Michael Totten again, this time On the Road to Kosovo

“Lippmann…argued in his best-selling book called Public Opinion that democracy was fundamentally flawed. People, he said, mostly know the world only indirectly, through “pictures they make up in their heads.” And they receive these mental pictures largely through the media. The problem, Lippmann argued, is that the pictures people have in their heads are hopelessly distorted and incomplete, marred by the irredeemable weaknesses of the press. Just as bad, the public’s ability to comprehend the truth, even if it happened to come across it, was undermined by human bias, stereotype, inattentiveness, and ignorance. In the end, Lippmann though citizens are like theatregoers who “arrive in the middle of the third act and leave before the last curtain, staying just long enough to decide who is the hero and who is the villain“. – “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovac and Tom Rosensteil (2001)

In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions” (1993, p. 54). According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up an “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Historians of science call this the Planck Problem, after physicist Max Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning” (1936, p. 97). –  “How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things” by Michael Shermer

Michael Totten has posted the latest in his series on the Balkans, this time covering Serbia (outside of Belgrade), Republika Srpska and Bosnia & Hertizigova, Croatia and Montenegro.

After massive battles in the first two parts (1 & 2), I was pleased to see this one was much more balanced and fair.

The report is only mildly anti-Serb in the sense that all the nasty characters and places are Serb, all the decent folks are non-Serbs. That said, he did plug “Old” Belgrade nicely.

What follows is my response to Michael. It will make no sense unless you read the original article.

These articles and their subsequent discussions highlight the Serb predicament.  The double standards, the denial of Serb victimhood, the libels against the Serbs (as though they did not have enough real crimes to be guilty for) and a distinct lack of empathy, it is all there, mostly in the comments. They highlight the fact that what was true of Lippmann’s 1920’s America is doubly true of the Balkans today (and the ongoing debates about its past, present and future).

The Serbs are permanently established as villains, the rest – Croats, Albanians and Bosnian Muslims – are all designated victims or heroic resistors of Serbian aggression. The very word “Serb” is a loaded word. One finds that even on websites like Michael Totten’s, commentators are welcome to post openly hateful libels against Serb whilst merely pointing out that the libels are based on half-truths, cherry picking, hasty generalization or lies,  will get your banned or warned.

As H. L. Mencken noted “For every complicated problem there is a simple and wrong solution”. In the Balkans it is blame the Serbs. In the Middle East, blame the Israelis, elsewhere it is typically blame the Americans.

As I noted in my Pajama’s Media article I believe that most Serbophobia is based on what British journalist Nick Davies calls “flat earth news”, a story – in this case Serb villainy – that appears to be true and is widely accepted as true, such that eventually it becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true — even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.

People are deeply ignorant about the Balkans and its recent history (not to mention medieval or pre-history). All they know is what they picked up in that third act, namely that the villains are Serbs. This exploited by  anti-Serb bigots whose favourite tactic is to point out Serbs wrong-doings, but out of context and without comparison. This is, of course, the fallacy of Selective Observation.  When  one addresses this fallacy by noting the wider picture or pointing out that Serbs comparatively blameless/innocent/not guilty, one risks being accused of being a bigot attacking the groups one is comparing the Serbs against.

A good example of this is the Serbs-as-WW2-collaborators-and-Jew-killers libel. One an Albanian-American commentator kept trying to claim that “Serbs” were anti-Semites becuase – oh the irony – a Croatian documentary about Serb collaborators in WW2 claimed as much.

As I noted in the comments:

Lets say that it is true that 11,000 Jews were killed by Serb collaborators in WW2, how does that crime stack up against the crimes in context of the time and region?

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum states that:

“The Croat authorities murdered between 330,000 and 390,000 ethnic Serb residents of Croatia and Bosnia during the period of Ustaša rule; more than 30,000 Croatian Jews were killed either in Croatia or at Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

At the same site we read that Romania killed 270,000 Jews and Hungary killed 500,000 Jews.

