February 15, 2002

Nice State-owned Department Store. Shame about the ethnic cleansing...

I've complained before that it's often hard to tell whether British irony is intentional or not; it is my firm belief that they aren't always sure themselves. (The brilliant yet subtle Ben Sheriff once quoted Evelyn Waugh to me in response to that observation: "up to a point, Dr. Frank, up to a point." Of course, this went right over my pointy little American head, so he was forced to spell it out: "in relation to the irony thing, therefore, it may [or may not] express agreement [or disagreement.]" Right...)

What do you get when you combine a native cultural tendency like that with the consistent penchant for humorless self-parody of the doctrinaire leftist? Answer: the New Statesman. Are they kidding when they attach the ill-fitting title "Focus" to the determinedly perverse opinion pieces that often appear in the pages of their publication? No one will ever know for sure, including, I suspect, the New Statesmen themselves.

There is layer upon layer of intended and/or unintended irony in this bizarre defense of Slobodan Milosevic, "a man whose worst crime was to carry on being a socialist."

I always remember my first visit to Belgrade, in the summer of 1998. As an unreconstructed socialist, completely out of step with the spirit of the age, I had spent most of the Nineties trying to escape, as best I could, to a place where it was still 1948. So imagine my delight when I arrived in Belgrade and found a city that seemed miraculously to have escaped all the horrors of global grunge.

Bookshops, self-service restaurants and state-owned department stores abounded: a walk down the city boulevards reminded one of a British high street in the late Sixties. My delight turned to ecstasy when, on entering a state-owned bookshop, I saw on prominent display in the window a copy of that classic tome Arguments for Socialism by Tony Benn. What a truly wonderful place was Belgrade!

"My delight turned to ecstasy." This is a man who is easily impressed.

I remember when I was in college, I would occasionally find myself in conversations with such "unreconstructed socialists," who, when confronted with the fact of Stalin's deliberate murder of tens of millions of people, for instance, would blithely toss off appalling opinions like "yes, well, I don't condone that; but on the other hand, there was no other way for the Soviet Union to industrialize so quickly." These people were just stupid kids, of course, and I'm sure very few of them are still spouting such disgraceful drivel nowadays. (Though if any of them are, maybe they should send a resume to the New Statesman team-- they'd fit right in.) The New Statesman's dogged enthusiasm for "old-style socialist leaders" like Milosevic, whose ecstasy-inducing state-run bookshops and self-service restaurants are somehow seen to be worth thousands of state-run self-service murders, would be disgusting even if they were kidding. Could they possibly be serious? I have absolutely no idea. Do they?

Update-- More irony (or should I say "irony," or maybe "'irony'?"):

I just noticed the title of the New Statesman piece: Milosevic: Prisoner of Conscience. This is a truly bizarre coincidence, because I considered using this very title as a sarcastic heading for this post. Maybe it is a parody after all... I'm lost in all these inverted commas. My "brain" "'hurts'"...

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 15, 2002 12:51 PM | TrackBack
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