Novak Djoković and the Burden of Serbia

English: Novak Djokovic was interviewed after ...

Novak Djoković after winning a mixed doubles match with Ana Ivanović in the 2011 Hopman Cup (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

This essay was written over several days last week, in response to a new-media dustup that followed a tweet by Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim: “Have been debating whether to tweet this, but here comes quite an indictment of #djokovic; happy to link a rebuttal.”

My response to Wertheim began its life as a tweet, grew into a note, and graduated as a long letter, which I sent to him over e-mail.  Though there are a variety of reasons I chose him, rather than the blogger, as my primary—my first, if not my most important—interlocutor, I’ll name just one: these issues are contentious enough without making them personal.  No individual is responsible for creating the messy political situation that still exists in the Balkans; and no individual is alone in having incomplete, uninformed, &/or problematic views on the subject.  To me, this is not a time for the type of debate in which the main goal is to score points—to win—rather than to work, collectively, toward understanding.  Neither I nor the original blogger, Jon Wertheim, anyone reading this, or Novak Djoković himself is in a position to single-handedly solve a problem as complex as the conflict over Kosovo’s independence.  Together, however, there are a few things we can do—and keep doing.  Those include thinking, reading, writing, sharing our views, and engaging in civilized (and, yes, I use that word advisedly) conversation with others.

First and foremost, then, I am interested in dialogue.  However, this priority doesn’t mean that I’m not making an argument here.  Rather, it’s meant to emphasize my firm belief that there’s a big difference between making an argument and having one.  And, to the extent that I am writing to make an argument (and not to have one with either Wertheim or any individual blogger), part of my point is about argument itself.  Who’s already guessed that I’m a teacher?  Come on, raise your hands. . .  Good.  I’ll make a point of toasting you the next time I have something other than Earl Grey in my cup.

To give credit where credit is due, I want to acknowledge some of my own teachers.  To that end, I’ve scattered a handful of references to true experts on the subjects I discuss here.  Also, I should note that my views on writing have taken shape over approximately 30 years of being—alternately and simultaneously—a student and teacher, a reader and writer.  One huge influence on my thinking about both writing and the teaching of writing was Greg Colomb, director of the Writing Program at the University of Virginia, who sadly passed away a few months ago.  If anyone is looking for a great book on the subject, I would highly recommend his and Joseph Williams’ The Craft of Argument (of which there are several editions).

On the off, off chance that it’s not obvious merely from the number of words here, let me make it so: I take both the form and the content of this argument very seriously.  This is not only—or even mostly—because I take myself seriously.  Of course, I do that, too: it’s an occupational hazard of being a professor, I’m afraid.  (Though I’m also glad to laugh at myself: for instance, at the fact that I haven’t showered or changed out of my bathrobe for three days because I’ve been too busy writing this.)  I take what I’m saying here seriously because this is a very, very difficult subject about which to have substantive discussion.  Here’s another thing that likely goes without saying: while I certainly don’t expect anyone to read this entire piece or to take it as seriously as I do (other than my family, who loves me!), I hope that anyone who decides to read and comment will keep the sensitivity of the issues we’re discussing in mind.

Given this sensitivity, I want to put the following caveat up front: I am no apologist for a single one of the many horrific crimes committed—by any group—in the former Yugoslavia or the current Republic of Serbia over the past two decades.  There is no denying that these things happened and no number of apologies that could undo their damage after the fact (which is not to say that no one should make apologies).  Nor, because I am half-Serbian, do I feel any particular need or desire to defend or diminish criminal, unethical, or even morally & politically ambiguous acts by any Serb—any more than I would, because I am a US citizen by birth, defend an act by my own government or a group of Americans which I not only disagreed with but also found destabilizing of my faith in humanity.  (If you doubt this, I’d be glad to send you video footage of the fights that took place in my parents’ home during the 1990s.  Actually, and perhaps unfortunately for my current purposes, no such documentation exists.  But if you’re still uncertain about whether to take my word that plenty of Serbs had and have disagreements on these issues, I invite you to attend a dinner party in virtually any home in the Yugoslav diaspora, to raise the issue in a Belgrade café, or, indeed, to read the article linked at the very end of this missive.)  Thus, what follows should by no means be taken as an attempt to defend Novak Djoković from legitimate criticism.  Everyone is open to that; nobody is free from the consequences of his or her words or deeds.  But not everyone—in fact, not a single Serb—is as clearly in the public eye, and as obvious a target of criticism, as is Djoković.  For that reason, and even though I don’t believe for a second that this debate is really about the world’s top-ranked tennis player, I will begin by acknowledging and responding to one of the blogger’s central claims about him.


