I’m just back from a dream trip along the coast of Slovenia and Croatia. Roman ruins everywhere, gorgeous sunsets, the clear blue waters of the Adriatic, romantic islands, delicious food, historic sights and friendly people who actually enjoy American visitors. The region has come a long way since it was devastated by the bloody war that broke up Yugoslavia more than 25 years ago.
But I was also struck by how much the local folk in that Balkans area still really dislike and distrust each other. Centuries of squabbles, invasions, annexations and oppression have made them suspicious and resentful of their neighbors. They tend to stick to their own kind, sort of like the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky. In high school history class, many of us learned that this is called “Balkanization,” defined as dividing a larger region into smaller, mutually hostile groups.
On my return to our beautiful Rock, I began to wonder if perhaps the same thing is infecting us here. Is Whidbey becoming Balkanized? You can’t avoid the nasty and degenerating tenor of disagreements among Rock dwellers who at least used to pretend to get along.
Hate jet noise? You’re selfish and unpatriotic to the point of treason. Love jet noise? You’re a warmonger who lives off the Navy – and gorges on our precious tax dollars. Favor more housing development? You’re an urbanizer who wants the Rock to be a Seattle suburb. Favor development restrictions? You’re an elitist trying to keep people and behavior you don’t like away from you. There are other subjects but you get the idea.
And, of course, behavior we don’t like is shameful and disgraceful; those are two very popular words these days. Coupeville distrusts Oak Harbor. Oak Harbor dislikes Coupeville. And Langley is suspicious of everybody north of Freeland. And those you disagree with should just move away and stop bothering you.
If this keeps up, our Rock may become very much like a beautiful Croatian island I visited. It’s called Vis and it lies a few kilometers off the limestone coast of Croatia.
For at least two thousand years, it’s been a military staging post either to invade or repel invaders. In World War II, brave American pilots refueled and repaired their planes on a short runway carved out of an olive orchard. More than a few crashed and died trying to take off or land.
The island people were uniformly appreciative of those pilots and others who drove away and defeated the Germans, and to this day they speak gratefully about their bravery. Monuments to them are everywhere and that dangerous runway is maintained as a shrine.
But at the same time, the local people on the island can’t stand each other. There are only two towns – Vis, the largest, on north side and Komize on the south side. The people all speak a common Slavic language but each town has its own dialect; centuries of mistrust cause them to avoid each other at every opportunity. Our guide gave us this succinct explanation: “They understand what each other is saying but they don’t want to.”
So, dear Rock dwellers, is that where we are headed? We’re able to understand what each other is saying but we don’t want to – because we dislike and distrust what’s being said. Do we avoid listening in order to hear and understand, and instead listen only to come up with a zinger of a snarky response?
The Balkans can teach us what happens if we do only the latter.
n Harry Anderson is a retired journalist and a columnist and proofreader for the Whidbey News Group.