Lessons from Yugoslavia

As the states of the former Yugoslavia violently broke apart in the 1990s, Professor Andrew Wachtel was often called upon by the media for comments. One of the reasons he focused on Slavic literature was because it offered the chance to study current events rather than just books. "We don't ask English literature professors to comment on Tony Blair," he says. "But I can go on TV and talk about the political situation in Bosnia and be considered an expert."

Wachtel argued — most notably in his book Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia (Stanford University Press, 1998) — that Yugoslavia collapsed because the governing Communist Party encouraged citizens to see themselves first and foremost as members of a specific national subgroup — rather than as Yugoslavs. Although the goal was to reduce tension, the result was the opposite: each group demanded more and more recognition until finally there was no "national" culture. And Wachtel sees some eerie parallels in his own country.

"Although the United States was constructed on entirely different bases than was Yugoslavia, a process of parallel cultural evolution is leading citizens to replay the sequence of moves that destroyed Yugoslavia," says Wachtel. Whether it's special-interest academic departments that encourage students to focus only on gender-based or ethnic studies, the "angry white men" lamenting those academic programs on conservative talk radio, private-school voucher programs that abandon the ideal of public education, or gated communities that encourage separation, Wachtel sees the United States slowly becoming less united. And the end result could be disastrous.

These days, Wachtel says the states of the former Yugoslavia remain "a limbo mess." But he doesn't mind that the media spotlight has moved elsewhere. "If a place is in the news, it's because something horrible is going on there. If you like the area you write about, you want it to be out of the news." — E.C.B.

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