So, let’s be clear: Djoković is both a “big-hearted patriot” and a nationalist—though what, precisely, the latter term means right now in Serbia is far more complicated than any short blog piece could articulate (even if it were trying to do so, which this one clearly isn’t).  And he does indeed have considerable pop-cultural sway and economic power at home.  But to suggest that he is only a nationalist or that he uses this power only—or even mainly—to advance one specific political agenda is specious at best and outrageous at worst.  (As @boomerpalaris sarcastically tweeted, “so he wins TENNIS matches ‘to manipulate international opinion in favor of Serbian claims [to the whole region of Kosovo]’?”!)

Let’s also be clear that Djoković is a tool—that is, he and his family are by no means the only ones using his image/identity/success to sell something.  But to suggest that he is merely a political tool or that only one constituency (be it political, economic, or cultural) in Serbia claims him is laughable.  To quote another charming, tennis-playing Serb, “Even if I’m not friends with Novak, I would know his game since he’s, you know, going out of your fridge in Serbia, basically” (guess who, sports fans?).  Every single political party in Serbia would pay for an endorsement from Djoković; every single corporate entity or non-profit agency in the country would love to have him as their spokesperson; every grandmother would be thrilled to hear that her granddaughter was marrying “Nole.”  Because the US is so much larger and more diverse than Serbia, there is no apt comparison I can make; but it’s no exaggeration to say that he’s got greater mass appeal there than Michael Jordan ever did here.  That so many of his compatriots and fans think he can do no wrong is, of course, unfortunate and misguided—he’s human, after all.  But the near-universal embrace of him is also quite understandable in a nation with Serbia’s recent history.  To blame him for simultaneously being who he is and satisfying this national psychological need—almost effortlessly, one might add, and not by some conspiratorial calculation—is unfair to the individual he is.

Before moving on, I’d like to share an illuminating remark Djoković made in a recent interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine: recalling his twelfth birthday in 1999, during which NATO bombs dropped on Belgrade, he observed, “The war made me a better person because I learned to appreciate things and to take nothing for granted.  The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I’d prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too.”  There are a few questions I’d pose to readers about this fairly striking comment.  First, why would Djoković feel that it was on his shoulders to prove—to anyone, much less the world—that there are, indeed, “good Serbs” (as opposed to merely world-class Serbian athletes or tennis players)?  Second, is it possible, over ten years after the official end to the wars in the former Yugoslavia, to be both a Serbian patriot (or even a nationalist) and a “good Serb” in the eyes of the world?  Not to put too fine a point on it: are we really comfortable with the assumption that to be a Serb is a bad thing unless one has somehow proven that one is “good”—an exception to the rule?  Regarding what many outside of Serbia see as Djoković’s controversial views on Kosovo (the focus of the original blog), we might also ask: “But is there also something a bit worrisome about all this uniformity of opinion?  Is this the one subject about which no disagreement will be entertained, about which one truth alone is permissible?  Consider that the most powerful organized religions produce the occasional heretic; every ideology has its apostates; even sacred cows find their butchers” (Kipnis 3-4; her subject is love, by the way, not Serbian politics or international relations).


Let me confess near the outset that I’m pained this topic—as fraught as it is—has come up in this particular way.  Not nearly as pained as I am that there remains significant turmoil in the former Yugoslavia, of course, but still…  I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone who isn’t either closely connected to the Balkans or a student of the region’s history to anticipate or intuit the potential cognitive and emotional effect of the blog post on some readers.  Although the author raises a relevant, albeit troubling, set of issues, she does so in a way that I can’t help but feel is irresponsible.  Alas, such is the nature of the blogosphere and the twitterverse.  To state the obvious, she is not an expert on the matter: she is not a historian, a political scientist, or a policy analyst or maker by profession.  Nor does it appear that she is an investigative journalist.  In noting this, I am not trying to discredit all of her views, but, rather, to ask that they be taken with a grain—or more—of salt.

