April 22, 2002
Like all children in my country, I met the word "America" when I was very young. In those days, that meant "cowboys and Indians" and as a child I always preferred being a cowboy because they always won against the "bad" Indians. A plethora of Western movies flooded the screens of movie houses and the early television sets, a necessary substitute for Russian movies that had to be avoided in the light of the Tito-Stalin political split. American knights without flaw or fear, with white hats and Colts in their belts, had a fine sense of justice when it concerned whites, and were perfect gentlemen towards ladies who practiced the trade of saloon singers or dancers. The Indians, on the other hand, slaughtered innocent American homesteaders and were shown as a primitive people who emitted animal-like howls and could be killed without mercy by the cowboys and the cavalry. Killing an Indian was the same thing as killing a German in the World War II movies showing the glorious battles of Tito's Partisans against Nazi Germany. In fact, the killing of Indians in those American movies was often presented with a dose of humor. This media picture justifying the genocide performed by white America on the native peoples of the North American continent, where the executioner was frequently presented as the victim and therefore gains the right to kill indiscriminately, would become the basis for American attitudes towards many of the world's nations. Towards Serbs, for instance, of whom a careful media profile was created portraying them as primitives needing a good bombing in order to bring them to their senses and then provided with an introduction to Coca Cola and hamburgers so that they could be like the rest of the "civilized world."
The films were part of a package including rock'n'roll, the right apparel, the English language, the wish to go to America and experience at least a smidgen of that dream about the Land of the Free and its unlimited chances for success. Following on the heels of the Western era, movies like "Top Gun" and "Rambo" started sending the message to the youth of the non-Western world that the American military machine was so great and powerful that it was impossible to resist and indeed any such resistance would be tantamount to suicide. The mentality of the loser, applied to anyone who was "against" American ideals and interests, was planted right from early childhood. The glamour and gleam of the American military hardware, the primped and shining officers, the bravery and ne'er-say-die attitude of the Marines, all of it combined to produce an unprecedented adoration of militarism.
Following the fall of Communism, there was no dilemma about whether the erstwhile ex-Russian satellites needed to join NATO for the generations who grew up behind the eponymous Iron Curtain. The new-minted NATO candidates appear to be in a sort of race as to which of them will show themselves keener to send their own military strength into the conflict most currently involved in by the USA. At the time of the bombardment of Serbia in 1999, there wasn't a country from the ex-Communist bloc that failed to rush in and offer its services to the Americans.
Thanks to the media, the American became the Super-man, a God-like creature, and if you weren't going to join him it was better to silently get out of his way. The American is Superman, Batman, super-policeman, super-scientist, super-lawyer, super-doctor, super-model, super-beauty, super-sportsman, super-musician, super-actor, super-farmer...super-killer. The only thing he is not is a super-terrorist, because this role has been reserved for the people from the Islamic world, or else the rabid communists and/or Nazis who have not yet understood that the war against the "free and democratic world," led by the United States of course, has already been lost. What else to think about the Americans when we are faced every evening with numerous TV series featuring lawyers, doctors and many high-tech hospitals, police stations and their detectives, soldiers without flaw or fear, successful and glamorous students from Beverly Hills, and the emotional dramas of the American wealthy set. These programs are not so much created in America as produced like any industrial product. The more of it that gets made, the cheaper the product becomes and the more accessible it is to even the poorest of this planet's inhabitants. This is precisely what its goal is. The simplified picture of a world in which someone says "This is a free country" at least once during every episode, where people constantly tell each other that they love one another, where everybody has acceptance and understanding and where people hug each other a lot, where people are showing an indomitable devotion to the preservation of law and order, where any actual financial or material problems are so rare to be almost non-existent, presents a stage set which is Wonderland, a land where dreams come true, and this dream country, of course, is neither more nor less than... America.
When this picture is completed by the mega-corporations controlling news and information, repeating day-in, day-out the story that the enemy of the day (Serb, Iraqi, Afghan) is the source of all the evil in this world, the counter-arguments found few receptive ears to hear them. Even today, the documented atrocities perpetrated by NATO in Serbia are dismissed as accidental, as "collateral damage." Atrocities such as the bombing of the marketplace in Nis with cluster bombs, of sowing the ground with depleted uranium, of the targeting of civilian rail and road transport, of the destruction of homes in Aleksinac and the bridges and oil refinery in Novi Sad, of the annihilation of a group of Albanian refugees returning home prematurely and without permission -- none of this was "deliberate," and therefore doesn't count. Much of it never made the American media, and naturally, what the American media do not print, never happened.
For 78 days Serbia stood against the bombing... but was eventually brought down by the enemy within, the shining pictures, the illusion of a glorious life that was stronger than the realities of its true existence.
