Looking outside in and inside out: the kill-joy speaks

Aida A. Hozić is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Florida, Gainesville, USA. She is the author of Hollyworld: Space, Power and Fantasy in the American Economy  (Cornell University Press, 2002), co-editor (with Jacqui True) of Scandalous Economics: Gender and Politics of Financial Crises (Oxford University Press, 2016) and author or co-author of dozens of peer-reviewed articles and chapters situated at the intersections of cultural studies, international political economy and security studies. He intro to the #Yugosplaining series is here.

“The conduct of the rioters followed what I came later to recognize as the choreography of urban rioting. A controversial arrest would trigger a demonstration that would, in turn, prompt someone to smash a store window and take whatever was on display. Then packs of looters would follow, seizing what attracted their attention, sometimes fighting with one another over prized items, sometimes transporting their loot out of the store in grocery carts. When the place was stripped clean, someone would light a match, throw a bomb, destroy what remained of someone’s lifetime of work.” Warren Christopher, U.S. Secretary of State, 1993-1997

Watts Riots

In The Promise of Happiness (Duke University Press, 2010) Sarah Ahmed works with and around the figure of a “feminist kill-joy,” a person who calls out a problem or injustice during an otherwise perfectly pleasant family dinner. The “kill-joy” might bring up her point carefully or politely but is nonetheless “read as if causing the argument,” as if “just having a point to pick.” The question then, writes Ahmed, is whether the “kill-joy” upsets others by pointing out at sexism or because she exposes “the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy?” Could she possibly be a kill-joy “because she refuses to share an orientation toward certain things as being good because she does not find the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising?” (p.65)

Sejla Kameric’s ‘Bosnian Girl’ (2003)

I had taught Ahmed’s “kill-joy” chapter for a number of years before finally realizing this past year that I had been a political kill-joy ever since I came to the United States[i] in 1989. If happiness is a communal project, which requires sharing in orientation towards certain objects as being good – a project such as belonging to a happy family, for instance – then raising questions about sexuality or mental illness or incest or abandonment within the family are easily perceived as threatening. The questions challenge and potentially undermine both the project of family happiness and the identity of other family members, who are probably working extremely hard to maintain the appearance of unity and joy. And If the project is elevated to state ideology – The Dream, as Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the U.S. version of it (“perfect home with nice lawns … Memorial Day cookouts”) – then questioning the home’s foundations (the racism, the gender discrimination, the violence, the wars, the repression, the inequities), especially as an immigrant, is interpreted as rejecting participation in the common promise that was gifted to outsiders.  It means refusing happiness in a nation that one should be grateful for since belonging is a privilege not commonly granted to others. “Why don’t you just go back home?” is an all-too familiar question posed to a melancholic migrant, as Ahmed calls an immigrant kill-joy; the question I have faced (in a variety of forms) at more dinner parties, conference panels and classroom discussions than I care to remember.

I did not set out to be a political kill-joy nor do I take particular pleasure in shattering people’s dreams. It is just that the combined experiences of losing a country, of political betrayal by close friends, of genocide committed by neighbors, and of subsequent genocide denial – have all taught me to be suspicious of communal projects that shun questions and require loyalty instead. Having landed in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Jefferson was idolized like President Tito and fox hunting was a venerable pastime for landed gentry, I dealt with the horror of the Yugoslav wars while simultaneously learning about America’s whiteness. Perhaps, because I was a few shades too dark, or because I did not wear Laura Ashley dresses, or because the war was a branding and differentiating experience, even at thousand miles away, I quickly identified with an observation about belonging that James Baldwin recounts in “The American Dream and the American Negro.” “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7,” said Baldwin, “to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.” Watching America’s and Western response to the genocides in both Bosnia and Rwanda, I figured that their victims could never be Gary Cooper, regardless of how much they wished to be saved by him. Instead, they were Indians, much like Baldwin and his people. America’s domestic and foreign policy were both interlaced with racial politics. Aspiring to be white in that racialized world would have required a commitment to The Dream and to The Hope that I could not share.

In the weeks leading to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, my American students, in a course on race, racism, and international politics, struggled with the idea that a life without The Dream – and without The Hope – might ever be possible, not just in the United States. The analogy I used (without realizing it would soon become a reality) was the one of living with a deadly disease. One does not just give up on life when confronted with imminent mortality, I told my students – on the contrary, one starts fighting for every breath, for every precious moment, for every sign of affection, for dignity. As Charles Burnett, one of the greatest African-American filmmakers, told me in an interview conducted in 1993/94, “I do not think that it is a bad thing to be disillusioned” when fighting against deep structural problems such as racism.