There are three basic problems with the post that I couldn’t possibly redress in fewer than 10,000 words, though I’ll mention them in passing: a) it leaves a lot out (a hazard of tackling this sort of thing via a blog post); b) it misrepresents a number of historical matters; and c) it doesn’t come from a neutral place.  Admittedly, little I have to say comes from a neutral place either—I’m half-Serbian, as I’ve mentioned.  But, I can make this claim for myself: I have spent two decades informally studying these issues and trying my damnedest to come to terms with them, personally, intellectually, and politically—and my familiarity with the region gave me a significant head start on this process.  I also freely admit to having “personal investments” that affect my stance on these matters and would be glad to enumerate them further (how much time have you got?). 

One of my mantras, often shared with students, is that we must try to understand before we judge.  This prescription is a shortened version of a line from Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel: “Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands” (7).  Other than the tragedy of thousands of lives lost and the other forms of suffering (e.g., economic) still experienced in the region, the whole ex-Yugoslavian saga is a grey area.  To look at the Balkan wars, Serbia, Kosovo, ethnic nationalism, and the international role in it all, particularly (or ostensibly) by considering one individual’s views, is to open up a huge, huge can of worms—or, rather, to enter a minefield, a tinderbox.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t discuss it (or Djoković in this context)—only that we should do so with care.  I’ve done little else over the past few days but think about how I might productively address it: in writing and ASAP, that is.   It would take far more than a few tweets, a blog entry, or even a lengthy magazine article to attain understanding.  And I don’t, by the way, claim to have done so myself.  With that said, here are a few specific responses to some of the more substantive Twitter exchanges between you and a few of your followers.

A. With regard to the judgment call you made in posting this link and the responsibility you have by virtue of your professional position, I think the more reasonable objections are not responding to your giving attention or voice to an “alternative narrative” or “another side” of the story (though, some might argue, to do so risks leaving the impression of an implicit endorsement of it).  Rather, they are questioning if—as a sports journalist—you are in the best position to evaluate whether this blog post in fact offers a well-sourced &/or sufficiently-informed opinion.  Instead of its being (simply) a matter of disagreeing with the point of view the blog presented, I think a number of the objections concern the “threshold” issue you cite.  But to the extent that some object primarily because this post offers positions that differ from theirs, allow me to observe that there are plenty of legitimate grounds on which one might do so which have approximately zero to do with being fans of Djoković, as I hope my response establishes.

B. Perhaps, by calling the blog post “reasoned” (in your exchange with @Ajdeee), you were referring to the author’s tone rather than the logic of her argument; regardless, I’m going to address the latter.  Although there are plenty more problems with the author’s reasoning (and, thus, with the both the individual claims she makes and the conclusions she draws from them), I’ll point out just three examples. 

1) In the third paragraph, she ignores possible rival causes and relies on fallacious post-hoc reasoning in asserting a causal connection between Djoković’s video message to a political rally in 2008 and the subsequent vandalism & rioting in Belgrade: yes, A preceded B, but is there any evidence that A caused or, as she says, “resulted” in B?  Is there proof that Djoković intended to encourage or provoke either x) any violent response, at any time or y) that specific violent response, that very evening? 

2) The contention, in the penultimate paragraph, that she has “no personal investment in this matter” is problematic in several ways.  In the first place, how does she define “personal investment”?  Very narrowly, it would seem (i.e., having something tangible to gain financially, politically, or professionally from having & sharing one’s views).  Second, if she were truly neutral, she would ideally present the most generous possible version of Djoković’s position and take issue with that (after all, there’s plenty to disagree with there—and I, for one, do!).  One further problem is that she is conflating his views on the independence of Kosovo with his views on a lot of other things (or using his views on Kosovo to jump to conclusions about other of his views).  When one is confident in one’s claims and the evidence one has to support it, there’s no reason to present the “other side” in such a reductive manner and there’s no need to make emotional appeals: e.g., invoking dead children, calling Djoković “vile,” and bizarrely comparing his views to those of the deranged Norwegian mass-murderer.  

3) Her definitions of both “patriot” and “nationalist” are ambiguous and idiosyncratic, to say the least.  She writes, “A patriot is someone who stands up for his or her country when it is wronged.  A nationalist is someone who stands up for his or country when it wrongs others.  One is noble, the other is vile.”  At minimum, I would like to see an expert on nationalism cited for support here: for example, do Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, or Benedict Anderson define their central term this way?  Is there scholarly consensus that nationalism is a negative thing in all places, times, and circumstances?

