Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo
The very first line of George's Szamuely's piece, "NATO Game-Plan: Destabilize Yugoslavia" yesterday's spotlight article on this site gives us a clue that something is seriously wrong. "It is entirely appropriate," Szamuely writes, "that US policymakers, their British parrots, and assorted NATO toadies are already debating the future course of Yugoslavia." When I read this, alarm-bells went off in my mind and I recalled the writings of another George, this one by the name of Orwell, who wrote:
"The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, [etc.], do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, standing shoulder to shoulder one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching alive human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved."
But George Szamuely, far from being a dummy, is one of the best writers that we have. His columns have been a highlight of Antiwar.com, and I have personally been one of his biggest fans. Yet the degeneration of his style and we have only just gotten past the first sentence! is undeniable. Who, after all, uses words like "parrots" and "toadies" these days, unless they are trying to parody Pravda's polemics, circa 1933? What, no "lackeys" and "lickspittles?" The use of such language is indicative, as Orwell pointed out, of "a reduced state of consciousness," which "if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity." Szamuely a conformist? I don't believe it! But as we venture further into this thicket of stock phrases, a shockingly ill-written polemic, the awful truth emerges. . . .
The political aim of the kind of stereotypical writing as Orwell avers in his above-quoted classic essay, "Politics and the English Language" is not to communicate ideas, but to obscure them behind a cloud a prefabricated images, ready-made phrases, and emotional metaphors. Yet the tired hack doesn't have it so easy: that's why he looks so tired. His job is never done, you see, because there is always some hint, in the quality of the writing itself, in the way the words are strung together on the page, that gives us a hint of their essential dishonesty. The problem is that the images are usually stale, and the metaphors invariably mixed, and the result is lifeless and unconvincing, and ultimately puzzling. . . .
"Having first denounced last Sunday's elections as totally meaningless since they would inevitably be 'stolen' by President Slobodan Milosevic, they then turned around and decided, before any results had been announced, that Vojislav Kostunica had won outright on the first ballot. So much then for Milosevic's chicanery. NATO's high-fives at the election results are reminiscent of the inane rejoicing that followed the end of the Kosovo bombing last year. It had taken 11 weeks to defeat a tiny power like Yugoslavia. And even then NATO had to make important concessions. Yet the Brits and the Americans celebrated, as if it were VE-Day all over again."
But who, exactly, is doing the celebrating? News reports showed photos of "at least 200,000" people jamming the streets of Belgrade were they all Madeleine Albright and Robin Cook replicants? That is precisely the line taken by the shrinking circle of neo-communists who make up Milosevic's Praetorian Guard, and their minuscule far-left cheering section around the world: Kostunica and the 52 percent-plus who voted for him are all "traitors" who have lined their pockets with Western dollars and sold out to the CIA-NED-George Soros Conspiracy. This "analysis" involves a kind of self-induced blindness, what Orwell called "doublethink," a mental technique that involves blanking out whatever facts contradict dogma: in this case, what Szamuely is blanking out is the sight of over 200,000 exuberant Serbs, celebrating their rightful victory. He just doesn't see it. Unfortunately for him, the rest of us do and this is the thankless task of the propagandist, who is forced to make himself look more than a little foolish, on occasion, in the interests of upholding the party line.
Szamuely likens his opponents to parrots, but there is a certain squawking tone to his own perorations, as when he describes the Yugoslav presidential election results as
"A far from convincing win in the first round of voting for Kostunica, as well as a victory for the Government coalition in the Yugoslav parliament. NATO claims vindication. But if it has indeed 'won' and this is by no means clear-then it is only after a massive and unprecedented effort at intimidation. The Serbs were first bribed to vote the "right" way-thus the proverbial 'carrot'. And if that failed to do the trick, there was the threat of military action-the 'stick.'"
As Orwell puts it, "in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible," and this is certainly true here. There is always something unsettling about propaganda, as opposed to an attempt at a more subtle and nuanced analysis especially in apologias for authoritarian and generally indefensible regimes. In reading it, one gets a nagging feeling that something important is being taken for granted. In this case, it is the equation of Kostunica with NATO, which Szamuely casually drops as if he were discussing something as incontestable as the law of gravity or the fact that two plus two equals four. While it is the Serbian people who are out in the streets, in the hundreds of thousands, in Szamuely's view this is unimportant, incidental, perhaps it is not even happening. All those people are merely stand-ins for NATO troops, who will soon be thronging Belgrade's streets in about equal numbers. . . . .
