The Rich and the Normal

A few weeks ago, the Italian people finally broke the political framework that dates to the end of the second world war.   The M5S Five Stars Movement, a party without a heritage, won the most popular votes.   The M5S has been on a wave of growth since winning mayoral control of some Italian cities.

 The second-ranking parties are also new in their outlook, since they are right wing populists, anti-immigration, anti-European,  or pro-capitalist oligarch fronts.

Berlusconi returned from the political wilderness,  elderly now and still infamous for his bunga-bunga orgies with minors,  but carrying on his personality cult as if  nothing had ever happened.   

The true loser is the democratic party, the pro-NATO centre-left, the stabilising major coalition party which gave many Italian premiers and presidents and set the twentieth-century tone of  Italy  as a founder of Europe and a pillar of the welfare state.   This establishment party almost disappeared from the ballots of their faithful supporters, and the other leftists, socialist and communist coalition did little better.

It now remains to assemble a governing coalition out of this new political landscape, a tough prospect given that few of the new players have ever done any governing or even shown serious interest in the prospect.   Italy is famous for short termed governments, with rotating parties and replaceable politicians.   The ruling philosophy has been that the facade changes rapidly so that things can stay the same.  

It is an old, conservative, pragmatic, functional and very Italian way of getting by, and avoiding spasms of  turmoil, bloodshed and disaster. 

This situation is different now, though, because there is nobody left in office who knows how to remain calm and sell out to the status quo.   The people have renounced the political order and voted for visionaries, demagogues, adventurers and amateurs.   Is there any democratic ideology of governance that still works in Italy?  Has power passed from Rome into the hands of Brussels, or social media, or offshore investors?  If there is no system left except for rebels against the system, who will pave the streets and run the schools?  Italy is famous for its deep superficiality, but no living Italian has ever seen an Italian state of affairs so profoundly superficial as this.

In the Italy of the remote nineteen-seventies  there was once a popular rock band called The Rich and the Poor: “I ricchi e i poveri.”  The band was a quartet of two couples, a blonde man and woman, and a second pair who were brunettes. 

Of course the rich were the blondes, while the poor were the others.  Nevertheless they Rich and the Poor were singing and dancing together, and there was no big difference in their vocal or musical capacities, even if everything in Italy of the 1970s understood the stark reality of wealth and poverty in everyday life.

A rock band of the 1970s could elide these differences or even make them entertaining, singing and dancing together!  Now the divisions are stark.

Poverty is normal, it’s the life of billions in slums all over the world.  If you have a roof above your head, soup on the table , emotional fulfilment and a few cheap thrills, then you share the human condition with centuries of your ancestors.  You may lack capital, but you’re well above the abject miseries of prisons, hospitals and refugee camps.  It’s not that bad, and personally, I wonder if demanding more might be more trouble than it’s worth.

 However, it’s the rich who have soared abnormally above this baseline.  They have hoards of capital, they live  in castles, they have wealth management services to maintain their unearthly standards, and there’s no way that a song-and-dance can  bridge these emotional differences. 

During the ski season in the Dolomiti, a resort can charge 2000 euros per night nowadays. It doesn’t matter if most of the hotel is empty; these outsize fees underwrite the new exclusivity.  If you can’t spend a middle-class monthly income on a hotel room, you might as well sleep in the snow.   Resort hotels become gated communities, and the middle class vanishes, replaced by the rich and the seasonal workers of the service class. 

Instead of being an arena for popular sports, the slopes become meeting grounds for the normally invisible ultra-rich, whose market power has re-arranged resort society so that they meet no one but one another.    Mass culture vanishes and our resorts, our cities, our houses, are occupied by capital.  The money still flows, the hotel does pretty well, the banks don’t complain, but in the meantime we’re displaced from our lives.

 Some define our new society, with this sharp division of income and equity, as a new feudalism.    But history just rhymes, it doesn’t repeat itself exactly: in feudalism, the serfs actually mattered.   The castles weren’t automatic, they weren’t owned and controlled by distant sovereign wealth funds.   In feudalism there were consequences if a castle was de-populated; it couldn’t guard itself with drones and robots.  

A feudal aristocracy was anxious for glory and honour; they spent a lot of time dressing up in iron and lace, displaying courtly manners and cavorting as cavaliers.  They were very keen to behave in lordly and ladylike ways that marked a sharp division with the vulgar.  They wanted to be visibly different from the 99 percent of their day, and without just crassly declaring that they had a lot of money. 

I’m starting to worry about the ultra-rich, who seem to be more like Russian oligarchs than the Medici.  They’re very rich, and they don’t lack for intelligence, but they’re starting to look frankly monstrous.