Even if we take this definition of patriotism on its own terms, we run into difficulty.  Although most Americans haven’t heard about it in the news, there are any number of ways in which Serbia has, indeed, been wronged over the last few decades—just ask the people who lived under economic and political sanctions in the ‘90s how they feel about paying dearly for the misdeeds of a leader not all of them supported.  One of the most poignant things I heard when I traveled to Serbia for Davis Cup in September is this apparently oft-repeated line: “They will try Milošević [in the Hague] for everything he did to others, but no one will try him for what he did to us.”  There is far more than self-pity being articulated here. 

Lastly, why does she assume that Djoković’s patriotism, sense of identity & pride, or his  nationalism are rooted entirely or even mostly in defending the wrongs committed by Serbian military or political leaders—by, that is, people who have subsequently been overthrown &/or arrested?  Even if Djoković believes that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia, who’s to say that he endorses the wrongs committed in the name of this particular stance?  (For the record, I doubt he was rallying in support of Slobodan Milošević in 1999-2000, just as I doubt he owns a t-shirt emblazoned with Ratko Mladić’s image, as some Serbs certainly were and do; but, hey, if someone can show me evidence of either, I’ll gladly admit I’m wrong.)

C. One respondent, @suboticjelena, asks what I think is a very important question—in effect, rebutting the blogger’s central claim: is there “evidence that ND is [an] active spokesman for violence or [is he] only representing [the] majority, if misguided, view of most Serbs?”  In other words, what proof exists that Djoković is, as the blog proclaims, “dangerous”?  Like the card-carrying pragmatist that I am (I ♥ William James), I will withhold final judgment on this matter; in the meantime, though, I am not aware of any such evidence. 

To my knowledge, Djoković has never spoken for, supported, defended, or advocated the use of violence as the way to resolve the Kosovo crisis.  This is a pretty serious issue, as violence in the region runs the gamut from intimidation, discrimination, & the creation of hostile living environments, to minor acts of vandalism, to serious damage to personal, institutional, & symbolic property (e.g., people’s homes in Kosovo and embassies in Belgrade), to ethnic cleansing, attacks on civilians, and combat action by at least three militaries (KLA, FRY, & NATO).  Yes, Djoković did say of Kosovo (in the by-now infamous video message after the 2008 Australian Open), “We are prepared to defend what is ours.”  But even this, his most explicitly violent statement, should not be taken at face value or out of context; for instance, do we know exactly what he meant by “defend”?  How many of your readers, I wonder, fully (or even partially) understand that context?  How many, recognizing that they don’t have the requisite knowledge to analyze the statement or pass judgment on Djoković’s politics, will go in search of it?  There are many different ways that the crisis in Kosovo might be understood. Indeed, the accuracy of how well, for example, the US media and State Department grasped it in 1999 is itself up for debate—even though this debate did not begin in earnest until after the fact of the NATO intervention.  Unfortunately, our blogger has presented only a limited perspective on this complex matter.  So far, the only tangible way I know of that Djoković has “defended” Kosovo is by donating large sums of money to have historic Orthodox monasteries in the area preserved following the damage—much of it deliberate—they’ve sustained over the past decade-plus (for details, see here and here).

To understand the prevailing Serbian perspective on—and attachment to—Kosovo, we must attempt to grasp how it signifies to them: that is, not as a patch of land but as a key location in their national-historical imaginary.  Consider, if you will, how a majority of Americans would feel if any group (no matter their current majority in the territory or how legitimate their contemporary grievances against the governing powers) unilaterally declared Jamestown, Virginia (1607), Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620), or the battlefields around Lexington & Concord (1775) their own sovereign nation, and you begin to get the picture.  For the specifics, you’d also have to be aware that, although the first formal Serbian principality in the area existed as far back as the 8th century, the single most important date for Serbs with regard to Kosovo is 1389, when they lost a crucial battle against invading Turkish armies.  Vidovdan (or St. Vitus’s Day), celebrated on June 28 in Serbia and commemorating this battle, is thus akin to Memorial Day or the 4th of July in the US.  Frankly, it’s hard to believe that anyone who hails from the region or has done the most basic research on the subject of Kosovo’s meaning to Serbs is unaware of the continued cultural relevance of this historical event.  What, then, to make of a discussion that omits any mention of it?  (For a lengthy bibliography on this subject, as well as a critical perspective on the function of the Battle of Kosovo in Serbian national mythology, see this master’s thesis by a Lt. Colonel in the US Army who is now a professor at Dickinson College.)

