Sunday, December 24, 2006


My latest copy of "Fools' Crusade" is due back to the lending library in two days, and my holiday is actually only about to begin--I have family arriving tomorrow, staying until the 2nd. So I'll be taking about a week or so off from the review. I'll order myself a new copy at the end of this week, and when it arrives I'll pick up where I left off.

Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [16]



The fourth paragraph ostensibly describes the process by which Slovenia established and strengthened ties to Austria and Italy in the late years of the Yugoslav period; it actually serves to insinuate that the Slovenes were conniving capitalists and snobbish elitists who sought to break up Yugoslavia in order to distance themselves from the non-Catholic riff-raff to their south.

The facts are not spectacular or amazing; one is almost tempted to conclude "Nothing to see here," except for Johnstone's trademark sinister tone. Having established that the decline of Federal power, combined with communist Yugoslavia's relatively open borders and openness to trade with the West, she describes Slovenian participation in this process thusly:

"In 1978, neutral Austria sponsored the foundation of an association called Alpen-Adria to foster such exchanges between provinces within Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria, which had all formerly belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cross-border regional groupings were promoted as a way of overcoming outdated nationalisms and ideological differences in the interests of the environment, trade, and cultural exchange. In theory, they were apolitical; in reality, with the benevolent encouragement of Otto von Hapsburg, heir to the throne of the defunct empire, and the blessings of the Catholic Church, Alpen-Adria promoted a strong sense of the superiority of "civilized" Mitteleuropa over the "backward, barbarous" Balkans."

[As always, underlined words and phrases in quoted passages were italicized in the original.]

What's interesting about this passage is how little of interest there really is, despite Johnstone's obvious attempts to imply underhanded and elitist motivations to the Slovenes. Their leadership took advantage of open borders to develop ties with regional economies? These ties had a strong religious, cultural, and historical basis? This organization was patronized by an heir of the former nobility? And there was a chauvinist slant to this organization? Oh, the horror...

I'm sure there were some insufferably elitist and smug Slovenes looking down at their poorer, less-educated countrymen down south. I'm not defending elitism; I am saying that such an attitude is a pretty lame scapegoat for a war that would tear a country apart and leave tens of thousands dead. The Slovenes were snobs who preferred the company of Catholic, formally Hapsburg peoples. That seems to be Johnstone's case against them.

One last point of interest, in the final sentence--yet another example of her use of quotes when she is neither quoting anyone OR using words or phrases in an unconventional manner. Why is 'civilized' in quotes? Who, exactly, described the Balkans as "backward, barbarous"? She doesn't say.

She goes on to describe a Western left that had lost interest in working-class interests to "issue-oriented" advocacy; that is, for what it's worth, a fair assessment. She claims that this signaled a broader rejection of support for socialism in any form, in exchange for the idealization of "civil society."

So we learn that:

"In the late 1980s, attractive young Slovenian intellectuals toured Western European capitals to alert human rights activists and anti-militarist journalists to the dangers of Yugoslav militarism. These youthful Slovenes spoke in terms of the values shared notably by German Greens, such as pacifism and human rights."

Sounds great, doesn't it? Not if you're Diana Johnstone. Tune in next time...

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [15]



The third paragraph kicks off with this odd claim:

"The 1974 Constitution had increased the independent decision-making powers of all the republics except Serbia."

Johnstone does not explain what she means by this. It may be that she is correct; she provides no examples or explanations of how Serbia's ability to function as a republic was hampered by the establishment of the two autonomous regions within Serbia. This is not to ignore the fact that the granting of autonomy to Kosovo and Vojvodina did diminish the area that the republic government in Belgrade controlled. Cutting Serbia down to size was certainly one of the primary motivations for the creation of the autonomous areas, but it wasn't just Serbia that went from having one out of six seats at the table to one out of eight, after all.

The paragraph continues:

"Because of the veto powers of its two autonomous regions, Serbia was almost as hamstrung as the Federal government, also located in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The Serbs sought a constitutional revision that would reverse the trend and enable Belgrade to carry out policy in an effective way."

This 'veto power' remains unexplained. Veto power over what, exactly? Over the internal affairs of Serbia proper? Not at all--the provisional government in Pristina had absolutely no authority outside of Kosovo. Over Serbia's voice in the Federal government? No--the other five republics faced the same reduction of the relative strength of their votes as well, as noted above.

