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Hamilton and the Iconoclasts of Tomorrow

This week, 216 years ago, one founding father killed another in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. On that early July morning, the vice president of the United States squared off against the former secretary of the treasury. As virtually everyone in America now knows, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton didn’t survive the shootout with Aaron Burr.

At the beginning of this month, Disney released the film version of Miranda’s blockbuster musical, Hamilton. So, I could finally see this extraordinary synthesis of history, biography, music, and dance.

As a musical, it’s riveting.

As political commentary, however, it’s surprisingly dated.

America’s Musical

Hamilton debuted five years ago, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. Just as Obama was daily reimagining the American presidency, Hamilton reimagined the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

By casting people of color as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison —  the musical speaks to the universality of that eighteenth-century struggle and visually links the oppression of Americans at the hands of British colonialism to the oppression of people everywhere. It’s both a projection backward of Obama’s breakthrough and a lyrical version of an Obama speech.

Hamilton is radical in form: the casting, the incorporation of rap. The content, however, is quite mainstream. Aside from a couple references to slavery and the interests of wealthy bankers, it celebrates the spirit of 1776 in a way that Americans of all political persuasions can embrace.

And have embraced. On November 18, 2016, only a week after that gut punch of an election, Mike Pence attended a show, which prompted the actor portraying Aaron Burr to say at the close, “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

It was a message from one rogue vice president to another.

Pence “appeared to enjoy the show and applauded liberally,” NPR reported. And for the next three years, he ignored the remonstration. Pence and Trump, too, portrayed themselves as revolutionary underdogs — rather than the reactionary overlords they really were — who wanted to be in “the room where it happens.” They, too, were not going to throw away their shot.

Now, in perhaps the supreme designation of mainstream status, Disney has made Hamilton available to the masses. How times have changed.

In 2020, thanks to the coronavirus, live theater seems impossibly risky (why are the performers touching each other? How can the audience sit so close together?). And, with protesters on the street challenging Washington and Jefferson over their slave ownership, the musical suddenly seems behind the times, though not nearly as backward as Aunt Jemima and the soon to be former Washington Redskins.

As A.O. Scott recently pointed out in The New York Times, “There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.”

Miranda himself has acknowledged the criticisms from the left. History doesn’t stand still for anyone, not Thomas Jefferson, not Alexander Hamilton, not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

What’s remarkable of course is the speed with which the political temperament has changed. In a few short months, statues have fallen throughout the United States, and not just those dedicated to the Confederate cause.

Also torn down or relocated are statues honoring figures associated with the genocide of indigenous people (Christopher Columbus), with slave-owning (Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler), and with racist policing (former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo). Statues connected to colonialism have fallen in the UK, Belgium, and elsewhere. Everything, it seems, is up for debate, even monuments to the heroes of the American Revolution.

We fully expect books and plays written in the 1950s to seem dated. Ditto those produced in the 1970s or even the 1990s.

But 2015?

The critiques of American failings — slavery, colonialism, racist policing — are not new. What’s changed is that the powerful have been forced to listen.

Perhaps Hamilton, despite its slighting of slavery and reverence for the Founding Fathers, even played a role in preparing the powerful for this shift. But let’s be real: the destruction of images — literally, iconoclasm — is a lighter lift than the transformation of structures. It’s one thing to take down Confederate statues, and quite another to remove racism’s grip on housing, education, and employment. Likewise, it’s more politically palatable to recast a play about the Founding Fathers than to grapple with the ugly truths that accompanied the founding of this nation.

At a deeper level, the musical and the statues share a common veneration of the Great Person. History, we are constantly reminded in art and monuments, is the product of founding fathers, great conquerors, kings and presidents and prime ministers. Campaigns are launched to diversify those numbers to include women, people of color, perhaps even an activist or two like Martin Luther King Jr. But the focus remains on the individual, not the countless people who turned the gears of history, planted the fields of history, occupied the streets of history, and ultimately changed the course of history.

As Hamilton acknowledges, Great Persons are always a product of their time and place, and they’re always flawed in some way or another. Sometimes those flaws are of an individual nature, like Hamilton’s adultery (or, more recently, the sexual harassment charges against Park Won Soon, the progressive activist and former mayor of Seoul who committed suicide last week).

More often, the famous personages are as blind to their faults as most everyone else in their society. Transforming society requires a collective effort to shine a light on these blind spots, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done, at home and abroad, around police violence, racist iconography, and the legacy of colonialism.

Iconoclasts of the Future, Unite!

So, perhaps it’s time to conduct a thought experiment. We’ve seen how quickly culture has moved on and left the blind spots of Hamilton more readily visible. How will future generations condemn us for our blind spots as they tear down today’s statues tomorrow?

I can almost hear our children gathering in the street to pull down the statues of the famous as they chant, “Carbon hog!” For will not contribution to the destruction of the planet ultimately be seen in the same light as colonialism, as the plunder and robbery of future generations?

Emancipation of slaves was a radical act in eighteenth-century America. The Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko berated his friend Thomas Jefferson at length to free his slaves, and Jefferson ignored him because, just as Pence shrugged off Aaron Burr, he could. Jefferson certainly had mixed feelings about slavery, but he was able to maintain the contradiction in his life of slave ownership and sentiments like “all men are created equal” because popular opinion, as opposed to Kosciuszko’s opinion, allowed him to do so.

Future generations may feel the same way about our simultaneous recognition of the perils of climate change and our car ownership, air travel, and use of air conditioning. Greta Thunberg, our generation’s Kosciuszko, similarly berates world leaders, and with as little immediate impact.

Future generations may also look askance at our nationalism. Why do we believe that we owe debts of obligation to strangers who live within certain borders and not strangers who live outside those borders? How could we countenance the return of desperate migrants and refugees to, in many cases, their certain death?

And what about all the statues raised to military leaders? It seems rather ridiculous to honor men who oversaw the slaughter of others just because they were on the winning side. Future generations may well look at all the celebrated generals as so many mass murderers.

Speaking of mass murder, how will future generations feel about the millions of animals that we kill every day for our own consumption? Or even the millions that we own as pets?

The list of potential blind spots is long indeed, and there are plenty of motes in my own eye. History is constantly evolving. There is no timeless art; there are no timeless values. Everything reflects the moment of its production, from the American Constitution to the latest iteration of Hamilton. We are engaged in a long, collective conversation enlivened by a soundtrack of insightful speeches, catchy tunes, and the rising roar of street protest.

As for those future statues, I dearly hope that they are pulled down, defaced, disgraced. Because that would mean, in a future of superstorms and nuclear threats and periodic pandemics, that at least there are still people around to take them down.

FPIF, July 15, 2020

Articles Asia Featured Korea

Japan and South Korea: A New Beginning?

