Monday, September 21, 2009

Scheduled interruption

I'll be traveling for a bit for the next two weeks. While it is possible I might post something within that time frame, it isn't very likely. Regular (ha!) blog service should resume the second week of October. Till then, enjoy these interesting times...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

This is why I am not a journalist

For ten years now, I've been writing about the Balkans. Among other things, this has involved parsing through media reports, identifying the catchphrases and "editorial guidance". For a year, back in 1995, I had the firsthand experience of how the "news" were made, and it bears an uncanny resemblance to sausage-making. Even so, there are days when I look at what passes for news reporting and go "... what?"

Today, for example, I saw a headline from AFP, "Balkan hopefuls trip over past on way to EU." I open the story, and what do I see? A lazy journalist, a story cobbled together from snippets of local gossip, and some busy editors peddling propaganda talking points. No wonder the news media are dying.

First of all, saying that "the past still bedevils ties between Balkan neighbours" is not news. It's an observation on par with "the water is wet". In other words, superfluous and pointless.

The occasion for this piece of non-news was the visit by Serbian president Boris Tadic to Pale, in the Serb part of Bosnia (RS), where he opened an elementary school. The AFP dutifully reported that this "infuriated" Muslim and Croat officials, who saw in this "an obvious show of special relations" between Belgrade and the RS. According to the AFP writer, it also "stirred up suspicions regarding Belgrade's respect of the Dayton accords."

Earth to AFP: the "special relations" provision is in the Dayton Agreement. It's all perfectly legal and aboveboard.

Now, it is true that Tadic didn't bother coming to Sarajevo, and that this may well be considered a diplomatic faux pas. At the same time, the Bosnian Muslim top cleric, Mustafa Ceric, visited Serbia recently, stirring up the Muslims in Raska region and openly supporting the "independence" of the occupied Kosovo. He also called for incorporating the Sharia (Islamic law) into the Bosnian Constitution (!). That, by the way, went almost entirely unreported in the Western press.

No, the real "news" is AFP quoting Srecko Latal, a rumor-monger working for the IWPR (BIRN, whatever they call themselves these days), who offered up the "fact" that "the idea of Greater Serbia... is still alive" among Serbian nationalist voters.

Latal's name pops up with alarming frequency in Balkans reports of major newspapers and agencies. Why bother doing the legwork, or even copying government press releases (I sympathize; they are boring and poorly written) when you can just call up the BIRN office and have Latal provide some meaty quotes about how Bosnia is on the verge of a new war, or something similarly sensational?

The AFP reporter also includes two quotes by Tadic taken from the media, and another quote from a Serbian daily (with close links to Tadic's party), containing some nonsense about EU being the only hope for the fractious Balkans. I mean, come on! This passes for reporting these days? Call up the usual source, paste in a couple quotes from the press, offer up a speculative and truth-free account of what happened... This can all be done from a laptop at a Starbucks in Paris. AFP hardly needs to pay a reporter to sit in Belgrade, if this is all they are going to get.

To recap a non-story: Serbian president Boris Tadic, an Imperial boot-licker who could hardly in a million years be called a "nationalist" by anyone with half a brain, visits the Bosnian Serb Republic and opens a Serbian-sponsored school. Muslim leader Haris Silajdzic gets worked up and issues a hysterical statement. AFP doesn't actually quote the statement, because there's nothing worthwhile in it, but puts together a story from press clippings and editorial guidance, in line with Silajdzic's claim - and similarly unrelated to the truth.

This is why I refuse to be called a journalist. I actually work for a living.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Ghosts of 1939

Seventy years ago today, German armies crossed into Poland, introducing the world to "Blitzkrieg." The British and French declarations of war turned a local conflict into a continental one. Soon another war was on in the Pacific, and by 1941 both the USSR and the U.S. had become involved as well.

