Old Serbia (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

I saw before me what an empire which spreads beyond its legitimate boundaries must do to its subjects. It cannot spread its own life over the conquered areas, for life cannot travel too far from its sources, and it blights the life that is native to those parts.

OLD SERBIA IS what we now call Kosovo, a partially recognized sovereign state that emerged following the 1999 NATO war with the federal Yugoslavia over ethnic cleaning in the formerly autonomous province.  Kosovo is a toponym derived from the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.  The battle figures prominently in West’s narrative as well as the history of Serbia and Yugoslavia.  In the Kosovo Polje, or Field of Blackbirds, the Ottoman army destroyed the Serbian defense, solidifying Turkish control over the Balkans for the next 500 years.  The blackbirds described are the carrion birds that descended on the dead.  Later, in a foreshadowing of Flanders Fields, legend tells that the field erupted in red peonies the following spring, the blood of the Serbian martyrs.

Gračanica (Kosovski božuri) (1913) by Nadežda Petrović; (Wikipedia)

In the early 16th century Muslim Albanians began to migrate to Kosovo.  Today, Albanians almost entirely populate this cradle of the Serbian nation.  In 1989, on the six hundredth anniversary of the battle, communist apparatchik Slobodan Milošević gave his infamous speech inciting the Serbian audience.  Standing at the rebuilt monument of Gazimestan, which West also visited, he used the heroic narrative to define his nationalist agenda that perpetuated war, massacre, and genocide across the former Yugoslavia for the next 20 years.

West tours the field, which like a medieval Gettysburg is scattered with various semi-monuments erected in memory of the dead.  Close by is a genuine treasure: the frescoes of Gračanica, the first Serbian Orthodox monastery she visits in Kosovo.  The Serbian monasteries West visits at Peć and Dečani are rightfully famous landmarks.  Most of them today are restored and preserved under the UN’s designation as World Heritage Sites. 

Monastery at Gračanica (Wikipedia)

West is genuinely enraptured by the devotional art here and she takes time to examine, deconstruct, and contextualize the frescoes painted centuries earlier.  She finds here a more experiential piety, immediate and deeply felt.  She intuits an uncanny communication between centuries: the expressionism on display in Gračanica from 1325 is painted in the same authentic, almost naive style as William Blake hones in the 1800s.  The similarities are indeed so striking it is easy to confuse the two.  There is no indication that Blake visited, saw, or even studied these obscure frescoes.  The fact that they both seem to express in the same way suggests they have tapped into a deep and universal experience.

St. Elijah, fresco, Gračanica.

For West, that universal trait is a mysticism that separates east and west.  “This is a study of what our people alone know,” Constantine observes. “This is mysticism without suffering.”  West finds this refreshing.  Instead of the half-mad mystic hermit of the Western church, who starves and thirsts himself in the desert for a chance at a vision of the truth, these Orthodox mystics are ascetic because what they think requires much more room than civilization can provide.  “Life is not long enough for these men to enjoy the richness of their own perceptions, to transmute them into wisdom,” she concludes.

God Blessing the 7th Day, William Blake, 1805

West revisits the Kosovo legend, about which the less said the better.  She quotes extensively, and has been extensively quoted as quoting, the poem that forms the Serbian national ur-narrative.  It describes the choice made by Prince Lazar as he assembled his forces against the invading Ottomans.  The angel Elijah, in form of a grey falcon, visits Lazar on the eve of battle. The angel offers the prince a choice between the kingdom of heaven and a kingdom on earth.  He chooses the former, after which his army is cut to pieces on Kosovo field.  It is an ages-old example of the noble Lost Cause (in which case St. Jude should have appeared before Lazar), which is purer in defeat than in victory.  Ignominy and slaughter are redeemed.  From the defeat of the Confederacy to Germany’s stab in the back, from Custer’s Last Stand to the Mother of All Battles, stories of nobility and self-sacrifice redress ancient carnage and catastrophe.  It is hard to imagine the grip of a 600 year-old legend on people in the 21st century, but there is much to echo William Faulkner here (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”).

