Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation and They Would Never Hurt a Fly

By Laura Silber and Allan Little

By Slavenka Drakulić

Democratic politics tend to have an authoritarian tug to them. The “people” do not clamour for liberal values. As has often been remarked, nobody ever ran for office on a platform of being soft on crime. We want leaders who talk tough and exude power. People who kick ass and take names. Even if the ass they kick may be our own.

This was something brought home to me while observing the campaign of Donald Trump for president. Watching coverage of his rallies, I couldn’t help noticing how it was the chants of the crowds that were egging him on to make his most outrageous statements. An insecure person, he responded to such encouragement every time, which only made him seem more a creature of the crowd than their master. We like to think of the demagogue as someone adept at whipping the masses into a frenzy, but more often than not they are something simpler: figures tossed up by the crowd and made the emblem of a radicalized general will.

You’d think it would be hard to find a more unprepossessing demagogue than Donald Trump, a television personality whose candidacy was seen as a joke by most observers. Without intelligence, experience, or charisma, few gave him much of a chance. However, he (or his managers) had his finger on the pulse of what was bothering people and was so able to ride their resentment into the highest office in the land. I don’t think anyone was as surprised as he was at this turn of events. In the words of Sidney Blumenthal, “Winning the presidency was never [his] deep desire, more a branding scheme that spun out of control.”

Such a phenomenon was not without precedent. Thirty years earlier, a similarly uninspiring candidate, Slobodan Milošević, had come to power in Yugoslavia, carried on a rising tide of nationalism. Milošević didn’t invent Serbian nationalism, and indeed the ferocity of his supporters seems to have taken him by surprise. In their excellent, journalistic account of the Yugoslavian disaster, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, Laura Silber and Allan Little paint a picture of a weak man who did not control events but was controlled by them. Opportunistic, to be sure, but something even less than that word implies. Recalling the first steps of Milošević’s rise to power, then Serbian president Ivan Stambolić describes his response to a rally of Kosovo Serbs in 1987:

After hours of heated talks, the Kosovo Serbs agreed to leave Belgrade. But the crowd had delivered an unmistakeable message – the sheer power of their numbers could easily disrupt daily life.

Milošević understood what it meant. For the first time he saw that an angry crowd could unsettle the Yugoslav leadership. He turned to Stambolić and said: “The fatherland is under threat.” Stambolić was astounded and asked what the matter was. He saw that Milošević was shaking. It struck Stambolić as a decisive alarming moment. “And that’s how it all began. The nationalism ran into his embrace. They grabbed him. He didn’t really enjoy it very much. But he knew it was politically very profitable.”

Throughout these early days Silber and Little describe how Milošević “felt the pull of the masses” and responded to it, rather than the other way around. In many ways Milošević was simply the mouthpiece for a growing sense of disaffection and resentment among a population that felt itself left behind. He understood their anger at being globalism’s losers. Faced with the secession of more successful states like Slovenia and Croatia his rhetoric had to fall back on the last refuge/threat of militarism. “If we have to fight, we’ll fight. I hope they won’t be so crazy as to fight against us. Because if we don’t know how to work and do business, at least we know how to fight.”

And so, as with the accidental President Trump, “things spun out of control.”

Later, after a descent into total barbarism, a peace was hammered out. Silber and Little see only gloomy lessons having been learned. The death of Yugoslavia “demonstrated that might, rather than reason, brought rewards; and it showed that the carving out of ethnically pure territorial units produced neater maps on which to build a peace settlement.” In order to salve their conscience, the West put some of the worst bad actors on trial for war crimes.

This is the story Slavenka Drakulić tells in They Would Never Hurt a Fly. The star of the show, “one of the biggest villains of the twentieth century,” is, of course, Milošević. But who is he? Drakulić admits she doesn’t know. He is an actor, he “needs a public.” It was the public, after all – the crowds, the masses – who made him. As a result, “It is almost as if this man has no other personality than his public one.”