Szamuely's attempt to portray Kostunica as pushing the button that sends cruise missiles into Serbian homes is so patently dishonest that it takes one's breath away. Antiwar.com has run several stories, emblazoned across the page in great big red letters, detailing Kostunica's demands that the NATO-crats stay out of Yugoslavia's internal affairs. One old general, now a leading opposition figure, wondered aloud if these "loony" Western politicians would shut up long enough for the Serbian people to take back their country and solve their own political problems. Kostunica's critique of the Milosevic regime as the assassin and not the savior of Serbia's fight for sovereignty, his nationalist credentials, his many statements bitterly denouncing NATO these stories and more have all been linked and discussed on this site. But Szamuely has no time or inclination to examine what we put on this site: he is too busy constructing a caricature and defending every action of the Belgrade government. I note, in passing, that he rarely if ever uses links to enlighten his readers as to the sources of his researches. On the internet this is very suspicious behavior, because the implication is that perhaps those links would lead back to some pretty dubious sources. . . .
While not coming right out and saying that Milosevic should have declared a "national emergency" and canceled the elections instead of merely trying to steal them, Szamuely comes close: He finds it "hard to take any elections seriously under such circumstances" because "how can you cast a vote for the candidate of your choice if there is a chance of cruise missiles blowing up your home if you vote the 'wrong' way?" In that case, the elections should never have been held in the first place: this is an argument for the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic since day one of the NATO bombing. I never thought I would see the day when I would be reading an apologia for authoritarian rule posted on Antiwar.com and it is a sad day indeed. This apologia is framed in terms of the "fairness" of the Yugoslav election and, specifically, the functioning of Milosevic's Federal Election Commission. Szamuely writes:
"Today, the United States is demanding that Milosevic steps down, even though the Yugoslav Federal Electoral Commission is saying that Kostunica did not receive 50 percent of the vote. The US Government is accepting without question the claims of the Democratic Opposition that Kostunica won 55 percent to Milosevic's 35 percent. Yet these figures are not based on any vote count, but on the reports of opposition poll watchers-hardly a disinterested bunch of observers. There were no American observers at the polls. The Russians were there. They claim they witnessed no election irregularities."
What Szamuely leaves out is that all attempts by the Opposition to inspect the ballots have been rebuffed. He questions the role of partisan poll-watchers as being "hardly disinterested," but what about the Federal Election Commission, which is appointed by Milosevic (except for 2 members of the Opposition)? What is more, this esteemed Commission did not even meet after the results were in: a communiqué was released informing the Opposition members and the public of the "official" numbers. But there is some reason to suspect these numbers, after all, given Milosevic's history of ballot-box-stuffing: it took three months of demonstrating in the streets, in 1996, before Milosevic gave in to mass protests against the falsification of municipal election results. As a concession to the Opposition, this time, the government let a single Opposition delegate on the Federal Election Commission go into the building where the election ballots are kept under heavy guard: go ahead, they said, and inspect the ballots in their millions. To this day they refuse to let the Opposition inspect the ballots, or to publish the basis of their figures. Is this what Szamuely wants to defend?
Far be it from me to tell the Serbian or any other people what kind of government they ought to adopt, but there is a very bright line that must be drawn between defending the Serbian people against NATO's attacks and defending the Serbian government against its own people. The people are not their government, although this is a mistake non-libertarians often make. It is one thing to call for nonintervention in Serbia's domestic affairs, and quite another to justify each and every action of the Serbian government, even the most indefensible. To give his piece a touch of parody, for some reason, Szamuely cites the Russians' approval of the Yugoslav electoral process as some kind of good government seal of approval this from a country whose own President probably committed massive vote fraud in an election as dicey as Yugoslavia's, if not more so!
But so what if Milosevic rigged the election to prevent a first-round victory by Kostunica after all, who are we to tell the Serbs, the Russians, or anyone, how to organize their electoral procedures? Here is where the bright line must be drawn. It is one thing to deny that the violation of democracy is a valid pretext for intervention, and quite another to whitewash and endorse tyranny. The American contingent of the Slobodan Milosevic Fan Club, which, I am sorry to say, Szamuely seems to have joined, has made a big point of touting the various "election observers" invited by Milosevic to give the elections a clean bill of health. Parliamentarians from the West were excluded, but among the invitees were such sterling examples of the democratic process as North Korea. The Chinese promised to show up, but reneged at the last minute. I guess they didn't want their reputation for democracy at all sullied. Are these the kinds of regimes that Szamuely holds up as examples to be emulated worldwide? The astonishing answer to this question is, unfortunately, yes. . . .