For West, Kosovo is even more sickening than her experience at the Sheep’s Field.  Here the grey falcon is the bridgehead to the black lamb. It connects animal ritual sacrifice to actual human sacrifice.  It is the terminus for humanity’s unconscious death wish. With a sardonic cut she writes, “So that was what happened, Lazar was a member of the Peace Pledge Union.”  This pro-appeasement organization, as with its fellow neutralist, nativist, and fascist parties and clubs across North America and Europe between the world wars, is conveniently forgotten today.

“[W]hat the pacifist really wants is to be defeated,” West writes.  She continues:

If it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory.

Rebecca West’s travels in Old Serbia (Kosovo). (Google Maps)

The rest of the trip alternates between mystical revery and pure annoyance.  She makes an eccentric visit to the Stan Trg (an English typographical corruption of Stari Trg, “Old Mine”) mines at Trepča.  These pits have been continuously mined for more than 2,000 years and today remain the largest producer of lead-zinc and silver ore in Europe.  There she finds a Scotsman whom she calls Gospodin Mac, the mine’s general manager.  The author Ian Hamilton has identified the Mac as A.S. Howie, a career employee of the Selection Trust, who died not long after the meeting West records.  Not much more information is available about him, but West enjoys the company of her fellow countryman and his wife immeasurably.

The pitiful Constantine retreats into himself, hovering on the verge of nervous collapse as he tries to reconcile his wife’s animus toward him and his English friends.  He comes off as brusque and smug, but West sympathetically sees right through him.  “I paused, at a loss for words,” she writes.  “I did not know how to say that he was dying of being a Jew in a world where there were certain ideas to which some new star was lending a strange strength.” This is both a terrifying portent of the Holocaust and the most succinct summary of dual consciousness that I have ever read.

There are two other long shadows of the war to come.  First West and her husband encounter a strange man in a provincial café.  The man approaches them speaking German while claiming to be Danish.  But hearing the man speak Henry Andrews immediately determines, “That man has spoken Berliner German from his infancy.”  Constantine concedes the fake Dane is likely a German agent, but they remain confused why he would be here, so far from any large city or capital. 

Later, in Dečani, they are accosted by an irritating blond monk who brags he soon “will have the great honour of entertaining at Dečani Herr Hitler and Herr Göring!”  (Hitler later pressured the Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia to join the Tripartite Pact.  When Serbian officers ousted Paul in a coup and installed Peter II in 1941, Hitler declared Yugoslavia an enemy state and invaded.  Nevertheless, I can find no indication that Hitler visited Yugoslavia prior to the occupation. Göring visited Ragusa, Croatia, in 1935.)

West laboriously relates the descent and fall of the Serbian empire and Byzantium to the Ottomans.  A civil war among the descendants of King Milutin in the 1320s stalled Serbian plans to take Byzantium at Constantinople.  An internecine power struggle between Milutin’s grandson Stefan Dušan and his father resulted in the father’s imprisonment and Dušan being crowned emperor.  He proved an able leader and commander, initially offering his armies to Cantacuzenus, ruler of Byzantium, to fight his civil war.  That offer just as quickly reversed and Dušan went on a campaign of conquest throughout the Balkans. 

As a result of this reversal, Byzantium was suddenly extremely vulnerable.  To shore up its defenses, Cantacuzenus allied with the Turks and ceded territory in Europe to them to repay debts.  This placed the Ottomans in an opportune position to capitalize on Byzantium’s weakness coming out of its civil war.  When Dušan suddenly died, he left a leadership vacuum and vast imperial possessions without defenses.  The Ottomans then embarked on their conquest of the Balkans that included the Battle of Kosovo and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.  Ottoman Turkey soon consolidated rule over an empire spanning from Baku to Algiers and from Budapest to Aden.

