michael.benson on Mon, 19 Apr 1999 21:43:19 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> a question by Angus Reid

[Note: the following text was sent to me by Angus Reid, a 
Ljubljana-based independent filmmaker. I think it raises a number 
of points and issues potentially of interest to the syndicate list. 
Text follows. Regards to all from Michael Benson] 

*  *  *  *

Can somebody help me?

In the past weeks I have received, read and argued about a lot of
texts that have dealt with the issue of the rightness or not of NATO's
bombing in Serbia.  I know the way my intellect and experience leads
me: having experienced at first hand the results of Serb aggression in
Bosnia, having seen the mass graves and the camps, having interviewed
innumerable survivors, I formed the opinion that the kind of
nationalistic insanity that gripped the Serbs, and then the systematic
program of brutalisation and eradication amounts to something very
similar to the nature and action of totalitarian states as Hannah
Arendt describes them.  In fact Hannah Arendt describes them so that
we may be able to recognize the phenomena in the future, so that we
need not waver and hesitate in our dealings with them.  And, by gum,
its an accurate portrait of the Milosevic regime.

If there's a mismatch, its to do with scale: its not a pure or
absolute regime like the Nazis, but rather an opportunistic one, and
the Tudjman regime even more so.  But such qualifications are
essentially pedantic: the scale of the killings, the scale of the
political indoctrinations, the full-blown use of propaganda: these are
things that brook no ambiguity.  Its with no bad conscience that you
condemn the program of that regime as "insanity", that you accept that
it must fall, that you hope for "denazification" of Serbia.  It helps
to demystify the historical process too: the vigour of Serb
nationalism is a "totalised" version of history whose paranoid
obsession with "lebensraum" is a late 20th century resurrection of a
late 19th century romanticism.  Its a corpse of an argument with
little regard for the sociological or historical realities of the
region.  The thing that distinguishes it from its eruptions in the
past is that it has become the program of a state organised along
totalitarian lines - a criminal state in fact, where indicted war
criminals hold senior government posts.  A state that espouses terror,
disregard for democratic principles, disregard for debate, and whose
inverted program requires an inverted economy to function efficiently:
its not about prosperity, its about crisis.  Disregard for any kind of
utilitarian motives is a classic characteristic of totalitarian power.

So - I have no problem with that, I've figured it out for myself.  I
feel I know where I stand.  In fact I have more of a problem with the
attacks on NATO: that they are some sinister attempt to extend
American imperialism.  I think that American influence is strongly
resisted everywhere in Europe - and particularly in Italy, Greece and
the Balkans, and that there is at least a strong debate and the will
to curb such economic hegemony exists and is exercised.  And,
shamefully, NATO - that defunct cold-war dinosaur - does prove itself
the only viable focus of a co-ordinated European defense.  Its a
shame, its inherently wrong and there are signs that Europe, that
misinformed adolescent, may, painfully, slowly and too late, be
piecing together a defense policy of its own.  But in its absence
leadership only comes from NATO.

No.  My real problem derives from the fact that I live in Slovenia,
and that the mother of my children is the daughter of a man who was
formerly one of Yugoslavia's leading writers.  Ever since I knew of
him I have raised his name with Bosnia's, Croats or Serbs, and it is
clear that he is no longer a Yugoslav writer, but a Serb writer in the
minds of everybody.  And the same with many others, who spoke for the
"balkans", who in many cases were communist dissidents, but whose
writing has now become the intellectual property of Serbia.  In its
embattled situation, in its strange mixture of arrogance, ethnic
contempt and self-perception as a victim, it has somehow laid claim to
a vital part of Balkan cultural heritage.  It has been a successful
appropriation and the grudging admiration for the Serbs that you find
in Slovene journalism derives from this fact.  It is a powerful,
important and richly symbolic discourse - it is existentially
persuasive, at least at the level of literature - and now, the
validity of the symbol is being attacked by seemingly invulnerable and
overwhelming forces.  What is hard is that the situation has become
"totalised": if you are for the symbol you are aligned with Milosevic,
you admire him and you resist any attack with either complicit silence
or active nationalism that becomes indistinguishable from Serb
Nationalistic propaganda; if you are against Milosevic you are for the
destruction of the symbol.  You are - and I know it seems crazy but
its true - for the destruction of a cultural heritage.