Add to the above the fact that Serbs already feel that their nation (defined in ethnic, more so than territorial, terms) suffered a severe blow during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and still more details of the picture emerge.  That Djoković’s family has roots in Kosovo—that he also likely thinks of it in personally symbolic &/or sentimental terms (“my grandparents’ house,” “our restaurant,” “the summers of my youth,” or even “where I learned to play tennis”)—must certainly intensify his attachment; but it is unlikely to be the sole source of his views.  Even if one disagrees with his political stance on Kosovo, is it really so difficult to understand why he feels the way he does?  If and when I hear that he has said or done something more egregious than saying, “Kosovo is Serbia, and that’s the way it should remain,” I’ll reconsider my view of Djoković.  At present, my sense is that he is perhaps, or even likely, an insufficiently informed and somewhat politically naive young man whose domestic policy views are to a large degree shaped by factors beyond his control: the family he was born into; the truly awful and unenviable circumstances that provided the backdrop for both his and everyone else in the region’s existence between 1991-2000; and the facts of the current economic & political condition of, as well as the general tenor of public discourse in, Serbia.

D. Both you and at least one of your respondents use phrases like “the other side” in discussing the wisdom of sharing this post.  There’s an obvious problem with this sort of dichotomous language and thinking (of which, of course, I assume you’re aware): there are not only two sides—pro & con—to each issue.  In this case, for instance, there is not simply one “Serbian” view and one “Albanian” &/or “Kosovar” view.  Even people who agree on the ends they’d like to achieve, whether Kosovo’s gaining full independence as a country or Kosovo’s continuing as an autonomous region within Serbia, might well disagree about the policies or assumptions that should guide the practical means to that end. 

Further (and this relates to the argument in paragraph four of the blog post), there are numerous ideological points of view that would take issue with the author’s interpretation of geopolitical history.  Perhaps sadly, as so many wars might have been prevented this way, regions of the earth do not belong in some transcendent, ahistorical way to the people who happen to have been born on it in Year X (i.e., “natives”).  To offer a faulty—but, I hope, effective—analogy: if this were the case, not only could Native Americans instantly throw the rest of us colonizers and immigrants out merely by reminding us that they were here first, but so too could descendants of the ancient Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Normans decide to relocate within the British Isles and (one day, when their numbers were large enough) declare a region of it as their own.  A response from @bokash underscores this point: “BTW if you read that blog post carefully you would spot BS. It’s their [Albanian] land cos Serbs (Slavics) went there only in 7th century… So she’s saying Serbs were squatting there for 1300 years while all that time Albanians were rightful owners.”  Territories change hands: such possession is one form of the relationship between human groups and between humans and the natural world they, however briefly, occupy (I could have said “inhabit,” but I wanted to make sure this missive included a shout-out to OWS!).  In earlier times, such changes were conducted by sheer will and brute force.  Now, at least in theory, we handle these divisions of land and power in a more civilized fashion (though I’m sure most of your readers can think at least one international conflict zone that belies this assessment).

My point here is not that the author is necessarily incorrect in her view that Kosovo should be independent—as I don’t believe a person can be wrong in his/her beliefs on such a matter.  Rather, it’s that the argument she makes for why it should be so is weak and fails to address many demographic, political, and historical realities of, at minimum, the last 130 years.  For instance, she seems to rather arbitrarily decide that the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire trump the boundaries of both the earlier Kingdom, then Empire of Serbia (ca. 1217-1371) and the later Kingdom of Serbia (1882-1918) and Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (a.k.a. Yugoslavia, 1918-1991/2006).  Why this is so is both puzzling, from a logical standpoint, and completely obvious, from an emotional one: she simply prefers the boundaries that place Kosovo outside of Serbia.  (For a few good books on the history of the region, see: John Fine, The Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century; Fred Singleton, A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples; Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism, War & the Great Powers, 1804-1999 and The Fall of Yugoslavia; and John Lampe, Yugoslavia as History: Twice there was a Country.)

Those needing a reminder of how messy and protracted geopolitical shifts can be need not look all the way back to the Revolutionary War (a.k.a., the “American Rebellion”)—or, indeed, to our Civil War (a.k.a., the “War of Northern Aggression”).  More recent examples of the complicated attempt to alter boundaries and transfer populations “peacefully”—that is, via politics and diplomacy—include the 1938 Munich Agreement, the 1947 Partition of India, and the (ahem) 1948 establishment of the state of Israel. 

