Perils of a Polish Pop Princess

The deadly consequences of blasphemous speech have been the focus of some great writing on militant Islam and its intolerance of free thought. While I wish to take nothing away from these reports, I would urge GetReligion readers not to forget that censorship under the guise of hate speech laws is  alive and well at home.

While the consequences of insulting religion in America or Europe are nothing as to what might happen to a blasphemer in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the mindset that animates intolerance in the Middle East is not absent from the West. Last week a Warsaw appeals court upheld a lower court decision finding that Poland’s premier pop star had violated the country’s hate-speech laws by disparaging the Bible.

The Polish court’s ruling that singer and reality TV star Doda will have to pay a 5,000 Zloty fine (approximately $1500) for offending religious sensibilities is an example of this phenomena. However, the Polish press has done a great job in questioning the wisdom of laws that privilege the sensibilities of a politically well-connected constituency.

Who is Doda? According to a 2008 CNN  story entitled “Famous Poles through the ages” she is Poland’s Britney Spears.

Doda or Doda Elektroda or “the Polish Britney Spears” … was born in Ciechanow [in 1984], and is one of the most famous and successful pop singers in Poland.

Doda started her career at the age of 14 and became popular after her participation in a reality TV show “Bar.” In 2000, at the age of 16, [Doda] became the vocalist of the Polish rock band Virgin.

In December 2005 and October 2007, she posed nude for the Polish edition of Playboy Magazine. She also posed for CKM Magazine several times.

Doda received a Superjedynka award on National Festival of Polish Song in Opole in 2006.

In 2007, she left her record company, Virgin, to begin a solo career. Her first solo album was released in 2007 and was certified as gold on the day before its official release. In 2008, her album “Diamond Bitch” went double platinum after 60,000 copies of the album had been sold.

Her career has continued on its upward trajectory and she remains Poland’s most popular pop artist. And like Britney Spears, the tabloids love her — and she loves them. Her latest rendezvous with fame came with comments  she made in a 2009 interview disparaging beliefs in the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible.

The website for Radio Poland reported that:

Dorota Rabczewska, known to the public as Doda, was initially sentenced in January this year, having claimed in an interview that the Bible “was written by someone who was hammered on wine and who’d been smoking herbs.”

The Warsaw District Court rejected her appeal on Monday, upholding the original sentence.

Miss Rabczewska had been brought to court owing to complaints filed by Ryszard Nowak, chairman of the privately run Nationwide Defence Committee Against Sects, and Stanislaw Kogut, a senator for the conservative Law and Justice party.

In her original defence, the singer had claimed that she had not intended to offend anyone, and that the cited herbs “were certainly therapeutic ones” and the alcohol in question “sacramental wine.”

… At present, the Democratic Left Alliance party is working on a draft bill that will cut the maximum penalty for insulting religious feelings from two years imprisonment to six months.

Meanwhile, Rabczewska may not appeal to Poland’s Supreme Court, but her lawyer is considering an extraordinary appeal to Poland’s Omsbudsman on Civil Rights. An appeal to European Court of Human Rights could also be pursued.

Liberal and conservative newspapers in Poland have come out in favor of Doda’s right to speak her mind — even if what she has to say is offensive (or foolish).

Writing in the liberal Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza on 20 June 2012, Wojciech Maziarski said:

Poland is in the grips of a sort of religious censorship. Doda’s statements offended and outraged many people. They sparked a scandal and provoked much protest. But it was precisely to protect such statements that democratic constitutional states created the right to freedom of opinion. Civil rights aren’t needed to protect uncontroversial opinions that meet with no disapproval. You don’t need to help those who swim with the current and fully agree with the majority opinion. Civil rights are meant as a guarantee for the very people who swim against the current and who offend their fellow citizens. Regardless of whether they’re right or not.

The conservative news site Wprost also objected to the criminalization of unpopular speech. Journalist Maciej Kawinski stated:

Every child knows the dinosaurs existed, and we have irrefutable proof that they did. The Bible, by contrast, contains both academically proven facts and myths better suited to a fantasy film than a historical chronicle. As a result I have no problem at all with someone who believes more in dinosaurs than in the Bible. Did the authors of the Bible drink wine and smoke hash? In some cultures marijuana is believed to be a ‘wisdom weed’.

Kawinski argued the court “should regard Doda’s statements as expressions of opinion and not an attempt to insult people’s religious feelings.”

The Radio Poland summary mentioned two issues I hope are addressed elsewhere in the press — the role of politicians in pushing hate speech prosecution and the role of self-appointed speech guardians. While the Catholic Church exerts tremendous influence in Poland, it was not the church that pushed the prosecution but a political action committee and a senator.

Who exactly is the Nationwide Defence Committee Against Sects and for whom do they speak? And is the senator from the conservative Law and Justice party pushing this issue for domestic political reasons? Are there parallels between Senator Kogut’s actions in the Doda affair and Senator Jesse Helms’ comments in the “Piss Christ” controversy?