Japan and South Korea have very close alliances with the United States. They also have had diplomatic relations with each other for 50 years, not to mention considerable trade back and forth during that time. At a popular level, many Japanese are wild about Korean bulgogi and soap operas while many Koreans love Japanese sushi and anime. That doesn’t mean, however, that the two countries are particularly close. For decades, the legacy of Japanese colonialism and wartime conduct has remained a major stumbling block to improved relations.

South Korea and Japan spar over interpretations of that history, particularly as represented in textbooks. They also have a very concrete dispute over a particular island (Dokdo). But perhaps the most painful disagreement between the two countries has been over the “comfort women” issue.

An agreement this week on the “comfort women” issue—between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye—may finally put the matter to rest. But not everyone in the Korean community is happy with the deal.

A Sensitive Issue

As part of its expansionism in the early part of the 20th century, the Japanese Army dragooned as many as 200,000 young women and girls—from Korea, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region—into sexual slavery. The practice began in 1931, when Japan occupied Manchuria, and the army wanted to prevent Japanese soldiers from raping Chinese women. At first, the army relied on prostitutes. By 1937, however, the army expanded the pool to those tricked into service or simply forced to participate against their will, including girls as young as 10. They were made to serviceas many 30-40 Japanese soldiers per day. Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910, provided the bulk of the involuntary participants.

For years after the war, Japanese officials focused on the first part of the story, insisting that the “comfort women” were prostitutes volunteering for the assignment. They also pointed to the 1965 agreement that established diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea—and provided $800 million in various forms of compensation—as taking care of all colonial and wartime issues. Particularly as it became a democratic society in the late 1980s, South Korea began to reopen many wartime issues, including this issue of sexual slavery (and the even more sensitive question of Korean collaboration in the process).

Only in 1993 did Tokyo finally acknowledge the second, much darker part of the story that involved systematized rape. According to the Kono Statement, named after the Japanese government’s chief spokesman, Tokyo admitted that:

The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women. The recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military.

It also provided an apology:

Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women. The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.

Two years later, the Japanese government also established a fund to compensate the “comfort women.” The money came from private Japanese businesses.

Although the “comfort women” had been calling for an apology and compensation, the Kono Statement did not meet their demands. The apology didn’t come from the prime minister nor was it approved by the Diet, and it shifted the responsibility for the brothel system entirely onto the shoulders of the Japanese military. Moreover, the compensation didn’t come from the Japanese government but rather from private sources. Although some “comfort women” took the compensation package, many did not. And the South Korean government considered the apology insufficient as well.

At the same time, however, many Japanese conservatives were outraged at even this mild statement from their government. Denial of the existence of the system of sexual slavery was part of a larger conservative narrative in which imperial Japan acted strictly by the book during the Great Pacific War – no Nanking Massacre, no prisoner camp atrocities, no medical experimentation a la Joseph Mengele.

When the champion of the hard right in Japan, Shinzo Abe, became prime minister, he initially parroted their views on “comfort women.” In 2007, he told the press, “There was no evidence to prove there was coercion as initially suggested.” His comments initiated a fresh wave of outrage in Korea.

Japan’s About-Face?

Shinzo Abe is now on his second tour as Japanese prime minister. He has continued to court the far right by, among other things, visiting Yasukuni Shrine in 2013. But Abe has a larger agenda. He wants to usher in a new era for the Japanese military as a “normal” force that engages in offensive actions, effectively overturning the country’s “peace constitution.” And he is eager to secure a permanent seat for Japan on the UN Security Council.

To achieve these goals, however, Abe must silence the critics who believe that Japan is not sufficiently contrite about its military past. Since South Korea is a major international player—and a key U.S. ally—Abe must somehow repair relations with Seoul. This year was the 50th anniversary of the 1965 agreement, as well as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, so Abe’s gambit was well timed.

The latest agreement is a step forward from the Kono Statement. This time, it was the prime minister himself who made the apology. And the money for the compensation fund, to be administered by the South Korean government, will come not from private Japanese businesses but from the Japanese government itself.

But many South Koreans remain skeptical. They don’t trust Abe, in part because of his earlier statements on the matter. And they have their doubts about Park Geun-Hye as well. The South Korean prime minister has been constrained in her remarks about Japanese conduct during World War II in part because her father, the South Korean authoritarian leader Park Chung-Hee, had been a collaborator with the Japanese army.

And for those who have been struggling against the historical amnesia of Japanese government officials, the wording of the recent agreement is still too vague. One of the key organizations representing the “comfort women”—the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan—issued a statement condemning the agreement:

Although the Japanese government announced that it “feels [its] responsibilities,” the statement lacks the acknowledgment of the fact that the colonial government and its military had committed a systematic crime. The government had not just been simply involved but actively initiated the activities which were criminal and illegal. Also, the apology was not directly made by the Prime Minister himself as the official representative of the government but was read by a diplomatic representative, while it was unclear to whom he was actually apologizing. Hence it is hard to believe if it was a sincere apology.

In addition, the announcement specified that Korean government will be responsible for establishing the foundation, despite the fact that Japanese government must be actively involved in follow-up initiatives, including acknowledgement of its criminal responsibilities and legal reparations. It appears that Japan will pass the future responsibilities on to the government of the victims’ country after simply paying off the money.

Another point of contention is the statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Erected in 2011, the statue depicts a young girl sitting on a chair and looking with great emotion at the embassy. Tokyo has long complained about the statue. As part of the agreement, the South Korean government promised to “address this issue” (the Japanese government would probably have appreciated less vagueness on this aspect of the deal).

It’s not just one silent statue, however. Since 1992, protestors have gathered every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to stage a protest on the “comfort woman” issue. This week, hundreds of people angry about the agreement joined the protest. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has deemed the deal insufficient, the Taiwanese are pushing for a comparable agreement, and the main Filipino organization of “comfort women” wants the government in Manila to take advantage of the new situation to press their case more effectively.

The governments in Tokyo and Seoul, under pressure from Washington, are willing to move on. With the number of survivors dwindling every year, perhaps they reason that soon the issue will soon effectively disappear. But memories are long in South Korea, and Abe’s larger agenda of increasing Japan’s military and diplomatic influence is far from winning over all its skeptics.

LobeLog, December 30, 2015

Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

The Star Trek Fallacy

They were the “best and the brightest” but on a spaceship, not planet Earth, and they exemplified the liberal optimism of their era. The original Star Trek,whose three-year TV run began in 1966, featured a talented, multiethnic crew. The indomitable Captain Kirk had the can-do sex appeal of a Kennedy; his chief advisor, the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, offered the cool rationality of that “IBM machine with legs,” then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. And the USS Enterprise, on a mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” pursued a seemingly benign anthropological interest in seeking out, engaging with, and trying to understand the native populations of a fascinating variety of distant worlds.