Like many of my ex-Yugoslav friends, I am – admittedly – prone to catastrophic thinking. But it is not a catastrophe that I fear. I fear those who refuse to see it coming. There were many people in the former Yugoslavia who refused to see the wars coming, even after the violence had already arrived at their doorsteps. One of the most popular songs in the years before the war was Djordje Balašević’s “Samo da rata ne bude” (“Just Let There Be No War”). The song spoke of drunken boys wandering through cities on their way to mandatory military service, about young girls’ tears as they parted with their soon-to-be-soldier boyfriends, about men in power selling all sorts of (presumably political) delusions and infusing masses with fear, and of people going crazy, just absolutely berserk in that interregnum. In its refrain, the song invited all imaginable and unimaginable calamities to come crashing down – so long as there was no war. “Just Let There Be No War” was on everyone’s lips. The song was the closing theme on many TV stations as they signed off at night. It became an anthem at protests against the nationalists who were rapidly assuming power as communism allegedly collapsed (in fact, they were mostly the same politicians who just changed their slogans). What was perplexing, however, was that the probability of the war was not taken seriously even by those who knew the lyrics by heart. One would think they might have sang “Just Let There Be No War” as a way of warding off the coming catastrophe – but no, they didn’t. The song was a blank prayer, a signifier disconnected not only from the signified but from its potentiality. The country was sliding into violence, the military was getting ready for war, checkpoints and roadblocks were being set up, bridges were blown up – and, yet, people were singing they did not want a war which they assumed would never happen. Until they were shot at.

This is what frightens me about America also: the depth of the chasm between representations and life, between knowledge produced/disseminated and worldly experiences. In the discipline (discipline, take note of the word) I write in – International Relations – scholarship has for decades revolved around a limited number of concepts – war, anarchy, sovereignty, order, security, democracy.  Obviously, the concepts themselves have been contested, the boundaries of the discipline have been widened and deepened, and we are at last interrogating their imperial, racist and gendered origins. But the limits of this vocabulary nonetheless constrain discussions and restrict vision of who or what constitutes the international. Ideological blinders seem so powerful that respected academics could write about democratization or about expansion of liberal peace while ignoring the way in which they comingled with the War on Terror, torture, renditions, genocide, femicides, environmental degradation – to name just a few of the obvious issues that we are not supposed to mention in polite conversations at a dinner table.  I recall an academic conference where the keynote speaker, a blockbuster scholar of democracy, walked around in combat boots, proudly performing his service to the regime change in Iraq. It requires an extraordinary degree of cognitive dissonance to unsee such performances, even when they are less extreme, and to continue teaching and writing in good faith about democracy in the face of such masculine and militarized assertions of (what passes for) academic knowledge.

As I write this post, America is convulsed by protests over racial injustice and police brutality. The outcome of the protests and the fate of the country are uncertain. The pandemics has exposed the deadly effects of gendered and racialized inequalities in the U.S. The lockdown has revealed – ironically, through their (temporary) suspension – how necessary is the mix of repression (police force, wars), entertainment (sports, music, cinema) and consumption (abundance of cheap goods) for the maintenance of social order.  Without any of these components, things in America quickly start to fall apart. The last few months have also made apparent – as feminist scholars have long argued – how incomplete our understandings of the world (indeed, our chances of survival) are if we continue to focus on great power struggles and neglect hospitals, prioritize wars over combating domestic violence, provide for the military instead of supplying essential care workers. Last but not least, we can now see with greater clarity how the inside and the outside of the U.S. politics intersect and play off each other in an infinite loop.

The loop goes above and beyond helicopters buzzing over protestors in Washington DC, which made residents think that they were “living in a war zone.” As Alexander Barder writes in Empire Within, sites of America’s counter-insurgency actions – whether it is the Philippines in the late 19th/early 20th century or Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st – have been the sites of experimentation with novel forms of social control, violence and exploitation. But these “techniques that were developed in the imperial crucible found their way back to the American homeland” (p.3.).  Think of “thermal infrared cameras,” “facial recognition equipment,” “automatic license plate readers,” “unmanned aerial vehicles,” writes Barder, “and an inchoate image emerges of an intensified militarization of the domestic policing apparatus which sees undocumented immigrants, criminality at home and insurgency abroad as constituting an array of transnational threats that cut across territorially defined boundaries” (p.3). A closer look at the events in the 1990s enables us to see that the loop of (trans)national threats and responses has always operated in the other direction too. America’s racialized worldviews and practices of combating local uprisings at home have been exported elsewhere through wars and military interventions as well as through humanitarian gestures, diplomatic efforts, and its peacemaking activities.

