Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Michael Dobbs on Bosnia: Explaining evil or parroting cliches ?

Michael Dobbs of Foreign Policy and of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) appears upset at criticisms of his article ‘In defense of the Serbs’. He had claimed that the international community in 1991-1992 had treated the Serbs in an unfair and contradictory manner, on the grounds that ‘Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia.’ Responding to the accusation that he thereby ‘legitimizes the aggression and genocide committed by Serbs’, Dobbs has responded that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’.

Dobbs is simply putting forward a general principle, since he is incapable of responding to the concrete arguments. In my last response to Dobbs, I refuted his claim that the international community had treated the Serbs unfairly. I pointed out that Serbia was not treated differently from the other former-Yugoslav republics, in terms of its right to seek international recognition, and that the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia were not treated differently from minority groups in other republics (e.g. Croats in Bosnia, Bosniaks in Serbia, Albanians in Macedonia) in terms of being denied the right to secede from their respective republics. Dobbs was unable to challenge this point.

Dobbs is right that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’. Unfortunately, he does not explain evil; he merely parrots the evil-doers’ own excuse for the evil, taking it as face value. Had he said ‘Serb nationalists opposed the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, and argued that the Serb minorities in these republics should have the right to secede from them’, then he could have reasonably claimed to be explaining the Serb nationalists’ point of view (or at least the point of view that they gave in public). But he went further than this, and effectively said that the Serb nationalists were right; that though they may have carried out the bulk of the atrocities, their view of the break-up of Yugoslavia was the correct one.

As has been suggested by bodies such as the Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada (IRGC) and Congress of North American Bosniaks (CNAB), this does not explain evil; it justifies it. Dobbs is claiming that the aggression and genocide unleashed by Serb leaders against Bosnia was merely a response – albeit an illegitimate and disproportionate one – to their legitimate grievances at the anti-Serb policy of the international community. As if the Serb leaders had not been planning or waging war and genocide prior to the international community’s recognition of Croatian and Bosnian independence in late 1991 and early 1992, and would not have embarked upon this war and genocide if the international community had not treated them unfairly.

Thus, Dobbs claims that as a result of the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, ‘The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset.’ As if this ‘delicate ethnic balance’ had not already been ‘upset’ by Belgrade’s crushing of Kosovo’s autonomy, raising of a Serb rebellion in Croatia, full-scale military assault on Croatia and destruction of the city of Vukovar ! All of this having occurred, of course, prior to the international recognition of Croatia or Bosnia.

Dobbs continues: ‘To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was “worse than a crime.” It was a gross error of political judgment.’ He is accusing the international community of being guilty of something ‘worse than a crime’ because it rejected Serb-nationalist demands to dismember Croatia and Bosnia. It is a statement that is erroneous at several levels. Croatia and Bosnia were not ‘other people’s republics’; Croatia was the state not only of the Croatian nation but of all its citizens and minorities, among which the Serbs were explicitly listed in the Croatian constitution; Bosnia was the common homeland of Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others. In the free elections of 1990, most Croatian Serbs voted for the Social Democratic Party of Croatia, which supported a sovereign Croatia, rather than the nationalist Serb Democratic Party. In Bosnia, too, although the great majority of Serbs voted for the Serb Democratic Party, significant numbers voted for non-nationalist parties that supported Bosnian unity. Dobbs speaks of ‘two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics’, as if every single Serb civilian – woman, child, elderly, invalid, anti-nationalist, etc. – were ‘well armed’, and ready to burst spontaneously into armed action the moment Croatia’s and Bosnia’s independence were recognised. The very title of Dobbs’s original post, ‘In defense of the Serbs’, is patronising and offensive; he is not defending ‘the Serbs’, but merely the Serb nationalist arguments. He certainly isn’t defending the brave anti-nationalist Serbs who opposed the war and genocide: Bogic Bogicevic, Jovan Divjak, Gordana Knezevic and many others. I wonder if he even knows their names ?

