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<nettime> Observations on Buden's comments on my thoughts on...
Michael Benson on 13 Oct 2000 16:58:57 -0000


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<nettime> Observations on Buden's comments on my thoughts on...


Boris Buden, like Frank Hartman, positions himself as someone producing
views worthy of and issuing from an alternative medium. Their words, as both
of them imply, or even say directly, are meant to be seen as more
characteristic of, and worthy of, an alternative medium; their ideas
represent an allegedly _more_ right-thinkingly 'alternative' approach. Not
only that, but in Hartman and Buden's mails I'm positioned as the very
reverse and opposite of this -- as a mouthpiece of the conventional, a
regurgitator of mainstream views who "doesn't even attempt" to do what
Buden, it's implied, will proceed to show everyone that he can do. Well, I
won't comment on being placed on the less-alternative-than-thou side of the
rhetorical barricade they've constructed, nor will I trot out my own resume
with its bells and whistles, as Hartman did for Buden. I will say, though,
that it's a good and interesting exercise to take Buden up on the intriguing
premise that he's providing an 'alternative' view, or even "the" alternative
view. Buden implies, very clearly, that his mail is somehow more in keeping
with nettime; he stakes out an implicitly uncompromising, uncompromised,
untainted, original position. "Let the mainstream not forget the past.
Nettime should remember the future," he writes, in a self-consciously hip
echo of a Futurist manifesto -- implicitly putting me, and I assume that
other infamous mainstream apostle Richard Barbrook, in our places as
representatives of those _incapable_ of forgetting the past. (Even
mentioning the Futurists confirms this. This not- forgetting-of-the-past is
meant to be taken as a reprehensible and conservative trait, while
forgetting it is definitely _not_ to be understood as dangerous or foolish.)

So it's interesting to proceed beyond this kind of rhetorical posturing and
discover two things. One is that there's nothing particularly noteworthy, or
'alternative', or even unusual about Buden's views on the Serbian and
ex-Yugoslavian question. There's nothing new there, even if there's far more
content -- sometimes confused, but content nonetheless -- and familiarity
with the situation than Hartman manages to produce, despite his tabulations
of Belgrade-bound western capital. And the other interesting point, to me
anyway, is that Buden doesn't even bother to dredge up anything very much in
contradiction to my mail of October 6th -- unless an implied disagreement
with my characterization of Slobodan Milosevic as "diseased, brilliantly
cunning, and utterly ruthless" counts. Beyond that, all Buden presents is my
"false" counterpoint to his own "alternative" approach, i.e., the
"conventional patterns" that allegedly characterize my observations:

>in his attempt to explain the Yugoslav tragedy out of
>Milosevic's alleged madness, he [Benson] follows a conventional pattern of
>today's understanding of  recent political and historical
>developments in the Balkans.
>My intention here therefore is not to criticize Benson - for his
>*false* approach has motivated me to write this - but to try to think
>of the issue in a different, hopefully, an alternative way.

And then what's assumed to be his *true*, or at least "hopefully...
alternative" approach follows. It begins with a rhetorical question:

>So let me first ask, what really happened last week in Belgrade?
>As you all probably remember, only a day after the protesters stormed
>the parliament and TV-building - at the moment when the outcome of
>this action was still unclear - the international public already
>seemed to know what is the historical character of that event.
>Spain's prime minister Aznar, German president Rau, Tony Blair in
>Warsaw, Clinton and the most important main stream media
>enthusiastically welcomed the overturn of Milosevic - as the final
>act of the Easteuropean democratic revolution. The historical and
>political process which had begun with Solidarnosc in Gdansk,
>culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall 89, has been now completed
>in Belgrade, where democracy in a belated - but not less authentic -
>revolution has finally won the victory over totalitarianism. With the
>fall of Milosevic, to quote Joschka Fischer, *the last piece of the
>wall has fallen.*
>This is the current explanation of what should be the historical
>meaning of the Belgrade upheaval. It has been immediately followed by
>lifting of the sanctions, by promises about a financial help of *2
>billion Euros* and full reintegration of the Yugoslav state and its
>representatives in the institutions of the international community,
>etc.

