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Lawrence Goodwyn: The Great Predicament Facing Obama

An interview with legendary historian Lawrence Goodwyn on Obama, the larger currents in our political life, and the possibility of a rebirth in our democratic culture.
 
 
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What happened to the dream of Barack Obama's transformational politics? There's been very little deviation from the disastrous Bush years on the key issues of war, empire and the distribution of wealth in the country.

I turned to Lawrence Goodwyn, historian of social movements whose books and methods of explaining history have had a profound influence on many of the best known authors, activists and social theorists of our time. Goodwyn's account of the Populist movement, Democratic Promise, is quoted extensively by Howard Zinn in People's History of the United States, and also in William Greider's masterpiece on the Federal Reserve, Secrets of the Temple. You can find Goodwyn quoted in the first paragraph of Bill Moyers' recent book, On Democracy, and cited in just the same way in countless other books and essays.

I interviewed Goodwyn from his home in Durham, North Carolina about the pitfalls of recording American history, Obama's presidency in light of previous presidents, and portents of change in our political culture.

Jan Frel:It seems there's quite a bit of disagreement about what kind of president we have on our hands.

Lawrence Goodwyn: Well, Jan, we are in the midst of the shakedown cruise of an historic presidency. If I may risk understatement, it has taken quite a while for Barack Obama and his diverse constituencies to begin to understand one another. I believe both still have some distance to travel. Early on, things were pretty wild, but many people have learned many things and a measure of calm can finally be seen around the edges of the national anxiety that engulfs us all.

In general, it is quite apparent that the politics of the Obama era has been far more volatile than most observers remotely anticipated. But as a historian, I bring to this confused setting the hopelessly long view that is endemic to my calling. Long views are by definition remote, distant and therefore tending toward a measure of calm. They are by no means inoculated against error, but they provide room for engaged reflection not easily found in the heat of battle.

So let me present a calming conclusion. In my opinion, the energy among the democratic faithful to make the journey is still there. While ordinary folks have been put through a lot, do not underestimate the resolve that remains for the long haul. Unanticipated poverty is an enormous energizer -- and most of all for people who understand their own fate to be utterly undeserved. In due course they will see through the sleight of hand and empty content embedded in corporate sound bites. I am talking about millions of Americans, many of whom wavered and many who did not. It will take some more time for this to become clear. But it will happen.

Above all, it will become increasingly transparent in the coming year that the politics of the GOP is absolutely incoherent. Much of the Republican tent is simply flapping in the breeze behind a cascade of public lies. As it now presents itself, the so-called party of conservatism has nothing to bring to the economic crisis except demagogy. So long-term despair is unwarranted for Democrats. They need to harness their poise and undertake to be politically creative not just right now but for the next six years.

At the outset, I think it is appropriate and necessary for us to us to anchor ourselves in the understanding that in the early days of the American Republic, Jeffersonian democrats innocently and sweepingly referred to the colonial yeomanry, from Vermont to Georgia, as "the democracy." That is who we are: the people who work to support our families. Our struggle for a place in the America sun is the central social and political component of our national history. These folks, the great rank and file of the population, can best be understood as engaged in a long uphill climb. In every generation since the beginning, they have been "put through a lot." So that much has not changed.

But we do not, as a society, yet understand how agonizingly hard the climb has always been for each aspiring wave of immigrants: The Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews and the Hispanics and blacks from the South as well as the Caribbean, have all learned how elusive the "dream" can be. In any case, my general affection for the folks also extends to the president himself -- not without some moments of dismay about the staying power of some sunshine patriots. But I think it would be helpful for everyone to acknowledge we have all lately learned a great deal about the country, the world, and the overall economy. This is no time for the faint of heart. The economic fate of America's inherited democratic promise is absolutely on the line in the decade we are now entering.

As if this were not enough on our plate, I have one additional reaction that is so strong it is almost, but not quite, private: What has happened in the 23 months since the 2008 election has simply heightened my lifetime of astonishment at the financial arrogance that long ago matured within the culture of American banking. For all my accumulated indignation over a half-century of unwanted experience, I now must admit that I underestimated the capacity for sheer greed that drives American banking. The evidence is compelling that a great many people within the financial community acknowledge no limits because they have a seriously atrophied loyalty to American society as a whole. I speak here of the cornerstone of the American democratic experiment itself: the sense that a majority of us have had -- have always had -- that we are in this thing together.