Some kind of “post human turn” has a grip on them, when you glimpse them in their exposed moments between the private jets, the limos and the penthouses.   Their clothes aren’t much to boast about — they don’t wear ball gowns or tuxedos — but they are sinking a lot of money into gym routines and plastic surgery.  

When they’re old, as they most commonly are, they don’t want to look it.  They want to be perceived, or they see themselves, as dynamic surfers, golfers, skiers, or maybe as dance-all-night club kids who are nevertheless in their seventies.  They’re a quantified software version of Frankenstein: with unnatural longings than can never be appeased, they are lonely and soul-less, poised on the brink of some Donald Trump snappish rage that will defend their own fakeness at any price.

They have become the new post-global class of  yacht monsters.  They dock up in sleek vehicles, commit their various off shored, tax-sheltered, poorly-defined crimes, frauds and misdemeanours, and then sail over the horizon,  unreachable, beyond reckoning.

Worst of all, although they are a ruling class, they don’t have the look of one.  They have the furtive look of embezzlers and gamblers.  Instead of being charismatic Prince Charming, they’re the kind of guy who provokes a #metoo outbreak; instead of being captains of productive industry, they are fixers who game systems to make sure no one can prosper without them getting a cut.  They build castles, but they’re secretive and hideous, like the Yanukovych hunting lodge north of Kiev.

They have the swollen, weary look of white elephants; they’re marching toward a graveyard.  Some day they will be gone, maybe sooner than anybody can intuit, and then nothing will be the same.

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New Year #Metoo

A friend asked me to follow the flow, and write this text #metoo. Cavafi, the Greek poet who lived all his life by the sea and wrote about everything but the sea, before dying he said: Let me too say something about the sea.

The sea is too big a topic for literature, just like the oceanic scale of harassment, stalking and rape.

All my life I’ve been thinking about the oppression of women, writing about it, acting out. I am a feminist activist: sexual harassment was one reason I became one. Nobody is born a feminist.

But my point of view, even after many years and much female experience, was never the view of a victim. I still forbid myself to think in that way. Especially after bearing witness, and writing down the stories of women raped in war-crimes in former Yugoslavia. It was their brave testimonies that helped make that common deed of war into a crime, officially, in 2008.

I appreciate this recent flow of #Metoo. As an activist, I can hope that my work has done well, now that the mainstream is picking it up. Not from Balkan battlegrounds, but from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, no less. The fish stinks from the head.

My mother was a doctor, and a resistance fighter in World War Two. She always considered uniformed soldiers, guerrillas, killers and rapists as all part of one whirlwind of violent cruelty. I understand that every woman has the right to feel differently and express herself thus. But to my mind, in the everyday matter of violence against women, there is no major difference between war and peace.

My mother survived war, and I was born in peacetime. My mother told me how she was harassed by the husband of a friend. My father and she socialized with this man and his wife on daily basis. I grew up with their daughter, who was my own best friend.

He was a notorious womanizer, a good looking, sweet talking gentleman with high social position. I was a grown up teenager when my mom told me about his advances: I went to his office and denounced him to his face. As a gentleman, he was horrified. He threatened to punish me by damaging my career, which actually followed.

Many years later, I also learned his daughter, as a child, had been molested by the family gardener. This gardener was no gentleman, but the gentlemanly father hushed it all up anyway; he forbade his daughter to ever speak of what had happened to her.

Once, as a teen, I was assaulted, in the tight closed room of the elevator, by the big brother of my neighbourhood girlfriend. I told her and her mother about it, but they stayed silent. Big brother was the hero of their family: handsome, dashing, bold…. So whatever he did was right, or else my fault! Some years later, the guy ended up in prison for fraud.

At the age of 21, I went to the Yugoslav embassy in Rome to renew my passport, since I enjoyed living alone in Rome. The ambassador, who was a family friend, received me in his Roman office and assaulted me out of blue. I told my parents. Next time he came to our home, with his wife and son, for dinner, nobody mentioned the episode. We all behaved as if nothing untoward had happened.

I left Italy and went to Belgrade to renew my passport. Then I stayed in Belgrade, forsaking my Italian life. The ambassador eventually made a good career. He became the last president of Yugoslavia before it disintegrated in bloodshed.

At a film festival in Ischia, I presented a movie script, in a lively Italian scene full of movie celebrities. Along came the president of Italnoleggio, the Italian governmental film company. He tried to seduce me by showing me pedophile pictures of small girls dressed in high heels. I immediately reported this to the celebrities: they listened, and told me that Rome was a notorious center of all sorts of weird vices, and that a newcomer like me would get used to it. They needed the government funds he was managing; they were the talent, but also the great man’s hangers-on. I later heard that he committed suicide in a state corruption scandal.