The “prime directive,” designed to govern the conduct of Kirk and his crew on their episodic journey, required non-interference in the workings of alien civilizations. This approach mirrored the evolving anti-war sympathies of series creator Gene Roddenberry and many of the show’s scriptwriters. The Vietnam War, which raged through the years of its initial run, was then demonstrating to more and more Americans the folly of trying to re-engineer a society distant both geographically and culturally. The best and the brightest, on Earth as on the Enterprise, began to have second thoughts in the mid-1960s about such hubris.

Even as they deliberately linked violent terrestrial interventions with celestial ones, however, the makers of Star Trek never questioned the most basic premise of a series that would delight fans for decades, spawning endless TV and movie sequels. Might it not have been better for the universe as a whole if the Enterprise had never left Earth in the first place and if Earth hadn’t meddled in matters beyond its own solar system?

As our country contemplates future military interventions, as well as ambitious efforts to someday colonize other planets, Americans would be smart to address this fundamental question. Might our inexhaustible capacity for interfering in far-flung places be a sign not of a dynamic civilization, but of a fatal flaw — for the country, the international community, and the species as a whole?

The Orange Zone

The United States has never had much use for a precautionary prime directive. It has interfered with “alien” societies at a remarkable clip ever since the late nineteenth century. Indeed, such interference is inscribed in the genetic code of the country, for America is the product of the massive disruption and eradication of an already existing native population. Columbus also boldly went where no (European) man had gone before, and we recapitulate his voyage every time we send the Marines to a foreign shore or our drones into foreign air space. Native Americans didn’t need “discovering” or new infectious diseases any more than Iraqis needed lecturesabout democracy from neoconservatives.

Despite considerable evidence of just how malign our recent interventions have proven to be — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere — the U.S. government continues to contemplate military missions. Iran is, for the moment, off the hook, and so is Cuba. Washington has also repeatedly emphasized that North Korea is not in the crosshairs, though our aggressive military posture in East Asia might suggest otherwise, particularly to the paranoid leadership in Pyongyang.

But even the diplomacy-friendly Obama administration is still wedded to the use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, not to mention a new secret program in Syria. It has dispatched Special Forces to 150 countries. And it has conducted, along with its coalition allies, more than 5,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State. U.S. troops remain in significant numbers in Afghanistan (9,800) and Iraq (3,500). Hundreds of U.S. military bases, with around 150,000 service personnel deployed on them, gird the globe.

These military actions have remapped the world — and not in a good way. America’s post-9/11 invasions, attacks, and occupations have created acrescent of crisis that stretches from Afghanistan across the Middle East and into Africa. Fragile states, like Somalia and Yemen, have been thrown into desperate chaos. Syria and Iraq have become incubators for the most virulent strains of extremism. And authoritarian leaders in Egypt and the Gulf States are using this turmoil to justify their own iron-fist policies.

Even the recent refugee crisis, the most significant since the end of World War II, can be traced back to the Bush administration’s military responses to September 11th. For many years, Afghanistan was the leading exporter of refugees to the world, with Iraq a close second. Today, the leading source of refugees is Syria. Although the United States hasn’t invaded that country, it has meddled there nonetheless, initially to depose Bashar al-Assad and then to “degrade” the Islamic State and its affiliates. In the twenty-first century, America’s efforts to reengineer societies across the planet are ending up just as badly as its twentieth-century fiasco in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, the impulse to “boldly go” is no longer restricted to neo-colonial interventionism or military adventurism. There is now growing enthusiasm for sending an expeditionary force beyond Earth. Several competing initiatives aim to begin the colonization of Mars, in part to provide humanity with an alternative should global warming make planet Earth inhospitable to human life. These extraterrestrial efforts reflect a growing anxiety that the end is nigh, at least for the home team.

Indeed, many writers (not to speak of scientists) have postulated that Earth is reaching a tipping point. Whether as a function of nuclear weapons, carbon emissions, or sheer reproductive fervor, humans seem to be approaching an important threshold in our life on the planet.

Let’s call it the Orange Zone, in honor of the erstwhile terrorism color index. For the last half-century or so, humans have had the capacity to blow up the planet with our nuclear toys. We have also been burning up fossil fuels at a remarkable and increasing rate in a burst of economic activity that has brought us to the brink of irreparably destroying the ecosystem. And we have reproduced so successfully that, like voracious locusts, we threaten to outstripthe planet’s capacity to feed us.

If we can figure out how to lower the threat alert and leave the Orange Zone, we will have passed the civilizational test. Once we put away our childish things — our nuclear weapons, our coal-fired power plants, our religious prohibitions against contraception — we can graduate to the next level of planetary consciousness. Otherwise, we flunk out. And there won’t be any make-up summer school credits available.

There may, in fact, be an even more fundamental test than the nuclear, carbon, or demographic challenges. And that’s the human propensity for intervention — across borders, over seas, and potentially even in outer space. That Star Trek urge “to boldly go,” obeying the prime directive or not, has gotten humanity into a heap of trouble. Establishing outposts in far-off lands is often considered the ultimate American insurance policy, but it’s precisely our predilection for getting mixed up in other people’s messes that has distracted us from fixing our own. The focus on setting up a colony on Mars, instead of getting serious about climate change on Earth, is the functional equivalent of devoting close to a trillion dollars a year to the U.S. military instead of using that money to fix all that is broken at home. Talk about an advanced case of attention-deficit disorder.

The Chinese Way

In the fifteenth century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He took a fleet on seven voyages throughout Asia, to the Middle East, and as far as Africa. He defeated marauding pirates in the vicinity of China and intervened militarily in far-off Ceylon. His huge treasure ships, each one six times larger than Columbus’s Santa Maria, brought back rare items, including a giraffe, for the Chinese emperor. As a diplomat, he established tributary relations with dozens of foreign lands, though not Europe, which was still too backward to attract Chinese interest. Zheng’s last journey, in the early 1430s, took place two decades before Christopher Columbus was even born.

Zheng He’s maritime explorations might have served as the basis for China’s colonial domination of significant parts of the world. But it was not to be. “Shortly after the last voyage of the treasure fleet, the Chinese emperor forbade overseas travel and stopped all building and repair of oceangoing junks,” Louise Levathes has written in When China Ruled the Seas. “Disobedient merchants and seamen were killed, and within a hundred years the greatest navy the world had ever known willed itself into extinction.”

China didn’t entirely turn its back on colonialism. It maintained a tributary system in its Asian backyard. Nor did the Middle Kingdom immediately lose out to a rising Europe, for the Chinese would remain a dominant force for several more centuries. Still, the emperor’s decision to renounce Zheng He and his accomplishments is often identified as a key pivot point in modern history. China effectively decided not to go the way of the Enterprise. It would not “boldly go” into unexplored lands or establish a far-flung colonial empire. Nor did it develop the military means to police such domains.