This is an extensive narrative backdrop to the situation West finds in Old Serbia in the late 1930s.  Dušan’s turn on Byzantium, she argues, sealed the fate of the Eastern Church and opened the door to 500 years of Turkish domination in southeastern Europe.  West sees the lasting result in Old Serbia, which serves her argument about the destructive nature of empires.  She sees in real time the consequences of centuries of conquest and subjugation.  Her argument isn’t that the Ottomans Turkified or Islamized Kosovo so much as do almost the opposite: there is almost nothing left.  In the place of what should be the Serbian national heartland, she sees instead an absence, a cultural void that follows colonization. 

Battle of Kosovo, Adam Stefanović, 1870. (Wikipedia)

“Yet people here had once known all that we know, and more,” she writes, “but the knowledge had died after the death of Stephen Dušan, it had been slain on the field of Kosovo.”

NOTE: This article has been corrected to indicate that Hermann Göring visited Yugoslavia in 1935.

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Not too late to seek a newer world (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all.  But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey, and that we should make it now, at Easter.  It will all be quite clear once we are in Yugoslavia.”  (Prologue)

The journeys of Rebecca West in Yugoslavia, 1936-1938. From the front leaf of the 1st US Edition.

REBECCA WEST MADE three trips to Yugoslavia in the late 1930s but never again visited the country, even after the end of World War II. The single volume treats these three journeys as one long meditation. She first visited for a lecture tour organized by the British Council in the spring of 1936, which explains in part her delight in Orthodox Easter while she visited Skopje and Ohrid in Macedonia and Belgrade in Serbia. She was seriously ill in Yugoslavia and sought treatment outside the country. It was during this travel to and from Yugoslavia through Central Europe that she witnessed the cultural shift and aggressive preparation in Germany in particular that presaged World War II.

West made her second visit, this time with husband Henry Andrews accompanying her, in spring of 1937, returning that May.  He is not named but provides quiet observation and mordant commentary throughout the narrative. Under deadline pressure for an opus that was ballooning into two volumes, West returned a third time in 1938.  The book was published shortly after the Battle of Britain during World War II, the result of five years’ writing and research.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has always been classified as a travel book or travelogue since it describes itself as “a journey through Yugoslavia.”  As I and other authors have noted, it remains indispensable as an accompaniment to visiting the region because it describes with such clarity what still remains there.  But it is evident from the start that the story is not really about a journey, country, or even history.  She is working on something much larger.  The place in time and the journey through it are framing devices for expansive interrogations of politics, identity, gender, historiography, religion, the nature of good and evil, empire, life, pleasure, pain, liberty, and death.  These were all topics West spent much of her life thinking and writing about, and they all came together in this book.  “It was much more than a travel book,” writes biographer Victoria Glendenning.  “It turned out to be the central book of her life.”

Nevertheless, without recourse to an established genre it is difficult to explain the book at all.  I borrowed prosopography as the closest, if unfamiliar, descriptor: a history of a people as a collective, particularly in contrast to other groups.  In any event, the term helps explain how West categorizes people according to (currently outdated) notions of race or nation.  In West’s Europe there are Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, Jews and Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, Turks and Macedonians, Serbs and Croats, and so on.  Using this sorting tool, she draws lessons from the experiences of individual nations, for this is how millennia of conquerors, colonizers and empires viewed them.  It is also how they saw themselves.

Yugoslavia was at the time of her first visit not even 20 years old.  The idea of a federated polity of Slavic-language speakers in Southern Europe dates to the late 17th century, but it was created only in 1918 from the possessions of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and included the independent Serbia in the aftermath of World War I.  The ethnic, religious, and linguistic regions had existed for centuries and throughout its tortured history regional and global powers exploited those fractures.  Over time the area late known as Yugoslavia was occupied, annexed, colonized, or conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Italians, and Turks.  This explains in part the Yugoslav experiment: a modern federation was stronger than any of its individual member republics against the predations of its more powerful neighbors.

Historical Yugoslavia from the back leaf 1st US Edition.

Some of those constituent republics West visited don’t really exist.  At least one country she didn’t visit at all.  In the book’s table of contents West lists, in order, Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia and Montenegro.  Today Macedonia is officially North Macedonia.  Herzegovina is an historic region of Bosnia but has never been geographically defined and serves no administrative purpose.  The Croatian peninsula of Dalmatia is similarly an undefined historical region and former kingdom.