The People of Albania, to their credit, were heroic in hiding and protecting Jews in Albania. To their discredit, though, they had an Albanian SS Division and they too had collaborators who handed over Jews. The number of Jews handed over was tiny, but this is because there were only 2-300 Jews in the entire country.

The picture was different outside of Albania proper.

“Between 1941 and 1944, nearly 600 Jews from Greater Albania were sent to their deaths in various concentration camps around Europe. It is for this reason that many historians disagree over the role of Albanians in the Holocaust. While Albanians may have attempted to rescue the Jews in Albania proper, the government was aware of the round-up and deportation of Jews from the Kosovo region.” [Jewish Virtual Library]

She kept trying to libel the Serbs as anti-Semites based on their putative historical crimes and I was forced to post Jewish and Israeli holocaust sources to expose her blood libel, but in doing so I was forced to point out Albanian and Croatian wrongs.

She was doing to Serbs what was done to Jews for centuries, making up lurid and patently false charges of brutality and evil that the ignorant and bigoted public accept as true. And this is just one example of many. The anti-Serb comments on the Totten articles are a veritable example sheet of fallacies: Proof by Anecdote, hasty Generalizations, Straw Man, Guilt By Association, Biased Sample…the list goes on.

Oddly enough I am not that worried about the more active and open bigots. Their one-sidedness and extremism tend to serve as warning to the more intelligent readers (the ones who matter) . Self-advertising hater-mongers are not the danger, it is the soft bias that causes the most trouble.This is where people like Michael enter the story. Despite his protests to the contrary, I detected a clear, lack of sympathy towards the Serbs (so far anyway).

This conforms with what I have observed about biases in general, even in their mildest forms, they strangle empathy. On example is Michael driving around with a Belgrade registered car getting paranoid about being mistaken for a Serb, but yet completely failing to imagine what it must be like for a real Serb to face that constant aggression and hostility.

Who cares if some independent US journalist “does” the Balkans and comes out against the Serbs based on his few hours in country?

Well I care.

Michael certainly seems to have left with a negative impression of Serbia (and Serbs) that is completely at odds with experiences reported by most visitors I have spoken to. I think this is becuase he arrived with that “impression” and he saw only what reinforced it, not what is really here at all.

His visit was way too brief for him to really experience the country and he spoke to only the ultra-liberal wing of the political spectrum (imagine getting your US “facts” from Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, John Berger and Naomi Klein). No wonder he left with the same impression he arrived with.

The problem, as I note below, is that this is an influential independent journalist who is also, I believe,  a completely honourable and well intentioned person.  His voice carries weight and it is precisely people like him that need to be engaged or otherwise, lies pass into history.

The basis of so much Serbophobia and anti-Serb reporting is that so many lies have already passed into history about this country, its people and its recent history.

One of the gravest problems is that the urgent requirement for Serbs to own up to and repudiate what was done in their name is scuttled by gross exaggerations, lies and being blamed for things they did not do. It is further aggravated by negative characterizations of the Serbs growing like mushroom on the back of previous negative characterizations.

Serbs will not be able to grant justice to those they wronged until the wrongs against them are at least recognised, if not redressed. It is for this reason that I take the fight to the comment sections of blogs and spend my precious time countering the bigotry I find there.

Here are my commerts posted on Michael Totten’s blog post.

Hi Michael, I see you have started banning. Sheesh. Pro-Serbs really do make you mad! Oh well 🙂

I am going to avoid getting bogged down by the snidery of some of our resident sock-puppets and shills, and respect you wishes about commenting on the content of your post (although enforcing this policy on those cooking off on myself and other would be appreciated).