By the nineteenth century, it would instead find itself subject to the predations of European colonial powers, which divided up the coastal areas of China as if they were a treasure chest for the taking. More than 100 years of humiliation ensued, followed by a succession of Chinese efforts to regain the wealth and power of dynasties past.

China today is not a military weakling. But it also doesn’t possess the kind of expeditionary power of the United States or even Russia. It has vast commercial interests around the world. But it does not style itself the world’s policeman. During its “soft rise,” China has focused largely on cultivating its own garden — transforming its enormous economy into a global powerhouse. Although it has certainly increased military spending over the last several decades, it does not want to get into the kind of arms race with the United States that doomed the Soviet Union. It has not generally shown itself interested in establishing neo-colonial relationships — it has extracted resources from Asia, Africa, and Latin America without installing client states, building military bases, or sending in the equivalent of the special forces — and even its semi-tributary relationship with North Korea generates considerable skepticism in Beijing.

As its economic growth declines from the stratospheric to the merely impressive, however, China may be facing another Zheng He moment. Dramatic economic growth has allowed for double-digit increases in military spending. China is currently modernizing its nuclear arsenal, acquiring more significant air and sea power, and flexing its muscles in territorial disputes with its neighbors. Can Beijing refocus on its economic project, ensuring environmentally sustainable growth at the expense of global ambitions? In other words, will China follow the self-destructive path of other superpowers or will it help lead the planet out of the dreaded Orange Zone?

China could go either way. Chinese hawks worry that if Beijing repeats the emperor’s rejection of Zheng He, foreign powers will again humiliate the Middle Kingdom. And indeed, Beijing certainly might feel the need to acquire even greater force projection capabilities if Washington doesn’t engage it in serious arms reduction efforts.

The Escape Clause

The multi-billionaire Elon Musk is not one to rest on his laurels. He’s a product of the age — he made his first millions with PayPal — and has transformed the electric car into a real contender in the marketplace. He is also betting big on solar energy through his SolarCity venture.

But he has even grander ambitions. Writes Sue Halpern in The New York Review of Books:

While Musk is working to move people away from fossil fuels, betting that the transition to electric vehicles and solar energy will contain the worst effects of global climate change, he is hedging that bet with one that is even more wishful and quixotic. In the event that those terrestrial solutions don’t pan out and civilization is imperiled, Musk is positioning SpaceX to establish a human colony on Mars.

SpaceX is Musk’s escape clause for the planet. At the moment, SpaceX rockets perform a glorified FedEx function by sending supplies to the International Space Station that NASA and four other international space agencies have been maintaining since 1998. But Musk wants to put people on Mars by 2026, approximately a decade ahead of NASA’s best-case scenario.

Meanwhile, the outfit MarsOne, started by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, is winnowing down 100 potential Mars colonists to a final group of 24. These intrepid proto-astronauts plan to shove off for Mars in 2026 as well — on a one-way journey to lay the groundwork for a human colony on the planet. Blue Origin, another private space exploration firm started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also aspires to “extend humankind beyond our planet.” The space race once pitted the Cold War superpowers against each other in an effort to prove their technological superiority. Today, the space race is not so much between countries as between the planet’s richest alpha males.

In his influential 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American character had been shaped by endlessly “available” lands in the West and the desire to colonize the entire continent. The closing of that frontier at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with the onset of the American empire and the spread of “American civilization” to purportedly less enlightened corners of the globe. The pent-up energy to “boldly go” had to go somewhere.

We are now witnessing another closing-of-the-frontier moment. There are no longer any unexplored pockets of the world. And the frontier ideology of spreading civilization — or is it mayhem? — has come up hard against the realities of present-day Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the post-Arab Spring political disappointments of Egypt and Libya. It is no surprise, then, that restless spirits like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have identified space as their “final frontier.”

Mars is not inhabited. We won’t be displacing any native populations, nor will we have to debate the finer points of the prime directive in the absence of foreign cultures to interfere with. But don’t be fooled by that. Our intervention on Mars will nonetheless share some of the defects of our terrestrial follies.

“Wherever we go, we’ll take ourselves with us,” environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker about the various developing plans to colonize Mars. “Either we’re capable of dealing with the challenges posed by our own intelligence or we’re not. Perhaps the reason we haven’t met any alien beings is that those that survive aren’t the type to go zipping around the galaxy. Maybe they’ve stayed quietly at home, tending their own gardens.”

Perhaps the truly intelligent ones followed in the footsteps of the Chinese emperor: they stopped building ships.

The Search for Terrestrial Intelligence

In tandem with the push to colonize Mars, scientists are putting renewed efforts into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). A new project, Breakthrough Listen, just established with a $100 million budget, will rely on two large radio telescopes to target the nearest one million stars and the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way. In a reflection of the growing importance of crowdsourcing, three million people are using their combined computer resources to help analyze all the radio telescope data that is flowing in.

Chances are good — according to the Drake equation’s calculations of habitable planets in the universe — that somebody or something intelligent is indeed out there. But if we can hear them, they can probably hear us, too. And what extraterrestrial intelligence in its right mind would want to contact a species that seemingly worships Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Kardashian?

Whether there’s anything out there or not, trapped as we are in the Orange Zone, we are still heavily involved in the quixotic search for terrestrialintelligence. Scientists continue to await definitive evidence — Stephen Hawking, Toni Morrison, and Yo-Yo Ma aside — that human intelligence is not an oxymoron. After all, what we have traditionally defined as intelligence — a relentless pushing at borders both conceptual and territorial — has led us into the cul-de-sac of impending self-annihilation.

Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once argued that human intelligence is itself a lethal mutation that has put the species on a collision course with its own and possibly even the planet’s extinction. We and the planet were, it seems, better off when we were just hunters and gatherers, before someone had the bright idea to rip up the earth, plant seeds, and build cities.

To go boldly forward, humanity will have to redefine intelligent life. That doesn’t mean returning to a nomad’s existence of venison and berries. But it does require a different kind of intelligence to turn one’s back on the treasures that the modern-day equivalent of Zheng He’s ships promise to bring from all corners of the universe. It requires a different kind of intelligence to close one’s ears to the siren song of democracy promotion, terrorism suppression, and market-access preservation. And it requires a different kind of intelligence to focus one’s energies on conserving this planet instead of putting so much time and money into plans to befoul another one.

With each nuclear weapon, jet engine, and space rocket we deploy, we venture further into the Orange Zone, heading blindly, if not boldly, toward the point of no return. Like those would-be Mars explorers, whether we know it or not, we are all on a one-way trip into the unknown, except that our rocket ship is our planet, which we’re about to destroy in a suicide mission before it can ever arrive at a safe and secure place.

