michael.benson on Wed, 2 Jun 1999 19:17:05 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Open response to "lop1912"

Dear "lop1912", whoever you are, in Bologna. I don't belong to 
the generation that you address, but I read your compelling,  
articulate post to nettime, "the baby boomers at war", anyway. I
understood and even sympathized with many of the things you said, and
I believe I got most of the thinking behind it as well. You obviously 
have a compassionate and moral mind, and you've clearly done a great 
deal of thinking about these issues. 

And yet I don't agree with you. I don't agree with the larger 
frame of your argument; I don't agree with the solutions you appear to
be offering, either. In fact, I would go further and say I think your
conclusions (despite being compelling, articulate, etc.) are simply
incorrect. I would even say that they're dangerous. Despite your
obvious attempt to point out the dangers you sense.

Let me explain -- I hope without giving offense. Like you, I believe
that this Kosovo face-off is far more important than we are currently
capable of seeing. I don't think I'm going too far in saying that it's
a kind of ongoing crucible, these very weeks and months now -- a place
where the future course of humanity, or I should say, *humanism*, will
be forged. I don't mean to sound pompous here! Which way will we go?
Will we permit the horror and carnage created by this criminal regime
to continue to take place, to succeed -- and *precisely when that same
'68 generation* which you write about now has the levers of power in
the west? Or will we fatalistically, cynically, and self-destructively
allow this barbarism to continue? A barbarism which, I'd guess, we've
already had more than enough of during the last decade? Too much to
stomach, in fact -- to the point where even your typical contemporary
post-modern left-leaning urban subject has had enough (and here I'm
talking about one from the decades *after* '68, when the failure of
that incipient revolution -- not to mention its precursor evaporated
Maoist and Stalinist utopias -- only fuelled an elaborated, skeptical
disengagement). Yes, even millions in this disengaged generation seems
to agree that *something* has to be done about this dismal Balkan 
tide of bodies, about these rooms and burned-out buildings stuffed 
with corpses. I mean, this inexcusable wave of mass murder was, and 
is, caused by readily identifiable policies and personalities! And 
they were easy to identify for many years before last week's Hague 
indictment made it "official."

I don't mean to sound too emotional here. But I find a danger in the
very essence of your argument, which implicitly says that all those
ideals -- ideals of human rights and dignity, of the right of people
to live as equals, without racism and sexism, without being 
beaten, raped, oppressed, killed -- are in fact useless, impotent, 
and hopeless to act on. It's a view decisively affected by that same 
defeat of '68 idealism and hope which permeates your letter! It seems 
to be saying, fatalistically: if we couldn't "take" Europe in '68, 
what's the use of our deploying that same hope for humanity now -- 
that instinct to mobilize for one's ideals --thirty years later? 
Rather than saying, with conviction: now, after all this creeping 
time, this is our moment -- this is where those ideals and beliefs 
should be put into effect, and allowed to flower? 

Yeah, I guess you could say: both flower and power. 

I'm from the next generation, I was only six in '68. I was watching
moon-launches, ignorant until years later about the idealism and
radical conviction that somehow went up into orbit along with those
flights in the collectively euphoric atmosphere of the '68 generation.
I ask now: how is it that the following generations, mine and later
ones, shouldn't now see that idealism and hope actually fought for,
and embraced, and laid claim to, and acted on? Now that it's crucially
necessary to do so? And again, now that your generation actually 
is in power? The reasons you put forward for not seizing this moment 
of crises, and with full determination to put those ideals into 
force, *with force if necessary*, seem to be nothing more than an 
awareness of the failure of such idealism in the past. As if force 
wasn't necessary to get to the point where we could say: "No more 
Auschwitzes, ever again!" We could only speak in that way because 
Auschwitz was safely in the past, specifically *due to* the use of 
force! Forgive me, but this seems a failure of your imagination, 
thirty years after your youthful idealism, and nothing more! And it 
bothers me, because it throws more than ash on the ash-heap of 
history -- it actually denies the ideals that (from the tone, and 
some of the content, of your letter) apparently even you still 