Asia Argento, the Italian actress and director, is paying a hell of a price for her coming out in Italy’s machiavellian cinema culture, with its Catholic double standards. I especially appreciate her honesty of not playing the violated “good girl”, which exactly what puritan creeps don’t like about Asia Argento.

The worst of the lot was my gynecologist. One of those nightmares every woman dreads when she must expose herself to a trusted male professional. I was young, I was a foreigner, and I was in a very special clinic, alternative politically and economically correct, in a Catholic country. The doctor was handsome, famous, young and with nice manners. And yet he did it, unexpectedly, out of sheer male power, without any shame or fear.

I was so shocked and horrified that I didn’t even know how to interpret that, and cope with it in future. Go to the police? Refuse all male doctors on principle? Never have any children? This, in a country where Catholic nuns secretly performed abortions? Who was in charge of my body and the abuse of it: the doctors, the state, the church? It certainly wasn’t me, so #metoo.

I know a young woman, who is not a feminist, who criticized the #metoo coming out. She said that those women made choices to advance their careers, that they could have bravely and forthrightly shouted no at the moment, instead of all lamenting #metoo together, much later.

I asked her if she ever had any similar indecent approaches herself, being a beautiful girl with a job. She said of course. But then, she added, those work situations didn’t bother me. What bothered me was a pedophile who hit on me while I was with my parents on summer holidays. I never dared to tell them, or tell anybody. Oh, and then there was that priest in the church, who groped me while I was with my best friend for her christening ritual.

I was alarmed that things hadn’t turn out much better for this young brave friend who saw no use for feminism, “God forbid.” There must be a lesson here for women of all ages, colors, creeds and financial conditions. Woman may not support, or even believe, the coming-out women, but they should bear in mind that it can happen to #themtoo!

I know women who say they adore men in power, that coercive power feels sexy… I also know women who routinely beg men for money and favors, because of sex, or just because they are men, and men are present in the world, and have wealth and power. I know women who consider all men equally worthless, and cheerfully go to bed with them anyway. But I never met any woman who liked being assaulted or raped. No one can protect or console those who suffer, when they live in denial without empathy.

After the conflict, if it can end at all, can come truth and reconciliation. The #metoo situation is a viral social-media event, like others of our time, but the emotional pain of the sexual abuse of power, and the righteous joy of revenge at last, can’t last long enough to transform gender relations. We should open a place where the wisdom of empathy among women is stronger than viral media. Where we can write about the deep and stormy sea, instead of mutely living on its shores, until we die.

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The Sentence: Ratko Mladic

In English, in Spanish

Charles Manson, world-famous cult leader and serial killer,  died yesterday in a prison in California, after a life sentence.   Ratko Mladic, Balkan war criminal, just received a life sentence in The Hague today. 

The two men had some commonalities, although they would  likely never recognize their brotherhood, since they were from alien cultures and had differing philosophies about murder.  Their common trait was to see their victims as less than human, and themselves as godlike saviors.  They felt no guilt before or after their killings, no sense of empathy for those they killed, and no sense of moral duty towards those who were in society, outside their own tight group.   Also, they both had the sensational charisma of killers in a Netflix serial.

In Serbia, it’s rather common to see Mladic exalted as a protector of Christianity from an onrushing Muslim jihad.   Mladic as a Crusader general has many ardent fans who wouldn’t hurt a fly.  As a Serbian citizen, I recognize his devotees as my  neighbours.  They vote for the future of my country. 

Our current president himself, Aleksandar Vucic, was a young radical nationalist politician in the nineties. His party loudly supported the aggressive wars against Muslims and Catholics, generating fake hate-propaganda and volunteering for paramilitary raids. After the fall of Milosevic, this able politician changed his ideas.  He stole the clothes from the democratic opposition. 

Vucic is the the powerful politician in Serbia who has publicly commented on Mladic’s life sentence.   Vucic has stated that Serbia has to look towards the future,  to the integration in the European Union, for a better future of our children, and not to soak in tears about our tragic past. He said the sentence from The Hague court was already long-expected.  He said that it is not a day to mourn or rejoice about. 

This shrewd political position  is both good and bad news for Serbia. Good because bad people are in prison.  Bad because they never came to terms with their badness.

I followed the trial of the Scorpions in 2005 in Belgrade, a paramilitary group that committed genocide (  They were not mere admiring fans of killers, they were killers, those who physically pulled the triggers.  They were bandits and raiders, comrades of the armies of Mladic who pulled-off the big operation of Srebrenica, liquidating almost 10 000 people of Muslim ethnicity in five days of slaughter, and even hiding the bodies from cameras and public knowledge. 