There is nothing interesting about him as a private person, period. The transcripts [of private conversations taped by Croatian secret police between 1995 and 1998], like the biographies, reveal what there is to reveal about this man: banality, vulgarity, and emptiness. There is no elegance or grandeur about him, not a single interesting thought, nothing to inspire curiosity. All in all, Milošević appears to be just a boring character surrounded by corrupt children and a wife thirsty for power. In history, he may have played a gigantic role, the role of a villain, but he appears to be a dwarf. A small, angry, autistic man.

No, people like Milošević, or Donald Trump, are not great men. They are banal, vulgar, hollow men who only amplify the anger of the masses. This suggests at least one way of responding to the familiar questions that Drakulić poses at the end of her account of the trials:

My biggest disappointment was finding that [Borislav Herak, sentenced to death for rape and mass murder] was a man who looked like any other man: a neighbor, a relative, or even a friend. I looked for any evidence that he was different – in short, that he was a monster. And I was not the only person looking for such signs in war criminals. Many have done the same.

Does some personality flaw – or a specific type of character – cause human cruelty? Is there in every community a certain percentage of people who have the pathology to commit the worst crimes if given the chance? Or do they commit crimes only under social and psychological pressure? These questions are not new.

Obviously evil people exist, but in the case of many of Yugoslavia’s war criminals what we’re seeing may only be representatives (literally, in the case of the democratically-elected leaders) of a popular malaise. In other words, this is less the case of “criminal personalities” than a criminal society. As Drakulić puts it, “Perhaps what had changed [in Yugoslavia] was not the person, but the circumstances. There was no longer peace; now there was war”:

there must have been many such “criminal personalities” around to be able to rape tens of thousands of women and to kill more than two hundred thousand people during the war. There would have had to be thousands upon thousands of men committing such acts. Were the majority of them criminal personalities? This is hard to believe. More likely, the war itself turned ordinary men – a driver, a waiter, and a salesman . . . – into criminals because of opportunism, fear, and not least, belief. Hundreds of thousands had to have believed that they were right in what they were doing. Otherwise, such large numbers of rapes and murders simply cannot be explained – and this is even scarier.

I’m not sure this is scarier though. What’s worse: that there may be thousands of murderous psychopaths among us straining at the leash of civil society, or that the general will itself has such apocalyptic desires? It seems to me it would be easier to blame the monsters than ourselves.

Review first published online February 13, 2017.

The Man Without a Face

By Masha Gessen

In a 2013 review of the book Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl, David Runciman had this to say about the author’s line-up of the four people who changed the world in 1979:

If you had told someone at the start of 1975 that the architects of the new age were going to be the MP for Finchley, the bishop of Krakow, the exiled ayatollah and the ostracised apparatchik, you would have been laughed at. Apart from anything, they looked so powerless. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t yet spot who is going to make the difference this time round.

I was reminded of this in reading Masha Gessen’s account of the “unlikely rise” of Vladimir Putin. Five years before taking power as Russian president Putin was a little-known functionary in the government of Saint Petersburg. Five years before that he’d been a typical KGB loser stationed in East Germany. Like the Soviet Union itself, he seemed to be stuck in a rut going nowhere.

What happened?

That’s a hard question to answer, as much of Putin’s early political career is shrouded in mystery. The final step, however, his selection (one can’t say election) as president, seems to have been the result of the decisions of a group of people who underestimated him. He was seen as someone blank and dutiful: the perfect placeholder to manage the affairs of the new elite. He had other plans.

People don’t underestimate Putin as much these days, though he is still not well understood. In this account we can glean a few points. He hates democracy. He is very cynical about the media, seeing it either as a lying enemy or as a tool to be used to control the masses. He is greedy for the most vulgar material things. He likes to power trip. He is intelligent, but conceals it well behind a surprising vulgarity. Donald Trump, in his campaign for president, would express his admiration for Putin’s strength as a leader, but he probably recognized more familiar qualities as well. As Gessen concludes:

What had I learned? That the person I had described in this book – shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed – was indeed the person running Russia, to the extent Russia was being run.