TomDispatch, September 15, 2015

Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

Staying Critical

The colonial relationship was reasonably straightforward. The empire dictated terms to the colony, and the colonial administration carried out the orders. Sometimes colonial subjects revolted. Sometimes the imperial agents went “native” and adopted the culture and perspectives of the people they were supposed to be pushing around. But the power dynamic was for the most part quite clear: the rulers issued decrees and the ruled followed them.

The neo-colonial relationship is somewhat more complicated. It would seem that the United States and Japan, for instance, are two entirely sovereign countries that have entered into a mutual security pact. Dig a little deeper and you begin to see certain asymmetries: U.S. troops stationed in Japan but not the other way around, a Japanese constitution written in part by Americans and circumscribing Japanese military policy, an expectation that Tokyo will support Washington’s foreign policy adventures even if they are far from Northeast Asia, such as Iraq. Yet although the Japanese government is certainly subject to pressure from U.S. politicians, it voluntarily embraces these policies.

As a professor of postcolonial studies, a civil society activist, and a multidisciplinary thinker, Biljana Kasic is a keen observer of neo-colonialism, and she finds such relationships both within Croatia and between Croatia and other countries. She understands Yugoslavia, whatever its virtues, as a set of unequal relationships that privileged the northern tier (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia) over the southern tier (Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo). She views globalization as a primary force of neo-colonialism, with international organizations dictating economic and political terms to subject nations.

But she also sees how governments enact policies to control – or colonize – public space. In Croatia, for instance, “some political authorities wanted to fund civil society in order to control or discipline them,” she points out. “There are some good organizations and centers, such as a Center for Women’s Studies, the Center for Peace Studies. But they are not quite independent actors since they rely on state funds, and at the same time the political authorities tend to moderate their more critical political impulses.”

Even the European Union has a neocolonial approach to East-Central Europe, forcing them “voluntarily” to accept a huge number of preconditions before they could enter the regional organization. On the issue of gender, for instance, the EU has emphasized a series of standards related to women’s rights. But the trade-off, Biljana Kasic points out, is high unemployment for women.

To identify and challenge these neocolonial practices, she favors a consistently critical attitude. “I love the idea of being a civilian dissident all the time,” she told me in an interview in Zagreb in October. “This means always being in a position critical toward your government, whether Yugoslav, post-Yugoslav, European, whatever.”

In 2008, in an interview that I append to the bottom, we talked about nationalism, the women’s movement, and Balkanization. This time around, we focused more on the European Union and the prospects of a more emancipatory politics in Croatia and the region.


The Interview


Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


It was a quite important day, and people developed a lot of hope from the eastern part of Germany.

I remember perfectly when I went to Berlin. It was 1991. Women peace activists from Belgrade and Zagreb came together at that time to make a joint peaceful stand at the German parliament. The conflict in Yugoslavia had intensified at that very moment. There was still some enthusiasm around the changes in the former eastern part of Germany, but what I saw at that time was a lot of consumerism. Capitalism was there, clearly: you could see the effects of this imposed capitalism everywhere.  Yet I noticed that people were not so enthusiastic about this capitalist “affair” in 1991. We were occupied with our conflicts here, so I didn’t think much about it.

But very soon I read a lot of articles from my colleagues from post-East Germany, and they were completely frustrated. This capitalism spoiled people’s fun with its unhealthy competition. It created artificial needs and a degree of uncertainty that people became aware of only later. Also it was clear that the post-East Germans faced discrimination: they’d become second- class citizens within united Germany. Berlin, of course, experienced so many changes, and it’s now actually the exciting center of the whole Europe. But other cultural and academic places in the former East Germany, like Leipzig for example, are in a worse situation than before. Only Berlin in a way profited from all this.

All of us have faced this so-called transition since 1989 as a kind of occupation: an occupation through capital, whose invasion came either violently or in a more peaceful manner through what the Marxist geographer David Harvey has called “accumulation by dispossession.” This “post” in terms of  “post-East” or “post-socialist” doesn’t mean anything anymore other than that. So I’m not so enthusiastic about the idea that all of us are forced to live within a so-called globalized global capitalism. I’m not nostalgic about Yugoslavia either. There are so many things that I didn’t like at all about this brotherly regime. But I’m less enthusiastic about capitalism.


Tell me about how you got involved in the anti-war movement.


It was, in a sense, spontaneous. I just wanted to be with the people that shared the same values, the same ideals that opposed the culture of violence. Since I was one of the activists here in the late 1980s who initiated with other women the SOS hotline for abused women, this was for me a “natural” choice or, in other words, the only choice. If I was against violence against women, then I should struggle against a violent world and its very premises. Violence is always structural, and of course it is against people in general, not only against women. The archetype of civilization is violence, and that is a problem. We can only imagine a non-violent world because it has never existed. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least struggle for an expanding horizon of hope.

So some of us who at that moment set up hotlines against violence against women along with other activists here like Greens and those who belonged to spiritual groups – just a few of them were peace activists at that time — we set up an anti-war campaign in 1991.


And you already had contacts in Serbia, in other parts of the region?


We actually had our feminist community since the 1980s. We just continued to work together against the war, keeping in contact with the autonomous feminist organizations both in Belgrade and in Ljubljana. For some of us it was an issue of ethical survival too.


Were you surprised at that time when some people that you thought of as peace activists or feminists, went off in a different direction?


Yes, it was shock for me at that time. Afterwards, I tried to find the reasons why. More than 20 years after, I realized not only that such huge conflicts and turbulences are a kind of test for people to make their own choices but also that most people unfortunately rely on the choices made by others. Sometimes fear prevents people from taking stands; sometimes it’s a question of anxiety. The main reason is that people usually choose the side that everybody else chooses, and in that sense their nations become their “appropriate” choice: a collective unity that provides emotional and existential shelter.. Or at least they think that this is a choice. After all, being within the mainstream is always an easier option. For me, it was not a surprise, especially here in Croatia. Most people not only thought that Croatia was attacked at that moment, but this really happened at the beginning of the war. So they chose, let’s say, a politics of being aware of their own nation. It was for most of them a condition of emergency.


And do you think that there ever really was another alternative to the nationalist politics that emerged with HDZ and Tudjman in the 1990s? Or, as you said, was this in some sense inevitable given that “this is what most people were thinking”?