Bankers are not with the rest of us on this. Perhaps they never have been. All exceptions freely conceded, but the general reality still holds: they are killing the promise of this republic.

Frel: Where does Obama fit into this?

Goodwyn:There is no reason to believe he is celebrating this development. It locks in the presidency. And the movers and shakers within corporate America know it. They are operating under the settled presumption that they and they alone shall brandish the keys. Their problem is, quite simply, they have way too much blood on their hands. The GOP can't be specific about it, of course, because it is their blood, too. So we have a national campaign that is now fully in place and fully operational. It is also fully fraudulent.

The sequence of events is not debatable: 1) In 2001 Republicans inherited Clinton's hard-earned "balanced budget." 2) They immediately moved to dismantle it by generating a trillion-dollar tax cut for the rich. No more balance in the budget. 3) The GOP then added in a war against the threat of Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" that did not exist because the "evidence" concocted by Dick Cheney was fraudulent. Another trillion more or less. 4) En route, they tossed in a prescription drug benefit that added more trillions, conceivably forever -- or until we get the public option, whichever comes first. 5) An additional inheritance from Clinton was the culmination of the relentless conservative-championed campaign for "financial deregulation" sanctioned by Alan Greenspan, the old Fed chairman, and buttressed by the Milton Friedman-inspired balderdash trumpeting the emergence of a "rational market." (For reasons that have always escaped me, the latter piece of puffery found a home in the American economics profession.) 6) As a sendoff for his final days, Bush's Secretary of Treasury and his Federal Reserve Chairman found themselves saddled with the inevitable post-regulation financial crisis that (inconveniently enough) could no longer be postponed until after the 2008 election. The $800 billion or so embedded in the Toxic Assets Relief Program was the result.

The entire country is now experiencing the GOP's nationwide cover-up in the form of a suffocating blanket of television commercials that warps recent history along the following trajectory of sequential deceptions: 1) Obama promised jobs but thanks to his stimulus program and all his new taxes, unemployment has hit record levels. 2) Your congressman has voted consistently with Nancy Pelosi to raise the debt ceiling that enables this mammoth debt at the very time we need jobs. 3) We thereforemustend wasteful spending and save America. Repeat and repeat and repeat in the rhythms achieved by the most expensive off-year political campaign ever. This is the hopeless politics of Herbert Hoover. It is just as hopeless as economic prescription because simply enough, it is a promise to do nothing.

But it is also a new form of internal American political propaganda, anonymous in origin, corporate-financed, and delivered with blanketing determination to every corner of the nation. In size and in substance it is a campaign of deception that is without comparison since the creation of the republic. It is a direct result of the most radical single judicial decision in American history, the Supreme Court's Citizens United offering some 10 months ago in the 5 to 4 vote of the Roberts Court. Long-term, it probably dooms the Republican Party by yoking the GOP to a permanent defense of financial deregulation and the liberation of central banks from a connecting relationship to the surrounding national economy. It says goodbye to the unemployed millions. It says goodbye to "we're in this thing together."

Frel: You present the historical view, and very dramatically. It sounds ominous politically, but in 2010 the Republican disinformation campaign also appears to be working politically. Where is the historical picture that is also optimistic?

Goodwyn:
The political scenario you call ominous brings into play the post-Citizens United "sound bite" scenario. The year 2010 gives us a politics totally created by ad men and financed by corporate America. Those two mainstays of American finance essentially fund it: big banking and big insurance. It is so illogical and so dishonest that I can reduce the descriptive burden to one phrase: conceptual deception. Indeed, it can be adequately summarized in one word: cynicism. There is a linguistic economy here that only a well-tanned investment banker can admire. For the rest of us, history suggests that we just have to experience it to appreciate its destructive power. In the short run we are going to take a painful caning right across our backs. I know of no democratic defense against organized corporate lying, backed literally by unlimited corporate financing of said lies.

