Some time ago, the strange ways of the Internet led me to the works of Jack Hitt, one of the best living American non-fiction writers.
Although probably best known for Off the Road, his amazing memoir of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Hitt’s work that most resonated with me was his 1995 Harper’s Magazine article about acid pits in Southern California.
Stringfellow Acid Pits, opened in 1956, came into the public spotlight in the 1980s when the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, realised that the leakage of toxic waste, dumped there by a series of corporations, had made the site one of the most polluted places in the US.
After storms that led to further leakage, the effects on the health of the residents of nearby Glen Avon became an issue, and the inquiry into how the EPA handled the pits resulted in a perjury charge against one of its top officials.
In the best American manner of seeking justice via the courts, the residents of the nearby area sued, and some started getting compensation for the damage that the pits and their toxic contents had allegedly caused, which led to further lawsuits.
The complicated nature of the case, due to the huge number of plaintiffs and of defendants who had dumped their waste there, led to the State of California building a new court house for the armies of lawyers, judges and other legal staff who were untangling the issue, which led to Hitt taking an interest.
The reason why the story resonated immediately was not because of my interest in the environmental issue, but because the plaintiffs seemed to have had their lives ruined in various ways by this toxic dump, which just stood there. The toxic dump’s looming presence in the lives of the citizens of Glen Avon caused them to blame it for a range of ailments, from depression and respiratory problems to cancer.
This scenario immediately evoked a similar nefarious presence in the minds of many people around me: our homeland, Serbia.
As far back as I can remember, growing up in the 1990s and 2000s in Belgrade, during the implosion of Yugoslavia, the country, the system and the idea – the fact that living here was bad for you – seemed self-evident.
I saw my parents scrambling to convert their already meagre salaries to German marks to avoid them becoming worthless during the hyperinflation of 1993. I spent two months in a cellar, hiding from NATO bombs. Two of my grandparents died as their doctors failed to treat them properly in increasingly underfunded health system that meant we had to buy basic hospital supplies for their treatment. Tragically, in many ways my experience was relatively good compared to what others in the Balkans went through, which ranged from forced evictions, witnessing their loved ones being killed in front of their eyes, or themselves enduring sickening acts of violence.
With this in mind, the pervasive attitude that there is no point in trying to do anything in Serbia, from starting a blog, to opening a business or starting a family, seemed like a logical conclusion.
Like a leaky toxic dump, the badness of our homeland seemed to be killing us in different ways: thorough sclerotic administration, the seemingly constant inability of our leadership to lift the country from the downward spiral it entered in the 1990s and, finally, the decay of “morals and values”.
The more you speak to people in Serbia, the longer will be the list of ills that the country caused them, much like the more that Hitt dug into his story, the longer the list of ills that the citizens of Glen Avon blamed on the toxic dump became.
The more he dug, however, the more obvious it became that a single toxic dump could not have caused all of these issues. By the end of writing his amazing article, Hitt realised that while there was indeed some damage from the acid pits, it was far from as totally disastrous as was claimed. Instead, people found something like meaning in believing that such an omnipotent, albeit disastrous, force, commanded their lives.
Similarly, in Serbia, the more one thinks about how much badness is ascribed to our country – the more you realise how much more this feeling of helpless doom is stunting us.
The culture of shrugging and blaming everything that happens to you on Srbija, brale – Serbia, bro – allows for a lot of specific, non-Serbia specific problems under the radar. As it denies any point of own agency, at least within the borders of Serbia, it also removes responsibility and the ability to expect anything but the worst of anyone and anything you deal with.
Whether it is the depleted uranium, Russian interference, centuries of Ottoman rule or just “the government”, there is always someone or something that is credibly bad, but certainly not omnipotent, to make you feel pleasantly helpless and righteously unable to strive to make life better for yourself and the people around you.
What you end up with is not only a pan-national existential crisis, but also a system where many don’t feel that doing better, or doing anything, has any point – and instead engage in blame-shifting.
Whenever a manager of a closed museum decides not to try to re-open it, or when an admin worker makes you run around the city for needless documents, or when a progressive politician feels that convincing voters is a hassle, but instead turns to his twitter fans to lament, they can all just sigh Srbija, brale, both as an excuse, but also as a warning that there is really no point in expecting anything from them – and that we should all be fine with that.