Milomir Kovačević Strašni photo: Ušće, Beograd, 1988.

The recent protests have led me to re-examine the biography of one of the figures who orchestrated the U.S. response to the Yugoslav war in the 1990s – Warren Christopher, President Clinton’s Secretary of State. Christopher had – as many of his peers – navigated the streams of domestic and foreign politics through several U.S. administrations with the lens crafted by American racial politics and tensions. A respected lawyer and international negotiator, Christopher was very much an elegant non-entity in his role as the America’s chief diplomat in the 1990s.  Clinton described him as “the only man ever to eat presidential M&Ms with a fork and knife on Air Force One.” Bosnians and Rwandans remember him as the man who intentionally restricted the use of the term “genocide” to stall interventions that could have prevented or stopped the systematic killing of human beings. Unwilling to view Bosnia or Rwanda as the “vital interests” of the United States, Christopher was also a firm believer in the theory of ancient ethnic hatreds as the propeller of violence. “It’s really a tragic problem,” he has been often quoted to have said, “The hatred between all three groups–the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatians–is almost unbelievable. It’s almost terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell.

In his other life, Warren Christopher was a partner in the Los Angeles law firm O’Melveny and Myers. The firm, wrote Mike Davis, was “not only the city’s oldest and most prestigious, but was for decades the legal bulwark of segregation in Southern California.” In his own words, Christopher earned his “degree in the unusual subspeciality of urban riot control in 1965, when disturbances had broken out in the Watts area of Los Angeles.” As an advisor to California Governor Pat Brown in the 1960s, Davis said, Christopher was one of the authors of the 1965 McCone Commission report on the 1965 Watts riots, which absolved Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) of any blame while pushing “the notorious ‘riffraff’ theory that attributed the uprising to a criminal fringe of uneducated Blacks—an analysis totally discredited by subsequent research.” A few years later, in 1967, Christopher – and another Bosnia negotiator, former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance – would lead the suppression of the black uprising in Detroit. And in 1991, right before he became Secretary of State, Christopher headed the commission (named after him) that examined LAPD conduct in the wake Rodney King beating. The commission’s recommendations, and the subsequent inquiry led by FBI Director William Webster, concludes Davis, created a pretext for the retraining of both LAPD and National Guard:

“in modern riot-control technologies including armoured vehicles, plastic bullets and pepper gas.”  Crowd suppression, in turn, has been coordinated with toughened curfew laws, LAPD regulation of local airspace, and Highway Patrol control of freeway access to ensure that Black and immigrant Latino neighbourhoods can be quickly and comprehensively sealed off from the rest of the world. Elite units at nearby Camp Pendleton, meanwhile, have trained in recent manoeuvres to storm ‘urban terrorist strongholds’ that bear a striking resemblance to ghetto housing projects.”  (Davis, “Who Killed Los Angeles? Part Two: The Verdict is Given,” New Left Review, May/June 1993).

Christopher’s autobiography, Chances of a Lifetime (Simon and Schuster, 2001) never mentions – not even by a word – the Rwandan genocide, which he ignored in 1994 as it devoured 800,000 lives in 100 days. Bosnia earned a chapter albeit focused entirely on the negotiations of the peace agreement in Dayton. In the chapter, Christopher credited himself with persuading Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović to agree to “the release of a small portion of Muslim territory” (p.265) to guarantee the 51-49 percent split of the Bosnian territory between the Serbs, on the one hand, and Croats and Muslims, on the other. The carving of the land for presumably homogenous ethnic populations was at the heart of the negotiations – and of the deal – in Dayton. “We knew,” wrote Christopher, “we had an agreement that would be difficult and expensive to implement, could cost American lives, and might not achieve its objectives in the long term. (….) We agreed quickly (…) this imperfect peace had to be better than war.” (p.267)

