15 August 2012

Slavs – The Devil's Instrument of Intolerance on Earth

Check out the excellent commentary on the campaign of the British media against Ukraine, and Poland, the hosts of Euro 2012 football championship over at Brendan O'Neill's blog and Spiked Online: The fear of 'racist' Ukraine, Where are these stadiums of hate?, England’s football fans more racially enlightened than the BBC.

The story is thus; in the run up to the Euro 2012 sections of the media in Britain became fascinated with Poland and Ukraine and spent a great deal of time talking about them. The aspect of the two Euro host countries which so captivated them was their alleged racism. Supposedly the two Eastern European countries were drowning in dangerous racists who would make visiting them to enjoy the Euros a risky proposition for any black or Asian football tourists, and an ugly experience for anyone else.

In reality, despite the fear mongering of the British press, this year's Euro hosted by the Polish-Ukranian Asiatic hordes passed exactly like those before it. Clearly the British fear-mongers then had not been talking about the societies in Ukraine and Poland as they actually exist, but about the unpredictable and retrograde Slav-Tartars that inhabit them in their imaginations.

This is understandable. Analysis of Poland and Ukraine as they actually are would take work, but have uncertain appeal. The comic-book like characterization that was conjured up in its place, however, is sure to be exciting, believable and gratifying, all at the same time.

It is exciting because it tells of the exotic, in this case of hordes of fascist-salute-giving Eastern racists. It is believable because it builds upon the long tradition in the West to understand Eastern Europe as a nasty and primitive counterpart to itself. It is gratifying because it tells the Brits the fact their land is not being overrun with violent, racists thugs is actually something of an accomplishment, seeing the Poles and the Ukrainians are allegedly not capable of reproducing it.

That a number of people in Britain took twisted pleasure in convincing themselves there lurks in Poland and Ukraine an exotic and primitive menace should be rather inconsequential to an Eastern European. At most one can feel a measure of compassion for the individuals who having fell for the hack's hysteria missed out on a pleasant enough tournament they were otherwise going to attend.

Nonetheless the anti-Polish/Ukrainian campaign of the buildup to the Euro 2012 should not escape without comment seeing it is merely the most recent manifestation of long-held Western European ideas about the East. Ideas which periodically — though they did not this time — end up serving as the rationale for the attempted exercise of power by Western against Eastern Europeans.

Since the Enlightenment it has been a kind of a hobby horse of much of the Western European intelligentsia to define their lands by contrasting them with those of Eastern Europe. The Westerners are permanently eager to find in the eastern half of the continent defects to which they could compare their own alleged overcoming of such imperfections and therefore showcase their supposed greater immersion with civilization. In other words their understanding of their place in the world rests on the idea of Eastern Europe as the nearest other, as the former, or the mirror forms of themselves. It is conceded that in a very primordial sense the two, Western and Eastern Europe may be alike, but always with the understanding that the West has since developed and civilized while the East has remained under-civilized, or worse, counter-civilized by developing in a rogue, illegitimate direction.

This being the case the West finds it exceedingly easy to make the jump from inconsequential theoreticizing about the way it differs from the East and into annoying lecturing and patronizing of the East. Since the Easterners, though primitive, are nonetheless not truly distinct, but merely the former selves of the Westerners there can be no questioning the legitimacy of its preaching, or the validity of its prescriptions. Furthermore, since the differences the West insists on are not understood to be value-neutral, but are understood as showcasing the superiority of the West, they end up being used as justification for its episodic attempts to exercise power against the Easterners.

The unreality and the self-serving nature of characterization of the East as exists in the West is apparent from its ever changing content. Whatever contrast with the Western Europe the needs of the moment and the political philosophy of the onlookers require may always be discovered in the Eastern portion of the European continent. In the latest and most telling of such reversals Eastern Europe was first cast as a domicile of racial inferiors, only for the West to turn on a dime and cast is as the habitat of racists instead. When pseudo-biological racial teachings became all the rage Westerners who inclined to them needed only a short time to discover in the peoples of Eastern Europe "under-men" and "human weeds". Yet now that polished Western Europe desires above all to congratulate itself for non-racism, it manages, without a hint of self-consciousness, to find in Eastern Europe worrisome concentrations of bald-headed neo-Nazis (Russia), xenophobic peoples bent on ethnic purification (former Yugoslavia) and gangs of racist football hooligans (Poland and Ukraine)

The founding legend of the West as civilization that is counterpoised to the semi-barbarism of its European East was at its most consequential in the middle of the last century. The destruction that was brought on Eastern Europe in the 1940s attempt of the Nazis to subjugate it is impossible to imagine without their devotion to the view of Easterners as dull, primitive and dangerous — a view which they expressed in the then popular vocabulary of racial pseudo-science. The very same legend, but now coated in the language of the currently fashionable self-image of the Westerners as racially enlightened, rather than racially superior, served to make possible the exercise of power against the Balkans' East Europeans from the early 1990s through this day.

