This blog is almost exclusively a repository for my tennis-related thoughts. But, occasionally, something beyond the tour inspires me (is that the right word?) to put words on virtual paper and share them with more than a few intimates. Election 2016, in general, and the results of the presidential contest, in particular, is one such thing.
In the wake of November 8th, are people you know trying to defend the Trump voters among their friends, relatives, coworkers, &/or acquaintances? Does that frustrate you (or make you angry, sad, or another stronger—even darker—emotion)? You are not alone.
In replying to a friend of a friend on Facebook, I ended up writing something that might be useful to others who find themselves in a similar predicament in the coming days, weeks, and months (I can’t handle thinking longer-term than that right now). That is: trying to respond to someone nice & polite & reasonable who says something along the lines of, “I would not classify myself as a ‘Trump Supporter,’ but I would say I am becoming increasingly sympathetic to those who voted for Trump and are now being unfairly labeled or judged.” My reaction has two parts: an acknowledgment of what I think are legitimate concerns and a rejoinder to an often-implicit argument that I don’t find in the least compelling.
First, it is of course unfair to lump all of Trump voters together into one basket and label it “deplorable.” Doing so was one of the biggest mistakes, if not the biggest, HRC made in the general-election campaign and it came back to bite her—hard. There’s no doubt in my mind that that comment unified & strengthened the resolve of those who already supported Trump, pushed some undecideds his way, and gave both his team and conservative media a political club with which to bash her for the final two months of the election. Rhetorically, strategically, and perhaps even ethically, it was a bad move.
However, I don’t think it’s unfair to judge Trump voters in the following way: they themselves may not be racist, antisemitic, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic, &/or xenophobic—in a word, bigots. But the election results indicate they are willing (on some level) to tolerate a lot of deeply troubling, offensive, & even threatening words & actions from both Trump himself and a not insignificant segment of his supporters. Whom one gets “in bed” with politically isn’t irrelevant. What sorts of things one is willing to overlook, qualify, play down, or explain away because it makes it easier to justify voting for someone—or feel less bad about doing so—matters. I’m guessing (or maybe it’d be more accurate to say “hoping”) that there are many millions who voted for Trump despite all the horrible things he said—despite the indications of what kind of person he is, despite his lack of discipline, despite ample evidence that he does not bring out the best in his fellow man—not because of them. Maybe a lot of Trump voters held their noses and voted for him anyway, hoping that the mainstream media (and his biographers) were exaggerating his flaws and painting the behavior of his less-savory supporters with a colorful brush. Maybe these people (I’ve seen some suggesting as much) genuinely believe that he’s the lesser of two evils, will bring needed change, and can fulfill some of the economic promises he’s made. Maybe they believe all the Fox News stories about the Clintons and take as given that they (& their “corruption”) are truly different in kind, rather than degree, from other politicians. Maybe they were expressing frustration with “business as usual” in Washington and are hoping an “outsider” like Trump will disrupt all of that—and then, out of the chaos he creates, something better will emerge. I can easily imagine that being the case for lots of people. But it still doesn’t excuse the fact that they decided those reasons for voting for Trump were more important than all the risks he so obviously brings with him.
My hunch is that those who were able to see Trump for what he is, be bothered by it in some way, & and vote for him anyway are mostly, if not entirely, white people who are insulated from the dangers he represents. That, to me, is a problem. We might even call it by a name that I know some in conservative circles scoff at: white privilege. So, I do indeed judge them for what they have—through their votes—deemed to be tolerable, especially since they’re not going to be the ones doing the “tolerating.” That burden will fall on black & brown people, on Muslims & Jews, on Sikhs (because people are ignorant and think turban = terrorist), on members of the LGBT community, and, yes, on women. As a woman, as a friend to many in the aforementioned groups, and as a person with an active moral imagination, I judge Trump voters for putting their fellow Americans at risk on the gamble—because let’s be very clear, it is a gamble—that some economic or political good may come of his presidency. That’s a bet I don’t think was worth making—and I particularly judge college-educated voters with annual incomes over $75K for making it. I think it’s a deeply selfish decision.