However, a measure of poise reveals that, even in politics, conceptual deception eventually contains self-destructive elements. The 2010 version of GOP sloganeering is so demeaning and even insulting to the sense of self of run-of-the-mill voters that it will generate at least a slight measure of backlash even in the course of a single electoral season. I do not immediately see how it can be sustained for two seasons for it leaves no workable politics for its advocates to advocate -- as incoming Republican beneficiaries will learn in their own good time. The enormous political power behind Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal resided in the overwhelming electoral weight of mass unemployment.

Classic Republican cliches simply cannot support the weight of such large-scale human agony. It will force thoughtful Americans to discover what the original Populist advocates of the 19th century discovered and which I wrote about so long ago -- namely, the profoundly exploitative impact unregulated banking has upon all the sundry millions who are not bankers. The descriptive word that came to be affixed to these upheavals was "panic." They made their destructive appearance in every generation. The first to raise the alarm was Thomas Jefferson whose warning I used as the frontispiece of my book Democratic Promise in 1976, to wit:

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Easier said than done. Jefferson's warnings began appearing in his letters in, I think, 1816, the last decade of his life, and "Panics" thereupon became a fixture of American economic life: 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1921, 1929-'38, 1973, 1993, 2008-'10. America's favorable balance of trade ended in the early 1970s and it has been more or less downhill ever since. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of the national wealth held by the top 1 percent of the population has gone from 9 percent in 1976 to 28.9 percent in 2007. Quite soon this pampered one percent, heavily concentrated in the financial sector, will own one-third of all the wealth in the country. They do especially well in times of severe popular stress, whether these depleting moments are called depressions, recessions or downturns. "Bubbles" can also be counted on to afford opportunities for rapacious plunder, though in advanced capitalist countries, housing bubbles have provided especially lucrative terrain. Democracy as we know it cannot survive this maldistribution of the fruits of the labor of the toiling millions whose belief in the country make America what it is.

Frel:Time to talk about Obama?

Goodwyn:Not quite. I want to set up a bit more context first. We need to understand, at least in broad outline, the leaky vessel that is "financial regulation." Do we need it? Yes. Do we need to restore some or all of the protections we used to have with Glass-Stegall? Yes, some, all, and then some.

We need to understand that the creation of the Federal Reserve System at the beginning of the 20th century was a product of legislation written by bankers. Its purpose was to not to "regulate" banks but to help banks get the wherewithal to restore order to the market after "panics." Because of population growth and radically increased production, the America economy had simply gotten too big for somebody like J. P. Morgan and friends to "properly" bail out the system after every stock market crash. As a conceptual starting point for grasping what a robust industrial society needed as a prerequisite to a democratic economic system, the Fed constituted precisely the opposite of what the Populists of the 1889 and 1890 had advocated with their Sub-Treasury System. Instead, the creation of the Fed constituted the harnessing of the power of the government for service to bankers, not for service to the producing economy. The objective of the architects of the Fed system was to "settle" what was called "the financial question" by removing the issue from public discussion forever.

Turning that on its head is simply beyond the reach of any American president. It is not just that the political support is not there, the intellectual understanding is not there either. Essentially, the matter is unstudied. I could explain why, but that is a dull and depressing subject that we'll have to visit some other day. Suffice it to say that we know more about rockets to outer space, and more about dinosaurs, than we do about the prerequisites for a stable monetary system, much less a stable and democratic monetary system. As a political and intellectual subject, we leave financial matters to bankers who take steps to ensure that representatives of the political parties who man the appropriate committees in Congress are both well-heeled and properly compliant. This is not uniquely an American achievement. There is no society in the world that is remotely liberated from those of its citizens who control the levers of finance. The only advice I would have to offer Obama would be to suggest he take elaborate steps to find financial advisers who care more about his physical and political well-being than they care about improving their own connection to great wealth. And when I use the word "care" here, I mean "care passionately."

So I can move on to Obama by first telling a quick story about how marginal non-bankers like you, me, and U.S. presidents are. Okay?

Frel: Go on.