It is undeniable the media hysteria about racist Slavs (but Serbs rather than Poles & Ukrainians) played a huge role in making the Western military intervention in the former Yugoslavia a reality. To a great extent the West carried out acts of war in the Balkans against the Serbs, because the media had demanded them and had set the appropriate atmosphere for them. It was a media campaign that maps extremely well on the aforementioned hysterics of the British press in the anticipation of the European Football Championship in Poland and Ukraine.

In both cases the media coverage was obsessed with one alleged fault of the societies in question — their intolerance — and took joy in sneering at the alleged offenders for it. In both cases the picture of reality that was being presented was so skewed, with so much exaggeration and insincerity involved that the version it was presenting was for all practical purposes a fabrication of reality. In both cases the content of the reporting from the site seemed as if had been determined in advance, before the journalists had ever arrived on the scene.*

As the Spiked piece reveals there were severe problems with the BBC's 'Stadiums of Hate' documentary, which represented a kind of zenith of the brief Polish/Ukrainian scare in Britain. The director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow who was interviewed for the film deemed the final cut shown on TV screens in Britain tendentious and selective and nothing less than an example of "negative stereotyping of Poles". Albeit the people the BBC had interviewed for the film had both positive and negative things to say on the matter, the BBC's filmmakers included in the final cut only the interviews, and the parts of interviews, that could be combined to support the point that Poland and Ukraine have an appalling problem with racism and racism-related violence.

Clearly the British filmmakers had made up their mind about the conclusions their documentary was going to reach long before they set foot on the ground beyond that great barrier that cuts the European continent into unequal halves. In fact the Jewish community leader spoken of above told the writer for Spiked, that problems notwithstanding, he felt a Jewish person talking a walk was safer in Krakow than just about anywhere in Western Europe. Why, the things a journalist that has not resolved in advance to tell the story of awful Poles at all costs may learn!

Similar stories of scandalous lack of journalistic ethic as regards the "reporting" on conflict in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s abound. There was the infamous "picture that fooled the world" episode. Then the case of the New York Times' John Burns who won a Pulitzer prize for recording a Bosnian Serb imprisoned by Bosnian Muslims "confessing", in the presence of his captors, of having murdered no less than 29 people, two of whom shortly thereafter turned up — alive. The fantastic feat of Roy Gutman who succeeded in penning a series of "ground-breaking" reports on a Serb-run "death camp" in Bosnia, which won him the Pulitzer prize, without ever having set foot anywhere near the camp while still in operation — but relying instead on second hand accounts from unidentified witnesses claiming to be former inmates and, incredibly, on what he deemed "indirect accounts" from people who had merely conversed with supposed former inmates. And perhaps the most brilliant of all, David Rohde, who managed to ascertained the existence of a suspected mass grave, the alleged existence of which was first publicized by the US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, by traveling to the site and discovering in the soil a thigh bone and a shinbone, though he failed to take a picture of either of the bones, or even of (himself at) the site. He described the bones as being bare, albeit the mas grave the existence of which he was supposed to have ascertained was only supposed to be a few weeks old. Naturally he too got a Pulitzer for his feat of allegedly having found a bone in the ground in Bosnia.

What all the successful reporting from the Yugoslav wars of dissolution had in common was an extreme fixation on atrocities — the more lurid the better. Reporters which became celebrated in the mainstream knew foremost how to satisfy the demand of the editors and of the reading public for horrid stories of Balkan massacres, mass graves, "death camps" and "rape camps" and so on. So much so that a less than fully attentive reader may have been excused in believing each of the 1990s wars in the Balkans was not so much a military contest as a series of massacres. The stories of "echoes of the holocaust", 50,000 victims of rape in Bosnia, of mass executions in stadiums, or 100,000 missing men in Kosovo and the like were actually quite incredible, but they were supposed to be taking place in the Balkans, which is what made them believable.

The quest for the lurid did not only influenced the focus of the reporting, but also the interpretation. The basic reality of reciprocal, tit-for-tat massacres accompanying conventional warfare was horrible enough, but it was not nearly sufficiently incomprehensible, abominable and scandalous — massacres of this sort after all did not need to be taking place in the Balkans to be believable. In the interest of playing up the scandalous the reporters told a peculiar story of the wars. In their account there was not even a hint of balance between the wrongdoing of the warring sides. The massacres were not ad hoc crimes of opportunity being perpetrated by extremists who imagined themselves to be exacting revenge for equal or greater atrocities committed against their own ethnic group. The truth according to the Western reporters, was much more incomprehensibly evil, much more counter-civilizational — the atrocities were being perpetrated by an Eastern European nation (the Serbs) that had been whipped into a genocidal frenzy by a racist demagogue (Milošević) and had set out on a well-planned murderous rampage against their "almost defenseless" neighbors who claimed a different ethnic heritage for the sake of it, as a political goal in itself.