The only veto power I can imagine she means would be over Serbia's control over those regions. This is not an unreasonable point--since Kosovo and Vojvodina were still autonomous regions within Serbia, certain issues internal to those two areas were certainly relevant to Serbia's larger interests. Infrastructure issues and other concerns would have been harder to coordinate once the autonomous areas were established, no doubt.

However, I doubt that this is what she means. She has not once mentioned the fact that Serbia was, by far, the most populous republic in Yugoslavia. And the fact that the Federal Government was located in Belgrade was an advantage to Serbia, even if Johnstone chooses not to acknowledge this.

I could get bogged down in trying to figure out what Johnstone is driving at here. Instead, I'll move on--but first, note that in the final sentence of the above quoted passage, it is somewhat unclear whether she meant for "Belgrade to carry out policy in an effective way" at the Federal, or Republic, level. The ambiguity might be unintentional, but I hardly think it's meaningless.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [14]



This section starts off reasonably enough; the first paragraph plausibly states that Serbia and Slovenia were the two republics most inclined to push for reforms after Tito's death. It is true that there was strong criticism of the mismanagement of the economy coming from both Slovenia and Serbia; her claim that these two republics also were ahead of the others in their criticism of the "political restraints" under the old system is, on some level, true, but would need some serious qualification if the author were at all interested in an honest analysis. I'm not necessarily pointing fingers at Serbia's leadership--Tito's death preceded Milosevic's rise by a few years, for example.

The paragraph concludes with the following quote:

"The political polarization between Serbs and Slovenes which dominated Yugoslav politics throughout the 1980s may be considered the most lethal blow dealt to Yugoslav unity from within."

So much for the promise of the first few paragraphs. Johnstone is attempting to turn a genuine contributing factor--the increasingly independence- and separatist-minded actions of the Slovene leadership--into the key factor in the breakup of Yugoslavia. I'm not suggesting that this was not a contributing factor; but compared to the rise of Milosevic, and the rise of Serbian nationalism, the restlessness of the Slovenes can hardly be considered decisive. One must be willing to overlook the revocation of autonomy for Kosovo and Vojvodina, for example, to consider the Serb-Slovene rift the "most lethal blow dealt to Yugoslav unity from within."

And note the "from within" qualifier; suggesting that external factors might have been even more decisive. The 'suggestion' will become stronger later in this chapter, and is explicit in Chapter Four.

The second paragraph concerns the frequency with which the Yugoslav constitution was revised during the forty-five years of communist rule. Johnstone makes the argument that the defining trend of this ongoing "permanent revolution" was to weaken the federal state while strengthening the republics. Not a baseless claim, although Johnstone as usual ignores concrete reality in favor of the purely (heavily biased) abstract--the reality was that, whatever the various constitutions said, Tito held the reins at all times. The problem with the communist system in Yugoslavia is that it completely relied on Tito, who simply could not give up absolute power, even in death. The absurdly cumbersome rotating presidency almost seems to have been his attempt to prevent anyone from replacing him in status and power even after he died.

Despite my above-mentioned reservations, Johnstone has at least brushed against some valid concerns so far. In paragraph three, as we shall see, she begins to, predictably enough, go off course.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [13]


One quick note from the previous section on Serbian nationalism before moving on. I had touched on this point in passing, but it was only when rereading the section in question that this quote struck me:

"To prevent any return to Serbian predominance, the country was divided administratively along geographic lines into republics that enlarged the "home republics" of the non-Serb nationalities while reducing the Republic of Serbia, notably by creating the Republic of Macedonia in what had been southern Serbia and recognizing a new "nationality," the Macedonians, whose Slavic language resembles both Bulgarian and Serbian."

So much to ponder there. For one thing, Johnstone conveniently ignores the fact that Macedonia was "part of Serbia" by virtue of having been conquered by force.

Also, her dismissal of the Macedonians status as a nation isn't surprising in and of itself--we already know that Bosnian Muslims (and, she once insinuated, Montenegrins) are "really" Serbs--except her admission that the Macedonian language is closely related to both Serbian and Bulgarian. So if "Macedonian" isn't a legitimate nationality by her standards, that begs the question--are they "really" Serbs, or are they "really" Bulgarians?

I don't think you'll be surprised in the slightest to learn that she ducks the question entirely.

Monday, December 18, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [12]



Johnstone's scorn for nearly all the non-Serb peoples of the former Yugoslavia takes many forms and adopts a wide variety of tactics. She sets up her assault on Slovenia and Slovenes at the end of the section on Serb nationalism. Having claimed that the vagaries of the 1974 constitution empowered increasingly nationalist elites in each of the republics at the expense of the Federal government (an argument that is not without merit), she turns her attention to the elites in each republic--rather selectively.