Goodwyn: Back in the late 1950s when I was writing with the kind of moral rectitude we usually associate with provincial muckrakers (which was what Texas Observer contributors had a tendency toward, and still do a half century later), I received a phone call from a man named Walter Hall, a leading citizen from a little town on the upper gulf coast called League City. He said he was sending me a little book on money and banking and he would be coming to Austin in a week to talk to me about it. I soon got the book, recognized it was written with admirable insider confidence, and tried to learn enough to be prepared for the tutoring I was sure was coming. Walter Hall was well known among politically active types in Texas because he was a banker who was especially friendly to oil and refinery workers, steel workers and others of similar ilk. A very broad man.

It turned out to be a meeting unlike any I had ever had -- either before or since. He wanted to know what I thought of the book. I said it found it hard because the subject matter was foreign to me and because I had no clear idea what bankers did. He wanted to know what I thought of the Federal Reserve System. Except for some things I had learned from Wright Patman, head of the House Banking Committee, I was more or less blank on this matter also. I told him I majored in English and history but not in higher math.

Walter Hall was genial but disappointed. "I was afraid you'd say something like that," he said to me. "Larry, you're just like Ronnie [Dugger, the Observer's young founder and editor]. You are writing about minor crimes. So does Ronnie." (Disclosure: Ronnie and I both wrote about the Southern caste system and the excesses of "Big Oil." We did not think either subject was "minor.")

For his part, Walter Hall agreed, rather absentmindedly, that Jim Crow was admittedly foolish, if not insane, and he supposed it would go away eventually and not soon enough, either. That is, it would not happen until people with power decided the time had come to make it happen, which he did not think would occur anytime soon.. (Self-evidently, this was a conventional 1950s conversation among white Americans, before the Southern freedom movement unleashed itself upon the country and rearranged some, but not all, of the furniture in the room.)

The point of my story is that I don't think young people easily find ways to engage in serious conversations with old men like me in my time or Walter Hall in his. So I'm not sure my views on our president have an audience panting to listen. But I will nevertheless opine a little.

For me, Barack Obama remains a president for the ages. Larger than FDR. Larger, by far, than Teddy Roosevelt. And larger than Jefferson. He has infinite patience, far beyond his years, patience almost beyond imagining -- as he powerfully demonstrated during the 2008 campaign with his resistance to enormous collegial pressure to throw Jeremiah Wright under the nearest bus he could find. This surly attitude toward the good minister by Obama partisans was a product of Wright's righteous and provocative pronouncements on race.

But it was not until the good reverend's repetitious and, I must say, demagogic pontifications forced Obama to take full ownership of the relationship that the candidate took the bull by the horns. We saw then that when Obama moved, he was capable of moving with great skill: his speech on race in America at Freedom Hall, Philadelphia instantly took its place alongside the Gettysburg Address. It probably will take some time before this appraisal becomes the settled wisdom of American culture but that such a day will materialize I have absolutely no doubt.

Having suggested such sweeping potential, I can add that Obama is not yet larger than Lincoln, but capable of growth on a scale attained, among our presidents, only by Lincoln.

Frel: I want to press you on the latter subject, but first can you also expand on the Jefferson comparison? You think Obama will be seen as larger than Jefferson?

Goodwyn:Yes. If, as a nation, we continue to mature culturally (as I believe we will because that is the American trajectory over time), it will not be seen as a close question between Jefferson and Obama.

However, let us first give Jefferson his due. As a democratic theorist he was crucially valuable to the young republic not only because he gave voice to popular aspirations as against the elitist Federalists, but also because he advanced some theoretical concepts about popular democratic conduct that were so encompassing and lofty that we have never found a way to live up to them.

I refer now to Jefferson's understanding that democratic relations need a political home that was literally close to home. He advocated for what he called "ward republics" to be organized across the land. He suggested that each republic be kept small, not more than 100 people, so that in the aggregate thousands of them could form the structural base of the political nation. In fact, his most elegant term of description was not "ward republic" but rather "elementary republic." Small and numerous settings warred against a local polity being taken over by swaggering types of people and warred against demagogy by hustling types nursing private agendas -- in short, warred against anti-democratic conduct in whatever form.

