How Not to Debate: My Reply to Agon Hamza (Part 1)

Containing a personal appeal to Agon Hamza and the Editorial Board of LeftEast 

Introduction

When I was informed that Agon Hamza was preparing a response to my critique of Slavoj Žižek’s views on the Balkans, I made an assumption that I now realise was naïve.

For I assumed that Hamza would engage in a constructive, evidence-based debate of the issues, a debate I hoped would be mutually beneficial. And I made this assumption because it was clear, as I showed by citing Hamza’s very own writings, that he and I agreed on a key theme of my critique – that is, our joint opposition to Žižek’s partition plan for the Balkans and, in particular, his plan for partitioning Kosovo between Kosovo and Serbia.

Imagine, therefore, my deep disappointment when, upon reading his response, I saw that Hamza had chosen to begin it by defaming my character, libelling my reputation and sullying my good name.

It may be that, in his understandable eagerness to jump to Žižek’s defence, and that of their jointly authored book, From Myth to Symptom, Hamza also leapt to some terrible, but wholly mistaken, conclusions about me, possibly doing so without first giving the matter due and proper consideration.

However – and I say this with much sadness, if true – I also have to face the possibility that Hamza’s defamatory tactic may have been designed to distract and divert attention from my close, evidence-based reading of Žižek’s arguments. If so, I have to admit, his tactic has, at least to some extent, succeeded.

In any event, whichever of these two possibilities is the right one, I realise that I have no choice but to address his defamatory accusation head on.

In Part 2, which will appear in due course, I will address the other points Hamza attempts to make.

But because Hamza’s defamatory accusation is so serious and so unjust, I will confine myself, in this Part, to demonstrating that his accusation against me is baseless.

Hamza: his defamatory accusation

Hamza makes the claim that my use of “the little word “Albanian intellectual””, as he puts it, shows how my alleged racism “comes out spontaneously”. In his accompanying footnote, he further claims that my use of the expression “Kosovo Albanian intellectual” allegedly shows me “reaffirming an old Yugoslav racist cliché of Albanians as second class citizens.”

To begin with, I take it that Hamza lays this charge at my door because I am a Serb, writing as a member of the Serbian Left. It is not a charge, I therefore presume, that he would have laid at the door of non-Serbian writers who commonly use these expressions in their languages (including English), as this issue arises when Albanians and Serbs address one another, given the divisive context of what Hamza calls the “Albanian-Serbian question”.

If so, we need to be clear about his underlying logic. For what Hamza, as a consequence, appears to be saying is that any Serb, of any character, of any political hue, no matter the context, the purpose or the language (for I wrote in English), who joins “Albanian” or “Kosovo Albanian” with “intellectual” is, by definition, a racist. And this is so, according to him, because the Prishtina University affair of the 1970s has tainted this expression beyond repair. As a result, he is implicitly saying, no Serb should use such irredeemably tainted expressions, if they are to avoid the charge of anti-Albanian racism.

There are, of course, words in every language that are “spontaneously” racist or, better put, words that are racist per se, the use of which rightly condemns the user. We can all think of examples in our respective languages. But is this so with the two expressions Hamza points to, at least when used by a Serb? This, it seems to me, is the first question I must answer.

And the answer to this question is: no, a million times, no! For there is an indisputably evidence-based flaw with Hamza’s underlying logic.  

The very simple point here is that there are many examples of the use of these expressions by Serbs that are, incontestably, either (a) simply-descriptive or (b) positively-descriptive (though (b) is less common, for anti-Albanian reasons).[1] Such uses are obvious from the context in which they appear; and in these contexts, it is transparent that their use carries no derogatory, pejorative or racist connotations to which any Kosovo Albanian would reasonably object.

In short, the connotations these words have depend on how a Serb uses them.[2]

For the sake of avoiding excessive length, I shall give two examples of what I have called “positively-descriptive” usage, as this usage is very relevant to my own, as I shall show later.

Is Nataša Kandić an anti-Albanian racist? No, of course not!

In his article, Hamza praised the “only ideological-political wing that expressed, and continues to express, rather active solidarity with Kosovo…the liberals and the human rights organisations in Serbia”. One of the most prominent individuals of this wing is the Serbian lawyer and human rights activist, Nataša Kandić, who founded and led the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade. Her courage in exposing the appalling crimes committed by the Serbian state is beyond compare (and, yes, well beyond that of the very weak and often very confused Serbian Left too).[3]

Indeed, during the Kosovo War in 1999, Kandić entered Kosovo, at great personal risk, to record the crimes committed by the Serbian army, much to the disgust of the Serbian government. She also played a key role in exposing the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. As a result, she has earned an international reputation for her human rights work. Her credentials are therefore impeccable, as Hamza would surely agree.