Terrorists, insurgents, separatists, discoverers, colonizers, oppressors, occupiers, rebels, freedom fighters, liberators, martyrs: those using violence in an effort to control people and territory, claim new land, &/or change borders are called many things.  What we—often from a position of physical safety and economic security—choose to call them is as much a consequence of perspective as it is a matter of fact.  (Regarding the relation of morality to history, power, and individual perspective, I’m not sure there’s a more important text than Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.  Warning: reading it might make you, by turns, confused, amused, angry, &/or itching to have of one of his aphorisms tattooed onto your forearm.)

E.  In the exchange with @pitaoddetlica, you say, by way of explaining why you linked this blog post, that “we’ve heard the djokovic narrative.”  I would disagree with this claim (though I recognize that some might accuse me of quibbling).  More accurate is that we’ve heard some Djoković narratives.  Suffice it to say that if I thought we’d heard “the” narrative, I wouldn’t be working on articles trying to expand it.  Whether or not it is obvious from what I’ve written thus far, one of my central points is that we really can’t understand the Djoković phenomenon—who he is and why (beyond his tennis success) he means what he does to Serbia—unless we situate his career in a rich and complicated historical, political, & cultural context.  That is what I will aim to do in my forthcoming essay. 

I believe Americans—and not just tennis or sports fans—need to hear this version of the narrative for several reasons, and one of them (somewhat ironically) is quite similar to a point made by this blog author: serious stories about Djoković shouldn’t just casually mention “bombs dropping” or “empty swimming pools” for local color or human interest and then move on.  Ideally, they wouldn’t just emphasize (or even lazily rely upon) the hardscrabble, underdog, rags-to-riches, against-all-odds narrative of Serbian players from Ana to “Ziki” (Zimonjić to you!).  Beyond the purview of tennis or sports writing, Americans need to be much more aware of the long-term impact of foreign policy decisions made in their name—especially if those decisions include military interventions, as they did, on multiple occasions, in the former Yugoslavia. 

If nothing else is clear from the passion of many of Djoković’s diehard fans and detractors, this should be: the material, economic, political, and emotional consequences of war are many and long-lasting.  For most Americans, these stories last a few weeks, months, or years; for the people over there (whether Kosovar Albanian, Bosnian Muslim, Croat, Serb, or whatever mix thereof), they—and, most importantly, their impact—last lifetimes and generations.  The US was not a neutral bystander in the 1990s: our government and military forces had direct, significant involvement in the Balkan crisis; and this chapter is not, I’m afraid, yet closed.  The rise of Djoković, et al, provides us, among other things, an opportunity to look more closely at something that a) happened a mere two decades ago and b) we may not have paid sufficient attention to at the time.  Cue George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

F. You observe, at another point in the debate with @pitaoddetlica, “re: informed opinion vs. propaganda. again, i’m happy to link a rebuttal if you/others want to respond. why censor?”  But is anyone really asking you to censor—and censor whom, precisely?  Surely, no one is suggesting you shouldn’t share your views.  I don’t even think anyone was arguing that the blogger shouldn’t share hers (it’s a free country, marketplace of ideas, democratization of discourse, and all that).  Instead, I think some people were simply questioning why you would choose to circulate this particular perspective without either having done a bit more homework on the subject or lined up a counter-narrative in advance.  For what it’s worth, and as I’ve already suggested above, I don’t buy the implicit argument that the “counter” to this blog’s argument has already been provided by either Djoković himself or the mainstream media (though the S.L. Price profile in May and the Der Spiegel article in September were good starts).  If it had, I might not be taking the time to write this letter!

A good bit of the sensitivity here is likely rooted in frustration at Western media depictions of Serbs during the 1990s, in particular.  Among those who’ve been closely monitoring this story, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find too many people who think the nation’s political leaders, military, or general population were let off easy then—or who, like our blogger, believe that Novak’s presence on the world stage (and the absence of an equally famous Kosovar Albanian) somehow gives Serbia an unfair political advantage.  Lest Djoković’s rise to the top of the ATP has somehow obscured this fact: the collective powers of the US, most of the NATO (86%) & EU (81%) member states, and a significant proportion (44%) of the UN’s member nations are united in their support for Kosovo’s independence.  In case we have any visual learners out there, I’ll offer an illustration of this crucial point.  If I were an editorial cartoonist trying to capture the situation, I would draw this: a tennis court, on one side of which is Novak Djoković, dressed for non-Wimbledon play (i.e., he’d be wearing at least some of the Serbian flag’s red & blue on his body, if not the full-on, double-headed-eagle-emblazoned coat of arms), bouncing the ball, and preparing to serve; on the other side of the net, waiting to receive, stand assembled the governments, militaries, and media of the US, NATO, and many of the UN’s member nations.  Djoković has, indeed, had a fabulous year, during which he not only won Davis Cup with his Serbian teammates but also dominated just about everyone else in the game, including the consensus best players of his era, Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, and even if he soon adds the French Open to his list of achievements, does anyone predict him winning the match I’ve described?  Would it even be close?