In its march towards a worldwide empire, America makes good use of the images from films and television. But this is hardly a new thing. It's just a refurbishment of propaganda, cleaning it up and dressing it up in shiny new clothes, and making it a rule of behavior.
So what is the modus operandi of America when it wishes to have someone brought under her control? First of all, the leader of a nation who stands up to America is cast as the new Antichrist, the latter-day Hitler, the source of all evil and a threat to America. Photos depicting any given people showing support for their leader become re-labeled -- in the manner pioneered by Charlie Chaplin, little dictators like Kim il Jong, Qadhafi, Saddam Hussein, and the currently on trial Slobodan Milosevic are shown as grotesque caricatures and deserving of contempt, with their people to be pitied for their deeply misguided feelings. Political and economic isolation of these countries, which follows, brings with it the attention of myriad humanitarian organizations which complete the picture of the hardships of life in such places, for which the blame is laid squarely at the feet of the local political set-up and its leader as the first, primary, and only culprit. Together with the humanitarian aid, the distribution of which Western humanitarian organizations are keeping under their control, comes the more or less open support of the inevitable swell of opposition within a given state. The catastrophe of Iraqi children thus becomes not the consequence of repeated bombings and strict economic sanctions but (naturally) the sole and inescapable fault of the stubborn leader of their country.
The attack on Yugoslavia was represented as an action preventing an incipient humanitarian catastrophe. The long-planned exodus of Albanians from Kosovo was a super-exploited theme by American and other Western media. The pictures from the refugee camps were authentically horrifying -- people under tents, without any kind of roof over their heads, pushing and shoving to get at a loaf of bread. The pictures, however, were interpreted not as the state of unreadiness of those who pushed the Albanians to leave Kosovo, who were caught flat-footed when so many heeded their call, but instead as a call to a harsher attitude and a more sustained attack on Serbia. The same recipe was in evidence during the bombing of Afghanistan, when humanitarian aid was dropped together with the bombs. However, the belief in a sincere caring American attitude towards the hapless civilian populations of the country currently under attack remains something that could take root only in those people not living under American bombs.
Parallel with the attacks/humanitarian aid, Serbia and its population were promised a considerable financial reward for the service of dethroning Milosevic. The numbers quoted were enough to turn anyone's head. The traditionally skeptical Serbs did not take it wholly seriously, but there was no real choice in a classic situation of living between a rock and a hard place -- continued survival in a shattered and economically exhausted country had very little to offer when compared to massive aid infusions, whatever the strings attached.
Serbia, tired from a decade of wars, is falling into a state of somnolence and embracing the American dream. How can we tell this? Well, the meetings between Serbian and American officials are becoming first-class news. Even the hitherto unknown concept of a "prayer breakfast" with the American president has entered the common parlance -- our homegrown political traditions recognize the official lunch or dinner, but the American innovation will have us eating breakfast if we have to.
In stark contrast to the interpretation placed on similar pictures from countries out of favor, images of American adoration of its own President are given an overwhelmingly positive spin (Charlie Chaplin and his immortal comic "great dictator" is conveniently forgotten). Films in which courageous American policemen or members of some secret service organization, or even some ordinary or garden-variety patriots from the streets, are shown selflessly saving the life of their President have flooded our screens. While watching images of leafy American streets decorated with the Stars and Stripes, we cannot but recall similar images in our own streets during the time of Milosevic -- but at that time such things were harshly criticized as "nationalism," as a blatant annihilation of the rights of other peoples, as a wish for the creation of "Greater Serbia." Had Milosevic been more to American taste, it is probable that such images would not have raised an eyebrow. As it is, Milosevic is in The Hague -- and the American President retains the right to his own acolytes who yodel with joy if they get to shake his hand (or dream of having a sizzling White House affair which would make them an international celebrity and provide them with lucrative media and book contracts which may lead to film rights and superstardom...)
But it's more invidious than that.
With its shining pictures, America has built a hierarchy of the prestigiousness of various occupations in the minds of young Serbs, determining their popularity. Thanks to the American hospital dramas, medical schools receive four to five times the number of applications than they can accept. The truth is, of course, that the state of medicine in Serbia is very far from what is seen on American TV series and the earnings of doctors are likewise disappointing to young graduates when they emerge into the real world. Likewise, law schools remain well supplied with potential students thanks to American law series like "The Practice." Newly popular courses of study include Marketing and Management. The world of show business remains a magnet for those with acting, musical or modeling ambitions. Traditional folk music is less and less a part of the Serbian lifestyle, and so is classical music. The position of writers is parlous; the publishing industry has been destroyed to the point that buying books is becoming a luxury -- with the added irony that those who can afford to purchase them would rather sit and stare at the TV screen and imbibe more American illusion. The only area where the American dream has not quite borne fruit yet is the army/police. Despite the TV offerings on the theme of the defenders of the law, the young still vacillate towards the image of the freelance Mafioso rather than the upright lawman. The more discerning viewer has not failed to notice that stories about "ordinary" people, of the kind that work for a living and produce something through their labor, are not the focus of the American entertainment industry. They remain moldering somewhere in the darkness, invisible, and their work is similarly ignored and un-noticed.