Now -- truth being truth, and falsehood falsehood -- the clear implication
here is that my own 'false' views are to be equated with Joschka Fischer and
the rest, specifically with their very politically convenient two-D
caracature, backed by hard currency, in which the events in Belgrade last
week are a replay of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and 1990. This
is a well-known rhetorical strategy called 'guilt by association.' Funny, I
don't remember saying, or even implying, that the revoution in Belgrade
could be taken as in any way synonymous with the revolutions in Eastern and
Central Europe, in anything I wrote to this or any other list. (A sense that
celebration was in order at the fall of Milosevic notwithstanding.) The
other day I got an e-mail from a friend who has spent a lot of time in
Belgrade over the last decade, who said:

>I must say I've had just about enough of the great 1989 analogy (1989 at
last
>coming to Belgrade): 1989 already came to Belgrade, and it was 1989:
>Milosevic was the self-chosen 1989 of the Serbs, the crowds were the same
and
>in the very same squares, and now we're in for a blissed out season of
>amnesia about that fact.

To which I replied:

>Couldn't agree more. All this knee-jerkery about the fall of the Milosevic
>"dictatorship" only lets his 'willing executioners' off the hook. Serbia
was
>never a dictatorship, or even as regimented as a south-America style
>authoritarian regime, let alone a Romania. The endlessly clay-like
>manipulability of a critical mass of the Serbs is even less of an excuse
>than the "I was just following orders" Eichmann defense.

But let's return to Buden, who's still developing his thesis:

>Of course, this practical re/integration has been made possible only
>by the symbolic one: Serbs could reenter today's Europe only after
>they have defeated Milosevic as the last European communist. In
>distinction from all other events of their recent history (war in
>Croatia, siege of Sarajevo, Kosovo) which were so far completely
>excluded from the European history - as rather belonging to a
>particular Balkan cultural identity, as being something intrinsically
>nonhistrical, nonpolitical and of course, non European - the storming
>of the Belgrade parliament has been fully recognized as a moment of
>the contemporary European history, as a piece of that same communist
>wall.

Now, I don't follow the bit about how the Balkans were ghettoized as "being
something intrinsically nonhistrical, nonpolitical" -- this is just plain
wrong. In fact, the reverse is obviously true: they were portrayed as
history and nationalist politics gone mad, run amuck. But I do follow
Buden's premise that it's suddenly very politically expedient to reintegrate
Serbia, with the fewer questions asked the better. (To fail to see that,
given the events of the last few days, would be to be blind.) Yes this is
the same Serbia previously seen through a kind of Balkanizing prism as the
"other" -- as a country operating outside European history. But I wonder how
Buden can account for the successive waves of polemic and counter-polemic
about this very question, this question of who belongs to Europe, throughout
the 90's? He says this is a new phenomenon. But this is *false* analysis.
Let me provide an 'alternative' to Buden's self-hyped alternative. It's true
that when it was politically expedient for the West to turn a blind eye to
the suffering of Sarajevo and the Bosnian enclaves at the hands of the
Serbs, then yes, we heard all about the endless hall-of-mirrors that is the
Balkans, we heard that "those people" (i.e., all sides) will keep on
fighting for complicated historical reasons incomprehensible to "us" in the
west. Apart from being overtly racist, this was a direct and overt echo of
skilful Serbian propaganda, resulting in a rhetorical smoke-screen covering
inaction on the part of the west. And as a result, for long period, for
years in fact, there was precious little help for the helpless and largely
unarmed people on the Bosnian government side. Victims of a not very
complicated, and quite blatant, and extremely 'political', land grab.

However, when it _was_ finally deemed politically expedient to act in
Bosnia, after repeated atrocities such as the market-place shelling in
Sarajevo and the massacre of Srebrenica's male population -- then suddenly
we heard all about how this was a war "in the heart of Europe", that these
were Europeans that something had to be done about. (Translation: Clinton
was facing an election campaign. Due to US pledges to extricate the troops
of European countries serving as "peace" "keepers" on the ground, that
political campaign might have had to unfold during a large-scale US military
extrication operation -- with potential body bags and all that would have
entailed in the polls. Clearly, something had to be done! And so, suddenly,
there was a lot of talking about Europeans -- real Europeans, people just
like "us" -- in trouble.)