I had no right to be shocked by Szamuely writing apologias for Milosevic, as I had ample warning of it in an early essay he penned for the New York Press last year, an effort that struck me, at the time, as interesting, and daring and now strikes me as repulsive. "The Red Tide Turning" is a panegyric to dictators everywhere, a remarkable document written from the perspective a Cold War conservative who supported US involvement in Vietnam: "Whatever the atrocities the US perpetrated," he wrote, "I believed that they were a price worth paying to resist Communism." But today, he sees the North Vietnamese Communists in a different light: Ho Chi Minh, you see, "unlike the assorted political hacks who played musical chairs in Saigon, was an authentic leader of Vietnam." Admiringly he notes that "the Hanoi regime . . . took everything the United States threw at it and still prevailed." Good old Uncle Ho, he didn't need the Russians or the Chinese, he did it all by himself what a hero! Never mind that this Authentic Leader killed and imprisoned tens of thousands in the Vietnamese Gulag, and inaugurated one of the most repressive Communist regimes in the world, second only to North Korea in its savage repression of any and all dissent. This is just a minor detail in Szamuely's grand geo-strategic vision: it is "a price worth paying to resist." But what are we resisting today, now that the Leninist project survives only in such places as Belgrade, North Korea, and the faculty lounges of America's universities?
Szamuely complains that "today there is no countervailing force to U.S. supremacy" and "Washington's tantrums are international law." Therefore, we must worship at the altar of anyone and everyone who stands up to Washington's plan for world conquest, especially including the most tyrannical and bloodthirsty despots. Like Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, far from being the devil figure of Western propaganda, is really a saint, at least in this strangely inverted theology, which is actually a kind of devil worship. In attacking the US-funded and largely impotent anti-Saddam Iraqi exile groups gathered in Washington last year to lobby for more US tax dollars, Szamuely casually remarked: "By resisting relentless US pressure for almost 10 years, Saddam has shown himself to be the authentic leader of Iraq, something these toadies can never hope to be." Ah, yet more "toadies" and yet another Authentic Leader, this one a real prize. Oh yes, the world is full of heroes, if you just know where to look. "Today's fighters for freedom are no longer Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. They have names like Jiang Zemin, Vladimir Putin and, yes, Slobodan Milosevic."
At the time I thought all this was rather clever: I excused the iconization of dictators as a literary device, a kind of rhetorical overstatement that made a valid point the point being that, like the Communists, the US elites had become a power with world-conquering ambitions. As it turns out, this was a real danger sign one I was willing to overlook whether on account of my admiration for his writing style, or for political reasons, or some combination of both. In retrospect, however, it seems clear I was evading the truth. George's New York Press essay was not just a literary device, a rhetorical flourish meant to amuse more than instruct, but the political manifesto of a fan club for foreign dictators. The simplistic almost cartoonish view of world events expressed in this strangely adolescent essay is typical of politicized intellectuals, who resist nuance and look for heroic figures to populate the stories they like to tell themselves. Now many of my critics have made just this criticism of my many paeans to Pat Buchanan, and there may be some truth in that but, whatever you may think of Pat, he can't be accused of enslaving millions in the Chinese Gulag. What this defense indeed, deification of dictators resembles, more than anything, is Satanism, which is nothing more than the inversion of all that is generally considered holy. When alienated teenagers indulge in it, we tend to dismiss it as just another gesture of adolescent rebellion, a phase they're going through, and that this too shall pass, along with piercings, purple hair, and puberty. But it seems to me that George Szamuely is well past puberty. It is kind of sad to have to tell a grown man, in public, to grow up. But it has to be done.
If the anti-interventionist movement should ever become known as the great admirers of and apologists for Szamuely's Authentic Leaders the devils of this world it would be a disaster that could never be undone. This is how the War Party smeared the America First movement of the 1930s, by working assiduously to characterize organized opposition to US entry into World War II as "Hitler's fifth column" with deadly success. Charles A. Lindbergh was smeared as a "Nazi," and the America First Committee was indicted by Roosevelt's Justice Department as an organization under the control of enemy agents. Szamuely's cult of the foreign devil not only sets antiwar activists up for a devastating political attack, but also sets them up for possible legal problems: in his essay, Szamuely mentions Osama bin Laden, the alleged terrorist mastermind, as one of the principal enemies of the US. Is he, too, a "freedom-fighter" and, if so, isn't discretion the better part of valor?
The conservatives of yesteryear have traveled many strange paths in the wake of the fall of Communism. The neoconservatives, grouped around the Weekly Standard, have taken up the theme of "national greatness" and are writing earnest essays calling for the US to take up the burden of "benevolent world hegemony." The paleoconservatives, grouped around Chronicles magazine, and their libertarian allies, including the Center for Libertarian Studies, are building a new "isolationist" movement to dismantle the Empire and restore our Old Republic. But George Szamuely has chosen a different path. Now that Communism and the varieties of Leninist-style socialism have almost vanished from the face of the earth, Szamuely has taken up the fallen banner. In a bizarre twist of fate, he has become his old Communist antagonists, repeating their arguments, even their arcane economics, and the whole thing has about it a distinctly tragic-comic air. Here is the Ultimate Lost Cause, like trying to revive phrenology, and it is painful and even embarrassing to watch. . . .