Karadic Poster

Regarding the Karadic poster, can I ask where you saw this? I travel that highway regularly and I am am frequently in New Belgrade but I have never seen it. There is nothing on Flickr, the local news, any of the Belgrade photography sites or other blogs. Are you sure it was not someone else? An advert perhaps? If I can locate it I can have it removed. Seriously, that sort of idiot gesture lets down the whole city and is almost certainly illegal. The worst I hve ever seen is illegal hawkers selling small posters.

Nice words about Belgrade

Thanks for the kind(er) words about Belgrade. It was good to see you praising the city this time.

Currency in the Balkans

You are right about Dinars. Whilst it is possible to convert them in some places outside Serbia, generally it is best to carry Euros. Even in Serbia many people use Euros which are pretty much accepted everywhere.

Primitive anti-Americanism

Regarding Serbia’s “primitive anti-Americanism” which I would say is no more primitive than any other variety of prejudice, I think you will find that even in the countryside people will treat all foreigners extremely well. There are exceptions, sure, but as a rule of thumb we foreigners find rural Serbia to be as welcoming and kind as Belgrade, which is bend-over-backwards nice to us. I have personally seen much worse anti-Americanism in rural Ireland than Serbia, with much less justification. It was nice to hear about the Albanian woman who comes to Belgrade regularly. It says to me that an Albanian woman from Kosovo can be welcomed amongst Serbs and have a great time in Belgrade. I know of similar tales from the thousands of Croats and Slovenians that also come to party in Belgrade. They generally feel welcome and safe and love the place. It seem that the Albanian woman was the only one with a problem, the one never forgetting she was in the company of Serbs. Even her choice of words was suspect. Describing someone as a “Chetnick guy” is ethnic slur around he. It is like a Serb calling an Albanian a “Shiptar” or using the N-word to describe an African-American. The Wikipedia article you link to confirms this. That said, very occasionally one can come across a look, an under the breath comment, some “atmosphere” but it is very rare and Serbs will not tolerate it. I cannot go on enough about how good it is to be a foreigner in Serbia, even an American.

The incident in the sticks

Regarding your experience in noname town, I am not sure why you devoted so much time to the strange inciden. How did you know the man was a Serb? How did you know he was asking for money? How did you know he insulted you in Serbian, or later yelled something awful? This looks like just another “dramatic” incident that tells me plenty about the village loon but nothing about anything else, except perhaps to underscore that Serbia is full of nasty aggressive money obsessed people. Was that your point?

Roadsigns in Republika Srpska

I completely understand your frustration with road signs in Serbia and RS. They are very bad generally and the policy of Cyrillic only signs in RS is monumentally idiotic. Signs are for people who do not know where they need to go, almost by definition people not from that locality. Interestingly, you note that you saw no road sign anywhere in Republika Srpska that pointed toward Sarajevo. If you ever try and get to Belgrade from Croatia you will find the same thing. Belgrade and Serbia do not exist. The first signs for Belgrade on the Zagreb – Belgrade highway start about 40km from the border. Serbs to their credit, have signs to every major town in the region even in the center of Belgrade.

Coldly sized up by brutes

It seems you luck with Serbs really is very bad. Even the nice guy who helps you navigate is cancelled out by Mr Cold Sizeup who is plotting to steal your watch. I am struggling to understand how I, and every other foreigner I know who lives here, seems to have just about the opposite impression.

Bosnian scars

I saw war scars everywhere in Bosnia, so again I am surprised to see you did not spot any damage in Serb towns. Maybe they use the money from stolen American watches to pay for teams of repairmen to patch up their bullet holes? 🙂

Encounter with Mr Frown-at-Serbs

Your encounter with the kind Bosnian in the village was weird. He displays the casual anti-Serb prejudice Serbs have come to expect almost everywhere in the region and then all is well when he discovers you are not those bastard Serbs the ones who “shot up [their] houses” that you are “from a country that kinda sorta helped [them] a little during the war”. Imagine for a minute you were not an American, but you were a Serb, would you approve of his reaction? Perhaps you might not, but simply file it as “understandable”? If that is so, then how can you be alarmed and seemingly upset by the “primitive” anti-Americanism of people whose houses you DID “shoot up” and sorta bombed for 79 days? I am not sure why the Bosnian’s wariness and negativity is OK, but the Serb’s is not?