Having argued that secession was nothing more than a continuation of the breakdown of the Federal center after Tito's death (not a word about the rise of belligerent Serbian nationalism, or of Slobodan Milosevic at all in this chapter), she makes the further claim that the republics weren't fleeing from oppression or inequity but towards Western European markets and capital. The leadership of the individual republics scrambled to be first in line to suck up to the European Community (this was before the switch to the EU). This, essentially, is the core of the Michael Parenti the-West-destroyed-Yugoslavia-because-it-was-socialist delusion.

Since all the nations of the former Eastern Bloc were also jockeying for a piece of the pie, the republics of Yugoslavia had to find their own trump cards in order to play on western capitalist sympathies. Their answer, Parenti and Johnstone want you to believe, was to cynically claim they were fleeing Communist oppression from Belgrade.

It's an interesting theory, hampered somewhat by its complete disengagement from reality, but we'll let that pass. Our concern here is the uses to which Johnstone puts this interpretation:

"Throughout East-Central Europe, the light at the end of the tunnel of the Soviet Bloc was the prospect of membership of [sic] the European Union. Far from contributing to a sense of solidarity in the region, this shared ambition often took the form of a race between leaders of East-Central European countries to win the favor of the Brussels institutions by demonstrating that they were more "Western" and "European" than the others."

I always thought that the criteria the EU was looking for involved things like free markets, judicial transparency, human rights records, functioning infrastructure, and so on--maybe Johnstone knows something that the rest of us, including diplomats, economists, and government officials are somehow unaware of.

At any rate, she's established her sordid picture of desperate post-Communist nations scurrying to prove their "Europeaness" to the powers that be in the West (jettisoning a unity that she wants the reader to believe would have otherwise existed between these varied states with often contentious histories) not only to paint a scornful general picture of the immediate post-Cold War aftermath. This is, as I said, a very deliberate segue to the section on Slovenia. The above-quoted paragraph--the end of section 1--concludes thusly:

:As the richest, most northern and most western of the federated republics, ambitious Slovenians (with encouragement from Austria in particular) saw their republic as most eligible to jump the Yugoslav ship and get aboard "Europe." This prospect was by far the most powerful incentive to Slovenia's political class to secede. Slovenia's declaration of independence in June 1991 was the immediate trigger for the disintegration of Yugoslavia."

I don't think I need to point out to an even moderately informed reader that she's got the cart so far ahead of the horse it almost would be better to look for a new horse entirely. What is most aggravating about the above statement is that it is almost true. But not quite. Milosevic had already concluded that Yugoslavia could get by without Slovenia--there were no Serbs there.

But Johnstone wants us to believe that tiny Slovenia and it's lightly-armed troops, on their own, were sufficient to instigate the process by which Yugoslavia feel apart. We will examine her case for this rather startling claim in the next few posts.

Friday, December 15, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [11]



This post is going to be somewhat anti-climatic, I'm afraid. There really isn't much to say, despite the cliffhanger ending of my last post. I'll keep it short.

Essentially, Johnstone diagnoses the threat that the unwieldy federal/republic system presented to central control and order; she fails miserably when she goes on to claim that the primary culprit in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia was selfish behavior induced by this system.

It is true that national, democratic elections at the Federal level were needed; however, none were provided by the existing constitution. Even here, one might be inclined to concede Johnstone's point--she seems to be describing a tragic process by which the republics were set off against each other by a fundamentally flawed system. However, this comment betrays an important blind spot in her analysis:

"Under these circumstances, secession of the various republics did not signify a democratic revolt against a dictatorial centralized regime, so much as the acceleration of a process well underway in the final years of Tito's system."

This dismissal of a "centralized regime" flies in the face of what we know about the dying years of the Yugoslav system; the actions of the Federal government in Belgrade and of the JNA were far from peripheral to events in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Not much of a 'payoff' I realize; my analysis of this section isn't my best moment on this project so far, I fear. The final two paragraph of this section set up part two of Chapter Three. I will tackle them in my next post.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [10]



The first two pages of this section present us with the first cohesive and sustained piece of reasonable, fact-based analysis in the entire book. For those of you keeping score at home, I'm talking about pages 129-130. Better late than never.

