Photo: This-a-way to Devil’s Town, Kelsey Montzka-Boettiger, 2015
This is a spur-of-the-moment reactionary post.
I will kick it off by saying that I in no way endorse or condone the hateful vitriol or threats being made on Yaël Ossowski’s person. This essay is designed as an analysis, response and critique of his behavior in his video and his subsequent defense of his video. The whole event is a case study in projections of the Balkans and exemplifies a deeper, systemic issue that’s been preying on my mind for a while.
Upon recommendations by scholars much more learned than myself, I am nibbling my way through Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans, which has been repeatedly compared to a text that partially inspired it, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The long and short of it is that there is a sustained narrative of the Balkans (drawing heavily on notions of “bridging culture”; “east meeting west” and other tropes–ones that I’ve clumsily fallen into for certain) that holds it in a state of perpetual mystery, confusion. One that resigns itself to woeful head clutching about the impossibility of Balkan unity and reconciliation. The Balkans is just too mixed to ever get along. Although there are very real problems and fragmentation and hateful words abound, recently sadly played out in a conversation on Reddit (credit to Valerie Hopkins about both the discovery of this and the observations) about revoking a particular mod’s rights to moderate, it is crucial to tease out the projected from the real.
The fact of the matter is that many westerners visit Serbia and the Balkans for a taste of danger, mystery, tragedy. To observe and poke fun at the “comical dysfunction” of the remainders of the “communist system.” (EDIT: A reader pointed out that technically, Yugoslavia was socialist and was never communist, but due to Cold War-informed Western perceptions of socialism and Yugoslavia’s role in the non-alignment pact, former Yugoslav states are often located in the same space as “communist countries” in the Western imagination). It’s a different take on poverty tourism-type sojourns designed to aid the privileged into empathy. Visitors to these locales are celebrated and welcomed as “brave” and “intrepid.” Lauded for their very existence. Fawned over for the simple fact that they don’t f***in’ hate the place.
So what the hell does this have to do with Yaël Ossowski?
Ossowski is a self-proclaimed journalist and rhetorician who recently posted a video wherein he initially claims that Serbian police attempted to force him to provide a bribe. He recently replied to his attackers and critiques with this blog post hosted on a platform for an organization that he apparently started.
Before you say it, yes, this is definitely feeding him clicks and attention that he so longs for. However, I don’t really believe that trolls can be starved any more, and if he gets clicks by being ruthlessly humiliated for his arrogance, then¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Most everyone with a basic knowledge of BCS has explained and debunked his claims, so I won’t drain your life force by going through the event. I also will not address in-depth his attempt to shift criticism for his condescending and amateurish jokes by citing how they were made out of “angst” and not actual condescension.
What deeply concerns me is his constant invocation of his love for Serbia. He says that he has visited Serbia many times, loves the people of Serbia, and even “…[on] the night before the video,… drank rakija and ate ćevapi, and… walked through the twinkling streets of Belgrade in awe of the beauty of the town and the resilience of its people.”
I love the food in Serbia. I love drinking rakija. I love all of those tacky tropes about Serbian hospitality because they are true. But I hate how much people dwell on them and how Ossowski trots them out as evidence that “see, I can’t have been discriminatory! I love Serbia!” Anyone can love Serbia when you talk about it like that. You see anyone can and everyone does…until…one can’t.
In the video, Ossowski at around 16:45, launches into a diatribe about how insulting it is that this is happening to him after he’s done such a good work being a tourist in Serbia
They were civilized robbers and thieves…extractors of wealth…. I spent a lot of money here in your country in the last few days and I get penalized…upon exit. This is the price you pay for attempting to camp, to spend a night…a night in a nice hotel, spend a lot of money on food and drinks. Only to be at the border, caught by the police and more and more demanded from your…pockets.
It is crucial to note that no money had been taken from Ossowski at this point and that the Police Chief had restated multiple times that he only owed 2500. Any “lack of clarity” or “confusion” that Ossowski is experiencing at this point is self-inflicted.
He thinks he is being robbed, even though this doesn’t match up with reality, and that’s enough to reinforce his deep understanding of the “true nature” of Serbia. You will be turned on. Your generous, benevolent (dare I say “invisible hand” in poetical justice with Ossowski’s die-hard libertarian leanings?) offers will be spurned by a scheming and nefarious police force intent on maligning you.
This is the projection that the countries throughout the Balkan region (particularly Serbia) see again and again from the West.
One can’t claim to love Serbia in one breath and then try to retract that love simply because one was owed. Furthermore, then to have the audacity to claim it was really love all along, that it was only exhaustion, terror, a misunderstanding that “warped” the message. No, it never was love.
I’m not advocating for keeping sweet and not criticizing practices you find objectionable, but when it is personalized in this debtor/lender rhetoric, the power structure of West vs. East, North vs. South, Civilized vs. Barbaric, We vs. The Other becomes eminently apparent.
I can unequivocally state that Yaël Ossowski doesn’t love Serbia. I can tell this not because he gets upset over a situation in the heat of the moment, but rather how he reacts when he is told he is wrong.
What Ossowski laments in his post are the death threats in his inbox. Although certainly worth mention, he makes no mention of the dozens, hundreds of other commenters I observe, pleading with him, calmly and patiently explaining the situation, translating for him, poking gentle fun at him. Instead, what he addresses and how he characterizes the reaction to his mishap (and subsequent refusal to admit wrong) is summarized with invoking the trope of the Ruthless, Violent Serb followed up with his gracious rejoinder that he knows that “this is not the Serbian people.” How charitable.
His ideological leanings hinted at are only confirmed by his blog post, which makes no apology, but, in the glorious rhetorical tradition of the Privileged, explains his side and his feelings. This hard-hitting journalist ignores how with the barest amount of fact-checking from his Serbian friends, he could have avoided his humiliation. Not the fact that when confronted, he only needed simply to admit fault to, at least, temper the furor.
Yael Ossowski, to me, represents the most disconcerting updated variety of Ugly American. The variety who has enough slick talk and artistic photography to gain distance from the clownish caricature of summer tourist. The self-proclaimed “wanderer…traveler,” a purveyor of moderation, the one who fumbles one’s way through a situation and considers oneself justified and victimized, solely by the virulent (but oh so predictable, right?) backlash of the extremists. So often we are able to carte blanche draw upon the Western imaginations of the “corrupt and savage Balkans” to flatten, coagulate and disregard all criticism of our actions, but don’t hold us accountable for the actions of our communities– unlike the “other”‘s– we’re not a monolith.
And everyone knows I love Serbia, just yesterday, I drank quite a bit of rakija.