It’s hard not to draw the comparison. If you had told someone only a year before the American election that the next president would be the much-mocked billionaire host of a reality TV program you would have been laughed at. And yet, here we are.

Review first published online January 30, 2017.

Strike Anywhere

By Michael Lista

It’s a shame that so much of the little discussion of book reviewing we have in this country gets hung up on the label of whether it should or shouldn’t be “negative.”

The charge of negativity is a hard one to shake. In popular culture the bias toward liking things is deeply ingrained. One thinks, for example, of the long struggle to have Facebook include a “dislike” button (because what sort of a terrible person would dislike something?). We shouldn’t be surprised that the default position for book reviewing is relentlessly and strictly upbeat, and that any contrary opinion is going to stand out.

As the title of this lively collection of literary essays and reviews, mostly on Canadian poets and poetry, indicates, Michael Lista isn’t afraid to group himself in with the bomb-throwers and arsonists, but to limit his critical outlook to any one label is misleading. Lista isn’t a “negative” critic so much as a passionate one, enthusiastic in both his likes and dislikes.

This is essential, since book reviews and most literary essays are by their nature ephemeral and it’s only their passion, personality, and intelligence that makes the best of them worth re-visiting. Lista’s writing has all of these qualities, delivered in a confident, categorical voice that speaks in absolutes but which never comes across as pompous or affected. Instead, his observations are grounded in earthy, humorous language and anecdotes (his trip to the Dante house museum in Florence being a good example). If there’s a fault it’s that the pieces here are so short we never get to see Lista show what he can do beyond quick takes.

A book like this also raises a pair of questions about literary criticism in Canada today that are worth pondering.

In the first place: why is poetry criticism in particular so active? In the last few years there have been a whole shelf of excellent collections of essays on contemporary Canadian poetry published, but next to nothing addressing the state of our fiction. Why is that?

Second: why is popular literary criticism, the kind addressed to the general reader, being written almost exclusively by freelancers or columnists like Lista? None of the best books of literary essays and reviews written in the last several years has been by an academic. Where are the professionals?

Whatever the answer to these questions, we can at least be happy that the flame of criticism is being kept alive, and likely to strike anywhere.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 21, 2016.

The View from the Cheap Seats

By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author whose interests run to just about everything. He has written journalism and criticism, comics and graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy and horror, children’s books, and screenplays.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a selection of Gaiman’s non-fiction that puts this eclecticism on full display. Included here are essays, public lectures, interviews, forewords and afterwords, introductions and even reportage from the refugee crisis in Syria. The subjects dealt with range from appreciations of individual novelists (classic and contemporary, from Poe and Lovecraft to Douglas Adams and Stephen King), to thoughts on genre fiction, movies, music, and more.

The tone is gentle and genial throughout. Most of these pieces are explanations of why Gaiman likes someone or something so much. So The 13 Clocks by James Thurber “is probably the best book in the world,” The Bride of Frankenstein is “my favorite horror film,” and “Where Lou Reed is concerned I lose all critical faculties. I like pretty much everything he’s ever done.”

There are slack moments. It’s a big book and the praise sometimes slides into banality or hyperbole. A few of the more frankly promotional pieces might have been cut.

The core of it, however, offers up a thoughtful consideration of the writing life and an earnest and practical guide on how to live it. Gaiman keeps coming back to the question of what writing is for, and as he goes along he provides a lot of helpful tips – often by way of concrete examples – on how to “make good art.” This is what matters.

The title, which comes from Gaiman’s account of attending the Academy Awards in 2010, points to a nice dual perspective. Sitting in the mezzanine at the Oscars Gaiman is a wry observer of the proceedings, but he’s also gathering material. These are roles he often plays in these essays: performer and audience member, the fan and the man at the podium saying a few words. In either role, however, he is a writer at work, and loving what he does.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 11, 2016.