In parts of 20th-century America, proto-democratic advocates of the kind Jefferson sought to encourage proceeded to develop their own terminology to characterize anti-democratic tactics of one kind or another. They called such ploys "power trips." This unsavory habit is, of course, more than a political "ploy." It is part of the corporate world we live in. It is also part of the party-controlled world the Chinese people live in. In any case, during the American revolutionary period, the new democratic conduct had no name -- it was just something the author of the Declaration of Independence came to advocate: elementary republics.

This was a transcendent step in democratic thought. Jefferson's life was such that a fairly numerous contingent among the founders learned through their own experiences that the very practice of democratic conduct encouraged people to see themselves in a new and more enhancing light. Would that all of us could have been with them, drinking the nectars they were trying to brew in Philadelphia. All of us perhaps could have experienced a bit more precisely how democratic conduct enhances a person's self respect.

In any event, let us take a quick measure of the immediacy of political growth within colonial society. Proud as they were of their achievement in writing a constitution, the founders discovered they had unwittingly left vital parts of the job undone and that they did not possess remotely enough clout to gain popular ratification until they produced a far more precise recitation of popular rights to affix to their constitutional labors. Thus, the first 10 amendments. We call them the Bill of Rights. Apt. For many years now, I have tried to make certain I didn't leave home without them.

In any case, so much for the plus side of old Thomas Jefferson. His limits have a similar sweep. He was a slaveholder. While remaining pristinely theoretical, his projected elementary republics had all the ethnic unity of a Klan convention. It can be argued -- and has been -- that reciting this fact alone constitutes much too harsh an indictment of the author of our Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, over several decades his marital life embraced a similar trajectory: he had six children with an enduring resident of Monticello: Sally Hemings. He nurtured his children in selected ways but he also did not honor any with his name nor its attendant privileges. Those of his progeny who survived until 1863 were freed by Abraham Lincoln. It turns out that many of Jefferson's descendents through his first wife have been uncomfortable with their lately discovered kinsmen. I trust it is fair to say that their cultural exclusiveness is a social habit that is also Jeffersonian in origin.

We can never for one instant forget that Jefferson was crippled as an operational democrat because he was a slaveholder. Thanks to the impressive labor of one of his biographers, Annette Gordon-Reed, we now know his enduring relationship with Sally Hemings had many qualities. How many we cannot tell. But we can be certain of its limits. Autonomous love between Thomas and Sally was not possible. She was his slave. There are many ways this pivotal circumstance affected him, compared to the perspectives available to Lincoln and Obama.

To me, the greatest achievement of American culture is that Americans think they have the right to be free, that they can see themselves as their own authority and therefore ought to govern themselves. It is an assertion they feel proud in making. I think they have every right to be proud of it. Jefferson understood the underlying structural implications of this core component of a functioning democratic life as one of lived experience, of people speaking to one another in elementary republics they created for themselves. But beyond thinking about how it might happen, Jefferson encountered a problem which he never did recognize and therefore could not solve. He could talk about "the yeomanry," he could even talk about "a nation of freehold yeomen," but he could not walk among them as an exemplar to help make it happen. As a slaveholder, this was the kind of democratic experience he did not live. Indeed, his personal conduct was beyond defense. He routinely stiffed those he hired to execute refined improvements on his mansion at Monticello. He died owing many of them. They were artisans all. Cheated by a self-proclaimed democrat.

I say no. Jefferson could talk about freeholds and do so with flair; he could not live it. His status lends weight to an undemocratic component of our culture which has worn out its welcome, if it ever had any.

Lincoln's language of political description was seemingly less lofty than Jefferson's. The terms he employed in the autumn of 1863 were not so eloquent. But they were also much more profound -- as when Lincoln explained that the thing the Union was trying to save was a fundamental principle of democratic government: the "idea" of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. I think this was the first time anyone ever described the American collective endeavor as encompassing this stunning litany.

Lincoln was talking about very large dreams here. His route to such broad objectives was quite different from that taken by the Sage of Monticello. It also was more instructive. The political environment Lincoln grew up in on the Illinois frontier was almost entirely devoid of the pretension that infested the world of Virginia planters. As an aspirant to public office, Lincoln learned that plain talk was useful--and especially so when conjoined with thoughtful analysis. Indeed, the idea that a "House divided against itself" would have a hard time "standing" not only sounded sensible, it seems especially relevant in the midst of a critical public debate over slavery.