There’s something—or a few things—I’ve been wanting to say for a while about US interventions abroad. But because I was already headed to the US Open when things took a turn for the worse in Syria, I didn’t say them because it seemed odd to intermingle tweets about tennis with thoughts on foreign policy. Since things have slowed down a bit in New York, though, I’ve collected a few thoughts. Really, they’re questions and concerns.
If you’ve been following the debates over what the US should or shouldn’t do in Syria, you may have noticed that “Kosovo” keeps getting invoked. Given that, it seemed worthwhile to share this handful of pieces, most of which explicitly compare the intervention in “Kosovo” with plans for similar action in Syria. I put “Kosovo” in quotation marks to emphasize one thing only: the fact that NATO’s 1999 intervention in the Balkans is known by an inaccurate shorthand. The target of the bombings was not strictly the (still-disputed) territory of Kosovo, but Serbia itself—then the largest republic of what remained of Yugoslavia. While I understand the need for a convenient abbreviation for common use, this inaccuracy also irks me because I think it obscures the actual—which is to say, broader—effects of that military action.
I have several motivations for sharing these articles. First, I’m a fan of information— seeking, considering, and disseminating it. Second, I think it’s useful to have a historical perspective when considering political decisions, perhaps especially military ones. Over the past two and a half decades, the US & its NATO allies have been involved in any number of conflicts across the globe. To my mind, the degree to which the interventions in the Balkans shaped subsequent foreign policy (in Iraq, especially) has been insufficiently explored and understood by the general public. So, particularly when trying to figure out what we could or should do in Syria, it seems useful to go back and look at other interventions that were also presented to the public as “strategic” or “limited” in scope. Questions we might ask include: What went right? What went wrong? How similar are these two situations? What are the key differences? What can we learn from our previous actions? What are the short- and long-term aims of the current or proposed mission? And, perhaps most importantly, what happened in those other places we intervened after the military action was (supposedly) successfully concluded? (Americans over a certain age remember George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” celebration—and how laughable it seemed weeks, months, and years later, when our troops were still fighting in Iraq.)
Third (and related to the last question above), even though I have no idea what anyone should do about Syria, I am very, very skeptical of claims that Operation Allied Force is the “gold standard” for interventions, humanitarian or otherwise, as one of these articles states. Or, if it is the gold standard, I think that should worry all of us. The reason I feel this way is quite simple (and doesn’t have anything to do with, say, the legality of that operation): it’s been fourteen years since NATO intervened in the former Yugoslavia and the situation in Kosovo remains both unresolved and fairly dire, politically and economically.
Bottom line: these conflicts don’t end when we stop bombing or when headlines about them cease appearing above the fold in the New York Times. We simply have to think long-term, no matter how painful or seemingly unbearable the short-term suffering is. And we (meaning the US and its allies) have to learn something not only from “Kosovo” but also from Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Years—even decades—later, none of these places is a model of stability, despite our best efforts. Could they have been worse without our military involvement? Perhaps. Might they have been better? We can’t know.
I’ve tried to present a range of views here, from Clinton administration insiders to academic specialists on the region, from Buzzfeed to Foreign Policy magazine. Those who follow me on Twitter or know me personally are likely aware of both my ties to Serbia and my commitment to reasoned analysis. While I can’t claim to be neutral, I do try to be fair. The pieces below are presented in chronological order, with the oldest (from 2008, when Kosovo declared independence) first. If anyone has a recommendation, I’d gratefully add more articles to the list.
“Welcome to Kosovo, the Next Failed State?” (Washington Post Op-Ed)
“The Folly of Protection” (Foreign Affairs)
“Kosovo Offers United States a Roadmap for Syria” (Washington Post editorial)
“Five Inconvenient Truths about Kosovo” (TransConflict)
“Is Syria Anything Like Kosovo?” (Foreign Policy)
“Syria Is Not Kosovo, Balkan Veterans Say” (Buzzfeed)
“Wesley Clark: Syria vs. Kosovo” (USA Today)
“Intervention Lessons from Kosovo for Syria” (Huffington Post)
“Syria Is Not Kosovo” (New York Times Op-Ed)
Those with more time or interest in the subject might check out an essay collection such as Reflections on the Balkan Wars: Ten Years After the Break-up of Yugoslavia.
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 http://tinyurl.com/l46nnbg; 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.