So, it would be strange indeed, would it not, if Kandić were to use an expression that Hamza alleges is “spontaneously” racist? Nevertheless, in an article she wrote in the Serbian liberal online publication, Peščanik, in November 2013, this is precisely what she did, and not just once, but twice.

In a commemorative eulogy to the recently deceased Serbian lawyer, Srđa Popović – who was an uncompromising defender of the human rights of Kosovo Albanians, and who even signed a petition, in 1993, calling for President Clinton to bomb the Serbs – Kandić explained that she first visited Kosovo in order to listen to Popović speak on human rights at a roundtable organised by “Albanian intellectuals”. She then went on to note how “In Kosovo, [Srđa] was received by Albanian intellectuals with great respect.”[4]

In this context, it is obvious, is it not, that Kandić’s usage carries no derogatory, pejorative or racist connotations whatsoever. Would any Kosovo Albanian reasonably object to this usage in this context, I wonder? Does this not demonstrate that the expression Hamza condemns is not racist per se, and that its connotations are dependent on contextual use?

This is not the end of the matter, though. We must also ask: why did Kandić use an expression that Hamza also criticises for being an example of “ethno-centric reasoning”? In other words, why did she refer to the fact that the intellectuals in question were “Albanian”?

The answer is surely obvious too. For this is not an example of “ethno-centric reasoning”; in fact, it is the very opposite. No, Kandić was saying, Serbs should follow Popović’s example and defend the rights of Kosovo Albanians, for this is the only way to get beyond the logic of “ethno-centric reasoning” and its obsession with the divide between Albanians and Serbs. In short, her message was that we must find common ground as human beings, regardless of ethnicity.

The unavoidable dialectical twist, though, that lies behind Kandić’s usage, in this context, is that her internationalist point could not have been clearly and effectively made without referring to the fact that the intellectuals who worked with the Serbian lawyer, Srđa Popović, and respected him, were Albanians.

It is for all these reasons, therefore, that Kandić’s usage can be described as “positively-descriptive”. Let me now turn to my second example of such usage.

Adem Demaçi and Serbian liberals

In 2000, the year after the Kosovo War and the US-led bombing of rump Yugoslavia, Adem Demaçi was invited to Belgrade, shortly after Milošević’s overthrow, to talk on how relations between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs could be improved. He was, in fact, the very first Kosovo Albanian political figure to have done so after the war.

Demaçi is, without question, the ‘grand old man’ of the Kosovo Albanian liberation struggle; his unparalleled record of service in the cause deserves the utmost respect. After spending almost 30 years in Yugoslav prisons for his political activities, both under Tito and after Tito, he was, for a while, the political representative of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Yet at the same time, Demaçi has been notably more open to dialogue with the Serbs than some. He once proposed a confederation between them called Balkania, though after the bloodshed of the 1990s, he dropped this proposal as unworkable, and now argues that an independent Kosovo is a key pre-condition to better future relations, a position that makes very good sense.

Demaçi’s visit to Belgrade was therefore prompted by a wish to begin some kind of dialogue between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, at a time when Milošević’s recent downfall had appeared to open up at least some, if limited, space for it. Outraged Serbian nationalists opposed his visit, but Serbia’s liberals welcomed it.

And in this context, it is instructive to look at how Serbian liberals described Demaçi.

The liberal Media Center Belgrade, which had been set up in 1994 by the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, and where Demaçi gave his keynote lecture entitled “Albanian-Serb Relations: Today and Tomorrow”, described him as an “Albanian intellectual from Kosovo”.[5]

The well-respected liberal radio and television broadcaster, B92, which had been taken off the air by Milošević during the 1999 war for its allegedly pro-Western bias, reported the lecture and a television appearance, and described Demaçi as a “Kosovo Albanian intellectual” and as an “Albanian intellectual” respectively.[6]

And the left-leaning, liberal monthly, Republika, commented, “This is the first time since the war that an Albanian intellectual has come to Belgrade in good faith to encourage a dialogue on those delicate issues that have for so long been burdening both sides.”[7]

From Hamza’s perspective, it must be strange indeed, if not frankly inexplicable, that Demaçi should have been welcomed to Belgrade by Serbian liberals with this litany of racist abuse and relentless “ethno-centric reasoning”. Indeed, this would have been strange if true, but of course it wasn’t. For these few examples further demonstrate that these expressions are not racist per se. On the contrary, given the hopeful context of Demaçi’s visit, it is very clear that Serbian liberals used them either for simply-descriptive purposes or for positively-descriptive ones or both, without any derogatory, pejorative or racist connotations.