In fact, though others might think this overstates the influence of the media, some would argue that the US/NATO case for going to war with rump Yugoslavia—or at least the public support of such a “humanitarian intervention”—advanced precisely because the media gave both voice and image to the plight of Kosovar Albanians.  (The cynic in me is tempted to add that it probably didn’t hurt that NATO was looking for a way to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1999, but I don’t want to sound conspiratorial…)  Although there is plenty of published work on media representations of war, the very first place readers interested in this topic in the Yugoslav context should look is Peter Brock’s Media Cleansing, Dirty Reporting: Journalism and Tragedy in Yugoslavia, which includes a forward by David Binder, former foreign correspondent in the Balkans for the New York Times.  The description of the book alone, which takes about 5 minutes to read,  should open more than a few of your readers’ eyes.  In case readers don’t want to click on the links I’ve provided, I’ll give them a preview by noting that in 2006 (i.e., after considering the evidence presented in the book of, at best, “pack journalism” or, at worst, “journalistic crimes”), Binder made the bold step of calling for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, awarded to both his former employer and Newsday, to be revoked.

As with any military-historical event, the re-considerations commence only after there’s been enough time and critical distance for research to take place.  Remember the NYT’s post-9/11 coverage of Bush policy—i.e., in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq?  Haven’t views on that changed over the past ten years?  I know that you, of all people, don’t need reminding that the news media are not mere reporters of fact or witnesses to history.  And some stories are particularly difficult to tell in short newspaper paragraphs or audio sound-bites.  (Not incidentally, my sister, who earned a graduate degree at UCL’s School of Slavonic & Eastern European Studies, edited an April 2000 installment of Lingua Franca magazine’s “Breakthrough Books” column on the former Yugoslavia; I’ll soon have an updated bibliography that includes more recent books covering both the overthrow of Milošević and the ongoing Kosovo conflict.  In the meantime, and particularly given that Time magazine has just named “the protester” the 2011 person of the year, some readers might be interested in listening to this week’s NPR interview with one of the leaders of Otpor, the youth-led resistance movement in Serbia that not only helped galvanize public sentiment against Milošević over a decade ago but has subsequently provided training for activists the world over.)

G. Shots, miscellany (if I may): one of your interlocutors (@faisalsheikh) asks, “Why the hesitation? If he was supporting an anti-Jewish or anti-Christian group, would you feel the same way?”  I hasten to point out that in believing that Kosovo should remain an autonomous region within Serbia, Djoković is neither supporting one specific “group” (as this is the official position of both the democratically-elected Serbian government and several opposition parties) nor expressing anti-Kosovar, anti-Albanian, or anti-Muslim sentiments.  That is, this question contains, at minimum a false analogy: Djoković has not been accused of racism or religious bigotry.  Despite the frequency with which people refer to Muslims, Catholics, & Orthodox Christians when discussing the politics of the region, the extent to which these conflicts are about religious differences may well have been overstated and certainly remains up for debate (keep in mind that Yugoslavia was under communist rule following World War II; religious practice wasn’t exactly encouraged). 

On top of that, this tweet provides unsurprising evidence that many of your Twitter followers, like most of the American public, are not sufficiently knowledgeable to evaluate Djoković’s political views or have a particularly informed opinion on the Serbian and international policy vis-a-vis Kosovo.  If this were a black & white issue or an easy situation to remedy, I’d imagine the ouster of Milošević and 12 years of US, NATO, EU, & UN involvement would have done the trick.  Not only has there not been a political solution to the issue of Kosovo’s independence but the region has also become a frightening zone of lawlessness: a way-station for trafficking in drugs, weapons, and humans (e.g., the sex trade).  The issue of political sovereignty aside, Kosovo presents Serbia, Europe, and the wider international community plenty of challenges.