So, your reasoning seems to go: if utopia crashed once, twice, 
three times, therefore it must always crash. As if it didn't take a
lot of trial and error before Orville and Wilbur actually could take
off, in a miraculously hand-engineered levitation, and fly -- 
although they were heavier than air! (Well, maybe it's a banal 
comparison, but we write via sophisticated computer networks directly 
on the other side of the century from them -- so why not?). It took 
centuries of trying, in fact, before human "levitation" became real; 
but it really happened, and you can go down to the local travel agent 
and buy your ticket. Isn't it possible that those ideals which you 
yourself spell out in some detail are worth fighting for, more than 
once or twice or three times -- they're worth fighting for until they 
are actually realized? But no, now you come along years later and 
say: none of this is actually worth fighting for -- we should 
withdraw back into our well-lit, well-fed meditations, our safe 
ruminations. But how long will they stay safe, given the 

Just to be clear, I don't mean to advocate some revival of Utopia in
the dictionary definition of the term, OR in the definition spelled
out in human blood during the course of this wretched century. I'm not
embracing totalitarian definitions, I mean it as an expression to
signify the protection of those people, and their being given the
chance to return to their homes, a real chance to count their dead,
mourn, and (hopefully) heal under the trees their ancestors planted in
their gardens. Farms that they've owned, in somecases, for more than 
a thousand years! *That's* utopia enough -- I mean, for the 
1.6 millions of dispossessed, both in Macedonia and Albania and the 
estimated 500,000 people on the run in Kosovo right now. Even as we 
write these things to each other in a virtual realm! 

You say, "The war in Kosovo will not stop at Pristina or at Belgrade,
it is only the first tiny cog in a horrendous machine, that once in
motion will not stop until the whole of western civilization has been
destroyed." I say: you may well be right about what is at stake here, 
and you paint a very real picture of the possible consequences -- but 
that very western civilization which is in question will be destroyed 
*if the ideals on which it is supposed to be founded aren't 
defended.* That is, if we haven't become so decadent, 
self-satisified and abstracted that we don't recognize that they 
still *need* to be defended. Because if Slobodan Milosevic isn't 
opposed, finally, and defeated, then the ethnic cleansing virus which 
he has been incubating with a very great deal of success for a 
decade will definately continue to spread. 

Appeasement of Milosevic, it's seldom pointed out, started *within*
the borders of the former Yugoslavia -- with the acquiescence of the
other republics to the Serbian demand that Kosovo be stripped of its
autonomy. "Maybe if we give him what he wants now, he'll be satisfied,
and things will cool down", the other republics said to themselves 
in 1989 --very uneasily. Shades of Munich! Understandably enough, the 
Yugoslav republics were apprehensive at this revival of a 
"lebensraum" nationalism which, in their context, was like a madman 
playing with matches in a very dry powder keg. And then later, as 
the body-count escalated, we saw the procession of craven western 
politicians arriving in Belgrade, month after month, year after year, 
asking Milosevic kindly, gently -- with all the nuances and niceties 
and bells and whistles of diplomatic practice -- won't you please 
stop this carnage? Can't you please -- just stop? If you do, we will 
reward you!

Well, as with Munich, it didn't stop. And it's not going to stop now,
unless it's stopped, because the essential mechanism of the collective
psyche of Milosevic and his strategist Mirjana Markovic is: we want
*more.* And we intend to get it no matter how many bodies and 
destroyed bridges we have to walk across. 

You say, "...how weak the West is. After all, it is common knowledge
that bombs cannot crush mass psychopathy and the fact that bombs
excite psychopaths is surely not news to anyone." By this logic, a
murderer or rapist must not be opposed in what he is doing, because
the weapon of the cop will only excite that person. No, better to
tiptoe away and hope for the best! 

