Join me in a thought journey from a specific to the cosmic.
Kosovo, a territory about the size of Connecticut, just declared its independence from Serbia. The Americans, Brits, French and Germans recognized it. Russia, Spain and Slovakia opposed it.
The Strib had three items about it in the Tuesday paper.
One of the stories was a wire roundup. President Bush and Condoleezza Rice are quoted. Most of the story is about what the U.S. thinks and what others think of the U.S. Serbia recalled its ambassador from Washington. Angry Serbs of Kosovo marched and chanted “Down with America.” One of the norms of journalism is that world news can and should be turned into news about America’s role.
The second story was about Minnesota National Guard troops who are peacekeepers in Kosovo. The commander gave a conference call to reporters back in Minn. “The next few days are going to be tense,” he said. This became the headline of the story. A huge norm for a local newspaper like the Strib is what you might call “local angle-ism.” Find the Minnesota connection. In this case, it wasn’t hard or dinky or forced, as it sometimes is.
The third story was an AP feature, which the Strib labeled “Daily Life in Kosovo,” the classic put-a-human-face-on-the-story story. It’s about a Kosovar woman who went to school in New York. (That means she speaks English, which has something to do with her being chosen as the human face of Kosovo). She’s trying to build a clothing business in Kosovo, but the power keeps going out on the sewing machines.
This is really pretty good. Three stories about a foreign story. Is the paper retreating from its retreat from world news? Yes, a bit. The Pakistani election even made the front page. A couple of months ago, this wouldn’t have happened, as the Strib was pushing its experiment with hyperlocalism. This is better.
Years ago, I started obsessing on what I call the norms of journalism. I was blown away by an eight-syllable word for one of the things the norms do to the news: decontextualization, taking the news out of context. I’ve calmed down a bit since that day. There’s never enough space nor attention span in the audience for all of the historical, geographical, logical, and other forms of context necessary to understand a story that happens to be in the news. That’s not all the fault of the editors.
But it’s nonetheless true that without the context, the news of what happened yesterday can settle on the border between incomprehensible and useless. Hence, a bit of context on Kosovo:
The new Cold War?
We may never hear about Kosovo again (although I doubt that, if only because of the Minnesota troops there. Don’t be too surprised if Gov. Pawlenty pops over to visit them again.) Or it could be an important moment in a much bigger story. The Russians, who are the traditional ally of the Serbs, aren’t on board with this independence (which means it won’t be recognized by the U.N.). Kosovar independence could be an important moment in what will turn out to be the revival of the Cold War, or some new U.S.-Russian contest for influence.
Some foolishness in the Balkans?
Kosovar independence could be (we can hope) the last chapter in the awful, bloody, 20-year process of breaking up Yugoslavia. The country that for most of the 20th century was Yugoslavia has spawned, since 1990, five or six or seven wars or civil wars (depending on how you count them and categorize them) and turned one polyglot nation into six — and now, if you count Kosovo, seven. There are still foreign troops peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the secession and breakup and tenuous reassembling of which produced the bloodiest chapter in the larger breakup of Yugoslavia story. Is that story over now? I don’t think so. The Serbs have lost a great deal, feel wronged, ganged up on, and humiliated. Serbs have traditionally viewed Kosovo as the birthplace of their nation because of a famous battle there in 1389. And the battle, by the way, was between Christians and Muslims. At various points during the Yugo-breakup story, Serbia demonstrated it is very good at nationalism, at historical grievances and at grudges.
The secession of Kosovo and the larger breakup of Yugoslavia, come to think of it, are the latest echo of the Treaty of Versailles, where the victorious World War I powers created a great many new nations, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia (oops, that one broke up, too) and, come to think of it, Iraq, where they also put together several ethnoreligiously distinct groups, like Sunni and Shia, like Arabs and Kurds. How is that one working out?
The Kosovars (who are mostly ethnic Albanians and Muslims), of course, developed their own set of grievances and grudges during their years under Serbian rule. This is fairly common when one group is ruled by another; the smaller group tends to see discrimination in the way resources are shared, in the way its religion and ethnicity are (dis)respected. The Slovaks became convinced that the Czechs were holding them back economically. The Kurds of Turkey didn’t appreciate the years when (until very recently) Turkish law banned the use of Kurdish language in schools or on the radio.
Secessionism out of the bottle?
Spain is not backing the Kosovar independence, presumably because international support for the independence of disgruntled minorities makes Spanish officials think of the separatists who would like to make an independent Basque region out of the portion of Spain where Basques predominate.
Paleoconservatism and the value of stability?
The first President Bush resisted European entreaties to get involved in refereeing the breakup of Yugoslavia (not our vital interests) or to recognize the independence of the Yugoslav republics as they seceded. Part of Bush I’s argument was that if you open up the question of which borders should be revised based on historical injustices or perceived mistreatment of minority populations, you could destabilize many countries. Paleo-conservatism placed a high value on stability. Didn’t like international do-gooder nosiness. I doubt if Bush I was thinking this far down the path, but how much of U.S. acquisition of its territory could be justified against a standard of historical justice?
Neoconservatism and the opposite?
Bush II, at least in his neoconiest moments, bought into the idea that you could value stability too much, and pass up the chance to make things better. How is that instinct looking now?
None of this tells me how I feel about independence for Kosovo. And every bit of the above ramble is itself decontextualized. But it illustrates what can happen to an otherwise ordinary news story, once the gates of context are thrown open.