On one level Doda’s words are akin to the stunts beloved by Madonna and Lady Gaga — actions that appear to have been undertaken to be provocative — and to sell concert tickets. And as such, some may question whether this is truly a free speech issue.

I find it hard to draw a line between the  stunts pulled by Doda, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, and middle brow épater le bourgeois events like Terrance McNally’s “Corpus Christi” or “Piss Christ”. Mockery of religion in art lost its edge about 75 years ago and is more often silly than profound.

These may be in bad taste and of dubious artistic merit but how can we distinguish them from writers such as Salman Rushdie or artists like Gilbert and George? What the Polish press is doing is setting the question of aesthetics to one side and concentrating on the right of a minority to speak against the views of the majority.

The stories in the Polish press — Radio Poland excluded — are advocacy stories, I should note. They recount the facts but are not shy about taking a side and stating their opinion. I salute them for speaking out — even if it is on behalf of multimillionaire pop stars. Would the press in the U.S. only challenge the pieties of this country — sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity — as the Polish press has done.

But is the Polish press really speaking out for the underdog here? Or, is their support for free speech misguided when it comes to deliberate attempts to be provocative? What say you GetReligion readers? Is there a place for speech codes — above and beyond slander laws — in journalism and in public discourse?

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About geoconger
  • MJBubba

    I do not see a parallel to Jessie Helms. First, he was not taking any action against Serrano or his “art,” but was trying to cut the funds for the National Endowment for the Arts in retaliation for their use of government funds to subsidize the show in which it appeared. Helms was respectful of Serrano’s speech, but was unwilling to let taxpayer dollars be spent on shows that were blasphemous intentionally-offensive speech.

  • Pete

    It is questionable to call WPROST a conservative magazine, it’s as if the writer of this article got his info from a left wing outfit and not from someone who actually lives or reads Polish news and knows the realities of politics here. WPROST is more left wing/centrist. Conservative news outfits would be Rzeczpospolita http://www.rp.pl, Radio Maryja and TV TRWAM.

  • Pete

    Poland is a divided country. Just several days ago I watched a program on public TV where leading film and TV directors of the 70s and 80s spoke about the extreme difficulties they had with Communist era state censors. Strangely enough although intricate details were given, no names of censors were mentioned. Mentioning such names would be a career ending move for any journalist or perhaps give the ex-censor a voice to return the favor and illustrate what the artists-censor relationship was really about. Who knows. The real censorship is in the refusal to disclose what’s in the State archives, who did what to whom and for what under the Communist regime.
    There is a conservative outfit called TV TRWAM which has tried to reveal some of this dirt but they’ve not been granted a license to operate a TV channel, even though they’re extremely popular among the more religious people in Poland.

  • Bill

    They recount the facts but are not shy about taking a side and stating their opinion. I salute them for speaking out — even if it is on behalf of multimillionaire pop stars. Would the press in the U.S. only challenge the pieties of this country — sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity — as the Polish press has done.

    Whoa! What US press are you talking about? The ones I read challenge and disparage traditional pieties (and piety) everyday.

    MJ Bubba (#1) is right: Serrano was free to put a crucifix in any size jar of urine he wanted. Refusing to subsidize his “art” with taxpayer dollars was hardly censorship.

    I’m not defending her fine. (Was it a criminal or civil matter?) But when an entertainer makes a career pushing the envelope, she should not be surprised when someone pushes back when she says something as vapid and insulting.

    • geoconger

      Bill, We must not read the same newspapers as I seldom see challenges to the politically correct pieties of our culture — gay rights, affirmative action, abortion rights etc. I would add that much of the content of this website points out the blindness of the press — its inability to see beyond its own cultural worldview.

      And you miss the point about Senator Helms and Senator Korgut. The “blasphemy” of “Piss Christ” was a political opportunity for Sen Helms to attack his opponents in government. The question I asked was whether Sen Korgut is doing the same thing — using this incident to attack the ruling liberal government.

  • Dave

    Is there a place for speech codes — above and beyond slander laws — in journalism and in public discourse?

    In public discourse, no. That’s what free speech means, and its history is one of peeling back anti-blasphemy laws (among other things).

    In journalism, it’s certainly up to each publication to decide what it will print and what it won’t. Eg, most outlets use the euphemism “n-word” when talking about racist speech.

    I would point out that the US does not have hate speech laws. It has hate crime laws, which are only activated when an actual crime is committed and go to motive. Too often the two are conflated in commentary. Alas, our cousins to the north do have the former, and free speech has suffered in Canada as a result.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    What’s “provocative” – even deliberately so – should still be protected.

    Here in the U.S., in Iowa, a group took out ads on buses that read, “Don’t Believe In God? You Are Not Alone.” The bus authority temporarily removed the ads due to protests. The governor of Iowa said he was ‘disturbed’ by the ads, and one bus driver refused to drive a bus with the ad on it. A billboard in Cincinnati with the same message had to be moved because of threats to the owner of the building it was on.

