Friday, April 17, 2009

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
~ Romeo & Juliet, Act II, scene 2


Poor Juliet. So right - and yet so wrong. For while it perhaps ought to be as she said, in reality names do matter. Names are one of the ways we perceive things around us. A rose is supposed to smell sweet; how many would give the benefit of the doubt to something dubbed "stinkrot"?

Names have power. If name-calling weren't so successful a tactic in arguments, would there be a Godwin's Law? I can't recall if it was Orwell who said that whoever controls the language controls the terms of the debate, but it's certainly true. Add to this that facts have increasingly taken a back seat to feelings - it doesn't matter whether something someone said is true, but rather how passionately they feel about it - and labeling becomes the way to win an argument without actually arguing at all. As long as you frame the question along the lines of "Do you still beat your wife?" it doesn't matter what the answer is.

Revealing his identity in today's column, "Spengler" of Asia Times explained the reason why he embraced a pseudonym years ago:

Why not openly identify myself? Because my readers then would have jammed my thinking into the Procrustean bed of their prejudice.


Oh, that sounds familiar, all right. For nigh ten years now, I've been publishing essays online. I had written before - a column here, a letter there, an editorial or dozen in the college newspaper - but my big break was in 1999. It was the year when the Internet first showed its potential as an alternate news medium, with Serbian proto-bloggers challenging the image of the Kosovo War crafted by the mainstream media that served NATO's war machine. (And serve they did: one of the BBC reporters covering the war later became the NATO spokesman.) Embittered by that war, I started writing. A Serbian diaspora website, which used to re-post a lot of the war reports, was happy to publish my essays. But it never occurred to me that I ought to hide behind a moniker. When Antiwar.com invited me aboard as a columnist, in late 2000, I used my real name. I even took time to offer a helpful lesson in Balkans spelling, so people would pronounce it properly.

Hate mail has been a constant. Only twice did someone challenge something I've actually said. Both were minor details. The rest of the time, complaints have run along the lines of "why are you publishing this raving Serbian chauvinist, genocide denier, apologist for atrocities, etc." You see, by questioning the propaganda about genocide, I was a "genocide denier." Never mind that I was later vindicated. Rising to fame and fortune (and let's not forget power) in the 1990s by fabricating the myth of "genocidal Serb aggressors" means never having to apologize.

Mind you, this sort of "criticism" wasn't limited to Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, or Croats (some of whom felt threatened by my "propaganda"). Some of the nastiest mail came from Serbia, after the Djindjic assassination in the spring of 2003. It was somewhat amusing, though, to see people curse me as a "son of Milosevic cronies" or "mercenary of the regime." My family lives in Bosnia, and I've never received one red cent from the Serbian government, but since I spoke of Djindjic in something other than awed reverence, I had to belong to a hated category. Their prejudice was so strong, they invented a fictional me to make my words fit their perceptions!

In November 2004, when I created this blog, I picked a handle that went with the theme, and also had a layer or two of metaphorical meaning. But my very first post linked to my work at Antiwar.com, so it's not like I tried to disguise my identity. I simply chose to make it a secondary concern, to try and put the focus on what I was saying, as opposed to who I was.

No such luck. That very month I broke the story of a Norwegian-commissioned report for the ICTY that put the death toll in Bosnia at just over 100,000. Within days, Reuters was talking about "Serbian weblogs" claiming that the research by Mirsad Tokaca (also funded by the Norwegians) "disproved the accepted fact that Muslims were by far the main victims" of the war. But there were no "Serbian weblogs," just little old me. I never did figure out whether the Reuters reporter researched the identity of Gray Falcon and said "Aha! A Serb!" or if he concluded that I must have been a Serb, since I dared challenge "the accepted fact."

The thing about prejudice is that you can't argue with it. Not rationally. Saying "No, I'm not really like that" doesn't work, either. And to be honest, I have no interest at all justifying myself to most of my critics. They haven't shown me that they deserve it.

So, when a particularly vicious screed arrived two weeks ago to the Antiwar.com letters editor, and he asked if I wanted to comment on it, I said, "Why waste my breath?" Run the letter without comment, I said, because nothing I say will make the author - one Asma Ishak - look any worse than her own words. I actually urge you to read this masterpiece of ignorance, arrogance and stupidity. I'm particularly fond of the way she claims not to care about people's ethnicity, religion and race, as she finishes a rant against someone based solely on his ethnicity. Perhaps her definition of "people" specifically excluded the Serbs? She wouldn't be the first.

Had Asma Ishak not been so obsessed with my origin, she might have noticed that in the text she ranted against, I criticized an editorial not because of the identity of its author (I certainly don't care if Borut Grgic is Slovenian), but because it tried to disguise a business agenda (an Austrian company's takeover of BH Telekom) as caring about the future of Bosnia. Yet I'm supposed to be a hater, driven by ideas that Ishak "detests," herself being all emancipated and enlightened.

This kind of thinking is precisely why Romeo and Juliet committed suicide. He was a Montague, she a Capulet - the feud between their houses meant their love could never be. Today's obsession with names isn't about identity - most people's identities are crumbling under the onslaught of soulless secular humanism - but about identity politics, which is the very embodiment of prejudice. Seize upon one little thing, build an identity around it, fight with others over government-bestowed privileges based on it. Sounds just like a recipe for a harmonious future, does it not?