The physical consequences of the war were horrific: up to seventy million dead; Europe, China and Japan in ruins; many Jewish communities completely extinct as a result of Nazi genocide (a word coined after the war to describe the systematic murder of an entire people); atomic weapons unleashed.

I would argue the ideological consequences were just as bad. On one hand, there is no denying that national-socialism was evil; it was oppressive at home and aggressive abroad. On the other hand, the war against Nazism was a shot in the arm for both Communism and "progressivism."

By 1939, Lenin and Stalin's revolutionary executioners had already killed far more people than Hitler, with a song in their hearts. Stalin ignored the warnings of the impending Nazi invasion, and when it finally came bungled the war so badly that millions of people died as a result. Faced with a life-and-death struggle, a "holy war" against an enemy bent on their annihilation, the Soviet people (Russians as well as others, it needs be said) put in a superhuman effort to win the war. And what thanks did they get? None. Stalin took all the credit for victory, and none of the blame for the mistakes. Victorious generals were sacked or purged. POWs liberated from German camps were sent to the Gulag, to cover up the embarrassing fact that they got captured thanks to Stalin's own orders. And the people in what was once Russia got to "enjoy" another 45 years of Workers' Paradise. Only this time they "shared" their "joy" with the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, the Baltic nations, and even some Germans.

Something similar happened in the West. For all the talk of "democracy" triumphing over "fascism", the war cemented FDR's social revolution that created an American brand of fascism in all but name. Big government, business cartels, a military-industrial complex, income tax withholding - all these are legacies of the war. The British fought to save their Empire, and ended up losing it. They also turned to "war socialism" that became socialism in peacetime as well. Politicians who brought about these changes have resisted criticism because hey, they "defeated Hitler and freed the world," right? Britain today is a surveillance state to a degree worse than anything Orwell imagined in 1984, while Americans shout that they are "free" but have no idea what freedom means anymore.

My own country was occupied by the Nazis and their allies, partitioned, and subjected to terror and genocide. Resistance drew brutal reprisals (100 civilians shot for every German soldier killed, 50 for every injured). The royalist resistance trusted the Western Allies, only to be betrayed and sold out to the Communists. The Yugoslavia established in 1945 was free of Nazi occupation (and ethnically cleansed of Germans, I might add), but all it had in common with its predecessor was the name. And for the next 45 years, we all had to share the "joy" of Communism as well.

None of this is to dispute the evil of national-socialism, or excuse anything the Nazis and their servants have done. But I'm sick of the whole "We defeated Hitler, therefore everything we do, everything we've done, and everything we intend to do still is right and beyond reproach" nonsense. This kind of "logic" is at the root of modern morality: when we do it, that's heroic, but when they do it, it's reprehensible. Let me point out the inconvenient fact that this is precisely the way the Nazis used to "reason"!

Since 1945, both the American and the Soviet empires used this "mythic authority" of war victors to do as they pleased around the globe. In the 1990s, when Communism collapsed and Yugoslavia imploded in a series of ethnic wars, the Western interventionists invoked the imagery of WW2 and imagined new Hitlers that had to be defeated at all costs. Hitler was invoked both times the Americans invaded Iraq. The disingenuous "war on terror" was helped along by the invocation of "Islamofascism."

Yet the map of Europe today looks suspiciously like the one from 1942, and it is Hitler's former allies that are the staunchest supporters of the American Empire. German troops are back in the Balkans (to show that they've gotten over the original Hitler, right?) and the Luftwaffe has bombed civilians again. The world whose foundations were laid down in the Atlantic Charter, and at the conferences in Bretton Woods, Tehran and Yalta, is no more. That order was ultimately dismantled by its own creators and guardians, who found it too inconvenient and restrictive. So, continuing to invoke Hitler as a justification is cynical at best.

It is time to give up the myth of the Great Good War and let it become proper history, in which defeating the Nazis did not give the victors the right to act like them, or be exempt from rules of civilization. Only then will Hitler truly be defeated.