The culture of lying

Banal truth or heroic lie? The suffering of these people in Sarajevo during and after years of war could easily be betrayed. Better, perhaps, to embellish reality; The truth is mutable, verified by consensus, tortured to fit the needs of politicians. With
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The Independent Culture
1 I was in a Zagreb hospital recently and happened to come across an acquaintance from Sarajevo. He looked pretty wretched: right leg in plaster, left arm bandaged, a mass of dark bruises ...

"My God ... " I exclaimed, because I didn't know what else to say.

"I've just come from Sarajevo ... " he said.

"My God ... " I shook my head. "So, how did this happen?" I asked. I couldn't have asked a stupider question.

"I'll tell you, but promise you won't tell anyone ... "

I nodded, filled with a sense of guilt and deep compassion for my acquaintance from Sarajevo.

"I was sitting in my room, when suddenly - wham - a grenade flew in through the open window ... "

"And then?!" I gasped.

"Nothing. It didn't explode ... I picked it up ... and threw it out of the window, what else could I have done ... "

"And then?!"

"Nothing. It exploded and took off the front wall ... "

"And then?!"

"Nothing. I peered out through the broken wall of the room and fell, from the second floor ... into the street."

"And then?!"

"Nothing. I smashed myself up ... "

2 My Sarajevo acquaintance had told the truth. But his truth was self- discrediting, for a moment it destroyed the terrible, general truth of the sufferings of the inhabitants of Sarajevo, it sounded like a parody of their real collective suffering. All in all, at that moment I felt betrayed, as though my acquaintance had told me a tasteless joke (looking for sympathy too!). The fact that the unfortunate fellow had barely survived, that he had lived through the terrible fate of his city for a whole year, that, when he did get out, he had told me only the last, personal episode - somehow none of that was able to prevent my slight sense of disappointment. With all those bandages he could have invented a heroic tale. Which, really, would have been true!

3 His situation was like that of all those who tell their own truth in these terrible war times. Terrible times are usually collective times. The truth is only what may be smoothly built into the picture which the collective accepts as the truth. If we add to that a time of general postmodern confusion - then the truth will sound like a lie, a lie like the truth.

4 In the times of war, apart from the culture of death, the things that come irrepressibly to the surface, like hologram grimaces, are the shapes of parallel lives. In the chaos, an infernal balance is established: suffering masks its parody under a black mourning cloth, tragedy drags farce in its wake, as unhappiness does cynicism, brutality and compassion go everywhere together. Times of great truths are usually deeply permeated with the all-pervading culture of lies.

It seems that this culture of lies is something that the small nations of Yugoslavia created long ago, learning to live with it and reinforcing it to this day. Lying - just like dying, - has become a natural state, a norm of behaviour, liars are normal citizens. And if one really should give any credit to Dobrica Cosic, Serbian writer and failed President of the false Yugoslavia, then it must be for his remark: "Lying is an aspect of our patriotism and confirmation of our innate intelligence."

5 "What is most astounding, as everyone who has taken part in the negotiations in today's Yugoslavia will tell you, is the unbelievable capacity of people at all levels - to tell lies. An incredible phenomenon. Just look at how many cease-fires have been broken. And they carried on signing papers with the obvious intention of disregarding them. In ex-Yugoslavia our norms of honour don't exist, it's part of the culture. It's so widespread that you won't be at all surprised when you realise that X or Y is a liar, here people live with a culture of lies," said Lord Owen on one occasion. Owen himself discredited Western "norms of honour", if such a thing exists and if that was what was at stake, by signing agreements with liars.

6 Is this matter of the culture of lies really so simple?

The peoples of Yugoslavia lived for several decades in their own country, building not only cities, bridges, roads, railways but also a certain complex of values. Built into the foundations of that complex of values were, among other things: "the ideology and practice of socialism" (today those same ex-Yugoslavs call that "communism", "Tito's regime", "communist dictatorship"). It was a practice which to a considerable extent confirmed the earlier break with Stalin (even if the break was carried out on the principle of "the same medicine": numerous individuals, usually out of a sheer inability to cope with the rapid ideological U-turn, ended up on the Yugoslav Gulag, Goli Otok). Then there was that famous "Yugoslavism". This implied a multinational and multicultural community and was reinforced over the years not only by Tito's popular slogans - "Preserve brotherhood and unity like the apple of your eye" - but also by the practice of daily life. Today those same peoples claim that they lived in a prison of nations, and that it was that idea, the idea of Yugoslavism - not they themselves - which is responsible for the present brutal war.

7 Some 10 years ago the nations of now former Yugoslavia wept sincerely at the funeral of their long-lived mummy, Tito. Now those same nations claim unanimously that they lived under the "repressive boot of a communist dictator". The more extreme settle their scores with plaster heads of Tito as though they were clay pigeons. And so, belatedly (ten years on!) they are exorcising the ghost of their communism. The necrophiliac Yugoslav passion for digging up old bones (and burying new ones!) spares no one: the Serbs threaten the Croats by saying they will dig up Tito's bones, buried in Belgrade, and send them to the Croats.