Nothing is inevitable. This is an issue of perspective related to the historical moment when nationalist politics seemed to be “only” solution. Thinking back on the positions of the socialist brotherhood of nations, Serbs and Croats and, partly, Slovenians in Yugoslavia had privileged positions. They were leading nations. I’m not going to make comparisons among them: there have been already newly constructed myths of their positions. On the other side for the people in Kosovo or Macedonia, or even the Muslims of Bosnia, Yugoslavia was not a very pleasant country. For a lot of reasons. So in a sense I understand why some people didn’t want to live in Yugoslavia any more. Yes, it was a kind of social contract that emerged out of the revolution and the anti-fascist movement. But it didn’t bring equality for all the nations. We didn’t live in a free society either then or now.


When you think back 22 years ago, is there anything that has changed in your thinking?


Of course I’m getting older, and I passed through a lot of delusions and a lot of transformations. But I knew perfectly well that something was wrong when nationalist politics started to create the political agendas since the 1990s. It was clear to me that they would invent a politics of exclusion towards others within their newly built states, and not only through violent methods. The methods of discriminations took different forms, of course. But that’s another whole issue.

In terms of civil society, I’ve always thought about how to create new spaces that are open and creative enough both for civil activists and citizens themselves.  One of the problems with many funding organizations that came here at the beginning of the 1990s was that they wanted to install their own civil society organizations or even networks — as a kind of their symbolic capital. At the same time some political authorities wanted to fund civil society in order to control or discipline them. That’s why I don’t like to use a word like “non-governmental organization” or to be identified with this peculiar kind of non-governmental society. In a discursive sense, it’s an empty signifier. It doesn’t mean anything, only that you are “non” or “against.” I’d rather think about grassroots activism I love the idea of being a civilian dissident all the time. This means always being in a position critical toward your government, whether Yugoslav, post-Yugoslav, European, whatever. This means creating a sense of one’s own social position according to one’s own ethics.


I want to go back to your point about the politics of exclusion here. Many people have told me that they think that nationalism has not disappeared but has been reduced considerably here in Croatia. HDZ, of course, is no longer in power and is under investigation for corruption. The Croatian Party of Rights only has one representative in parliament. But do you think that the politics of exclusion still operate here?


Certainly. I have no illusion about it. For me, it’s not only an issue of rights or an issue of a legal system. It’s an issue of how people behave toward the citizens of other nationalities.  And the politics of exclusion is everywhere. It operates on various levels, sometimes hidden, and it’s not only against Roma people who are now in the political focus because of European’s Commission’s directives. Everyday life confirms that we live in a nationalist and discriminatory society right now. Of course I know that a legal system that assures normative equality is a step forward. But if you don’t have free media (and here most media is not free), if you don’t have critical and responsible education, if you don’t have professors who transfer free ideas to their students, then you don’t have a free society. But the most problematic issue is the labor market including a high rate of unemployment where there are various discriminatory practices, for instance against women who are pregnant. Such a situation produces precariousness, dependency, and economic and human uncertainty.

I would like to move to a different kind of liberating politics that’s more than just giving people rights such as the freedom of speech, for example: liberating both in terms of conceptual and economic opportunities. We’ve moved from one system, socialism, where we used to live more equally in terms of economic and social rights, to a liberal economy that has pushed us into drastic economic uncertainty, almost poverty. But we still have myths around these other rights that Wendy Brown has written about. We try to educate ourselves to be tolerant, ignoring the material and human conditions under which we live. Injustice is engrained in the system. That’s why I think we should think about a new structure that creates a more just economic system within which we can all live together.


Does becoming a member of the European Union offer any possibilities, in terms of what we might call the politics of inclusion based on rights?


I have no illusions about the EU at all. I just came from Norway, and thanks to their natural resources and wealth, they made a choice not to be a part of EU. I am involved in an international academic research project. A friend of mine who is a professor from Spain told me, “Please, don’t enter the European Union, because right now they are cutting 30% of our salaries at the university.” This is only one small detail of how a new dependency has been created. The EU itself has become a kind of discriminatory mechanism, and it has special rules for its member states, particularly when it comes to the labor market economy. If you are from the Netherlands, there is no problem to find any job anywhere. If you are from Croatia, then you will have to wait—just like people from Poland—a few years to have the same opportunities.  In terms of legal rights and migration policies, there are various obstacles and differences in the sense that the EU differentiates between people and constructs various boundaries.


And yet, so many people here are enthusiastic about the European Union.


I don’t think so. People here are not enthusiastic about anything. We live in a system where nothing functions, where everything is getting worse and worse. So, do we have a proper option?


It’d be nice if you had the Norwegian option, but…


The Norwegian choice depends on oil!


That’s right. If you discover oil off the Adriatic coast…


Yes, and the Swiss option depends on its monetary politics and the money in their banks. So in a sense we have a lack of choices. Yet I think we should have choices.  In this regard I would rather look to people in Latin America, in the Third World, and how they have solved these issues and the methods of struggle they’ve used.


Look to them for what?


Alternative solutions. Of course, there are emancipatory movements everywhere. There are also great theorists, like Walter Mignolo or Arturo Escobar, people who do decolonial studies. Why should we think only in one way? Why should we think that the capitalist system is the only choice for the whole world? Or, that democracy means only capitalism, that is, rights for individuals and freedom for capital?  We are in a panic that if we don’t enter the European Union everything will be a disaster. But I don’t think so. We should feel free to expand our way of thinking. We are still humans.


It seems that so many people in this part of the world are fixated on the North—whether the North is the European Union, or the North is the United States. And the association with the South is not simply geographic. It’s also historical, because of the association with Yugoslavia’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement. Can people here in Croatia and throughout the region rethink the whole relationship with the South so that it’s not just the old Non-Aligned Movement?   


I think so. There is a new generation of activists here in Croatia. For the last few years, they’ve held a well-known festival: the Subversive Festival. It’s a kind of festival of theory. Every May a few thousand people, including theoretical activists and critical thinkers, join this festival. It is just amazing!

Two years ago we had a roundtable on decolonial theories and emancipatory practices. It’s a prestigious festival. Tremendous theorists from around the world come here every year, like Tariq Ali, the editor-in-chief of New Left Review, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Saskia Sassen, Samir Amin, and also many young people from the former East. So, in a sense, I think this kind of theoretical articulation of alternatives, social and cultural, has already started. And I myself wrote some articles on how we are much more closed to the countries in the South than the countries in the West: not only in terms of economy or geopolitical contextualization, but also in the terms of how we’ve also been colonized throughout history and how we have been neo-colonized through new regimes of globalization.


Let’s talk for a moment about the women’s movement. Initially you said you were more critical now than you were four years ago, and I’m curious what you meant by that.