The subject of these two pages--the "bureaucratic decentralism" of the subtitle--is a brief synopsis of the development of Yugoslavia's unique brand of decentralized state socialism under Tito. I actually think she mostly gets it right here; with two qualifications.

First, she harps on the 'artificial' nature of Macedonian nationalism. Considering that she believes nationality to be immutable and absolute, this is not surprising.

Secondly, she repeats the easily refutable fiction that the republic borders were entirely modern, administrative boundaries.

These two factors--the belief that nationality is somehow intrinsic and organic, something that can be passed unwittingly and which can even override a people's own professed identity; and the illegitimacy of the republics as constituent geopolitical entities--are crucial beliefs underlying Johnstone's thesis in this book. For all hectoring about naive and/or ignorant Westerners, it is clear from this otherwise-not-insane section that Johnstone may very well have acquired her distorted view of Yugoslav history from a misreading of the Tito years. She is correct to note the shortcomings of the ideology of decentralism when the country was divided into increasingly autonomous republics, each with it's own self-contained hierarchy of economic and political power. And she is correct to note that Tito defused desires for greater freedom and democratization by further empowering the republics.

However, we should not give her too much credit. Her understanding of nationalism--this cannot be said too often--is simply ridiculous. For an academic such as herself to embrace such a pre-modernist conception of group identity, where national identity is practically encoded in DNA, immune to changing circumstances even in the culture of the group itself is simply absurd. And even a cursory study of Balkan history would reveal that the borders of Bosnia, for example, have substantial historic basis.

Yet, even so, Johnstone does not go completely off-course just yet. She is correct to note that Tito's system, for all it's clumsy attempts at checks and balances as well as at decentralism, was fatally flawed simply because Tito always kept the reins of power firmly in hand, and failed miserably to establish an effective governmental structure to replace him. On this, Johnstone and I agree--the multi-member rotating presidency he created to replace him was clumsy and doomed to failure.

In the next post, we will examine where she gets it wrong.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [9]



The rest of this section marks the point at which Johnstone's discussion of Serbian nationalism veers from being biased and myth-obsessed towards pure weirdness. After a brief, one-paragraph discussion of the assassination that triggered World War I, she marks her sudden turn from shameless proselytizing to bloodless abstraction with this remarkable piece of unexamined generalizing:

"In the early years of the twentieth century, the Serbs were admired in the West for their patriotism, stoic courage, love of poetry, and laconic sense of humor. A century later, the West despised what it once admired. In the 1990s, the dominant Western power was more favorably inclined toward state demolition than state-building."

Where did that come from? Where does she get this stuff? I've read Johnstone and Michael Parenti, both of whom believe that the West--and the USA in particular--plotted long and hard to dismember Yugoslavia, and I've yet to see any convincing evidence. I guess one must take it on faith.

As for the West's about-face in their attitudes towards Serbs, there are two things to note. For one thing, perhaps the West was wrong to make sweeping generalizations about a national group; the Serbs were not, to put it mildly, the only non-Western ethnic group that Westerners ascribed particular national characteristics (some more complimentary than others) in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Also, it must be noted that Johnstone has pushed supposed Western attitudes towards the Serbs to center stage; it is no longer enough for the Serbian state and ethnic Serbs to be caught on the wrong side of a sweeping post-Cold War neo-liberal realignment of political and economic power. No, now 'the Serbs' are center-stage in this little drama.

Then the weirdness starts; it is, frankly, a little difficult to even review this section. And it's weary, dull work to type it all out. Essentially, she claims that Serbs were "state-builders"--who worked towards creating a 'territoy-oriented' nation-state--while all other Yugoslav peoples were "state-breakers" (she names the Croats as an example) who:

"...stressed "identity" and differences, tending toward exclusion of those not like themselves."

Of course, when you conveniently consider Slavic Muslims, for example, to be "really" Serbs, it helps, no? It is clear from this section--from this entire chapter, for that matter--that Johnstone has no understanding of the fractured and ambiguous development of national identity in the western Balkans. Anybody who has read a little about the region is aware that national identities were often fluid and remained unfixed and ill-defined well into the modern period. Research has revealed that the people we now think of as "Serbs" or as "Croats" often did not identify themselves as such.