Had this not been the case, Demaçi, who speaks Serbian, would have surely been the first to vehemently object to such outrageous racism. After all, this is a man who rightly refused to speak Serbian to his Serbian gaolers when they demanded that he communicate with them solely in their language.[8] Instead, when interviewed by the Serbian daily, Danas, Demaçi said, “I am very happy that I have experienced something like this, because I believed that it was extremely important to establish contact at this moment….I have been received everywhere well.”[9] And this feeling was in no small part due to Serbia’s liberals.

Why Hamza’s defamatory accusation against me is baseless

In the light of all this evidence from Serbian liberals, I would very much hope that Hamza would agree that the expression I used is not, in fact, racist per se. I would also hope that he can agree that its use, and the connotations of its use, are dependent on context and purpose.

However, Hamza could still try to argue that, yes, this is how Serbian liberals have used these expressions, but this is not how you did so. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how this line of argument is sustainable, especially when we bring in the key issue of context.

For let us recall the general theme of my critique of Žižek. Let us recall that my critique was suffused with opposition to Serbian nationalism. Let us recall that, like Hamza, but contra Žižek, I argued uncompromisingly against the ethnic partition of Kosovo. Let us recall that I argued that Serbia should follow a Balkan policy of friendship with Kosovo Albanians, and not a Serbian policy of enmity against them. And let us finally recall that I argued that an integral part of a Balkan policy of friendship has to be, from the point of view of the Serbian Left, the defence of Kosovo’s right to be independent and to be recognised as such.

But we also need to recall that my critique was not directed at Hamza, with whom I thought there was reason to think, as is clear from his writings, that some agreement was possible. On the contrary, I “commended” his role in developing a valuable critique of neo-imperial ‘multiethnicism’ (as I did Žižek’s); and I clearly agreed with, and therefore supported, his opposition to Žižek’s ethnic partition plan for the Balkans, and for Kosovo in particular.

Hamza knows this very well, of course. In his response, although he attempts to ridicule it somewhat, he openly admits that I regard him as the “good guy” to Žižek the “bad guy”.[10]

It is in this context, then, that my use of “Kosovo Albanian intellectual” must surely be placed in order to understand it correctly. For I did so for two fundamentally interrelated reasons, a simply-descriptive one and a positively descriptive one. In simply-descriptive terms, given that I was writing in English to a wider readership in the Balkans, not to mention internationally, I was providing some basic facts about Hamza to a potential readership that might otherwise not know who he was (unlike Žižek, of course).

But I was above all doing so for a positively-descriptive purpose, in order to demonstrate to readers who read my critique carefully enough that, yes, an intellectual from the Kosovo Albanian Left and an intellectual (if I may be so presumptuous to call myself that) from the Serbian Left could agree on some mutually important issues – for example, that the ethnic partition of Kosovo is a thoroughly bad idea.

In this way, I was performing the same dialectical twist that Kandić performed in her Peščanik article. I referred to ethnicity, not because I was succumbing to “ethno-centric reasoning”, but for the very opposite purpose – to show that, when a Kosovo Albanian and a Serb can begin to agree, we can begin to see that a better way forward beyond “ethno-centric reasoning” may be possible.

In a world obsessed by “ethno-centric reasoning”, a world of competing nations, in which people routinely identify themselves with one nation or another, the repeated performance of this dialectical twist is simply unavoidable. In a word, in this context, this is what is called internationalism.

A personal appeal to Agon Hamza and the Editorial Board of LeftEast

I would like to think that, in laying his defamatory charge at my door, Agon has made a genuine mistake by over-interpreting an expression that, in context, cannot possibly carry the weight of his interpretation. This is the conclusion I would prefer to come to, so as to allay my less charitable suspicion that a diversionary and distracting tactic may be at work here.