When I say that “I’m more critical now,” it means also toward women’s engagement nowadays. We have various initiatives here. There are some good organizations and centers, such as a Center for Women’s Studies, the Center for Peace Studies. But they are not quite independent actors since they rely on state funds, and at the same time the political authorities tend to moderate their more critical political impulses. When I say that I’m more critical, it means in terms of the politics of gender mainstreaming. This was also in a way invented by European Union laws as a kind of controlling mechanism toward its new member states. Yes, we have rights, and we have the hyper-normativization and hyper-institutionalization of the women’s agenda. But the life of women and the position of women is getting worse than even a few years ago. In Yugoslavia, women used to live much better although patriarchal socialism was very effective. However, we have to deal with many paradoxes.


Can you give an example?


On one hand we have the whole gender mainstreaming mechanism for the implementation of women’s human rights. On the other hand, most of the women are deprived of their rights. Without economic independence women cannot be free. We have, for example, an ombudsperson for the equality among sexes. We have a committee for equality within our government. So, we have everything in terms of institutionalization. But when it comes to the labor market, women lose their jobs on a huge scale. They have been excluded from the realm of work, and many have lost the chance to work, including the younger generation of women.  There are so many examples of this. Women really should be angrier than they are.


So the unemployment rate among women is very high.


It’s very high. This is one of those hidden laws within the European Union, that it’s better that women should work part time so that they can be at home with their children. And this trend is precisely against women’s human rights and women’s emancipation. The laws follow the new liberal economic trends. In terms of women’s freedom and women’s lives, it’s terrible. It means that women are going to be much more dependent on their husbands or partners, and their job choices and whole conception of their lives are going to be reduced.


In the United States, there are lots of debates within the women’s movement on feminism, post-feminism, Third Wave feminism. But at a practical level, I’ve noticed that many of the things that my generation took for granted are no longer being taken for granted. For instance, many women in the United States are taking their husbands’ last names. Many are very happy about the idea of staying at home and raising children and not entering the workforce, or entering the workforce only part-time. Many of the traditional things that were scorned by my generation, such as a very expensive wedding, are now being embraced. And, ironically, many of the women who are doing these things call themselves feminists. They’re not rejecting feminism. They’re reinterpreting it.


You are totally right. It’s also happening here in a way. Liberal feminism served an important function with the suffragette movement and even with the working-class movement at the beginning of last century. Now it tends to go in a totally different direction. We can’t take any rights for granted. That’s why I think we should articulate the issue of rights within a much wider scope: in terms of economy, in terms of justice and human opportunities, in terms of fighting existing geopolitical power.

I don’t want to speak about post-feminism, because it’s also a kind of attack on the idea of feminism. Feminism makes sense only if it is a movement for social change. If it doesn’t think about social movement, if it is not a liberating movement, then it doesn’t make sense anymore. There are so many great feminists right now in America who also criticize liberal feminism, like Nancy Fraser (who a couple years ago wrote a great article called “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History” that goes in this direction) or Judith  Butler, or Wendy Brown. And then there’s Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of my favorite feminists, who comes at feminism from a totally different perspective, from the post-colonial perspective and the concept of subalterns. We should insist on revitalizing feminism, on transforming feminism according to the radical meaning of what it means to be feminist nowadays.

In Latin America, for instance, there is a huge movement around liberating feminism. They say, “We are not going to speak about liberal feminism anymore, because it functions along with the market economy. We should really speak about liberating feminism.” In that sense, we should speak once more about women’s lives, about social change, about justice for women of different backgrounds, about how to make a kind of collaboration with others who belong to underprivileged social groups. And we should revitalize left movements and once more think about class issues.


Even compared to four years ago, there seems to be a rising new left movement here in the region, not only here in Zagreb but in Poland, in Bulgaria. Why do you think this is emerging now? Is it just a question of a new generation? Or do you think that there are structural reasons for why the new left is emerging?


I think you are right to point to structural reasons. Yes, every generation has a right to bring in new fresh ideas, and has a right to have their politics of hope, because there is no sense to live in this world without any hope for a better future. That’s why we have this alternative globalization movement (not an anti-globalization movement but an alter-globalization). But it is not a coincidence that this movement coincides with this rather rude financial capitalism, enormous poverty and suffering around the world, and the general sentiment that we have to follow the trends of banks, finance capital, and corporate institutions.

So in that sense it comes from both sides: that the young generation is actively engaged in their own future and that the last 20 years of economic liberalism has been a delusion.


I’d like to ask you about LGBT issues, which has emerged as a litmus test for the EU. Do you think that for LGBT the situation has improved at all?


In Croatia, ever since that first gay pride parade, which I attended here in Zagreb, the situation for LGBT persons has gotten better.  Young people can now speak more openly about these issues. But in terms of peoples’ feelings and attitudes, if we don’t have a different educational approach in the long term it will be difficult. I teach feminist theories and I also teach queer theories within academia, and I’m aware of how difficult it is to change one’s own ideas and how people should struggle against their own prejudices. It will take time. But thanks to some very good lesbian, gay, and queer activists here, something has changed a little bit in the last few years. This is at least something good.


Last three questions. When you look back from 1989 until today, on a scale from 1 to 10, from 1 being the most dissatisfied, to 10 being most satisfied, how do you feel about all that has happened here in this country?


Well, roughly, I would give a 1 or 2.  Although I don’t think that it is really measurable.


And then same period of time, same scale, your own personal life from 1989 til today.


My own personal life? I’m still very critical and I’m still an activist. So I will not give up. I’ve learned a lot during these years.  Yet I really lived better during socialism, even though I have a higher position right now [laughing] as a university professor than at that time. So, two, not more than that. Life is a kind of sweet risk.


And then looking into the near future, when you think about the prospects for the country, scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the most pessimistic and —


Low, low, low, low. The same number.


Zagreb, October 15, 2012


Interview (2008)


I am a professor at the university here in Zagreb where I teach postcolonial studies. In my previous life, I did research into communist and socialist history after World War II. I was also active in the feminist movement here.


In the 1980s, in Yugoslav civil society before the war started, we had a great moment here, especially in Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia. A lot of things were flourishing, in an echo of the famous liberal years of the late 1960s. It was a very motivating time to live here.

When the war started, I immediately joined the anti-war campaign. We set up peace initiatives here. We really supported each other in terms of communication and collaborative work across boundaries. We invented a new email system. We supported refugees. We held anti-militaristic actions. We set up a lot of initiatives like the Center for Women War Victims and the Women’s Human Rights Initiative. We worked with conscientious objectors and deserters. We were not a huge group of women. We belonged to a sub-movement that opposed not only misogynistic policies but war activities. As a result of a Quaker initiative, we held one of the first conferences on women, politics, and peace here in Zagreb. It was an amazing thing to do in this city. We were more of an ethical voice perhaps than a real movement since there were no more than 100 of us.