Old Serbia is Kosovo, which for most of its modern history was part of Serbia.  It was an eyalet, or province, under Ottoman rule.  Socialist Yugoslavia declared Kosovo an autonomous area, a status that was revoked after 1989.  Following the federal campaign against Kosovo in 1999, NATO secured the territory, which declared itself an independent state in 2008.  West visited Kosovo but not Albania, which while not part of Yugoslavia shared the language and religion, Islam, of the majority of Kosovars then as now.

But as we will soon see, West’s omnivorous appetite for detail provides her a critical tool that even many academics and certainly most journalists do not possess.  From this book, West is often quoted that she “had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.”  That serves certain easily digested narratives.  Her real agenda is more comprehensively summarized by a story she recounts in the prologue.  She discovers to her horror and despair that a Viennese laundry has completely destroyed the Macedonian peasant dresses she had brought with her.  This acts as a parable about how the West broadly and imperialism in particular devalue and degrade small vibrant cultures and communities.  Oppressive reign ruins those it rules.  West’s husband does not understand her emotional reaction and wonders what Macedonia could possibly have that could upset her so much.  “Well, there is everything there,” she says.  “Except what we have.  But that seems very little.”  This is a powerful display of empathy that is the root and branch of all great writing.

Podcast Blues

NOTE Sept. 12: Amb. Chris Stevens, who is mentioned in this post, was killed alongside three other American diplomats during an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Stevens becomes the first American ambassador killed in service since 1988. At least as many ambassadors, if not more, have been killed in service as flag officers in combat in the history of the U.S. diplomatic corps. In deference to and as a small record of Amb. Stevens’ long service, and in spite of the mild critique he is subject to here, I am leaving the rest of this post in the original.

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Buried on YouTube is an intriguing and expanding experiment in Internet-enabled public diplomacy.  Beginning a few years ago, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) started short video profiles of American ambassadors bound for exotic posts abroad.  This is a way to introduce themselves to the countries where they will be serving, the bilateral agenda they’ll be promoting, and maybe get some of that social media mojo everybody’s been talking about. IIP stood up a video production capability in 2008 and is producing by its count an astonishing 300 video products a year.

Typically for a federal agency, these introductory videos – 16 are live, which setting aside consulates and other missions represents about a tenth of our diplomatic representation abroad – are produced with gusto but manifestly uneven style and quality.  So this is a friendly critique with suggestions for how these videos can get better and find the audience they are clearly intended to reach.

DON’T KILL A GOOD IDEA TO SPITE THE BAD

The first thing to say – before the bureaucracy goes defensive and crushes a creative, progressive idea out of instinctive reflex to criticism, like Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men – is this is good and should continue. All American ambassadors should do this.  The initiative uses a new and evolving technology, it trains our top diplomats in front of the camera and develops the State Department’s production capacity – all capabilities the department needs and should expand.  Please, Hillary, don’t kill this for budgetary reasons or for any stupid or malicious comments somebody logs on your YouTube site!

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IS ALSO THE SMALLEST

Unfortunately there are some systematic problems this initiative will face.  And the biggest problem is this: most of the countries profiled by these videos have very low Internet penetration.  This is, frankly, the entire problem with Internet-based public diplomacy platforms: it has been seduced by the gossamer Web dreams of high-yield outreach on the cheap, the Digital Diplomats’ snake oil pitch.  In reality the world is divided between the wired-up haves – those uncensored, connected and mobile, mostly in the advanced democratic West – and the delinked have-nots, which is most of the rest of the world.  Even to reach most of the Internet haves, a major “push” using Internet-based tools usually involves an expensive, labor-intensive, multi-modal campaign that soundly pounds the dream of inexpensive Web riches to gold dust.