I won't comment on your problematic assertions that it would be 
better if we all lived under American hegemony. Or your citation of
experts on "pragmatic communications disturbances." I long ago gave up
fantasies in which Milosevic and Tudjman were locked in a room to
resolve their differences with word games (instead of spilling the
blood of an entire generation). But you veer palpably into
irrationality when you equate the two sides in this conflict, saying
that "the guardians of Auschwitz" speak both languages -- Serbian and
"English-French-Spanish-German-Italian." You seem to be saying that
this is so because the western countries are not accepting as many
refugees as they could or should -- this when international relief 
agencies are finding it hard even to convince those same refugees to 
move away from the dangerous Kosovo border and further into the 
country (let alone board jets for distant locations). You blame the 
predicament of close to two million people on NATO's "humanitarian 
enthusiasm" -- as though the campaign against them hasn't been 
underway since last spring. Astoundingly, you write about the 
creation of "Kosovo City's" in Canada and Australia. Well, apart from 
the price we will all pay if this madman wins, what do you think will 
happen then? Will Milosevic simply stop creating these crises that he 
relies on for his own political survival? How many thousands more 
dead bodies are we prepared to ignore, as we build ethnic ghettoes 
filled with those lucky victims he chooses to leave alive, all across 
the "free" world? 

Finally, under the momentum of your own detour into weird theories,
you say Kosovo is the first round in a "planetary civil war" and
identify this crises as follows: "The West is conducting a war against
the economical and demographical redistribution that global
immigration demands." (!!?) As though these two million displaced
people are immigrants -- not refugees! I'd say that, from your vantage
point in Bologna, you seem to be confusing the Kosovars with the
Albanian boat people -- people fleeing *Albania*, not Kosovo -- who
swamped Italian ports a couple years ago during the crises in that
country. You are confusing the very real issue of how to deal with the
huge press of people seeking to immigrate to more prosperous 
countries -- and the present human tide created by the forced 
expulsion of more than a million people.

"Our friends of '68 have called up demons much greater than 
themselves", you write. "These leaders have not stopped to consider
that the great migrations of human peoples, the great anthropological
and social changes of history are not commanded by the cold voice of
Reason. They are brought about slowly, by infinitely complex, patient
mechanisms, they are the changing nature of minds, bodies and
language." But this situation is NOT about anthropological changes
which shift inexorably over generations, like creaking tectonic
plates. This is not a faceless, inexplicable crises propelled by the
weather patterns of History. We're not facing "infinitely complex,
patient mechanisms" -- though we ARE dealing with is the "cold voice 
of Reason", specifically, Milosevic's cold voice of reason, well 
armed and exceedingly ruthless, which decrees that Kosovo has to be
cleared of its Albanian population! 

Could it be that it's the (unwitting and inadvertent) tyranny of 
*your* ideas -- and that of many others relapsing into a comforting 
distancing mechanism of abstract intellectualism -- that "may this 
time be responsible for the death of us all"? Just asking. Because 
your argument, in the end, amounts to a sophisticated plea for 
more appeasement -- possibly in the hope that "maybe if we give him 
what he wants now, he'll be satisfied, and things will cool down." 

Back when Sarajevo was still under siege, Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem
named after that city. It was published, of course, but not really
very widely noticed. Who really notices a poem, in western culture
anyway? Only a small clique. But later, he republished "Sarajevo" in
his book *Facing the River* -- only this time with a short prefatory
sentence, which went as follows: "Perhaps this is not a poem but at
least I say what I feel." 

Well, it happens that in this poem he also speaks directly to that 
same 1968 generation which you are addressing-- *your* generation. 
Only Milosz writes from the vantage point of an *earlier* generation; 
the one from 1939. The one that watched Warsaw burn. Maybe both of us 
should listen to the voice of that experience-- more applicable to 
the current crises than either yours or mine. It goes like this:


Now that a revolution is really needed, those who once were 
fervent are quite cool.

While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the
Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.

While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a
sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself, 

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish
because they are after all just barbarians killing each other

And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the

It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a
deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.

And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only
nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the
word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their
sons and the debasement of their daughters.

They prepare it by repeating: "We at least are safe," unaware that
what will strike them ripens in themselves.

--- Czeslaw Milosz


Michael Benson  <michael.benson@pristop.si>

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@desk.nl and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@desk.nl