By Paul Johnson

The format of the “brief life” invites simplification, and with it overstatement and error. Paul Johnson begins this condensed biography of Napoleon Bonaparte by remarking that the French Revolution was an “accident” “because the example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means.” This is a crazy assertion, if only because there is no historical parallel between what happened in Britain, over hundreds of years and in a very different context, and what happened in France during the Revolution. Nor is there any grounds for Johnson’s “what-if” speculation that if Napoleon hadn’t sold Louisiana, for a song, to the United States he might have built an empire of French liberty in America. France couldn’t even settle Quebec, so they certainly weren’t going to build a new nation west of the Mississippi.

Later, in the same paragraph (and we’re still in the Introduction) Johnson goes on to say that “It does not seem to have occurred to him [Napoleon] to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law.” Again, this is to draw a comparison to two vastly different historical contexts, and in the end doesn’t really tell us much aside from the fact that Washington and Napoleon were working towards very different ends, with very different routes available to them for achieving their goals. As Robespierre had put it, “America’s example, as an argument for our success, is worthless, because the circumstances are different.”

Finally (we haven’t left the Introduction yet) we are told that France’s “inevitable” “slip from her position as the leading power in Europe to second-class status . . . was Bonaparte’s true legacy to the country he adopted.” While admittedly the Napoleonic era was France’s last turn at dominating Europe, to say that its subsequent decline was Naploeon’s doing is hard to credit. One can think of other factors that may have played a part. Was German unification under Bismarck Napoleon’s legacy Napoleon’s fault? Well, some of his harsher critics have said as much. But the rise of the United States? The First World War? Indochina and Algeria? The Cold War? At one point can we let Napoleon off the hook?

Just from these few examples you will be able to tell that in the endless debate among historians between the Good and Bad Napoleon, Johnson is going the latter way. In this he follows Alan Schom, the Napoleon biographer he is most temperamentally akin to (but who doesn’t get a mention in the list of Further Reading). What the Bad Napoleon usually means, and what it means here, is drawing a line between Napoleon’s example and the horrors of more recent history. In short, that the state he invented and dominated was “the prototype of totalitarianism in its twentieth-century manifestations.” The Revolution that Napoleon embodied “created the modern totalitarian state, in all essentials, if on an experimental basis, more than a century before it came to its full and horrible fruition in the twentieth century.”

Did Napoleon have his contemporary apologists, even worshipers? Certainly, but there have always been such useful idiots:

In the twentieth century, this infatuation was to occur time and again: George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb falling for the Staline image, Norman Mailer and others hero-worshiping Fidel Castro, and an entire generation, including many Frenchmen such as Jean-Paul Sartre, praising the Mao Zedong regime, under which sixty million Chinese perished by famine or in the camps. Similarly, the cult of Bonaparte was originally wide, but it did not last.

That final point may be chalked up to wishful thinking on Johnson’s part. Napoleon still has many admirers, and indeed the Bad Napoleon, at least of this black a stripe, is probably the minority view among historians. The thing is, most historians know that few people are all bad, and when penning a hatchet job on a political leader it’s always worth remembering that there must have been some qualities that propelled them to eminence in the first place. This is a problem Ian Kershaw had in his biography of Hitler, where he was left throwing his hands up at how such a man without qualities or “empty shell,” in his analysis, had risen to power. A more extreme example can be seen in Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. As I said at the end of my review of that book:

At the end of the day it’s hard to believe that someone so unlikable, uncharismatic, lazy, dull, and flat-out inept as Chang’s Mao could have achieved what he did. Chang and Halliday would respond that he was totally ruthless (his “most formidable weapon was pitilessness”), opportunistic, and had a lot of help (from Chiang Kai-Shek, the Russians, and even the U.S.). No doubt all this was true, but there is still something missing. The Mao we see here is unpleasant in every way: a lecherous skirt-chaser, a paranoid, a dirty old man (he never bathed) with rotten black teeth, a sleeping-pill addict, a petty and vindictive sadist, a literary dilettante and philistine, a thorough cynic and hypocrite, a military bungler, a foul-mouthed pseudo-intellectual, but never any kind of leader. The Unknown Story is not the whole story – making it a necessary biography, but incomplete.