If so, I hope that Agon can now see that his accusation was a mistake, given the evidence I have brought to bear on the issue. We all, of course, make mistakes, whether in politics or in our personal lives that, on later reflection, we wish we had not made. And just as we ought not to be harsh on ourselves when we make these kinds of mistakes, we ought not to be harsh on others when they do.

In that spirit, I would appeal to Agon to withdraw his allegation of racism against me, not just for the good of the Balkan Left, and in particular the Kosovo Albanian and Serbian Lefts, but also for our own good as individuals – as it remains my hope that we can keep the door open to working together in the future.

At the same time, I would also like to take this opportunity to make an appeal to the Editorial Board of LeftEast. Its editorial policy is an admirable one. It says: “LeftEast is a platform that supports free expression in a climate of equally free speech for all persons that want to participate. This is why we shall moderate any comments that engage in discrimination, fighting words, or lead to an obstruction of dialogue and we shall ban the involved user from our community.”

However, it seems to me that, by publishing Agon’s article, including his defamatory accusation, the Editorial Board has committed a genuine, but nonetheless grave, error of judgment.[11] It constitutes a breach of its own editorial policy.

The Editorial Board could have “moderated” Agon’s article, in line with its editorial policy, and removed an accusation that they should have known was baseless. This would not have obstructed Agon from presenting his counter-arguments, the publication of which I, for one, fully and unequivocally support. Instead, it now seems that the Editorial Board rushed to publication and failed to give such a serious matter, with grave implications for my reputation, the full and proper consideration it surely merited.

In that light, and in the light of the evidence I have presented here, I would therefore ask, and expect, the Editorial Board to publish a suitable apology to me on LeftEast’s website.

I very much hope that both parties will agree that this course of action is now the best one in the circumstances.

 

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and is the co-editor, with Andreja Živković, of The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915, London, 2003.



[1] Besides irredeemably racist expressions for Albanians in Serbian, racist Serbs resort to simply-racist modes of expressing their vitriol by adding terms such as “takozvani” [“so-called”] to Albanian intellectual and by placing intellectual in quotes, for example. Their vitriol can, of course, also be rendered by the racist context in which these expressions are used. These ways of giving vent to racism are not unfamiliar in other languages.

[2] This is, of course, the fundamental point Ludwig Wittgenstein makes in his classic late work, Philosophical Investigations. This work is an important corrective, in particular to some wilder forms of post-structuralist language theory that decontextualise words and foist interpretations on them that are unsustainable.

[3] It needs to be said that the great strength of Serbian liberals like Kandić has been their support for the Kosovo Albanian cause, but their great weakness has been their tendency to adopt pro-Western positions, particularly their support for the EU (in Kandić’s case) or for Western imperialist military intervention (in Srđa Popović’s case, discussed below). The Serbian Left, by contrast, has certainly been anti-imperialist, but it has either avoided addressing the Kosovo Albanian question (preferring economic issues, for example) or else failed to address all aspects of it in any suitably concrete way. By contrast, Marks21, of which I am a member, has attempted to combine the strengths of the Serbian liberals with the traditional anti-imperialism of the Serbian Left, in a synthesis that recognises it is impossible to have one without the other. My critique of Žižek reflected this.

[5] See http://www.mc.rs/what-people-want-is-what-matters.51.html?eventId=2186#report,

in English. “Albanian intellectual from Kosovo” is the literal translation of “albanski intelektualac sa Kosova”, the standard expression in Serbian. In English, “Kosovo Albanian intellectual” is the more common and more fluent translation.

[8]See Shkëlzen Gashi, Adem Demaçi: Biography, Prishtina: Rrokullia Publishing House, 2010, p.73.

[9]See http://www.ex-yupress.com/danas/danas66.html, which is in English.

[10] In fact, “bad guy” for Žižek is not wholly fair, as it should be clear that I am not ungenerous about some of his thinking on the Balkans, in particular that aspect of it which has anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist potential. I positively evaluate his critique of multiculturalism, from which the critique of neo-imperial ‘multi-ethnicism’ clearly springs. And I call Žižek’s support for the Bosnian Spring “heartening”.

 [11] I am aware that there were some members of the Editorial Board who opposed the publication of Hamza’s article without it first being moderated to remove his defamatory accusation. I should therefore make it clear that these comments are not addressed to them.

 

One Response to How Not to Debate: My Reply to Agon Hamza (Part 1)

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