Some American policy makers, like General Wesley Clark, now consider Dayton “the greatest achievement of American foreign policy in the last two decades.” Indeed, Bosnians were probably lucky to be gifted this imperfect peace, if their faith was to be compared to that of Rwandans, Iraqis, Afghans, or now Syrians. But in thinking about the post-Cold War decades in which the U.S. foreign policy oscillated between war-making and peacemaking, we should also consider how men like Warren Christopher, who had devoted their lives to the repression of racial protests at home and to the containment of communism abroad, bridged these worlds once the history came to its end. The threats they saw were colored – for the lack of a better word – by their conceptualizations of the world’s dangerous neighborhoods, discursively and politically likened to American inner-cities. The solutions they offered to such neighborhoods replicated the mappings of the United States urban areas based on segregation, redlining and facilitation of white flight. The military practices they developed (after decades of envisioning battlefields as trench warfare in East Germany) replicated policing tactics already used at home. The results were de facto if not de iure partitions – “safe zones” like Srebrenica and Gorazde, whose populations would be extinguished in genocide, divided cities like Belfast, where the number of “peace lines” splintering the city has proliferated since the Good Friday agreement, Dayton and Ohrid peace agreements which have institutionalized spatial divisions of different (again, presumably homogenous) ethnic groups, militarized partitioning of Iraq, continued pressure on land swaps and population exchanges in Kosovo. The list could go on.

Milomir Kovačević Strašni photo: Sarajevo

Many of our colleagues in political science who have, until recently, studied transitions, democratization, and Colored Revolutions, are now engaged in analysis of democratic backsliding. But the Belle Epoque of the Third Wave of democratization was a chimera, only possible because atrocities elsewhere had been cordoned off and explained away as culturally and historically idiosyncratic. Discursively, in a similar fashion, pre-existing conditions are now used to explain the prevalence of COVID-19 among racial minorities and immigrant communities in rich countries of the world. We would be well advised then to consider that the world that was to be built after the Cold War was the white one – in terms of its values, aspirations, and stratifications. The scope of that white fantasy is becoming ever more apparent as the racialized and gendered circuits of violence return back home to America’s streets, prisons and nursing homes.

When kill-joy speaks it is not her intention to spoil the meal or destroy family happiness but to raise the prospect of family’s self-destruction. Kill-joy believes that the family might be saved if critical problems are faced and addressed in a timely fashion. However, what kill-joy often fails to understand is that the fear of pain – and, often, shame – associated with the probable loss of established values and privileges is very real. Families have their ways of digging in to protect themselves, even if that makes their demise more likely. Countries do so also. As Yugoslavia began to self-destruct, many Yugoslavs – especially if they were comfortable in their lives – lulled themselves into believing that “everyone would vote for the Reformists” or that “military would protect us.” They found solace in conspiracies and in the ever-growing mountain of lies.

In this America’s moment of reckoning, it is probably unsurprising that I see its chances of survival as fifty-fifty: its “superabundance of the unresolved past” will “either be faced and dealt with, or it will consume the American republic.” Gary Cooper lives. The question is only: Would Indians continue to be killed?


[i] In this post and in other essays in this symposium, the United States (U.S.) refers to the eponymous state, whereas America signifies a broader political/cultural/social/economic space/actor, not always respectful of the physical boundaries of the state, extending its reach far beyond its borders as a product of settler colonialism and creator of imperial entanglements.




One thought on “Looking outside in and inside out: the kill-joy speaks

  1. Hi Aida,

    Just a small point.

    This could so easily have been written by someone who had gone through the Irish “peace process” – the hype, the high profile sound bites, the orchestrated conference appearances, the grand conclaves of political actors etc etc;

    Those who raised ugly but necessary questions wrote off as “killjoys”; those in the prisons, (prisoners especially) those on the ground in communities, those grappling with the trauma of both victim and perpetrator, almost all sidelined but having to appear grateful for the so called democratic and rights based interventions of the Clinton regime and that “imperfect peace” as you call it.

    Of course, the Irish were spared the catastrophe endured by the people of the Balkans, thanks to a long series of low key negotiations undertaken by grass root participants in the conflict. That and sheer luck saved us, it seems to me.

    To this day, as you point out, in cities like Belfast, “the number of “peace lines” splintering the city has proliferated since the Good Friday agreement”. What changes in change? Not much.

    Sadly, up to now at least, I appear to be hugging the comments section. Is this the fate of the academic? To be forced more and more into a specialisation conditioned on the economy of ideas, or, when you speak in your own name, to see one’s texts disappear, uncommented upon, down the virtual drain and into the media void, like the victims who haunt these texts.

    It’s all so fucking sad, excuse my French.

    Liked by 1 person

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