Changing to the global economy system and private ownership, it is more and more common to hear that the Yugoslav worker will have to willy-nilly adopt the Western working hours. The traditional business hours in this country have been 7:00 - 15:00. Some institutions which work in cooperation with Western companies, like banks, have already shifted to a more "international" working day, and a wholesale change from the traditional times to the more usual Western 9:00 - 17:00 is in the air. This might not sound like a big thing, but it will have enormous consequences on the lifestyle and therefore the culture of Serbia. It will become necessary to change long-term habits entrenched by the availability of time after 3 p.m. -- the possibilities of earning extra income, sometimes a necessity due to the small salaries, become drastically curtailed. Work efficiency (in the sense of pulling in the same direction as Western partners) might be increased, but the everyday cost of living for an average family will skyrocket. The tradition that at least two of the day's meals are prepared and eaten at home will have to be exchanged for a quick grab-lunch in the style of MacDonald's. The first attempt to "correct" the timetable of schools has so far been unsuccessful, but that is only a matter of time -- and the Serbian tradition of close family ties between parents and their children is likely to be severely shaken up. When the state, especially an impoverished state, takes over the responsibility of caring for the country's children, the primary influence in the formation of those children's views and ideas becomes not their families but their own peer group, itself overwhelmingly under the influence of American sitcoms. And there will be no alternative to this subtle indoctrination. The family will become something that exists only on TV, a hackneyed message of "we are family and we need to take care of each other." Equally, the concept of "we are a team" starts to undermine the sense of the individual because under the current American system it is the well-organized and controlled corporate system that provides successful results. A rebellion against such a structure can only be undertaken by a "super-individual." Frequent visits to a personal "shrink" teach that rebellion against the system is Not A Good Thing -- if an individual doesn't fit into the system it is the individual who needs to change, not the system. A single individual entity is not enough to change it. It may only be done by a satisfactorily organized corporation operating under a set of rules (often its own).
As the greatest consumers of TV, movies and the Internet, the children don't see any of that as a problem. Their lives already contain a goodly dose of Coca Cola, McDonald's, fashions governed by what is seen on TV, and the English language is already the primary, if not the only, foreign language taught in schools today. And not only in schools -- a recent study in a number of larger Serbian cities has shown that a disproportionately large number of advertisements and business names are written in English and even those who retain a more traditional approach show signs lettered in the Latin rather than the more traditional Cyrillic alphabet. A similar situation prevails with religious rights in Serbia. The traditional Orthodox Church had been taken to the edge of destruction under communism; now many protestant religious movements are springing up as direct religious rivals. Unlike the Orthodox faith, these newcomers have no compunction about proselytizing their beliefs, often in the strident American manner, and with the faith package they are also selling the "values" of the Western lifestyle. This is a stroke at the deepest roots of the Serbian national tradition.
Learning the English language and the use of a computer is the bedrock upon which the young Serbs wish to abandon their suffering homeland and go to Western Europe, Canada or the USA, where they could live with their adopted values. This means, essentially, that Serbia is educating a good part of her youth in order to fill the needs of the West which in turn gains young, well-educated and able workers, already culturally adapted, without investing a cent.
Once Serbia finally accepts the Western social structure and ways of thinking entirely, will anyone remain to at least raise a dissenting voice when America decides to bomb the next disobedient "barbaric" country? Who knows, perhaps some lone wolf who may remember the time when the American bombs were aimed at us... Amongst the silent majority there will no doubt be a good number of those who will be happy that it is now happening to "someone else" and not to us -- to people far away whose pain is not ours, and whose cries will not be reported in the Western media to prod our collective conscience.
The deeper Serbia sinks into the American dream, the harder and more painful will be her awakening...if the dream doesn't become a reality, where coma can easily become death.
Stevan Konstantinović has a master's degree in literature from the University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, where he is presently preparing his doctoral thesis. He has published a book of literary analysis, Kaldrma citanja i misljenja ("the pavement of reading and thinking"), and a collection of short stories. He has published numerous essays and pieces of literary criticism in four languages, and has been active in translating literature from Polish and Ukrainian to Serbocroat. He is a member of the Authors' Guild of Vojvodina and the editor of the literary cultural journal Sidina. Until recently a journalist and a teacher, he is currently employed as an advisor for culture, education and science in the provincial administration of Vojvodina.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stevan Konstantinovic 2001. All rights reserved. This article was translated from Serbocroat by Alma Hromic, the author of Letters from the Fire and a Swans' columnist.
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