And this pattern repeated itself with Kosovo. We heard various expressions
of "alarm" and "concern" from the official mouthpieces of the West for a
year, even as hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians were evicted from
their homes at gunpoint and forced to flee into the mountains. But it wasn't
until last spring, a year in to this sad story, that we heard about how they
were "Europeans" too. Why were we suddenly asked to view the Albanians of
Kosovo as Europeans? Clearly, because a decision had been made by NATO to
act against Serbia.

So the phenomenon which Buden belatedly, if accurately, perceives as a
reintegration of the "other" -- in this case, a reintegration of Belgrade
and Serbia into the common narrative of the West -- must be seen as part of
a long-term pattern. It's not some recent phenomenon. It's only the latest
opportunistic installment of a particularily awful Balkan mini-series. Buden
continues:

>It is not difficult to see the interest of the free world's political
>elite lurking behind this euphoria. I am not talking here only about
>the most comfortable way for this elite to get rid of any
>responsibility for the Yugoslav war by putting all the blame on the
>political corpse of Slobodan Milosevic. To declare so loudly that the
>fall of Milosevic was the final victory of democracy has another
>purpose - it suppresses the real defeat of this same democracy.
>This proves in the best way a funny misunderstanding about the real
>effect of the last year's NATO-intervention. While Serbs believe that
>democracy has won despite the bombing, the West proudly proclaims
>that this has happened because of the bombing. The real truth is of
>course, that democracy hasn't won at all.

It's interesting that Buden -- for all his self-positioning as an
'alternative' -- still embraces such contradictory notions of democracy. In
a minute we will hear from him that Milosevic ran a democratic system, but
for now we hear that in Kostunica's electoral victory "democracy hasn't won
at all." We're meant to believe that Milosevic's defeat within his
democratic system, after democratic elections, is a defeat for democracy.
Why hasn't democracy won? Apparently it's because:

>Neither Serbs, nor the free
>democratic world has any idea of how to solve the Kosovo problem in a
>democratic way; there is still no democratic solution for Bosnia
>either.

(And so forth -- he details the failings of the Bosnian protectorate. Note
that Buden undermines his own continuing thesis about democracy by putting
Serbs and "the free democratic world" in opposition). Then we hear all about
Milosevic's democratic regime:

>Far from being a totalitarian, i.e. external obstacle to the
>development of democracy, a genius of political surviving in a time
>when all historical opportunities of his political existence seemed
>to be exhausted, or simply a pathological phenomenon, a clinical case
>- to mention some of the faces he got in the Western public -
>Milosevic has been actually a product of the modern democracy itself,
>an expression of its immanent antagonisms. For we forget very easily
>that his rule had basically a democratic character. He was the
>president of a state which is constitutionally a pluralist
>parliamentary republic, where he won several free elections and would
>have won them even without having cheated.

There are several things to say about this analysis. One is that listing
inherently non-contradictory characterizations, following them with another
that doesn't contradict the first few, and dismissing the first on the basis
of the last is inherently absurd. It's possible to be an obstacle in the
development of democracy and yet thrive in an electoral system (Richard
Nixon comes to mind). Further, it's hardly an original point, that elections
were held in at least some reasonable semblance of a democratic way in
Serbia. Nor is it new to state that, even if there hadn't been vote-rigging,
Milosevic and far right parties such as Seselj's would have won anyway.
These points have been made repeatedly by many observers, in many forums,
and in fact I and others made them in nettime last year. Serbia was hardly a
dictatorship. Despite Milosevic control of the key organs of mass media and
all the rest -- which does render a bit more than a fig-leaf of an excuse --
the Serbian people therefore still have much to answer for, given their
widespread support for Milosevic and his policies. Thus the collective guilt
versus collective responsibility thread that played itself out on some
mailing lists last year.

A second point is that this essentially cynical (but accurate, if not
original) picture of Serbian authoritarian democracy doesn't jive with
Buden's first assertion -- that "democracy hasn't won at all" in Bosnia,
Kosovo, etc., just as, with Milosevic's defeat, it hasn't won "at all" in
Serbia. In fact, he contradicts himself. Let me explain what I mean, since
it's instructive to look at Buden's contradictions. There are a lot of
truths hiding in there, and also false assumptions.

