself, its apparent readiness to hand over the reins to Islam. “The fundamental question of our time,” Trump declared, “is whether the West has the will to survive.” His unspoken message was that while America and Poland and other Eastern European countries plainly possess that will, some other Western nations lack it – and should look to Poland to see what they're lacking.
Trump's speech was so important that I only wish it had been a little better. It was imperfectly structured, wandering from one topic to another and back again. It had a few confusing moments and awkward turns of phrase (for example, Trump's reference to Krasinski Square as a “beautiful piece of land”). And it included at least one assertion that was downright false (to say that America has “never given up on” Polish freedom is to ignore the aftermath of World War II).
But no matter. In its main points, Trump's Warsaw speech was right-on. And its critics have done a terrific job of illustrating just what kind of mentality we're up against in the struggle to keep the free West alive. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart called the speech “white-nationalist dog-whistling.” In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart accused Trump of “racist and religious paranoia.” And Mark Tapson has already splendidly dispatched the puerile Newsweek writer, Josh Lowe, who mocked Trump's references to “Western values” and negativity on Communism and admitted to being puzzled by the concept of defending the West. It's precisely the brand of decadent thinking represented by these people that Trump was warning against. And it's a warning that the Poles, of all people, understand.