Anticipating that Milosevic might steal the election outright, Szamuely sought to justify it in advance by going out on a limb and predicting Kostunica's defeat in the first round: "Why on earth would anyone vote for a political group that promises to cut public expenditure, close down so-called 'inefficient' industries, and open up the country to predatory foreign investors hunting for bargains?" Gee, I don't know, maybe because they're tired of having to join the ruling party in order to have and keep a job, maybe because they put a value on freedom of the press, and tend to frown on election fraud maybe that and more. But it is useless to argue with someone who still doesn't seem to understand why Communism fell, imploding so suddenly and dramatically in a vast display of "people power" similar to what is happening in Yugoslavia today. . . .
The big problem with socialism and authoritarianism is that they don't work, and are doomed, in any event, by the example of countries that can provide people with the freedom to live and work and prosper. It was only the projection and application of American and allied power that allowed the old Soviet Union and the international Communist movement to hold on for as long as they did. Once the Cold War ended, they collapsed. The projection of similar power in the Balkans today is what, in turn, has delayed the overthrow of Milosevic this long. He is, after all, the last of the old Stalinists in power on the European continent, and it is way past time for his downfall. That the Serbian people have, in spite of everything, defied the odds and chosen neither the US nor Milosevic is an act of courage that every person of good will let alone every opponent of intervention must cheer. If Szamuely and his few followers in the Anti-American faction of the antiwar movement are looking for overseas "freedom-fighters," they might look to the people out in the streets of Belgrade.
An editorial note: As the editorial director of Antiwar.com, I have to take some political responsibility for the material appearing on this website, but not so in recent days. The view that Slobodan Milosevic is some kind of heroic figure is a view held by very few people, and none except Szamuely who have any credibility. Unfortunately, Szamuely has lost his with his induction into the mysteries of the Slobo cult, and the rest led by Jared Israel, whose site has contributed what I consider an undue number of links from this site argue on automatic pilot, detailing the alleged payoffs and subsidies available to everyone in the Opposition, it seems, but Kostunica. No matter what their ostensible subject, these numerous articles all have the same theme: the world is divided into two and only two camps, the US and everybody else. There are no nuances, no middle ground, no complicating and entirely human developments and variations. We must choose between Slobodan Milosevic and Madeleine Albright, between Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein, between the US and whatever hapless despot (the more brutal and primitive, the better) they happen to subject to a public mugging. Well, I for one, refuse to choose. . . .
The crude reductionism of Szamuely's viewpoint does not take into account the complexity of human beings, and of the issues: it is an arid and ultimately fatal point of view that could destroy the all-too-limited effectiveness of the anti-interventionist movement. What's more, I believe this erroneous and ultimately destructive view has had a complete and thorough airing on this site and that enough is enough. If pleas that such arguments are hurting the case against war fail to reach them for surely they don't hope to convince any normal human being that Milosevic is some kind of hero, or even the least bit admirable then it is time to call into question their motives, and stop giving them a platform. Now this may seem "intolerant," and not in keeping with the atmosphere of open discussion we have boasted about on this site, but I question the morality of calling for the imposition of state-controls on protesting anti-Milosevic demonstrators and publishing material that rationalizes their arrest by Serbian government authorities. The student group "Otpor" has been singled out for special attention by the smear campaign conducted by Milsoevic's American fan club, a group whose platform as described by the slanderers doesn't match anything on Otpor's website: perhaps they got their information directly from Milosevic's secret police. In any case, do we really want to set these people up for state repression in the name of "free speech"?
Having signed many fundraising letters asking for people to contribute to this site, I cannot in good conscience allow Antiwar.com to be used in this manner without protesting in public and urging you to add your protest to my own. If you've ever given a penny, or even if you're just a regular visitor to the site, please write in to the Board of the Center for Libertarian Studies the sponsors of this site and remind them that they are, after all, libertarians in spite of the almost exclusively single-issue focus of Antiwar.com. We must never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of prettifying tyranny in the cause of "peace" such a strategy can only fatally undermine the cause of both. The Slobodan Milosevic Fan Club has been quite vocal, crying "foul" over my attacks on their parodic absurdities in a series of rebuttals and obviously orchestrated emails. Well, I can do some orchestrating, too: come on, you guys, if you don't want Antiwar.com turned into a site promoting dictatorship in the name of "noninterventionism," then let your voice be heard. Write to: Justin@antiwar.com, and I'll forward your letters to the Board.
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