Lincoln possessed extraordinary patience, moving as events permitted. Indeed, he was not above pushing events a little, knowing that the momentum thus achieved should help move things along for him. He campaigned in 1860 to preserve the union, not to end slavery. When secession threatened, he avoided aggressive displays of force but asked the states to provide troops to protect federal property in threatened areas. When the war came, he had the seasoned leader's sense of the small but vital difference between conduct that was "strong" and conduct that was mere sabre-rattling bravado. In his presidential study, he privately crafted tentative versions of emancipation documents while awaiting a Union victory over Lee's army.

Lincoln understood enough about politics to understand that adding at least a small measure of military meaning to words was essential to making such words meaningful. When, after the quasi "victory" at Antietam, no one in his cabinet supported Lincoln's careful draft of an Emancipation Proclamation, he called for a vote anyway, cast the sole "aye" ballot, and calmly informed his fellow voters that "the ayes have it." Sometimes, as they say, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Thirteen months later, after many defeats and, finally, a transcendent victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln was able to be precise, at long last and in his first two sentences, about what the war was about: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

Lincoln learned that when he spoke clearly, it was easier to talk to the people in the population than to the entrenched functionaries of the nation's political and military communities. He had a hell of time with his generals, and, early on, with his abolitionist supporters, and most of all with the recalcitrant spear-carriers for the opposition party. He kept working at it, but as an old Southern sharecropper once said, before he died in the 1970s, "I looks around the world and I sees that the colored races of people is coming up, coming up. And that's good, that's good. But it takes many a trip to the river to get clean."

Frel:
It looks like you may be getting around to our president.

Goodwyn: I am. Though you may detect some similarities with Lincoln, Barack Obama is even harder to get a fix on than Lincoln has been. But I have seen enough to know that those are not softballs Obama is throwing. Every card-carrying white supremacist in the Republican Party knows that.

In any case, Obama is, by my lights, well along in learning what presidents have to learn to avoid get run over by the accumulated hierarchies of past generations. Obama now possesses impressive proof, I presume, that a national institution like the Senate does not contain dynamics remotely akin to those at work in a contest for a college law review. At the White House, Obama similarly misread the numerous popular downsides linked to the experiential limitations of an elite streetfighter like Larry Summers. It is not that the fellow himself is toxic, which he demonstrably was; the operative political point is that his sense of the possible was toxic far beyond the gaze afforded by his narrowly provincial sensibility.

These missteps handed Republican ad men the opening to the faux populism through which corporate money now distracts a bleeding population from its anger at its betrayal by George Bush and Dick Cheney. This alienation extends, lest we forget, to that inept group of operators who called themselves "neo-conservatives." Obama is going to have to deal with those thugs down the road.

The day after the coming Republican victory of 2010, the propagandists of the most expensive experiment in mass manipulation in American history will be celebrating their corporate-bought windfall. Fox News will hail the triumph of traditional values.

The day after that, GOP functionaries will notice that the strong young couple residing in the White House has survived the hurricane and is ready to return to work with undiminished resolve. The GOP will also learn that the Democratic Party, its exasperation thoroughly expended, has set about to renew itself. It is a very big party that is determined to get bigger.

Across America -- "out there" as is sometimes said in Washington -- are 15 million unemployed people who have been absolutely betrayed, as well as upwards of two million (and counting) erstwhile homeowners whose homes are foreclosed.

They will also discover an uncontained bag of apprehensive Tea Partiers and bystanding conservative onlookers who are worried about how much, if at all, they can trust Karl Rove, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Jim DeMint and all the other Southern boys whose name, this time, is not Jefferson Davis or John Wilkes Booth.

Strap on your seat belts, Jan. The election in 2012 is going to define the meaning of the American idea.

Jan Frel is AlterNet's senior editor. Lawrence Goodwyn is professor emeritus of history at Duke University and author of Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (1976); The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt (1978); and Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarnosc in Poland (1991).