Such a nuanced understanding of the issue wouldn't be hard to acquire, were one the slightest bit inclined to do so. Is is surprising that Johnstone based her brief Serbian history on a book written in the mid-19th Century? It was not for lack of more modern, reliable, research-based sources, I am quite sure.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Fool's Crusade" Chapter Three [8]



This section of part 1 ("From State-Building to State-Breaking") reveals just how deeply Johnstone has drank at the well of Serbian nationalism. She has embraced the biased and mythic version of the formative years of the Serbian state whole-heartedly. I mentioned a few posts ago when I began my review of this chapter that while she compares her versions of Serb, Croat, and Slovenian nationalism in this chapter, she does not have a section on Bosnian nationalism because she does not believer there is such a thing. There are no "Bosnians" in her telling.

In the first sentence, Johnstone unwittingly exposes the flaw in her own thesis:

"At the 1878 Congress of Berlin, the Great Powers astounded the Serbs by assigning Bosnia-Herzegovina not to the Serb rebels who had fought to liberate it from the Turks, but to Austria-Hungary as a "protectorate." "

How does one "liberate" a country by annexing it? Note that the Bosnian population at the time was largely split between Catholics and Muslims--the Orthodox population of Bosnia (note that I refer to Orthodox Slavs rather than Serbs) was a much smaller percentage of the population at the time. So Bosnia and Hercegovina was "liberated" by outsiders from a neighboring country who had ever intention of incorporating its territory into their own nation-state.

The answer to this conundrum is simple:

"The Hapsburg Empire's foremost authority on Serbia and Bosnia was a Hungarian aristocrat, Benjamin von Kallay, who had written an authoritative history of the Serbs in which he stressed that: "Bosnia is a Serbian land, the people in it are of Serbian nationality, and even the Muslims themselves are Serbs." Without outside interference, the merger of Bosnia and Serbia would have been only a matter of time."

So a Hungarian writing about Serbs gets the definitive word on Bosnian nationalism? Really? Although von Kallay was, as she notes, assigned to govern Bosnia by the Hapsburg regime--and so, therefore, one could reasonably argue that his views on the matter are quite relevant to the matter--Johnstone leaves it at that. There are no other views presented on the matter; as far as she is concerned, it's settled--Bosnian Muslims are "really" Serbs; no matter what they think. These are the same "aristrocratic Muslims" (her phrase--you could read this entire book up to this point and fail to learn that there were many Muslim peasants, not to mention a sizable Christian upper class, in Ottoman Bosnia) that the "Serb peasants" were liberating the Balkan Christians from.

The implications that the Muslims of Bosnia were "really" Serbs contains some sinister implications. The final sentence is both chilling--there is nothing in her analysis that suggests there is anything wrong with the annexation of Bosnia by Serbia even today--and ironic: Bosnia had never been considered part of Serbia, not in medieval times or afterwards, so the idea that the "merger of Bosnia and Serbia" is anything but the product of "outside interference" from a Bosnian perspective is absurd. Just because Johnstone does not use the words "conquest" and "annexation" does not alter the reality of what we are discussing.

The subject of developing a national identity is complex, and worthy of consideration in the Balkans, where nationalism came late, religious identities often co-existed with ethnic identities, and the formation of the nation-state was delayed by the existence of multi-ethnic empires.

Too bad Johnstone has absolutely no interest in the nuances of this issue. After two chapters of a maddening, amoral neutrality that views atrocities through gray-tinted glasses, she has abruptly discovered a world of stark contrasts and black-and-white distinctions. In this brief history of Serb nationalism lie the seeds of genocide. Johnstone has already argued--with no proof, of course--that Bosnia, as a historically valid geo-political entity, does not exist. Now, she is arguing that Bosnians themselves do not exist.

You cannot commit genocide against a non-people. The most extreme claims of Serb nationalists--that Bosnian Muslims are merely "rebellious Serbs" who have renounced their heritage--now have a Western champion.

Her conception of national identity is simplistic and ill-informed. If that were all it was, I would not be so concerned with it, and I would not have devoted 8 posts so far to the first four pages of this chapter. However, I cannot overstate how disturbing the implications of this section are. Her logic is only valid if one accepts a version of Balkan history where ethnicity is fixed and rigidly defined, and where group identity can somehow carry through DNA even when a cultural, social, or--in this case--religious group have come to conceptualize an alternate identity.