Rebecca, our mutal love

Thanks for quoting Rebacca West. I was oddly honoured that you saw fit to use the quote from our last discussion.

Bosnian Muslim forgiveness

The Muslims undoubtedly were the biggest victims by far of the horrors of the Yugoslav wars. That is partly why I am so stunned by their forgiveness and general lack of animosity. Just this weekend I had a guest from Visoko stay with me. I am humbled by the lack of ethnic hatred sensible analysis that so many of my Bosnian friends seem to exhibit. This chat was Ethnic Cleansed by Croats when he was 6. Despite years in a German refugee camp and eventual resettlement in New York State, he is back in Bosnia fighting bigotry and nationalism on all sides. As I noted elsewhere, the Bosnian’s are model of what a secular Muslim-majority state can be. I genuinely wish them all the best.

Danger on the road for accidental “Serbs”

Driving a BG plate car was brave, If you leave your BG plate car unattended in Croatia you risk it being keyed (scraped). Mere hostile looks are a comparative luxury for Serbs. I am not sure about Sarajevo and the Federation but a Serb plate car in Kosovo is considered extremely risky outside of the Serb north. I hope you were OK. By the way, how did it feel being a “Serb”? Not nice huh. Plenty of hostility? Well now you know how Serbs feel.

Mosque with its minaret blown off

Your comments about the Mosque and the Minaret deserve a comment. You note that “Two blocks away from the decapitated mosque was an intact Serbian Orthodox church.” That surprised me, because you were in the middle of Herzegovina – Bosnian Croat territory – are you sure it was not a Catholic Church? Incidentally, some of the people of Herzegovina are restive and there is sabre rattling about a Kosovo style secession from the federation.

Mostar’s benignity

Mostar is stunning, but sadly it is also deeply troubled. Behind the gorgeous façade is an ethnically divided city with simmering tensions. It is not nearly as benign s it looks. After last week’s Turkey – Croatia football match (the one Croatia lost to penalties despite playing magnificently), massive riots broke out in Mostar after the match with Turkey supporting Bosnian Muslims versus Croatia supporting Bosnian Croats.

Flag lines streets

Did you not think it strange that Croats have their had flags draped everywhere? Did you see that in Serbia?


Dubrovnik is gorgeous, but after spending 2 weeks there in 2006 I was a bit fed up. It has been ruined in exactly the same was Venice has. It has become a purely tourist based city. Beautiful to be sure, but a Disneyfied space. The shelling of Dubrovnik it was an enormity but oddly when I was there local rudeness was reserved for more for tourists that theri supposed ethnic enemies the Serbs. Serbs in our party had the effect of making waiters and others friendlier not nastier. Cab drivers asked after the White City (Belgrade) and waiters aked how things were back in Serbia. Not a hint of the anti-Serb incidents one hears so much about around Split. Dubrovnik, like much of Croatia, does feel markedly more “Western” that other parts of the Balkans. The city, like many of the towns and islands of that coastline, is genuinely fascinating.

Kotor and Shkodra

I think in Kotor you may have seen the best of Montenegro, had you stopped. It rivals Dubrovnik for beauty. I also think you missed out not spending time in Shkodra. It is also very pretty and I know several people from there and they are lovely people. It much safer there too now. Just last year an Irish friend from the UN spent a long weekend around there and said that it was a fantastic experience – friendly people, lovely beaches and no bandits in sight.

Final thoughts (for now)

Thanks for these reports. I enjoy them very much even if I disagree with you sometimes. I know you are not an Ethnographer, and these dispatches are very much fleeting impressions of the places you visit, but please keep in mind that as a respected independent voice your opinion, however it came to be formed, carries weight.