     Mladic was often on world television news channels back in those days, publicly distributing chocolate to the children behind the barbed wire. The UN troops nearby, the Dutch in particular, were having toasts with him while the machine guns chattered out of earshot.  This was a fake-news operation of that period, though it didn’t fool some people in Serbia.   We knew that a slaughter was coming, that the ethnics who failed to flee would be violently “cleansed” from their own homes.  When it happened, people just said, we knew it.

  Not only that, but a couple of months after the massacre, the Dayton treaty was signed by the same people who had committed the crime.  That act of peace froze the borderlines on the ground and ended the Yugoslav civil war. Good and bad news again?

      Activists never stopped working on the background of the war-crimes, collecting facts, dates, facts, objects, especially the testimonies of survivors,  the women who were widows, mothers, sisters. Many died while doing this labor, without ever receiving recognition or help.

      The Hague tribunal went through many changes and internal scandals.   International justice is by no means infallible. A women’s  war tribunal for former Yugoslavia was established by Women in Black of Serbia, together with other NGO women’s groups from the region, to fill in the gaps of official justice and give a voice to the invisible civilian victims. (

      The Balkans will never be as they were: again, good and bad news. We Yugoslav citizens and political idiots, as I call myself and the others involved, lost our nation, our honor, our credibility, and the lives of fellow citizens.  Ratko Mladic lost his freedom for good, while Manson lost his life for good.  But where is the goodness?

    My readers are congratulating me in private emails because I wrote a book on the depredations of Mladic and his allies,  years ago when few local people shared my attitude. Journalists can now interview local people involved in the Balkan wars, and it’s much less like stepping on land-mines.  It’s easier to ask, from a more distant, more historicized perspective: what do we think or feel? Is it the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt said about appalling Nazi war criminals, who revealed themselves, in the legal dock, as tedious apparatchiks?  Ratko Mladic is not a fascist superhuman or evil mastermind.  He comes from the same region that my own father did.  He had the looks and accents common to anybody on the ground there. He could easily have been a relative of mine.  Mladic’ s own daughter committed suicide at a dark point of his political career.  Her fate could have been mine, but I survived and wrote books.
    On a day like this one, instead of rattling on in a “know it all attitude,” I would ask for a moment of thoughtful silence. Once, before those dark deeds, we had so much time to emote, elaborate and speak out, to come to terms with our own grisly potential.   To celebrate when a jail door is slammed and bolted is hypocritical.  Mladic himself spoke when his sentence was finally read in the court — he swore out, loudly and vulgarly. That is why I ask for a minute of silence instead.


Jasmina Tesanovic 24 de noviembre 2017

Charles Manson, el leader y asesino en serie mundialmente conocido, murió ayer en una cárcel de California, después de una condena a cadena perpetua. Ratko Mladic, el criminal de guerra de los Balcanes, acaba de recibir una condena a cadena perpetua en La Haya, hoy.

Ambos hombres tienen varios puntos en común aunque no reconocerían nunca su hermandad, visto que pertenecían a culturas ajenas y tenían filosofías diferentes acerca del asesinato. Su punto común era considerar a sus víctimas como seres subhumanos y a sí mismo como salvadores divinos. No sentían culpabilidad antes o después de sus asesinatos, ningún sentimiento de empatía por los que mataron y ningún sentido de responsabilidad moral hacia los que eran de su sociedad pero no pertenecían a su propio grupo cerrado. Además ambos tenían el carisma sensacionalista de los asesinaos de una serie de Netflix.

En Serbia, es bastante común ver a Mladic exaltado como un protector de la cristiandad frente a la creciente yihad musulmana. Mladic como general cruzado cuenta con muchos ardientes fans que no matarían una mosca. Como ciudadana serbia, reconozco a sus partidarios entre mis vecinos. Votan por el futuro de mi país.

Nuestro mismo presidente actual, Aleksandar Vucic, era un joven político nacionalista radical en los noventa. Su partido apoyó firmemente las guerras de agresión contras los musulmanes y los católicos, generando propaganda de odio falsa y ofreciéndose como voluntario para las incursiones paramilitares. Después de la caída de Milosevic, este hábil político cambió sus ideas. Se apropió de los trajes de la oposición democrática.

Vucic es un político poderoso de Serbia que ha comentado públicamente la sentencia de Mladic. Vucic ha declarado que Serbia debe mirar hacia el futuro, hacia la integración en la Unión Europea, para un mejor porvenir para nuestros niños y niñas y no llorar sobre nuestro trágico pasado. Afirmó que la sentencia del Tribunal de La Haya era esperada desde hace mucho, que no es un día para lamentarse o alegrarse por ella.