My work speaks for itself. There are hundreds of columns archived on Antiwar.com, and hundreds more on this blog. I've spoken out against the Empire, against war (and therefore against war crimes, which ought to be intuitively obvious to even a semi-literate observer), for liberty, private property, secession, law, justice... But because the name behind these arguments is Nebojsa Malic, and not Muhammad or Bob, many people reject them out of hand, and some even feel compelled to create an imaginary me as a target of their rage.

That doesn't say much about me, but speaks volumes about them.

9 comments:

ajokic said...

You are exposing something important. In a political context labels are often used as if descriptive, as if applying to a phenomenon referred to and apparently attributing to it some key characteristics. However, more often than not labels in fact have no descriptive meaning, but only reveal something about their users. For example, when Bush in the course of his 2000 election referred to himself as "compassionate conservative" this in no way described him. It simply indicated he thinks of himself as a nice guy, so others should as well. When Western "analysts" of the Balkans used to call Milosevic "hard-line nationalist," Kostunica "moderate nationalist," and Djindjic "pragmatic non-nationalist" these terms described no one; they simply showed that the analysts themselves stand for the proposition that Milosevic was bad, Kostunica somewhat better, while Djindjic was the best. The whole "language game" is predicated on negative meaning inertia of "hard-line" and "nationalist" and positive meaning inertia of "pragmatist" and "non-nationalist". The game is simple and transparent, but works very well on unsuspecting and non-thinking crowds.

Suvorov said...

"Ehnic chauvinists ... who have for years and years intermarried"??
She cannot wait to abolish Republika Srpska so that she could mix her innocent Muslim blood freely with genocidal Serb blood.
Looking forward to your future rants, you closeted Turk.
P.S. In one Slavic language "ishak" means "mule".

Suvorov said...

Similarly, the terms "conservative", "liberal", "right-wing", "left-wing" etc themselves have become meaningless labels. This is largely due to the fact that very few bothered to define these terms for some time now and people were simply trained by the MSM to identify conservatives with Republicans and liberals with Democrats (obviously, the names of these parties are completely meaningless themselves) if we are talking about USA. Similar delineation was created in most Western European countries. And naturally related to this is another tendency which came into place when the Cold War began. Namely, to confuse free-market liberalism with conservatism. There was a large effort to consolidate free market ideology with religious and traditional values. And indeed most conservatives, or perhaps people in general, today seem to think that Jesus Christ and Adam Smith were the same person.

Robstar said...

Asma Ishak, whoever he or she may be, reply can be summed up by one thing. He/she in response to the fact that the Muslim/Croat Federation is broke asks where is the evidence. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the internet would see the text in your post that is red as opposed to simple back as a link to click on. And those links are working just fine. At that point it becomes clear that he/she did not even take a second to consider anything that you had written.

You were right not to say anything. There is a very good saying i heard i while back. "Never argue with an idiot, they'll drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience"

Suvorov said...

There was another one who commented under the actual article claiming that Muslim-Croat Federation is more prosperous than Republika Srpska. I posted a reply to that only to prevent him from misinforming others. It is futile to convince someone who is denying well-established facts.

Johan said...

"Never argue with an idiot, they'll drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience"

Right. Or as George Bernard Shaw put it:

"I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it."

dena said...

Ishak makes some good points. . Ishak brings up the point about intermarriage between Serbs and Bosnians that is hardly questionable when most of these people were one until declared separate states. As I am not conversant in Balkan history, but am not sure if "Bosnian Muslims were not even religious" even until the War broke out. In Lebanon's case, you experienced periods of religious sectarian harmony, particularly with Fakr Eldeen in the sixteenth century, but confessional disharmony erupted in 1860 with the Druze and Maronite Christians, subsided and culminated with the Civil War (1974-1991).
Ishak speaks about "decades of intermarriage" but one must take into account the millett system that dominated the Ottoman Empire where non-Muslim peoples were bound by their religious affiliation to report separately to the Turkish sultanate--in matters of marriage, divorce and payment of taxes. There was a separate millet system for Muslims of which Sunnis, Yezedis, Alawites and Druze were considered an anomaly "not real Muslims" . Under such laws there was little intermarriage. As the Balkan nations were subjected to Ottoman Rule, Serbian and Greek Orthodox were under the same millet system as those of the same religious sect in Lebanon.
We do not doubt that inter-marriage takes place as it has all throughout our five continents between different races and ethnicities, but it is very curious why on a certain website, Ishak makes a comment that being a Somali, she has not one drop of "Arab blood"

dena said...

I just left a comment and needs a correction, when I stated that "there was a separate millet system for Muslims of which Sunnis, Yezedis, Alawites and Druze were considered an anomaly "not real Muslims" . Correction should read "Shi'as, Yezedis,Alawites, and Druze.
My apologies.

Gray Falcon said...

Dena, not sure what you meant by "Ishak makes some good points," when most of your commentary refuted everything she's said. I do thank you for pointing out Ishak's own obsession with counting blood cells. Which site did you find that on?