Even a slight bias can end up being magnified and stereotypes reinforced. In this age of media cynicism, people like you are now increasingly becoming the writers of the the first draft of history. That is why talking to you is so important. If you write about places like the Balkans, with its raw wounds and muddled lie-polluted past, you can expect to draw fire and fury.

Sure they can be ugly and fierce and contentious, but by having these discussions we ensure, to paraphrase Orwell, that lies do NOT pass into history. Banning those you disagree with is not a good solution. The very point of blogs is not to lecture but to converse. It is in these conversations that errors are corrected, biases exposed and unfairness challenged.

It is the lifeblood of serious journalism.

It would be real pity for you to become just another victim of the Balkans, and have this great site reduced to an echo chamber that merely reinforces groupthink and insulates you against cognitive dissonance. Clearly this is not the case now, but banning is where this rot starts. Don’t let it happen, please.

Michael responded to me in very civilised manner (as usual). The in response to a post where he wrote:

The difference between the two sides are as irreconcilable as those between Israel and Hamas. Hamas wants to conquer Israel, Israel says no, so they fight. Serbia wants to conquer Kosovo (again), Kosovars say no, so they either fight or have an external solution imposed upon them.

…Anyway, the Bush Administration will not rescind its recognition of Kosovo, nor will a McCain or Obama Administration. None of our opinions will change that.

I responded with this…

Hi Michael,

I personally do not think the Serbs want to really “reconquer” Kosovo.

Despite what Serbian politicians say publicly, it is an open secret that many of them are glad to be rid of the place. As they see it, Kosovo was a financial, military and political burden which is now the UN’s problem.

My personal suspicion, and this is backed by discussions with diplomats and locals, is that they are paying lip service to an unyielding position on Kosovo whilst they hold out for partitioning and perhaps better “inducements” from the EU.

Everyone knows it would be utterly impossible to reintegrate 1.5 million unwilling Kosovar Albanians into Serbia after what happened in 1999 (and years of abuse at the hands of the Milosevic regime).

Even the Radical Party supporters are stumped when I point out to them that id miraculously Kosovar Albanians decided all was forgiven and that they would love to be back in the folds of mother Serbia’s skirts, the Radicals would never get anywhere near power. Those ethnic Albanian voters would provide just the swing voted needed to keep the Liberal and Democratic parties in power without so much as a nod at the Socialists or Radicals.

So what now?

It may very well be true that neither this nor any (near) future US administration will rescind its recognition of Kosovo, but as long as the EU is stuck in its impasse over Kosovo, and the Russia/China axis is against set against it, we have a frozen conflict.

I am starting to think that partition is the fairest and most pragmatic solution. If it happens, and its looking increasingly likely, it should be followed by speedy EU membership for Kosovo, Serbia, Albania and the rest of former Yugoslav states not yet in the EU.

This should help boost regional economies and the Irish model has shown us that this goes a long way to helping solve seemingly intractable ethnic conflict.

The discussion after that is just me objecting to yet more Anti-Serb bigotry and name-calling which unsurprisingly led to yet more Anti-Serb bigotry and name calling. Like so many of the Balkan diaspora, I think this postcard applies to them beautifully…

Michael J. Totten: The Road to Kosovo, Part I

10 Comments Michael Totten again, this time On the Road to Kosovo

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  2. Marko

    Hi Limbic,

    quite a discussion there!! One observation – based on experience – if someone already has an opinion formed, it’s almost impossible to change it. From Totten’s articles it’s pretty obvious he went to ex-Yu already knowing what he we going to find. It is interesting to what extent his writing uses Cold War stereotypes – Serbs are like Russians – Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians are Western – Serbia is East, … is West etc. Anyway, in the future, if you need debating ammo try a collection of articles translated from ex-Yu press: http://www.ex-yupress.com – hope you find it interesting.