Dobbs appears to treat as some sort of vindication, the fact that his commentary has offended Bosniak survivors along with Serb nationalists: ‘Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing champions for both sides.’ One of the most consistently offensive aspects of the West’s involvement in Bosnia, has been the propensity of even the most ignorant Western observers to feel they have the right to patronise the natives ‘on all sides’.

I wonder if Dobbs would have been equally pleased with himself, if he had written something about the Holocaust that had succeeded in offending equally both Germans and Jews ? His argument about Bosnia is equivalent to saying ‘Yes, the Nazis did start World War II and murder six million Jews and millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others, but on the other hand, the international community was wrong to have imposed the Treaty of Versailles that left millions of Germans in other people’s countries – Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc. – so things are not really black and white, and Jews should try to understand the Germans’ point of view.’ Yet every student of German history knows that the Treaty of Versailles, and the ‘unfair’ borders imposed on the Germans, are not sufficient reasons to explain why the Nazis embarked upon total war and genocide.

To put it differently: Dobbs is right that Serbs had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about how their rights would be protected in an independent Croatia or Bosnia. But people with ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ don’t normally slaughter tens of thousands of people in genocidal campaigns. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the US had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about the treatment of black Americans, but they did not organise a genocide.

Contrary to what Dobbs claims, I do not think he is an idiot; merely extremely naive. I do not think he is a ‘Mr Bean’; merely that he has as little to say about the Bosnian war as Mr Bean had to say about the painting ‘Whistler’s Mother’. I am not familiar with his work in other areas; for all I know, he may be an excellent journalist. But I remain unable to comprehend how someone with so little knowledge and such a superficial understanding of the Bosnian war and genocide should be given so much space to write about them by Foreign Policy and the USHMM.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The blogosphere as a whole is guilty for the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ hoax

A blogger creates a false identity and feels free to tell a whole multitude of lies, without any concern for those he is deceiving or for the dangerous consequences for some of them. The Pope is Catholic. Bears crap in the woods. The Tom MacMaster scandal is merely the tip of a very ugly iceberg: the blogosphere.

In some other places and at some other times, people were prepared to suffer persecution as the price of speaking out. Dissidents were ready to spend decades in prison and endure torture and ruin, or risk assault or assassination, because they spoke in their own name. There were gods other than comfort and self-gratification. Unfortunately, things are different today in the Western democratic world, where people have become so pampered by freedom, and so averse to anything that smacks of risk, that they indulge in the pleasure of speaking their mind without accepting the responsibility that comes with putting their name to what they say.

That a society which upholds freedom of speech, and which provides its citizens with unprecedented opportunities to exercise it, should also be one in which the vast majority that comments on the internet does so anonymously, is a symptom of the cowardice and the corruption of spirit that are corroding Western public ethics. Not for us, the path of a Martin Luther King, an Andrei Sakharov, a Vaclav Havel or an Aung San Suu Kyi. No, your Western blogger or commenter is unwilling to write under their real name, because they fear ‘problems in the workplace’. Or else the poor little darlings are worried that they may say something embarrassing and not be able to delete it afterwards. It’s a jolly good thing that earlier generations did all the hard work of fighting for democracy and human rights, because our present generation clearly would not be up to the task; would not be willing to risk so much as a scratched finger in the cause of struggling for freedoms that we take for granted.

From there, it is a short step to feeling possessed of the right to create false personas, then multiple false personas, so that every other blogger becomes an aspiring little Talented Mr Ripley. Inevitably, some, like MacMaster, will become so carried away by their adventures of deceit that they will end up seriously hurting or endangering others. Scams like his are structurally inherent in the nature of the blogosphere.

This is part of a more general malaise of selfishness that is eating away at the Western world. People fetishise rights and freedoms but despise duty and responsibility. They don’t want to pay taxes so that other people can have free university education, or even free healthcare. Some, probably most extremely rich people think it is entirely appropriate to make vast sums of money through the existing order, yet to evade as much as possible giving any of it back in taxes. Others see nothing wrong with spending their whole life living off state benefits, without any attempt at getting a job. Men and women have extraordinarily high expectations of romantic relationships, yet are frequently unwilling to give even a fraction emotionally of what it takes to make a relationship work.

