At the recommendation of a friend, I have been reading James Michener's 'Poland'. For those of you unfamiliar with Michener, his books are renowned for their meticulous research and attention to detail. 'Poland' has so far been an educational and engaging work of historical fiction covering eight centuries of Polish history.
A persistent theme in 'Poland' so far has been the plight of the Polish serfs. One passage in particular caught my attention this morning as I read in chapter six, which covers the political and social upheavals that took place in Poland during the late eighteenth century. The following exchange takes place on page 260 between twenty-two year old Feliks Bukowski (a fictional character of minor nobility on a wife-finding tour of Poland) and the historical Princess Lubomisrka in her palace at Lancut. Feliks, himself the owner of peasants, had for the first time become aware of the difficult life faced by the Polish peasantry, and in a private moment with the older, well-traveled and evidently very well socially networked princess, he expresses his troubled conscience:
"But Feliks persisted: 'Will your peasants be set free?' and she replied evasively: 'Wolfgang von Goethe was the most brilliant man I ever met, master of the universe. But Ben Franklin was the wisest, master of the human soul. I never liked Tom Jefferson much - too revolutionary, too scientific and inhuman. And each one of these exceptional men told me that for the present, some kind of serfdom was inescapable; slavery in America, peasants in Poland. If America thinks it can end its slavery, it will perish. The day when serfs are set free in Poland, it will perish.'"
Reading this, I thought about how the present mode of doing things, even when patently incorrect or unjust, often seems inescapable and irrefutable to those engaged in it. We get used to things the way they are, and in short order it seems impossible to imagine doing things in any other way. The intellectual strategy used by oppressors to justify their actions throughout the course of human history has most often been to make oppression seem inevitable - so that even if it is resented as inequitable, it will be met with passive resignation and tolerated.