    Best wishes,

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  5. Petar Matovic

    Michaej Totten is nothing but a paid neocon schill, have you seen his blog at National Review?

    I found his blog accidentally and impulsivelly took it for what it’s worth without looking much into the background of who stands behind it. I am glad to say that I was banned from MJT site after one post where I called him up on his anti serb hate by pointing out that his beloved Israel is a racist anti christ state and he was hiding it and since he doesn’t like truth he accused me quickly of being racist without any argument. He has nothing in the form of arguments and facts like all the neocons but is filled with euphemisms and anecdotes that fit his neocon policy. Not that I don’t like proving this blowhard wrong but he is just a little wanna be dictator and attention seeker that is falsely identifying himself. Furthermore he describes himself as “independent” but he gets published in thouroughly mainstream media like NY Times , Wall Street Journal, National Review and Commentary that are all deeply connected to the government in Washington and he does sound like a groveling US State Department mouthpiece.

    His anti Serb bias stems solely because he is a jewish neocon propagandist . Basically far more than hyping albanians or any other that Israelis don’t see as threat to their hegemony he is attacking anyone that they see as a threat such as Serbia and I am sure Russia as well in the Caucausus conflict . In other words he supports war on Iraq, Palestinians, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and anything in between and he of course uses lies and jewish exceptionalism for it. And he supports war on Serbia because it’s a christian state with a long tradition and he wants to be seen on the side of the muslims because in his mind and that of Thomas Friedman,William Safire and Roger Cohen among others this will lead muslims to subordinate to jews. Like their predictions on Iraq , this has backfired badly on them but they won’t admit it choosing instead to dig a deeper hole for themselves

    He also told me that he is a “Western Supremacist” which is something I never heard of before and since then I have figured it’s another dual meaning neocon term like democracy , human rights, independence etc… Basically “western” in the neocon term doesn’t mean european and christian but jewish zionist elitist and globalist liberal where everyone else is subordinated to the self selected elite if they are lucky to survive. In other words this is communist bolshevism in its modern meaning. When he said ” Supremacist” he really meant that he is imperialist, he wants to destroy and subjugate other peoples but I don’t see him as being ready for a downfall of being a sumpremacist

    The anti semitism card is used only to deflect scrutiny and put the jewish neocon agenda in a passive aggressive state. The fact is jewish groups went out of their way to make war on Serbia and no jew will say they are a genuine of Serbia. Sure there are some who try but they are exposed as being self serving by trying to whitewash jewish role against Serbia and blaming it all on muslims, all of them enemies of Israel it seems . So this story of anti semitism is another hollow story, after all Madeleine Albright is a jewess who survived a good part of war in Serbia but led the war against it later on and Israel had no problem siding with the muslims in balkans who were nazi collaborators and Israel was even an ally of apartheid South Africa and gave them material for a nuclear bomb. Here is a good article from way back in 1999


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  7. Nev

    I stumbled upon this page. I’ve only just discovered Michael J. Totten since reading his writings on Hitchens and the ‘mushroom cloud’ Hezbollah banners.

    The point I would agree on with Peter Matovic is that Totten is a neo-con shill. He claims to be an independent journalist but independent simply means he’s not directly employed by any publication in his case.

    I tried twice to post a comment on Totten’s site. No profanity, just pointing out Totten’s hyperbole and lack of evidence as he made the case for war on Iran. But Mr Independent journalist didn’t approve of my comment and rejected it off the site.

    He’s your classic paranoid American who has no clue beyond every foreigner ‘over there’ being evil and wanting to hurt the honest west. He’s a pro-war fanatic who wants to hold the rest of the world at the end of a gun until they submit to America’s will.

    The reality of those other people just trying to live their lives like everyone else in this world doesn’t compute with Mr Totten. In true neo-con shill style the rest of the world is full of suppressed people being controlled by brutal anti-American goverments just waiting in the hope of American bombs being dropped on them to be liberated.


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