How much more important is a fuller portrait in the case of a figure like Napoleon, who was a genuinely popular leader?

Of course a biography of Napoleon that comes in under 200 pages is always going to be incomplete. In this case, however, it is also unnecessary because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a good read, but should be taken as more of a conservative essay on its subject than a life.

Review first published online October 10, 2016.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

By George Monbiot

At one point in this collection of essays George Monbiot quotes Owen Paterson, then British Secretary of State, describing a previous government’s refusal to dredge waterways as a “blind adherence to Rousseauism.” This is one of the two ways that Rousseau’s name is most often invoked in today’s political discourse: as being hopelessly naïve and sentimental. The other way, paradoxically, is for being a dangerous proto-fascist, but that’s a trump card that’s usually saved for a final play.

I’m pretty sure Monbiot would rate Rousseau differently, as he’s one of the two presiding intellectual spirits behind this collection. The influence can be seen in everything from Monbiot’s environmentalism (which includes not dredging rivers), his theories of education (“Rewild the Child” by sending them outdoors to learn from nature), and his general distrust of society. “Civilization is Boring,” is the title of one essay, which nicely captures the spirit of Rousseau in our day, for good and ill. In another essay, jumping off from a consideration of the film Avatar, we even get a conventional re-hashing of the myth of the noble savage:

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peaceable, democratic and egalitarian.

I think there are a lot of caveats to be registered here – as populations grow and societies become more complex they tend to all fall heir to the same problems and develop in much the same way – but in any event the inverted hierarchy is pure Rousseauian Romanticism: allied with the child (up to and including idealistic university students, before they are absorbed by the system), the primitive, the natural, and the subconscious against the adult values of civilization, progress and order.

As with most Romantic thought, the political point is revolutionary. Our natural sociability and desire to live within nature has been corrupted by the oppressive ideology of a ruling class that needs to be overthrown. This is where Noam Chomsky comes in, the second of Monbiot’s guiding spirits. Chomsky’s name isn’t mentioned in this book (and Rousseau’s is only once), but he’s there on the first page of the Introduction as we hear about the “apparatus of justification” and “infrastructure of persuasion” utilized by the powers-that-be to control the minds of the masses. In other words, manufacturing consent.

Key to this process of control is stealth. “You can learn as much about a country from its silences as you can from its obsessions. The issues politicians do not discuss are as telling and decisive as those they do.” The ruling ideology of neoliberalism, to take the primary example, “remains largely invisible to citizens.” “That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.” “We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing” our mental chains, which has led us to a state of “superhuman passivity” and “elective impotence.”

This is all good Rousseau-Chomsky in that it posits an essentially good human nature that has been corrupted and is now controlled by various systems of power. The opposite view can be identified as Hobbesian or (social) Darwinist: viewing life in terms of a fallen nature, as a vicious struggle for dominance and survival. Monbiot only mentions the name of Hobbes a couple of times, and that is to forcefully reject him: “Thomas Hobbes could not have been more wrong when he claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war of ‘every man against every man.’ We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other.”

Truth lies somewhere in between. Despite having huge respect for Chomsky, I’ve never been entirely persuaded by the brainwashing thesis. An alternative view of human nature, seeing humankind as neither inherently good nor originally sinful (broadly, Rousseau and Hobbes, the liberal and conservative positions), is provided by Ian West in his book Why the West Rules – For Now. While disagreeing with some of what West says, his description of human beings as essentially lazy, greedy, and fearful seems correct to me and perhaps the best explanation for how we got into this mess. The truth is out there about our unsustainable lifestyles, the damage we are wreaking on the environment, our exploitation of the poor and the weak, and all the rest of it. On some basic level we understand the situation we’re in perfectly. We just don’t want to think about all of these problems very much, as most of us are managing pretty well and in any event there’s not much we can do about the mess we’re in anyway. If this is “elective impotence,” it is freely elected.