I need to close this for now; I hope to return to this subject refreshed and more persuasive and articulate. But for now, let it be said: Diana Johnstone is implicitly accepting the logic of fascism.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [7]



Johnstone breezes through the the 19th Century of Serbian history in a paragraph or two, dwelling on a couple of choice details (the precise number of village leaders decapitated in 1804 during the brutal suppression of the initial Serb uprising, for example). This attention to detail is striking, considering that in the previous paragraph she breezed through four centuries of Ottoman rule in a few short sentences. Her version of Serbian history is lifted straight from the crudely nationalistic--and implicitly Islamophobic--version that portrays the period of Ottoman rule as a centuries-long period of unceasing and unrelenting oppression and humiliation.

It's too bad that this crude, over-simplified version of Serbian history has become so prevalent, because the actual story is quite stirring and heroic. Whatever flaws and darker motivations later co-opted Serbian nationalism, there is no denying the truly heroic nature of their war of independence, or their genuine success in the cause of self-determination. A more nuanced, fact-based approach might do much to allow ethnic Serbs today to embrace their history while rejecting the twin strains of belligerence and self-pity--and the attendant fear of outsiders in general and Muslims in particular--which have poisoned their otherwise admirable national history and, yes, character.

If you know anything about Serbian history at all--particularly the jingoistic, quasi-mythic version peddled by Serbian nationalists since the founding of independent Serbia--you know the gist of the next page and a half. The tone is set in this sentence:

"Forced to defend themselves, the Serbian peasants took up arms in what was eventually to become the liberation struggle of all the Christian peoples of the Balkans."

In that sentence--shot through with uncritical subjectivity in contrast to the clinical coldness with which Johnstone views the victims of Serbian nationalism in her own lifetime--one can see both the genuinely heroic nature of the original Serbian struggle for independence and the jingoistic, patronizing, and ultimately militaristic and expansionist nature of the Serbian state to follow. The seeds of the Bosnian war were planted nearly two centuries earlier. Serbs came to see themselves not merely as their own saviors but as the liberators of all of the Balkans. The problem with this altruistic--and messianic--belief is that Serb nationalists would come to believe that their status as liberators entitled them to dictate and control the terms of south Slavic self-determination.

Johnstone is not unaware of this history. She chooses to preempt any such criticism by claiming that the "Greater Serbia" project--which dates, as she admits, from the 19th Century--was actually a more modest and reasonable agenda than the pan-Slavic ideal which peoples from the Hapsburg Empire wished to enlist Serbia in. In a way, she is correct. What she ignores is the implications of fighting for an enlarged Serbian state rather than a unified Slavic entity.

We enter the tangled issue of national identity among the Slavic peoples of the western Balkans at this point. Johnstone has deftly avoided this subject--in fact, I doubt she even acknowledges that there is an issue. In order to defend the "Greater Serbia" project, one must first claim that there were "Serbs" in the modern, national sense. This required, and encouraged, the transformation of the Orthodox Slavs of Bosnia into "Serbs." It would, ultimately, require even more than that.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [6]



(It's been a busy week. I haven't been able to attend to the review as I would have liked. Hopefully I'm back on track now.)

Johnstone's history of Serbian nationalism is suspiciously devoid of the clinical, bloodless tone that marked her earlier forays into such topics as ethnic cleansing and mass rape. Suddenly, it is just fine to throw around unqualified, subjective adjectives.

"The Serbian national movement emerged in the early years of the nineteenth century as the liberation struggle of an oppressed people. In the Ottoman Empire, political and economic privileges were reserved for Muslims. While the mosques called the Islamic faithful to prayer several times a day, the Sultan's law banned Orthodox Christan Serbs from marking their celebrations by ringing church bells."

This is not history as written by an unbiased, contemporary academic using original sources. This borders on propaganda, and there is a faint whiff of Islamophobia as well. The entire era of Ottoman rule is telescoped into a single, temporal moment of sinister Islamic persecution. There is no mention, for example, that the system by which Christian boys were taken away to be raised as janissaries had already become defunct by the early 19th Century. The church bells prohibition is presented as if it were uniformly enforced everywhere, at all times.

This is not to say that life for non-Muslims under Ottoman rule was just or fair; it was not. But in this section, Johnstone indulges in the paranoid hyperbole of Serbian nationalism rather than giving anything resembling a reasoned, informed description of life under Ottoman rule. Which, in itself, is perhaps not such a sin--although it is clear that she wants to justify the paranoia and defensive violence of modern-day Serbian nationalism by evoking the ghosts of the sinister Turkish overlords. More disturbing is her implicit condemnation of upper-class Muslims in the area (she has previously damned Izetbegovic for being descended from one of the ruling families of the Ottoman period; her advocacy for collective guilt necessitates that she accept and promote the concept of generational guilt as well).