This is almost immediately clear when looking at the traffic numbers for the videos, which in one case (Mongolia) is in the low double digits.  Kosovo has the highest traffic, but that’s because Kosovo is the most pro-American country in Europe.  Still, Internet penetration in Kosovo is only about 20 percent (by contrast, the U.S. has an Internet penetration of 78.3 percent; in Japan it’s 80%; Iceland tops the list at 97.8 percent).  The rest of the view rates for these videos span the mid-hundreds.

But the plain obstacle is the countries themselves: Bangladesh, Vietnam, Equador, Nicaragua, Uganda, Mongolia and Libya have some of the lowest rates of Internet penetration in the world.  (Among these countries, Bangladesh ranks lowest; North Korea is at the bottom.)  Of course, with the Internet in the “rest of the world,” you’re producing for a self-selecting minority, which is fine.  But IIP clearly needs the resources to do a much better job of promotion to get these videos to their intended audience.

Continuing to produce these introductory videos makes sense but they need to be promoted properly and in the right technological context.  Can these be pushed out to mobile phones, screened in schools or for civic organizations, or in other public diplomacy venues?  They shouldn’t sit on a server never to see an audience in countries that have dramatically less Internet access than we are used to in the developed world.

LESS IS MORE

Many of these videos feel both overproduced and as if they are trying to do and say more than the video can bear.  The videos are professionally shot and edited, and benefit from a surfeit of imagery captured from our traveled Secretary of State and President while abroad.  Nonetheless, it seems like the producer or editors is worried the viewer will lose interest unless he or she is bombarded with multiple camera angles, smash cuts, sliding transitions, music, and the rest.  There is no uniformity of style or format among the videos.  I’m inclined to suggest that less is more.

I wonder if the scriptwriters were able to settle on a single theme in each video – instead of the usual smorgasbord of official priorities – around which to build a coherent narrative or tell personal stories.  Then they could build both audience interest in the individual ambassador and learn about one subject in depth rather than skate over a half-dozen or so issues that the official “relationship” will concern itself with.  I’ll get into more specific ideas about how this can be done in a minute.

THE POWER OF BABEL

Language is impossible to avoid when viewing all of these introductions.  Some ambassadors speak the native language, some don’t.  Some are clearly very good at speaking foreign languages, and some are not.  Some should speak foreign languages but don’t.  Why?

It’s important to assert first that speaking English is fine.  When I was at NATO, the interpreters specifically advised us to speak the language we were most comfortable with, which is usually our mother tongue.  Writing from experience, that’s especially important for speaking on camera.  Most of the world speaks or is learning English and doesn’t mind the opportunity to practice, especially if what they’re hearing is subtitled.  In the case of the U.S. Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, speaking an Indian language would be impractical and impolitic (there are simply too many languages and topolects spoken in India), and her obvious grasp of location names based on a prior tour demonstrates her respect for the country and its cultures.

Several ambassadors speak Spanish of varying degrees of proficiency.  Truly impressive, however, are Ambassador Tracey Jacobsen, who learned Albanian to go to Kosovo, and Ambassador Dan Mozena, who learned Bengali to serve in Bangladesh.  Mozena’s commitment to Bengali is particularly poignant, and he and wife demonstrate a sincere, effusive warmth that is obvious on camera.  This combination of attributes on the part of all three of them clearly endeared them to their audiences based on the positive responses I read on the YouTube site.  (I would only note, although this is certainly not Jacobsen’s fault, that her Albanian is subtitled in Serbian for the contentious Serb minority in Kosovo, but in Latin script. Serbian is normally written in Cyrillic.)

But for Ambassador Michael McFaul and Ambassador Chris Stevens, our representatives to Russia and Libya, respectively, they both speak at length about working in the former Soviet Union and North Africa but record their videos in English.  Stevens was the official U.S. liaison to the Libyan opposition.  McFaul generated the recent “reset” on relations with Moscow.  Both, to my knowledge, speak the local language, but neither did so for these videos.  It’s a difficult argument to balance, I admit, but viewers will wonder why the American ambassador to Kosovo speaks Albanian but the ambassador to Libya, with two decades of experience in the Arab world doesn’t speak Arabic on camera. The same could be said for McFaul.