Today the same national, collective language is used to proclaim their truth by all those who kept silent for 50 years.

8 Other totalitarian states articulated their dissatisfaction with their regimes in strong intellectual undergrounds, both in the country and abroad. Yugoslavia had virtually no intellectual underground (apart from an insignificant number of dissidents in the early communist years). After the Second World War "Ustashas", "Chetniks", "collaborators" and "anti-communists" were driven out of the country (dead or alive); some twenty years later there was an economic migration out of the country, of Gastarbeiter. The intellectual emigration was numerically insignificant.

9 Terrible times are marked by the rhythm of destruction and construction, chaos and order, rapid demolition and simultaneous building. What was there is destroyed (cities, ideological notions, bridges, criteria, libraries, norms, churches, marriages, monuments, lives, graves, friendships, homes, myths) the old truth is destroyed. What will become the new truth is rapidly built in its place.

In Duga Resa, a small town in Croatia, a little wood was planted: 88 trees, for Tito's birthday. Today the inhabitants of Duga Resa have cut down the wood: they say they were removing "the last remnants of the communist regime". The people who cut the wood down were the same people who planted it.

10 Unaccustomed to the culture of scepticism, at this moment Yugoslav peoples are firmly convinced that they are fighting for the truth. Even if this were not the case, they know that every newly established lie eventually becomes the truth. And that is why, when the terrible times finally pass, those who survive will not be ashamed. The peoples of the new countries will not be ashamed because of the hundreds of thousand of dead, displaced, unhappy, because of the millions of destroyed lives, because of the destroyed country which they once built together.

11 Is it possible for the media to provoke war? I permit myself the theory that the war on the territory of Yugoslavia began several years ago with the posterior of a completely innocent Serbian peasant. I still remember his surname: Martinovic. For months the poor man, who was allegedly found in a field with a bottle in his backside, became a topic in many Yugoslav newspapers and TV stations, particularly in Serbia. Some maintained that Martinovic had been raped with a beer bottle by Albanians, others that he was a pervert who had been masturbating with the bottle. Others again affirmed that he had been raped by Serbs so that they could blame the Albanians. Martinovic spent the whole time in his hospital bed smiling feebly at the anxious TV viewers. The media made a political spectacle of Martinovic's backside, quite in keeping with the Yugoslav spirit.

After Martinovic there was an abundance of "evidence", which the Serbian media "milked" to the full, of "genocide" carried out against the Serbian minority by Albanians, and numerous Serbian women sprang up from somewhere, having been raped by (who else but) Albanians. Justifying themselves by their injured national pride and the national myths served up by the media, Serbian nationalists collectively supported the Serbian repression of the Albanians in Kosovo, or took an active part in it themselves.

12 And since in these lands every lie becomes a truth in the end, every spoken word becomes reality, so just a few years later a male and, from a psychoanalytical point of view, deeply homosexual war came about, and the war strategy of rape became cruel everyday reality. The women who were to be raped were, of course, completely innocent, their bodies simply serving as a medium for the transmission of male messages.

13 The media only discovered anew what they knew already: that promiscuity with leaders and power, with their political pretensions and aims, functions perfectly; they also discovered what they may not have known before - the scale of their power! They quivered with satisfaction at the confirmation that a lie very easily becomes legitimate truth; they were astonished at the realisation that in the absence of other information people believe what is available to them, that even despite other information, people believe what they want to believe, their media, in short, their custom- built myths.

And the infernal media campaign was able to continue. In Serbian newspapers there began to appear articles about the Ustasha camps during the Second World War (and no one could deny their truthfulness, because they existed and in them perished Serbs, Gypsies, Jews but also Croats). There began to be more and more pictures of the camps on Serbian television. Croats began increasingly to be called criminals, "Ustashas". Serbian newspapers were full of horrifying stories of "necklaces of Serbian children's fingers", worn by the Croat "Ustashas", of the "genocide" which the Croats were again preparing to carry out against the innocent Serbs.

14 Growing out of the worn-out Yugoslav system, following the same old habits, the media have succeeded in legalising lies. From being a political and journalistic way of behaving, lies have developed into a war strategy, and have rapidly become established as morally acceptable.

15 The culture of lies is most easily established if we have an opponent who lies more than we do, or who speaks the ancient palindromic language, "the devil's verse", the one that is read the same backwards and forwards, from left to right. And the weary postmodern outside world, to which the nations doggedly direct "their truths", tries reluctantly and with difficulty to set up co-ordinates: both sides lie equally; or one side lies more, the other less; or one side lies, the other tells the truth ... It is only the dead who do not lie, but they have no credibility.

This is an edited extract from Dubravka Ugresic's The Culture of Lies, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 14 Sept. Her novel, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, follows on 19 Sept.