Having said this, I do not blame any individual for choosing to blog or comment anonymously; some, if not most, of my favourite bloggers do so. It is the collectivity that is to blame; it has created an atmosphere in which it is more and more psychologically difficult for people to write under their real names – like being the only nudists on a crowded beach. Fear of writing under one’s own name may be justified, in some cases at least, given the toleration accorded by lazy comments moderators to abuse and even violent threats; their creation of an atmosphere that encourages intimidation. The selfish, spoilt, decadent, phoney morality of the blogosphere privileges liars, frauds, trolls, bullies, libellers, rumour-mongers, hate-mailers, stalkers and vulgarians over honest, decent commenters – all in the name of a ‘freedom of speech’ that it clearly does not understand.

Let me spell out a few truths that should be obvious but apparently are not. If a woman office-worker turns up at her office and finds the notice board covered with anonymous messages calling her a ‘bitch’ and a ‘slut’, and accusing her of sleeping around to gain promotion, and she complains to the manager, and if the manager then refuses to allow the messages to be removed, then he is not standing up for ‘freedom of speech’; he is colluding with sexual harassment. If an ugly, overweight or mentally retarded teenage girl is mercilessly teased by her classmates at school until she is finally driven to hang herself, the teachers that failed to stop the bullying were not ‘respecting freedom of speech’; they were criminally negligent. Yet blog (non-)moderators apparently don’t understand the difference between harassment and ‘freedom of speech’.

The anonymity and the laxness of the blogosphere corrupt our public discourse, as extraordinary expressions of vulgarity, hatred and venom, or of dishonesty, or of inaccuracy and laziness in the written word, are first treated as acceptable by bloggers, after which the rot spreads to other media. Yet the brave soul who tries to take a stand against this tide calls down upon themselves all the blogosphere’s hypocritical, righteous indignation.

When an elected Conservative councillor called publicly via Twitter for the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – of whom I’m myself no fan – to be ‘stoned to death’, and she announced her intention of reporting him to the police, there were those who somehow believed he was the victim. Apparently, our elected representatives aren’t actually expected to set any kind of example of correct behaviour. When a frustrated traveller stuck at an airport threatened via Twitter to ‘blow the airport sky high’ and was consequently arrested under the Terrorism Act, this ‘martyr’ and his subsequent supporters apparently considered the tough job the police have to do fighting terrorism to be simply less important than the right to throw a wholly irresponsible public tantrum for suffering an inconvenience that millions of people experience every year. Hello ? Are you not aware that we’re fighting a mortal struggle against terrorists trying to destroy the freedom to tweet, and that our police have a difficult enough job to do without you adding these complications ?

Blogging is a responsibility as well as a pleasure. If you blog, you should take responsibility for what you say. If you really must remain anonymous, don’t say things that you would consider embarrassing or inappropriate under your real name. Either moderate the comments ethically, or keep the comments closed; don’t pretend you’re some sort of champion of the little blogger who can’t afford paid moderators, just because you can’t be bothered to moderate.

If you write something on your blog and it turns out to be grossly untrue, it should rightly affect your reputation. The knowledge that what you say might turn out to be false should act as an incentive to be very careful with what you say. If other people suffer as a result of your words, you should rightly be held to account – not in the sense of the secret police turning up to throw you in prison, but in a manner appropriate for a democracy; you should suffer the public opprobrium. If you are dishonest, sloppy, unreliable, vulgar or abusive, you should be known as such. Your face should not remain youthful and unblemished, like Dorian Gray’s, while the portrait in the attic is distorted beyond recognition by the ugliness of your sins.

There should be no freedom of speech without responsibility of speech; no freedom without responsibility. If you aren’t prepared to pay your fair share of taxes to support the healthcare, education, welfare and security of your fellow citizens – upon whom you and your prosperity ultimately depend – you have no business making money. Progressives know this, so they should stop upholding selfishness in one field while they criticise it in others. Because quite frankly, if the ugly mess we have today is ‘freedom of speech’, then it’s time to question the concept.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011 Posted by | Britain | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment