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Serbia Is Not Amused




As the Greek philosopher Aristotle once famously observed, "The measure of any great civilization is its ability to shrug off stupid remarks." What? That's not what Aristotle said? But it was something similar, I'm sure. As an American, I just can't be bothered to get it exactly right. Or even close.

Another American, television host Chelsea Handler, can't be bothered to get it right or close either. During a recent episode of her late-night program "Chelsea Lately," Handler and a coterie of on-screen humorists took what began as a mean-spirited jab at the irremediably whacked-out singer Amy Winehouse and spun it into a mean-spirited -- and uninformed -- jab at the nation of Serbia.

Amy Winehouse in better days
Contemplating a truly wretched performance by an incapacitated Winehouse during a recent concert in Belgrade, a Handler sidekick, comedian Greg Proops, referred with geographic abandon to Serbia as "a place that's had ethnic cleansing and genocide." (His point being that Winehouse's performance "was an [even] bigger bummer than that.")

Noting that Winehouse's tour was canceled soon after the Belgrade debacle, Proops, searching for what he considered an equally obscure concert venue, went on to query, "Where was she going next, Kazakh-a-stan?" (Thanks, Borat -- at least he was in the ballpark!)

Handler then picked up where Proops left off, citing a Facebook post by the Serbian defense minister, Dragan Sutanovac, who called Winehouse's concert "a shame and a huge disappointment." Her puzzlingly tart rejoinder: "Well, so is your country." Dragan, she added even more bewilderingly, was a popular "Bolshevik" name.

This is not great television, people. But Serbia, not content to let this sorry chapter of broadcast hilarity sink unsung into the dustbin, has responded to the ribbing with gale-force outrage.

The broadcast was "inappropriate, distasteful, and just plain bad humor," penned Serbia's ambassador to the U.S., Vladimir Petrovic, in a letter to the head of the E! Entertainment channel that airs "Chelsea Lately." In a fresh Facebook post, Sutanovac chided Handler as "arrogant, shallow, and mean," and mocked her colleagues as "not even aware how little they know about Serbia." ("Novak Djokovic will teach them!" he added.)

The imbroglio has also spawned a legion of angry Facebook communities, some, it must be said, filled with invective so violent it makes Handler's remarks seem almost benign.

The most popular (and invective-free) group -- "Boycott of Chelsea Handler until she apologizes to the Serbian people," created by the Chicago-based Serbian anti-defamation group 28. Jun -- has more than 41,000 fans and links to an online petition supporting a boycott of Handler, E!'s parent station, NBC Universal, and the program's main corporate advertisers, including Belvedere vodka, Nikon, Samsung, and Dr. Pepper.

So far, Proops is the only party to the scandal to bow to the Serbian campaign, tweeting: "Dear Serbs, they were jokes. Please accept my apology. I am well and truly sorry. Hvala (Thank you)."

NBC Universal and E! have so far stayed mum, and Handler -- who, the Internet informs, owes Angelina Jolie an apology as well -- remains unrepentant.

Still, Serbia, regardless of whether it ever receives an apology, has scored a victory of sorts, making headlines for the better part of a week. As Aristotle might have said, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

-- Daisy Sindelar

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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