The younger, pro-interventionist reporters in Bosnia angrily rejected the interpretation of the conflicts of a small number of their older colleagues. These had fallen back on negative stereotypes of the Balkans to explain the wars breaking out in Yugoslavia as just the latest round of perennial Balkan violence bred by "ancient tribal hatreds" that the region was after all known for (to them). The interventionist journalists asserted such a diagnosis was unfair to the Balkans and was assuming worse about the region than its history and peoples actually deserved. At the same time, however, the narrative they themselves insisted explained the conflict and the atrocities rested on Balkan stereotypes of propensity for fanaticism, violence and extreme ideology to an even greater extent, and could furthermore seem credible only to an individual who had an even more warped and unflattering view of the region, seeing it required of him to believe it was, on the doorstep of 21st century, home to Nazis 2.0.

Certainly the Balkans are imagined as a place of perennial ethnic strife, but more fundamentally than that the Balkans are understood as a place whose inhabitants "do not care to conform to the standards of behavior devised as normative by and for the civilized world".** The narrative where the retrograde Serbs (and partly the Bosnian Croats) had picked up the tenants of a disgusting ideology the West had discarded many decades ago and had made themselves into, if not resurgent Hitlerites, then extreme ethnic cleansing nationalists, and were now engaging as a horde of Orcs in an orgy of senseless, one-sided violence meshed perfectly with the idea you simply can not count on the Balkanites to get with the program. Why here there was a people in Europe recreating Bergen-Belsen in freaking 1992! How retrograde! How savage! How outrageous! How Balkan!

In reality the only major difference between the "ancient tribal hatreds" and the alternative, Serbs-as-Nazis, explanation of the wars was the latter's eagerness to condemn. The reporters who understood the war as stemming from ancient hatreds were falling back on stereotypes for context and proclaimed the wars to be a result of something peculiarly Balkan, but they were not overtaken by a mad desire to rage against, to be disgusted with, to scream and to sneer at that peculiarity. The peddlers of the narrative of the Serbs as Nazis, however, were. They were driven by determination to stand in judgment over what they made themselves believe was the Serbs' intended celebration, in an orgy of violence, of that which is Balkan — the stubborn refusal to conform to civilized norms of behavior. The same ultimate motivate is detectable in the encouragement of readers of British papers to feel outraged with the alleged state of societies in Poland and Ukraine. In both cases the journalists were not so much reporters as advocates for a version of reality which presents the West with the opportunity to claim moral mastery over select Eastern Europeans and their barbarian ways.

If there is good news to all of this it is the very limited attraction any of this has for the ordinary people in Western countries. Government officials, public intellectuals, celebrities and academics eat this stuff up, but the real people stay lukewarm. In the case of hysteria regarding the 2012 Euros, England fans in Ukraine actually protested the bashing of the host country, with chants at football matches and even a mini-demonstration against the earlier call of a British football celebrity (Sol Campbell) not to travel to Ukraine, because to do so would allegedly put one in mortal danger. Likewise, in the matter of the calls in the 1990s for a 'muscular' intervention in the Balkans the public in the West remained remarkably unenthusiastic given the extent of pro-war propaganda they were subjected to.

This is not terribly surprising. Obsession with the grimmer aspects of Eastern Europe has always been an elite hobby. In fact the stereotypes of Eastern Europe (of any given era) chart closely with elite stereotyping of their own domestic lower classes, eg Chavs and Rednecks. Simply put much the same role of an internal other that Eastern Europe occupies in the context of Europe, is in the domestic context occupied by the stigmatized parts of the retrograde proletariat (Southerners, hillbillies, 'white trash'...). Perhaps the common folk in the elites' expression of periodic revulsion over these or those Eastern Europeans detects a measure of the elites' distaste for themselves?

* For critical examination of the Western media's reporting in the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia see the books: Peter Brock, Media Cleansing, Dirty Reporting: Journalism and Tragedy in Yugoslavia, (Los Angeles: GM Press, 2005). Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 2000). And as an excellent starting point the article: Simon Goldsworthy, "Journalism and Propaganda: A case study based on accounts of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s," LISA e-journal Vol. VI – n°1 (2008): p. 233-262.

**Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

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