The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was the first time I witnessed — at a distance — a society devolving into chaotic, genocidal violence. I remember the report of Srebenica, that awful helplessness that even as we had vowed “never again”, it was happening again to someone. A friend of mine went over there in 1995 supported by a major foundation; his job was supposed to be building out radio networks, but he ended up working with a pathologist, trading bodies between the side of the conflict. How do you recognize your loved one’s body? A scrap of clothing; yes, that’s the shirt he wore …
There’s an origin scene from that conflict in 1987, where Slobodan Milosevic — heretofore a party figure, a holdover from the Communist era — strolls into a crowd of angry Serbs in Kosovo, hearing their complaints of ill-treatment, of victimhood. And he utters his fateful line “no one will beat you again.”
Trump’s scarcely-veiled threats of violence in the debate last night have reminded me of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and to Rwanda. I don’t want to overstate the case: Everything is different, in different places, in different times; cultures, histories, and motivations are different. But when I saw that WGBH’s Adam Reilly had interviewed Princeton professor Aleksandar Hemon about the correspondences between 2020 USA and the former Yugoslavia, I had to listen.
EVER SINCE Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy and rank racism in 2015, those of us who’d witnessed the nationalist undoing in the Balkans at the end of the last millennium have found the subsequent rise of Trumpism frighteningly familiar …
… But the most important and troubling symptom is the open and ceaseless commitment to conflict meant to culminate in transformative, cathartic violence; this marks the beginning of collective self-actualization. As we bear witness to armed white American militias storming or protesting outside government institutions, it is clear that the chaos and tragedy of Covid-19 are being used by Trump and the GOP to enhance the conflict and accelerate the birth of a new, greater America. At the heart of every nationalist mythology is some kind of a rebirth, usually bloody and requiring sacrifices, preferably of the weak and the doubtful.
Hemon recognizes that chaos — government lawlessness, violence in the streets, even COVID — is not simply the result of stupidity and negligence, but the work of conflict and of taking power. Citing the Michigan militiamen in the State House: “The presence of violence and tension is a self-perpetuating mechanism”.
What do we do? Hemon is decidedly not optimistic. But the worst has in fact happened before; and if at least we can imagine it, we can try to head it off in the ways we’re capable. Hemon warns, “We need to organize, to think of the ways to participate in politics … [but] there will be violence, and I’m sorry if that dismays people.”
Hemon reserves special scorn for the fecklessness and denial of the establishment Democratic Party, that things will magically self-correct to a better, earlier time: “Make America Pretty OK Again”, I guess. I know Joe Biden has his fans here; but I think we all recognize a disconnect between the threat posed by an anti-democratic President and his party, and the kind of airy, unifying language Biden used last night. I don’t think that’s going to cut it.
Give it a listen. And as we hurtle towards the most dangerous time of this election cycle, think about ways to build social power. I don’t know how much we can do in Massachusetts, but perhaps we can be creative and helpful. Here’s another resource: “10 things you can do to stop a coup.”