    Think about that. The message was essentially just, “Atheists exist”, and that was considered offensive. What could atheists possibly say that wouldn’t be considered “provocative”?

    Apparently nothing. Because then, in Pennyslvania, someone tried to take out an ad with the single world “Atheists”, and the names and websites of two organizations. The (pulbicly funded) bus service, (which scrolls “GOD BLESS AMERICA” on its bus tickers) refused to run it.

  • Bill

    The purpose of the First Amendment (American, I know) is to protect OFFENSIVE speech. Non-offensive speech does not need protection since no one tries to censor it.

    Censor’s always claim it is for the public good. A free speech principle is that offensive speech requires more free speech, not censorship.

    PS. Doda is an immature idiot; my free speech.

  • Bill

    Bill #6 is not the same as Bill #1.

    I’m Bill #1. I agree with Bill #6, but I’m not he.

    George, my apologies. I see where you are going. You are speaking of the pieties du jour, and I agree that the press does not challenge them. It is the old pieties they have no trouble challenging.

  • sari

    Ray,
    I had a similar thought. Would we be having this conversation if Doda had disparaged Hebrew Scripture, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, or any other sacred texts?

    George, why should the person’s rationale dictate the limits of and penalties for engaging in free speech? Provocateur or bigot, the words are insulting and hateful. In this instance, it’s possible that the press came out to protect itself from future allegations.

    Every child knows the dinosaurs existed, and we have irrefutable proof that they did. The Bible, by contrast, contains both academically proven facts and myths better suited to a fantasy film than a historical chronicle. As a result I have no problem at all with someone who believes more in dinosaurs than in the Bible. Did the authors of the Bible drink wine and smoke hash? In some cultures marijuana is believed to be a ‘wisdom weed’.

    A statement like the one above is certain to offend the religious sensibilities of major segments of the population.

  • Matt

    A bit off topic, but @Dave – yes we can distinguish between hate speech and hate crime laws, but both are unsupportable. Hate speech laws conflict with free speech. Hate crime laws are based on the silly idea that deliberate murder is less bad if it’s done because you don’t like someone’s hair instead of their skin. Law can legitimately distinguish between intent and lack of intent in a crime, but to parse particular intentions is not meaningful or relevant.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Our local atheists decided Christmas a year ago to proclaim their virtue without benefit of deity on the local buses. Christians asked for equal time (when they were making it on their own) and the bus company backed away from all religious advertising. Far from being “rattled”, I was looking forward to a fine theological food fight. The problem, however, if that the losing side tends to start whining about “hate speech” when they really just can’t make their case.

    I remember a gay rights advocate opining on this very website that the First Amendment needed to be “re-thought” to ensure gays their “rights”.

    And c’mon people, we all know what the reaction would be if someone dissed the Koran. The news media would be in full angst mode.

  • northcoast

    I’m kind of envying the Poles here. A fine that is less than the princess might spend in an evening doesn’t seem like much, and why can’t they set their own rules for what can be accepted? If only Iran or other Muslim countries just levied fines instead of executing people.

    Didn’t our first amendment have some kind of serious purpose like protecting protests and assemblies in opposition to government policies?

  • geoconger

    Sari, I agree that the content of Doda’s remarks are offensive and I also believe them to be inane. That having been said, I would not support laws that would penalize her from saying these things. I need not attend a Doda concert, nor take heed of what she says in an interview. I have a choice to ignore her.

    For me, the line comes in the dissemination of her speech. I am free to complain if Doda’s words are trumpeted in a magazine or tv show that I follow. But my complaint then is with the editor for not using his discretion — not with Doda.

    That having been said I would not want Doda speech subject to government oversight — unless it fell within limited bounds (national security — profanity — slander) Being silly and offensive is not enough.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The problem, however, if that the losing side tends to start whining about “hate speech” when they really just can’t make their case.

    Oftentimes, these days. Every side. I’m no more thrilled with hate speech laws than any other censorship scheme.

    And c’mon people, we all know what the reaction would be if someone dissed the Koran. The news media would be in full angst mode.

    You might recall the kerfuffle about PZ Myers and the Eucharist. He also defiled a Koran at the same time, but that didn’t get a lot of coverage for some reason.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Well, of course I was thinking about the international hysteria over the planned Koran burning, and the on-going business about Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay.

    But you know that, I think.

  • sari

    George,
    I’m no fan of hate speech laws. My point was that certain members of the Polish press may be using the situation as a platform to protect their future interests. Certainly the excerpt I drew from one article would be considered offensive to a large segment of Poles. It’s almost like a dare.

    FWIW, I was not in any way suggesting that you a) found her comments tolerable or b) are a proponent of hate speech laws.

  • Dan

    Pretty much off-topic, but what???

    CNN doesn’t consider any Pole before the 20th Century worth mentioning other than Copernicus?

    They include Doda, but not Jan Sobieski? What about Tadeusz Kosciuszko?

    Damn.


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