Her lack of perspective, and her unquestioning acceptance of a biased, and emotional, version of this history is clear in this passage:

""Retrospective condemnation of Western Europe's own record of religious intolerance and persecution has shed a misleading if flattering light on the supposed "religious tolerance" of Ottoman rule. Ottoman "tolerance" of Christian peasants in the Balkans was a matter of economic self-interest. Laborious inferiors were a necessary source of income. The Rayah system, like black slavery and medieval serfdom, was ultimately intolerable. The Serbs were the first in the Balkans to rise up and defeat this unjust system.

I don't think Dobrica Cosic would object to the wording or the sentiments. There are some who might quibble with her comparison between the status of Christian peasants in early 18th Century Ottoman territory to plantation slaves in the American South, but such a lack of perspective and balance on her part should surprise no one.

Note that Johnstone is dismissive of Ottoman "religious tolerance" (again with the quotes--she is quoting nobody; nor is she using the phrase in an unconventional manner) not because it didn't exist, but because it was allegedly solely for exploitive reasons. One wants to point out that religious tolerance is still religious tolerance even if the motives are less than perfectly altruistic. Jews fled the Christian West for the Ottoman East, not the other way around. And while Christians were second-class citizens in late 15th Century Ottoman territory, Muslims who found themselves on reconquered land in Spain at the same time fared much worse.

To point out such inconsistencies is not to defend or exaggerate the virtues of the Ottoman period. But to magnify the real injustices of the period into a grotesque parody of real history is to commit a crime greater than simply oversimplifying or excusing past injustices. Johnstone is regurgitating the hyperbolic, xenophobic, and crudely mythic past in order to justify the present. The ethnic cleansing project was built on a foundation of bad history and masochistic bathos.


Johnstone has--briefly, and with little substance (the footnote at the end of this last paragraph quotes a history of Serbia written in the 1850's; I doubt there's been a non-Serbian history of the period since then sufficiently mawkish and Wagnerian for her purposes)--described the supposed plight of Balkan Christians under what some Bulgarian historians still refer to as "the Turkish yoke." How did they get out of it? We will look at her sycophantic telling in the next post.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [5]



I could continue to elaborate on what I think is wrong with Johnstone's conception of "national consciousness," or I could just let her demonstrate.

"The current caricature of archaic Serbs obsessed with the 1389 Battle of Kosovo has served to obscure the importance of a less distant past. Two historical factors had a major impact on Serb national consciousness. The first was the long struggle to liberate their people from centuries of subjugation and build a viable state. The second was the brutal destruction of the Yugoslav state by the Nazi invasion of 1941 and the massacres that followed."

It is quite remarkable how Johnstone breezily dismisses the entire Serb nationalist fixation with Kosovo as a figment of Western imagination in one brief sentence. This is chutzpah of the highest degree.

Other than that, she is now beginning her story of how the Serbs' historical consciousness was forged. While I alluded to the complex and nuanced ways by which a national consciousness is formed and--more importantly--maintained and communicated across space and especially time, rather than continuing to belabor this point I am simply going to examine her understanding of what she considers the Serbian national consciousness. I am confident that the shortcomings and oversimplifications of her approach will become apparent.

Starting tomorrow, I will begin to review the two pages of section one which follows the above-quoted passage. Hopefully, the serious shortcomings in Johnstone's analysis will become evident.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [4]



I've already devoted two posts to the first three sentences of this section. Time to get moving.

The first paragraph, after the three sentences parsed in the previous two posts--concludes thusly:

"However, by portraying Serb attachment to Yugoslavia as an aggressive nationalist plot to create "Greater Serbia", the secessionists transformed this obstacle into an asset. Serbs' desire to stay in Yugoslavia was transformed into the main argument for destroying it."

I assume most readers of this blog already know enough of the chronology of events leading up to the violent dismemberment of Yugoslavia to detect the dishonesty in that statement. While her cavalier dismissal of recent history isn't really worth dwelling on, it is, again, instructive to note how complete and absolute her collectivist mentality is; she has all but anthropomorphized the Serb people as a single unit, with a single identity, capable of experiencing history and aspiring for the future with a unified, singular consciousness.

The first sentence of the second paragraph serves as something of a slightly belated thesis statement for this entire chapter:

"Different historical experiences have indeed created differences in national consciousnesses between Yugoslavia's peoples."

