I’m on the road with my good friend Rachel Rizzo. We’re in Belgrade, Serbia. We’re headed to Prishtina, Kosovo, the next day. We’ve had some interesting meetings so far in Belgrade, and have a bunch more set for the next few days. Looming over the trip is the Balkan crisis I described two weeks ago—a crisis which was only partially defused by frenzied diplomacy last week.
Rachel and I are having dinner on the Belgrade riverfront, when the conversation turns to our friend Shadi getting attacked for his essay on “semi-fascism”. We spend some time talking about how distant and petty the whole thing seems from afar—how it’s some kind of weird intellectual vanity fight, all point-scoring, all empty moralizing. How the whole thing is over such low stakes. How clarifying it is to be in the middle of politics that are far more existential and white-knuckled. It puts things in perspective, we concluded.
Later on that night, I thought some more about it and came to a slightly different conclusion. I had earlier gone back and forth with our friend Dov Friedman for a few rounds on Twitter. At one point, Dov said:
I wondered whether the response [Shadi] wanted to write was really: It doesn't matter whether half the public is lightly fascist, you shouldn't say it, because you still need to persuade many of them if the government is going to have democratic legitimacy.
I responded that I thought that this was exactly what Shadi’s piece was saying, and that it’s bizarre that people were focusing their fire on litigating what fascism supposedly really means.
It occurred to me that people seem to be upset at Shadi for balking at naming and shaming obviously bad actors in exactly the way they’d prefer. They’re grasping for moral certainty, and are offended that someone from “their side” (on “their side” presumably not only because he professes to be, but also by dint of his race) is refusing to indulge them. Worse, he is daring to suggest that their moral clarity is not only not saving us from a dangerous fate, but is in fact pushing us further into an irreconcilable conflict. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that politics in the United States are becoming Balkanized.
When people think of the Balkans, they often think of “ancient hatreds” fueling bloody wars, of ethnic politics and corruption, of hot-headed people not being able to see how positive-sum compromises could improve everyone’s lot. I’m usually quick to jump in to say that one shouldn’t minimize how real the stakes are for those involved, to assume that all that’s required to solve things is for people to be somehow more rational. Looking at what’s happening in the United States, though, it occurs to me I should be doing the same thing. Instead of chastising those baying uselessly about fascism for making things worse, I should recognize that for them this feels existential—no less existential than any white-knuckled standoff in the Balkans. Just because it seems with a little bit of distance that it could be otherwise doesn’t mean that it can be.
At some point during the trip, Rachel asked me if I thought Yugoslavia was destined to fall apart. I said that it was probably inevitable given the logic of events. But still, it’s possible to imagine a world where things went a different way. Wiser leadership and smarter statesmanship could have cooled passions. Because while Yugoslavia was hardly paradise—there was repression, injustice, theft—it did allow for some very different peoples with different histories and languages to participate in a shared state for decades. Some kind of commonality was there.
I still don’t think the United States is necessarily headed for a breakup or open conflict. But we sure are busying ourselves with shredding our own common bonds as a people. While it may be inevitable that we continue to do so given the logic of events, it wasn’t so long ago that this level of mutual recrimination just didn’t exist. I can’t help but be pained at watching what’s happening as we collectively do this to ourselves.
And for the record, Shadi is right. Pointing out the “evil” in the other side will not cure the disease, even if the accusation is understandable, or even technically accurate. This is the logic of events at work. It is the disease itself. Wise leadership and smart statesmanship require a different turn, creativity, an effort to break the cycle. The self-righteous keyboard jockeys, on the other hand, are just hastening the spiral downward.