Democracy hasn't won at all, Buden says, calling it "the real truth, of
course." A classic bait-and-switch technique in rhetoric is to assume that
Goal A was what was being sought, point out that Goal A definitely didn't
result, and conclude that a policy was therefore a failure -- even if Goal A
was never the objective. I've already pointed out that Clinton, chief
executive of a large nominal democracy on the other side of the Atlantic,
was facing his second campaign for the White House at a time when Bosnia was
still very much at war. His finally using the huge power of that democracy
to end that war, after four years of standing aside and allowing wholesale
slaughter, ended one potential threat to his reelection -- so when it comes
to the Bosnian war and the issue of democracy, that's a very clear
relationship. But getting back to Buden's rhetorical bait-and-switch, one of
the false assumptions he presents, in his 'alternative' to my 'false'
analysis, is that the intent of the NATO powers in Bosnia was to "bring
democracy." Rather than putting an end to a genocidal blood-bath and, not
coincidentally, safe-guarding Clinton's reelection.

Democracy? I remember a lot of Dayton-era talk about ending the war, and
stopping atrocities, and "preserving" Bosnia as a unitary state. But not too
much justification of using force as a way of bringing democracy to
shattered Bosnia. (Even if, of course, you'll always have the word
"democracy" dressing up all US policy goal statements like so much confetti
at a military parade.) Actually, Buden's idea that the western powers were
trying, and then miserably failing, to bring democracy to Bosnia and Kosovo
through the use of force reminds me of the absurdity, last year, of seeing
perfectly safe Serbian protestors, their photogenic targets glued to their
chests, hoisting signs aloft declaring that NATO can't "bomb Serbia into
democracy." This when the entire Albanian population of Kosovo had been
hounded from their homes at gun-point and was being terrorized across their
borders. The point of the bombs clearly wasn't to create a democracy. This
was not the main objective.

But there are intriguing ways in which these wars _were_ the direct result
of the onset of democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe. Let's move
on to Buden's assertion that Serbia was a democracy before this last
election. While I would call it an authoritarian state not entirely
dissimilar to the South American model, though less regimented -- a state in
which elections are held but there's widespread fraud, intimidation, and the
mass media is almost entirely in the hands of el Presidente -- let's not
quibble. I would contend that it was exactly Milosevic's awareness that he
needed continuously to worry about the support of a majority of Serbs which
was the main driving force propelling ALL the wars of Yugoslav secession.
Milosevic, remember, was faced with a real problem, in 1990: how to survive
when all the communist regimes of Europe were falling. The solution was to
proceed in a way calculated to ensure himself continuing support among the
people of his republic -- his power base. And there was a time-tested
methodology readily available: relying on a demonized external enemy to
unite his people around him. This technique may not be very original, but it
didn't prevent him from using it over and over, because it worked very well.
It was only when he ran out of external enemies, and had to start messing
with Montenegro and Serbia, which were uncomfortably close to home, and hard
to demonize as the "other", that his magical ability to unite the majority
of the Serbs evaporated and he fell from power (after a democratic
election). So one could say that all those Bosnian and Kosovo ashes are in
fact the result of a "democratic solution" -- only not a democratic solution
that had the best interests of Bosnia and Kosovo in mind. Quite the reverse:
it had the best interests of Slobodan Milosevic very much in mind. This
whole story has always been primarily about what's best for Slobo. Thus my
obviously controversial point about the "extent to which" everything that's
happened in the Balkans can be "traced back" to one individual. And all this
can all be tied to the necessity, even within Serbia's authoritarian-style
democracy, to unite the people, to earn their support through fomenting
their sense of victimization and creating fear. (The fact that this support
was engineered by the most blatant propaganda is another story, and one very
instructive to students of democracy everywhere, especially in a year where
elections are being held in the US and UK, for example.)

>From there, Buden continues by quoting some statistics about alternative
media, which look good on paper until we get to his characterization of
Serbia as:

> a land of pluralist
>democracy and high developed media freedom

...totally ignoring the very well-documented story of widespread censorship,
intimidation of journalists, assassination of editors, legally dubious
take-overs of opposition radio stations, confiscation of newspaper print
runs, etc etc etc -- not to mention the fact that the vast majority of the
population of Serbia relied for their information on state-controlled media
sources.

We then get such ground-breaking statements as:

>The concept of
>democracy which cannot abandon the framework of a nation-state has
>been brought in the Balkans to its absurdity.