Johnstone never defines what she means by a "national consciousness." I am not arguing that there is no such thing; however, an intellectually honest and genuinely inquisitive writer would want to clarify her terms. Most likely, she would need to examine the complex phenomena by which an ethnic, cultural, or religious group interpret and remember shared experiences. She would need to consider how members of a national group identify with each other and with their shared myths; in other words, how individuals come to identify with a shared experience even when the living members of that group haven't experienced those events themselves.

Again, none of this is to suggest that there is no such thing as a "historical consciousness." But it is to say that one must be clear on what one is talking about. Johnstone is, as we shall see, extremely sloppy, vague, and imprecise. The "historical consciousness" that "the Serbs" of her imagination supposedly interpret contemporary events through is much less solid and well-defined than she seems to realize. Johnstone's mistake--a deliberate error, I believe--is to simply ignore the reality that a "historical consciousness" must be, to some degree, self-consciously created and maintained. My comment that she anthropomorphizes the Serbs relates to this point. She talks a great deal about the different national groups and their various national consciousnesses, but she says nothing about how these ideas and concepts are articulated, interpreted, or passed on through time.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [3]



I left off in the last post with the following quote:

"Serb opposition to dismantling Yugoslavia was inevitable considering the Serbs' population distribution and political history."

On the face of it, it might seem that this is not an unreasonable statement. Yugoslavia had existed as a country for a little over seven decades; the vast majority of its citizens knew nothing else. And if ethnic Serbs felt a sense of unity and belonging, a breakup of Yugoslavia along the borders of the republics would certainly divide ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia from Serbs in Serbia, proper. So, the Serbs would be split between three different countries, rather than united in one.

Despite the eminently reasonable tone of this section, there are some unexamined assumptions underlying it which Johnstone and other defenders of the Greater Serbia project (which, her somewhat clever "Smaller Yugoslavia" theory aside, is what we're talking about) accept without question.

One assumption is obvious--is this necessarily a bad thing? Is there something intrinsically bad about an ethnic group being divided between different countries?

Remember that, in the Balkans, demographic fluidity has been the norm; people have always moved around a lot. Ethnic Serbs were widely dispersed throughout the Western Balkans. It is worth noting the the Krajina Serbs were settled outside of Serbia by the Hapsburgs. And putting aside the issue of how Orthodox Bosnians 'became' Serb, it is no secret that other moved into Bosnia from Serbia.

Knowing these facts--and they are well-known--it is troubling that Johnstone and her allies are so willing to adopt the "All Serbs in One State" mantra when they damn well know that Bosnian and Croatian Serbs knowingly left Serbia. You simply cannot have it both ways.

The ancestors of the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs most certainly did not consider these questions when they relocated from where they had come from. People moved within the Ottoman Empire and between the frontier regions between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires for a variety of reasons, but consciously defining the borders of some future nation-state was not one of them.

Johnstone's historically unfounded assertion that the republic borders of Tito-era Yugoslavia were meaningless administrative boundaries is not only inaccurate, it also fails to address the question of how to draw borders that are, in her opinion, legitimate. This begs the question--where should the borders be, and on what criteria should they be based? Contemporary demographic realities? History? For the Serbs, the answer appears to be: Both, or either, depending on which answer claims more land. Johnstone simultaneously claims that the Serbs of Bosnia have the right to remain in the same state as the Serbs of Serbia because they are Serbs, while maintaining that Kosovo, despite the demographic realities, must remain a part of Serbia because of the Serbs' historical ties to it.

Which leads me to the other underlying assumption--that the concerns of the Serbs were paramount. The Serbs were, as noted, widely dispersed throughout the Western Balkans, including many areas which have never been considered part of Serbia proper. In order for them to remain in the same state, non-Serbs in any area where a sizable number of Serbs live must either be included in that state, or they must leave their homes. And this, in spite of the well-documented historical fact that many Serbs live outside of Serbia, and had done so for centuries before the founding of Yugoslavia.

At the risk of sounding glib, I'll close this post with the observation that Johnstone seems to believe that the Serbs (her construct of a single, homogeneous ethnic group with a singular national consciousness, that is) can, and should, have their cake and eat it too. That, after the conquest and demise of the medieval Serbian state, individuals would move around the Western Balkans for centuries and then, at the close of the Twentieth Century, declare that their right to live as a unified people trumped all other demographic realities and historical and cultural claims.

And Johnstone sees nothing wrong, inconsistent, or dangerous about this.