Sunday, October 01, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Two [2]


The introductory paragraph to this chapter repeats Johnstone's common theme that Western political leaders and media outlets oversimplified the situation in Bosnia.

"The break-up of Yugoslavia was increasingly represented by the mass media and Western political leaders as a struggle between good and evil. The Manichean approach was suited to mass media simplification. But it also fitted into a disturbing tendency in the United States first of all, increasingly followed by Western Europe, to reduce social and political problems to criminal cases and courtroom disputes."

I won't comment on her attempt to cheapen the work of the International Criminal Justice court as "courtroom disputes." It is telling that she seems to regard the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia as having apparantly been the product of "social and political problems." This is a fairly good insight into her warped reading of evetns.

The first section of Chapter Two begins:


"The easiest way to describe a totally unfamiliar situation in a short time is by analogy to a familiar one. Nothing was more familiar to the Western public of the late twentieth century than Hitler and he Holocaust. Describing an event in these terms could arouse interst and an impression of understanding. It "sells" on news desks. Once the mass media began to treat the Yugoslav conflicts in these terms, likening the Serbs to "the new Nazis," the dynamic became irresistible. Serbs as Nazis, with Milosevic as Hitler, was "the story" that reporters were sent to look for. To succeed, they (or their desk editors) as often as not poured whatever they found into that mould."

This is the first paragraph of section one, "Manichean Media." There are several points worth noting:

1) Was the situation in Bosnia "totally unfamiliar?" What does Johnstone mean by this statement? Is she talking about the ethnic and cultural background in Bosnia? The savagery of the fighting? She does not believe that a genocide occured in Bosnia, so we can rule that out. And she argues throughout the book that the atrocities that so outraged the West were unfortunate but predictable symptoms of a brutal civil war; surely civil wars--brutal and otherwise--are not "totally unfamiliar" to Western correspondants and audiences. The only aspect of the war that she might believe was without precedent and foreign to Westerners would have to be the history of Yugoslavia and its peoples; in other words, this is yet another point in her book where she claims that the situation in Bosnia was culturally unique and unfathomable to outsiders.

2) Nothing was more familiar to Westerners than Hitler and the Holocaust? This is such blandly sweeping statement it almost passes by without calling attention to itself. Almost.

3) Note that the phrase "the new Nazis" appears in quotes. You might wonder who she is quoting. Hard to say--there is not a single footnote to this section. There are some rather strong charges in this paragraph; it would not be asking too much for a cited example or two. And it's not as if she is loathe to cite sources when she finds a quote (often from a source that contradicts her own beliefs) that seemingly bolters her cause. As interesting as her selective use of quotes is, it is at least equally enlightening to note when she does not use them at all.

4) We should not be surprised that she seems to believe the media actually needed a simplistic story line in order to get the public interested. Not that the media did not oversimplify the story; they most certainly did. There are interesting things one could say about that; for example, I have always believed that for all the sympathy most members of the Western media felt for the victims of the Bosnian genocide, all too often they accepted at least some of the logic of the nationalists who started the war. Blame was all too often placed on "the Serbs" instead of on the political and military leadership. Even while the tactics of ethnic cleansing were being condemned, the rationale was all too often implicitly accepted. So one might believe that this is one of those places where Johnstone has unwittingly stumbled onto a valid (if, in her hands, grotesquely overblown) point.

Then next sentence, on the other hand, suggests that her implied point has gone over her own head:

"When in doubt, atrocities were attributed to the Serbs."

So much for nuance. I made this point earlier in another post, but it bears repeating: Johnstone does not object to applying blanket judgements and collective beliefs and actions onto an entire ethnic group, she merely objects to the particular characterizations.

And what are some of these examples of atrocities of questionable authorship being attributed to "the Serbs" by default? Well, this time she DOES have concrete examples. And anybody familiar with the brazen propaganda of the Pale leadership and the thickheaded attempts at even-handed neutrality by the UN in Sarajevo will already be familiar with these incidents: the three 'market massacres' in Sarajevo. Yes, in 2002 she still thought these stories still held up to scrutiny. We'll revisit those episodes and examine what Johnstone tries to make of them in the next post.


Owen said...

Johnstone seems to think it unreasonable for news of people being butchered on grounds of ethnicity and collected in camps in the heart of Europe to bring back thoughts of the Nazis. Not to mention the fact that the horror of genocide / democide in Cambodia was still relatively fresh in people's minds. Forget who was doing it and who it was being done to, did public interest really need to be aroused deliberately as Johnstone suggests?

The idea that it might be useful for informants to try to help the public understand what was going on is hardly remarkable either. After all that's what Johnstone herself tries to do. The problem for her is that instead of initial confused interpretations being corrected in fact investigators found a body of evidence substantiating initial analyses.

By the time Johnstone got down to her review of what happened she was presumably in a position to refer to Mazurwiecki or Bassiouni. Does she ever mention them?

Shaina said...

Not to go too off topic here, but do you really think that the Cambodian genocide had that much of an impact on public opinion?

In the US at least, it seems as if Pol Pot's genocide is the forgotten genocide.
There was some increased attention after the release of the movie "The Killing Fields" but even then, I don't think the Cambodian genocide has ever really effected people; or that people are even that aware of the Cambodian genocide.

Of course, in Europe the situation might be different.
US involvement in Cambodia during the 1970s is explicitly linked our relationship and involvement in Vietnam; which may be why the Cambodian genocide did not get the attention it deserved during the 1970s or even afterwards.

Owen said...

Shaina, in the late 1970s and early 1980s the world was horrified by what emerged after Fr Ponchaud's book. Then the genocide became an issue in the recriminations against Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon as a consequence of their illegal bombing of the country during the latter stages of the Vietnam War. You can't have any idea what a controversial figure Kissinger was.

After the Vietnamese invasion and the overthrow of Pol Pot less was heard of Cambodia apart from regular ructions over continued US support for the Khmer Rouge. The US and its allies including the UK continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the country's legitimate government and - I'm sure you won't credit this - they were even allowed to continue occupying Cambodia (Khmer Republic as it was)'s seat at the United Nations, in spite of the genocide/democide and the fact that they were continuing to operate a regime of terror and oppression in the refugee camps under their control in the border areas and in Thailand.

There was an international blockade of the Vietnamese-supported Govt in cambodia. The people of Cambodia were enduring terrible hardships but the only aid they were allowed to receive was emergency humanitarian relief. The reason I began campaigning as a volunteer with Oxfam was because around 1990 Oxfam were successful in persuading the Tory Development Minister Lynda Chalker to overturn Britain's ban on development aid to Cambodia (I think it was on the issue of water supplies).