Still reading?  If so, I’m both impressed and grateful—really.  I know that probably sounds sarcastic (or at least ironic, in a non-Alanis Morrisette kind of way), but I mean it.  I certainly didn’t set out to write an essay when I sat down to respond to you, so I’m as surprised as the next person to be here.  Anyone who’s made it this far should immediately get him- or herself a drink or a burger or a cupcake or whatever else you consume when you feel like you deserve a treat.  Come to think of it, I’m busting out the mini-Snickers I’ve got left over from Halloween.  Where’s my Djoker mask?

Believe it or not, there’s one more thing I want to clarify about my perspective.  In doing so, I’m making a plea for all of us to more often exercise two mental capacities: the moral imagination and the ability to embrace complexity.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  To believe that Serbs (whether famous & powerful ones like Novak Djoković or average ones like my grandmother’s neighbors and cousins who, like so many in Serbia, are struggling to scrape together a decent living) have a right to dignity, opportunity, pride, and so on is in no way to condone, defend, or endorse the deeply troubling views, policies, or actions of some of Serbia’s political and military representatives, past or present.  To acknowledge—and even sympathize with the fact—that Djoković may indeed have been afraid or suffered during the first decade of his life (not just for a few months in 1999) is not to deny, ignore, or devalue the suffering of others. 

Pain, alas, is not a zero-sum game, and Djoković has, to my knowledge, made no claim to a Serbian monopoly on suffering, as this blog author suggests when she depicts “Djokovic and the Spiegel reporter spend[ing] a lot of time commiserating over how ‘scared’ twelve year old Djokovic was during the NATO bombing and the death of his tennis teacher’s sister (who died when a wall crumbled at what must have been a relatively advanced age),” or observes that he “was struggling to keep playing tennis.  Albanian Kosovars were struggling to keep their families alive. . . . Djokovic is intentionally emphasizing only Serbian suffering while refusing to acknowledge Serbian crimes.”  Does he, as a professional athlete, have an obligation to address those crimes, most of which were committed before he could grasp the complexity of the situation into which he was born?  Maybe so.  But, if he doesn’t acknowledge them—publicly, frequently, &/or to the satisfaction of all—should this preclude his ever speaking of his own experiences or our sympathizing with him or other Serbs and ex-Yugoslavs who lived through the wars of the ‘90s?  Do his shortcomings, whatever they may be, absolve us from our responsibility to give him (or anyone else) the benefit of the doubt about his basic decency as a human being?  Does it  prevent our cheering—or simply recognizing—his efforts and achievements on the tennis court? 

Djoković has made some missteps in both speaking and choosing not to speak publicly about political issues.  I happen, for instance, to think he lost an opportunity to remark briefly, during a French Open press conference, on the important arrest & extradition of Ratko Mladić (though I also suspect he was unprepared to do so on the spot).  Instead, when asked for comment, he awkwardly, and with obvious discomfort, changed the subject: “Ah, we shouldn’t talk about this.  We shouldn’t talk about this, ah, because it’s, ah, it’s just, ah, too sensitive to talk about that; and, ah, I’m a sportsman, so I should stay this way,” he said.  But, again, why he has commented, declined, or even failed to comment should not be hastily judged by those without significant knowledge of the history and politics of the region.  Remember when Michael Jordan was pressed to endorse a Senate candidate in a NC election some twenty years ago and he declined, observing, “Republicans buy sneakers, too”?  Well, magnify his situation by 100, remembering that Djoković is trying not only to push product but also to represent his country in the best possible way.  I have no doubt that Djoković is incredibly burdened by his responsibilities as a public figure, within and outside of Serbia.  This is among the many reasons why he is and will be quite a different #1 from Federer or Nadal—they neither come from such a place (with such a history) nor are the primary representatives of their nation on the international stage.  Quick (and without googling!): name the president of Serbia.  Actually, name one famous Serb who is not a war criminal or an athlete.  (Bonus points if you answered Nikola Tesla!)

Last, but not least, I want to acknowledge a significant way in which I agree with the blog author: the Serbian people as well as their official representatives have significant work to do with regard to coming to terms with their recent history.  The same is true in most of the former Yugoslavia.  Because I strongly believe this, I am re-posting a link that the blog author shared.  This NYT op-ed, written by a Serbian human rights activist, makes a compelling argument for a sort of truth & reconciliation process in the region—a proposal that I whole-heartedly support, albeit with one qualification: the Balkan shame of the 1990s, referred to in the headline, is not Serbia’s alone.