In 1996, I founded the women studies program here. We wanted to theorize, to create a sort of political discussion around what happened to us as women, and as men. Before that, there had been no time to reflect since we were busy supporting people and refugees. Afterwards we were able to reflect on what balkanization and Yugoslavia meant for us – in terms of division, national partition, and nationalistic attitudes. We organized a famous women’s art exhibition: Women Beyond Borders – in 1997 or 1998 here in Zagreb. It was part of an international exhibition, and it showed how women could close the borders and offer different messages to people. Being active from my point of view means combining art activism, political activism, and theoretical activism. From my perspective, theory can’t be outside of activism. It can’t be just a theoretical reflection of yourself. You have to offer a message to the world. We still don’t have the time, or the social and ethical paradigms, for this kind of reflection. The new paradigm of imperial globalization doesn’t offer us any idea of how to live.

We have a women’s network here. It puts various proposals forward in public and argues against certain policies, for instance Catholic church policies that continually feed the organic concept of nation, of pure Christians. But we still need some real political analysis, as women and men, as liberal in the positive sense. We need to have a different and positive approach to nation. We don’t yet have a real political analysis of what is happening to us. There are gender equality bodies at the local, regional, and state levels and they are pushing for gender equality. But most don’t know how to do this.


In the 1990s, the nationalists took the women’s issue as their own through the concept of demographic renewal. This was invented in 1993 by the Tudjman regime. It only partially succeeded, but it succeeded at the political level. It promoted a theory of the organic nation, the nation as an organic body in which each member should feed the national body. The priority became: how to feed this national body with new Croats. This concept of demographic renewal, inspired in some sense by the Nazi ideology, was supposed to pass easily through the Croatian parliament. But it did not pass in full because some women supported by the feminist movement here were against it. We did a huge campaign. We lobbied the international community, and some embassies supported us. I don’t want to exaggerate our role but we at least made our voices heard. And we found that the international community could be supportive of an alternative concept. One sign of our success was that we received letters from our own embassy saying, “How dare you accuse our government of this!” The legislation was passed, but in a softer way, in a half-liberal way, not totally misogynistic, not totally nationalistic.

During wartime, the paradigm that functions most naturally is the aggressor-victim paradigm. All other ideas are subversive. All other ideas betray the nationalist paradigm. Within this paradigm, leaders see women as victims. Unfortunately, many women accept this. And they support Croatia as a victim state. In that sense, it was fascinating for us to go outside of this paradigm and promote a peace agenda. For this reason, we wanted to be national betrayers or dissidents. We wanted to have our own women’s community beyond the boundaries of nations. When we supported women who were Bosniaks or Serbs, we were told that we were not sufficiently patriotic. During war time, we didn’t have a very developed civil society. Rather, it was a kind of resistance, a kind of emancipatory thought within misogynistic, patriarchal national paradigms. We got lots of support from different organizations from abroad – peace, women, Quaker. We felt welcome in an international community that was also stateless. We felt very powerful. It was an amazing time. Even now we are nostalgic for this.

In general society, most Croats who used to announced themselves as pure Croats are now embarrassed and don’t know what to do. The idea of a pure nation disappeared. It has broken down through the destruction of the illusion of state sovereignty. In the economic sphere, it is clear that we are a colonized country. The decisions come from Brussels, not Zagreb. All elements of sovereignty are dispersed. For the people who considered themselves as pure Croats; they know full well that this idea collapsed in a very short period, and they are disappointed.

In university, in the classes on the sociology of politics, the students have never heard anything about nationalism or theories of nationalism. They want to be part of a desirable nation. They get angry when I ask them about the concept of Croat nationalism, whether it is primordial or constructed. Most say that it is primordial, but they don’t want to belong to this primordial nation. They would rather believe that the nation is an open conception rather than something that relies on blood and soil. Yet they also feel a sense of unfairness, because they still think of Croatia as victim.


The term Balkanization has had a very negative meaning, especially during wartime. It had both male and female aspects. On the male side, balkanization embraces elements of wildness, of aggression, of primitive “natural” guys who fought each other and who killed each other. On the female side, there is what Edward Said pointed out about the “oriental,” that it is unreliable in terms of negotiations, just like women, with whom you never know where you stand.

During Tudjman’s time, Croatia had a very autocratic, male type of politics. But Croatia was also a victim, and therefore female. From the EU’s point of view, Croatia was not disciplined enough. This was connected to generals who were not willing to prosecute war criminals. Tudjman always said Croatia belonged to Europe, that Croatia was the last Catholic country. Christianity was reduced to Catholicism here; no one thought the Orthodox were even Christian. To join the EU, we had to give them a clear message – we would deal with criminals and be nice to Serbs.

Post-colonial theory is quite new for the whole region, not only for Croatia. When I came to postcolonial theory – it was more for my own writing and thinking. But then I found that this theory is much more applicable here than some other theoretical approaches – because it challenges concepts of nation, of history, of space, of boundary. It offers concepts of in-betweenness, of hybrid identity. It offered clues on how to deal with historical trauma, how to deal with socialist history. It helps us explain Yugo-nostalgia. It’s difficult to explain the new migration without using concepts of hybridity.

Post-colonial representation is also very helpful in understanding the use of women’s bodies. Women in colonial contexts are treated as uncivilized, without authentic voice. This is how it feels to be colonized – it means not to be understood. Many Bosnian women who were raped came here or were in camps in Bosnia. Women from the West gave us financial support to support these Bosnian women because they didn’t understand Bosnian women. They gave us money because “you understand them because you are ‘other’ as well – you are as ‘uncivilized’ as they are.”


When I think back to the Clinton era, America was perceived very positively by both genders here. Throughout the 1990s, even in 2000, most of us perceived America as really a liberal emancipator in terms of gender. We had fruitful cooperation with U.S. women who came here and supported us a lot. The Global Fund for Women is one of the most powerful women’s foundations in the world. It is sensitive, understands politics in the world. So many ideas in terms of theory, the women’s movement, the peace agenda, we took from American initiatives, networks, and individuals. The image of America was very positive – in the political world and also in civil society.

But especially after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and because of this strange American foreign policy, the whole image has changed radically: within public opinion, within political parties, and especially within civil society. Americanization means rights now occupation, militarization, and colonization. It is very negative. All that political capital connected to the image of emancipation has been destroyed. American policymakers could consider this very seriously. We had a great connection with the U.S. embassy back then. They listened to us and gave us a lot of support. Then after Iraq, some of our organizations, especially women’s organizations, refused to take any funds from the U.S. embassy. We never tried to get any money from them. They wanted to give us money, and we didn’t take it. I feel very bad about it, and I hope it changes. The embassy also didn’t like it.

It’s important not to have a homogenous image of Americanization as we had of balkanization in the 1990s. We shouldn’t have these simplified images of balkanization or Americanization. We need a more dispersive and deep analysis to deconstruct both, one coming from below and signifying colonization and the other coming from above and signifying occupation.