Its a problem.  How can a bomb in Belgrade, directed against a
military target, be more disturbing than the tankshell that took out 
a genuine historical artifact, the medieval bridge in Mostar? 
Except that it is.  How can it be more disturbing than the millions of
tons of explosive that it took to destroy so many mosques?  Or the
sniper bullets and tens of thousands of shells that wrecked Sarajevo? 
Why do wrecked railways and ammunition factories in Serbia disturb
world power in a way that hundreds of thousands of deaths don't?  What
is it about the identity of Belgrade that makes an attack so
disturbing?  Why does this repugnant regime occupy the locus of the
fundamental identity of the Balkans?  Why does its one-sided, arrogant
and destructive program stand in for the historical process?

Could it be that "Balkan" identity is founded on hate?  Could the
foundation of that identity be contempt for the weak and ritual
atrocity?  Surely not...  And yet - they continue to believe in
themselves even as the massacres continue, and they continue to
sponsor films that gain international audiences.

I heard that a local hero from Montenegro who is nonetheless
appreciated even here in Ljubljana, the satirical folk singer Rambo
Amadeus, sang for the first day of the protests against bombing in
Belgrade.  Then he stopped because he saw how rapidly the meaning of
the protests were appropriated by the regime into a dubiously oriented
patriotic fervour.  That moment of his choice, and his perception,
seems important to me.  But it leaves him alone and bereft of an
audience.  How do we create counter culture in these circumstances? 
How do we create a force that can stop the semantic slide of culture
into fascist, or totalitarian/nationalistic meanings?  Are there any
words, songs, arguments and actions that resist that appropriation? 
Or did the past fundamentally weaken the ability to resist
totalitarian appropriation and its propagandistic fictive discourse of
ethnic hatred?

For me it has been, still is terrifying to witness the efficiency and
cynicism of the military actions directed by the Milosevic regime.  It
is again a cliche of totalitarian 20th century power that a crime 
must be unspeakable if you don't wish people to speak about it.  It 
is one of its most sinister perversions.  But such crimes have a 
slightly different weight here to the ones Arendt describes: somehow 
they are familiar, they are part of "history" even before they are 
planned. They are not perceived as innovations.  This is going to be 
a fundamentally difficult problem of the post-Milosevic era.

Many have spoken of Milosevic as the creature - the Frankenstein -
created by the contradictory response to his actions in the west.  I
think that this underestimates the real grassroots support that
Milosevic enjoys.  The combination of state violence and cultural
liberalism seems to me precisely not the product of an innovative,
opportunistically evasive leader, but the logical extension Tito's
Yugoslavia.  After Tito, Tito.  Unlike Hodxa or Ceaucesceau the
characteristic of Yugoslav communism has always been a combination of 
these two factors, and Milosevic is the same.  Partly liberal
semi-revelations pepper every film from Belgrade and give then the
flavor of reality.  Except, of course, that they contain the explicit
nationalism - or characters that express the explicit nationalism -
that has tainted the discourse of every Balkan country.  The culture
that was so praised under Tito is still flourishing in Belgrade, for
all that it is restricted and from just one ethnic/national cuisine. 
That this "normality" flourishes shouldn't surprise us, but under
present circumstances it is one of the most deadly propaganda that
Serbia continues to achieve.  None can imagine Serb reality as clearly
or effectively as they do for themselves, with an apparent freedom
that continues undimmed.  Their contemporary cultural production
continues to enjoy a freedom that can continue to lay claim to
"Balkan" heritage.  The alternative is still "unpictured".

And the reason for this, I would propose, is that we associate
cultural power - at least in the mass media - with a strong political
process.  With national identity.  I wish this was not the case.  But,
as the bombs fall on military targets in Belgrade, Rambo Amadeus still
plays at least one concert in the streets before he leaves, a Serb
film is still released in Ljubljana where a character can say: "All
those people with brains have left the country", and the popular
support for Milosevic (who undoubtedly yearns for an even more total
power than he can effectively enjoy) is not undermined a whit.

Do NATO, or - more importantly - the European powers have the clarity
of vision to picture this totalitarian phenomenon for what it is and
dare to extinguish it?  Or will Milosevic's endless bluff, his dosing
of petty liberalisms and freedoms to a few of his Belgrade
constituents as well as his ability to convert ethnic prejudice into
murderous campaigns - to derive propaganda and a program of terror
from the masses that support him - continue to blur every negotiation,
and every attempt to picture the crimes of his regime?  The reaction
to Milosevic now is undoubtedly the crucial factor.  And the Serb
reaction to Milosevic is the key.  It is hard, with the bombs falling,
to imagine any critical reaction from within the criminal state
itself.  So where are the voices from outside?

Can anyone distinguish the facts from the symbol?  Who will stand up
for Serb culture and disavow Milosevic?  Who, for example, will bring
Serb politicians to trial?  How?  When?  Can anybody help me?

Michael Benson  <michael.benson@pristop.si>

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