Esta astuta posición política es a la vez una buena y una mala noticia para Serbia. Buena porque hay personas malas en la cárcel. Mala porque nunca llegan a asumir su maldad.

Seguí el juicio a los Escorpiones en 2005 en Belgrado, un grupo paramilitar que cometió el genocidio ( No eran meros fans admiradores de los asesinos, eran asesinos, fueron quienes apretaron físicamente el gatillo. Eran bandidos y atracadores, compañeros de armas de Mladic que llevaron a cabo la gran operación de Srebrenica, liquidando cerca de 10.000 hombres de etnia musulmana en cinco días de matanza y ocultando los cuerpos a las cameras y al conocimiento público.

Mladic estaba en las noticias de televisión del mundo en aquellos días, distribuyendo chocolatinas a los niños detrás de los alambres de espino. Las tropas de las Naciones Unidas estaban cerca, las de los Países Bajos en particular, brindando con él mientras las metralletas traqueteaban fuera de su campo auditivo. Era una operación de noticias falsas de aquel periodo, aunque eso no engañó a alguna gente en Serbia. Sabíamos que se preparaba una matanza, que los de cierta etnia que no consiguieran huir serían violentamente “limpiados” de sus propios hogares. Cuando esto ocurrió, la gente sólo dijo, lo sabíamos.

No sólo eso, sino que un par de meses después de la masacre, se firmó el tratado de Dayton por la misma gente que había cometido el crimen. Este acto de paz congeló las fronteras sobre el terreno y puso fin a la guerra civil yugoslava. ¿Buena y mala noticia de nuevo?

Los y las activistas nunca dejaron de trabajar sobre el trasfondo de los crímenes de guerra, recogiendo hechos, fechas, objetos, especialmente los testimonios de los supervivientes, las mujeres enviudadas, madres, hermanas. Muchas murieron mientras estaban haciendo este trabajo, sin recibir nunca un reconocimiento o una ayuda.

El Tribunal de La Haya pasó por muchos cambios y escándalos internos. La justicia internacional no es de ninguna manera infalible. Un tribunal de mujeres para la Antigua Yugoslavia fue organizado por Mujeres de Negro de Serbia, junto con otros grupos de mujeres de la región, para suplir las lagunas de la justicia oficial y dar voz a las víctimas civiles invisibles.

Los Balcanes nunca volverán a ser lo que fueron: otra vez, buena y mala noticia. Nosotros los ciudadanos yugoslavos e idiotas políticos, como me llamo a mi misma y a los otros concernidos, perdimos nuestra nación, nuestro honor, nuestra credibilidad y las vidas de conciudadanos.
Ratko Mladic ha perdido su libertad para siempre, mientras que Manson ha perdido su vida. ¿Pero dónde está el lado bueno?

Mis lectores me felicitan en correos privados porque escribí un libro sobre las depredaciones de Mladic y sus aliados hace años cuando poca gente local compartía mi actitud. Ahora los periodistas pueden entrevistar a gente local involucrada en las guerras de los Balcanes y es mucho menos que caminar por un campo de minas. Es más fácil preguntar desde una mayor distancia, una perspectiva histórica: ¿Qué piensan o sienten? ¿Es la “banalidad del mal” como dijo Hannah Arendt acerca de los brutales criminales de guerra nazis que se revelaron en el banquillo de los acusados como aburridos apparatchiks? Ratko Mladic no es una persona sobrehumana fascista o un cerebro malvado. Viene de la misma región que mi propio padre. Tenía el aspecto y el acento común a cualquiera de esa zona. Fácilmente hubiera podido ser un pariente mío. La propia hija de Mladic se suicidó en el momento oscuro de la carrera política de su padre. Su destino hubiera podido ser el mío pero yo he sobrevivido y escrito libros.

En un día como este, en lugar de parlotear con una “actitud de suficiencia”, quisiera pedir un momento de silencio reflexivo. Entonces, antes de aquellos hechos oscuros, tuvimos mucho tiempo para emocionarnos, explicar y hablar francamente para enfrentarnos a nuestro propio potencial truculento. Celebrar cuando una puerta de prisión se cierra de golpe y se echa el cerrojo es hipócrita. Mladic mismo habló cuando finalmente se leyó su sentencia en el tribunal — juró a voces y vulgarmente. Es por eso que, en cambio, pido un minuto de silencio.

Traducción: Yolanda Rouiller, Mujeres de Negro

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Tito’s Funeral 1980

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