An example of how this works can be seen in Monbiot’s essay on “The Population Myth.” The point he wants to make here is that it’s not population growth, especially among the poorer nations, that is the big problem facing the environment but rather consumption. “While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth.”

“Where’s Class War when you need it?” he concludes by asking. “It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.”

All of which may be true, visible, and out in the open, but what of it? As he also notes, almost in passing, “no one anticipates a consumption transition.” Sure we could get along perfectly well with 10 billion people on the planet if we all lived like Bangladeshis, but that isn’t going to happen. “The American way of life is not negotiable,” as a former U.S. president once put it.

Class War, or revolution, isn’t the answer because this isn’t just about the 0.1 % and their monster homes and yachts. There is a very high-consumption lifestyle to which a significant proportion of the people on this planet have become accustomed, and that an even greater number aspire to. At the end of the day, while it’s true that consumption is a bigger driver of global warming than population, it’s not a true dichotomy. People are consumers. You can try all sorts of things to lower your carbon footprint (Monbiot sensibly suggests eating less meat and not buying so much junk at Christmas), but there’s no getting around this bottom line. Humans consume. The single most environmentally destructive act a middle-class North American can do is have a child. That’s a bit of carbon that’s going to go on burning a lot more carbon for the next 80 years.

As Edward O. Wilson once said, “for everyone in the world to live like Americans do would require the existence of four more planet Earths.” Or, in other words, 7 billion Americans would already take us far beyond the planet’s carrying capacity. I don’t think Class War is going to provide any kind of solution to that big a problem. A Great Mortality is more likely, and may well provide a more humane and softer landing than revolution.

Review first published online October 5, 2016.

Who Needs Books?

By Lynn Coady

There’s no bigger issue in the publishing world today than the economic and cultural impact being had by the Internet, with sides clearly drawn between cybertopians and Luddites, digital optimists and pessimists respectively.

There is, however, a third ground that takes a step to one side. This is the approach adopted by Giller Prize-winning novelist Lynn Coady in this slim but engaging book containing a lecture given at the University of Alberta on reading in the digital age.

Coady’s response is to shrug at our fears. The Internet is no big thing. There have always been people wringing their hands over the decline of Western civilization, from Plato down to the present day. But decline is something that’s hard to measure, and it may well be that we are no less bookish today than we were a hundred, or five hundred years ago.

I’m a little more concerned about where we’re heading, but what ultimately makes the conversation so stimulating is the fact it’s addressed to that most unknowable country, the future.
Coady’s main target is the defence, made by a self-appointed elite, of “serious” literature’s “cultural primacy,” especially as measured against the leveling forces of the Internet. As a counterpoint, Coady sees the Internet as reflecting a robust and durable human nature that isn’t threatened by digital barbarians because, when you get down to it, “they” are really just “us.”

“Fear not,” Coady assures. “Technology does not have the power to alter our most profound human yearnings and experiences. How do I know that? Because in all of human history, it never has.”

Still, doubts remain. One could argue that technology has altered the most profound human yearnings and experiences (like work, love, and family) a great deal. Meanwhile, a more topical concern is that the threat the Internet poses to literary culture will be felt less by an elite than it will be by an already squeezed middle class.

It’s true that throughout most of human history people didn’t read books, but that’s because they couldn’t read. In an era of near universal education and literacy, and with all the best that has been thought and said literally at the fingertips of anyone with a cellphone, we might expect better than a return to conditions that obtained in the early Roman Empire, with a small tribe of hedonists who read for pleasure and the Internet providing the spectacle of bread and circuses for aliterate masses.

With all the digital revolution has wrought, are we experiencing progress? If nothing has changed, isn’t that a sign of failure?

Review first published online September 29, 2016.