And some that are more interesting, and which are then specifically tied to
the uncomfortably similar political design of the EU, like this:

>On the Yugoslav
>question - the question of how to unite democratically a people,
>already divided in political nations, on a level higher than the
>nation-state - it has faced obviously its immanent limits.

And a lot of not particularily insightful, nor 'alternative', views about
the Hague tribunal being a political institution -- and all the various
implications and ramifications of that -- before we end up at his
conclusion. But before I get to Buden's conclusion, I want to examine some
of his accusations directed towards Richard Barbrook, who is allegedly
trafficking in "cynical pragmatism" and "moralistic kitsch."

To be moralistic is a particularily ideologically freighted word, since it
carries all the burdens of being associated with massive entrenched
conservative power structures like (just to give one not overly obscure
example) the Catholic church. Morality of course is well known for being
easily enlisted in the political rhetoric of all sides in a conflict. Being
"moralistic" is a-priori conservative, it's the antithesis to being
'alternative', to thinking independently -- to the virtues that Buden, not
inaccurately, holds up as valuable.

The problem with tarring people with easy accusations of moralism is that
you run the risk of throwing the idea that there is such a thing as "right"
and "wrong" behavior directly out the window. Buden makes much of the fact
that he didn't support the bombing of Serbia, even though his momma did, but
I wonder how he would have felt about it if, instead of being snug and safe
in Zagreb or Vienna, he had been on the run through the woods after watching
a bunch of paramilitaries burn his house down and drag his wife off? (He
could now accuse me of moralistic pornography, or something, but it was he
who brought his family into his larger polemic as an illustration. I wish
Buden and his family well.) Would the idea that there is "right" and "wrong"
behavior still have such overtones of reprehensible conservatism? Would he
still use the idea of making distinctions between right and wrong as a brush
to tar those who demand accountability for that kind of behavior? And who
demand accountability for those who have created the political conditions
leading to that kind of behavior? Including, in Barbrook's case, those on
the left who cast a blind eye on massive violations of human rights, simply
due to the fact that they've earned the "attention" of NATO countries?

The same parable goes for "cynical pragmatism", which I assume refers to
Barbrook's point that, though he wouldn't under any circumstanced defend
Stalinism or the Soviet Union, he still approved of that country's helping
the South African anti-apartheid fighters. Hounded from his house, a victim
of Serbian terror, would my hypothetical Buden, and by extension the other
comfortably housed and well fed protestors against western military action
against Serbia, be as prepared to be critical, and craft nicely-wrought
'alternative' buzz-compound phrases like "cynical pragmatism"? Or would the
just be, you know, pragmatic -- in the most relieved way possible? Before
they started trying to rebuild their house in a protectorate, rather than in
a state of terror? It might be interesting to ask some veterans of the seige
of Sarajevo for their views, pro or con, on the topic of western military
intervention in ex-Yugoslavia. (Though Sarajevans aren't known for their
lack of cynicism -- even if they aren't very pragmatic sometimes.)

As for the kitsch part of the Barbrook accusation, we all know that's a much
more serious charge, but I'll leave it aside for the moment!

Ok, so now we can get to Buden's ground-breaking, earth-shattering,
spine-tingling conclusion:

>And finally a rhetoric question: What makes this approach alternative?
>This is the fact that it doesn't focus on the others in their
>responsibility for the past we cannot change. On the contrary, it
>addresses our own responsibility for the future we can still
>influence.

Which is quickly followed by the local patriotism of this ad copy:

>Let the main stream not forget the past. Nettime should remember the
future.


Well. Buden's answer to his own rhetorical question speaks pretty well for
itself -- particularily when paired off with the slogan immediately
following it -- and if that's all the 'alternative' he can come up with, so
be it. But as he cloaks himself in the silvery sheen of the future, he
doesn't bother to explain how it's possible to be "responsible" to a future
"we can still influence" without addressing, and coming to terms with,
traumatic events in the recent past which we as a human species are all
implicated in. Focussing on the ways and means by which historical events
unfold and trying to understand them isn't just about assigning blame,
easily dismissed as reprehensibly moralistic, and it also can't be said to
be a futile exercise because "we cannot change" what happened. It _is_ about
understanding what human beings have done, and the implications of that, and
yes, the right and wrong of it, not to mention the ways in which we
ourselves are implicated. That's the only way to "remember" the future.
Amnesia's easy, and the future has no way to protest.

Best,
Michael Benson

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