CRINGE LESS

This leads me to the only really bad video of the batch, Ambassador David Shear, our representative to Vietnam.  This was hard to watch because it was so transparently staged and because it stood in such poor contrast to the others.  Here, Shear is seen taking language lessons in Vietnamese and eating at a Vietnamese restaurant.  This is poor form, especially given the extraordinary effort Jacobsen and Mozena made to learn very difficult and obscure languages like Albanian and Bengali.  The Vietnamese may be forgiven for wondering why out of the 1.2 million speakers of Vietnamese in the United States (the third-most spoken Asian language here), one couldn’t be appointed Ambassador.

The Vietnamese are also no doubt aware of both our obesity epidemic and the immigrant-entrepreneurs – most of whom are refugees from the war – who own those restaurants.  Shear, probably trying to cast himself as a humble naïf learning the language and culture of a country he is about to serve in, instead communicates an embarrassing ignorance of the country in which he will soon be head of mission.  He should be the expert on Vietnam. The worst evidence of this deafness to tone is when he vows to consult the “many people with experience working in Vietnam”: at last count, there were 2.59 million U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War, not including diplomats, journalists and aid workers.

IT’S NOT WHAT YOU LIKE BUT WHAT YOU’RE LIKE THAT MATTERS

But in the end, I didn’t feel like I got to know these men and women.  Most of them are clearly charismatic and intelligent, which as mediated through video is no small achievement.  I learned a few things about them.  McFaul is from Montana.  Shear likes to eat.  Powell is a photographer.  Stevens enjoys the outdoors.  Ambassador Piper Campbell likes horses.  But to borrow a phrase from Nick Hornsby, it’s not what you like but what you’re like that really matters and I didn’t learn much about what they’re like beyond how they were conveyed through the four-inch portal on my computer.

In order for viewers to like, trust and sympathize with your subjects, they have to reveal something about themselves.  I recognize this is not the usual approach for career diplomats, who are not reality television stars.  And writing as someone who has done work like this, it is simply not easy to do (and doesn’t always “work” when you do it).

The videos are intended to do three things: introduce the ambassador, describe the bilateral relationship, and pitch American foreign policy priorities.  It’s a big ask.  But it can be done.  And it can be done well.

By way of an example, watch this, a video featuring the Japanese Consul-General in Memphis, Tennessee, produced by the local Chamber of Commerce.   (Full disclosure: a good friend was part of the team that produced this series, but he no longer works for the Chamber.) You can tell right away that you’re watching something completely different.  The CG plays in a band, in public, in Memphis.  He loves music and talks about how important Memphis is both to Japan for trade and to the small Japanese community in the city.  He appears on camera, of course, but the audio track was taped in a studio, in a more relaxed setting, probably based on a structured interview.  As a result, the video feels intimate and subtle, like you’re part of a conversation.  And despite the higher production values, it was probably easier to put this video together because the voice track was taped and edited later with the camera footage shot on location.

The important thing to remember is that this was produced by the Chamber to sell Memphis.  There are several other videos like this one profiling small business owners, some of which are quite compelling and moving.  But that doesn’t seem to detract from getting to know the individuals and learning what motivates them in their work.  IIP could learn from videos like these – maybe even collaborate with the National Symphony Orchestra the way the Chamber partnered with the Memphis Symphony, which commissioned original work to score the videos as part of the promotional campaign.

What strikes me most about the Chamber campaign videos is they tell a story not just about the individuals but about the city. As my friend told me, Memphis is not all blues and barbecue: It’s a place that people love, where the subjects of the videos have decided to settle and to start their families and businesses.

To understand how effective these ambassadorial videos could be, start by substituting Mongolia for Memphis.  What is the American community like there? What are some of the experiences the ambassadors have had that explain who we are, what we’re like, and what we have in common with the countries where they’re posted?  Only when we talk about that do we really begin to reach people.  And when we start doing that, we begin to cross those last three feet, in Edward R. Murrow’s famous formulation.  Even over the Internet, that remains public diplomacy’s most important territory.

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