Have you ever met a war criminal?
I don’t mean someone whose politics—Republican or Democratic—you disagree with. I mean the real deal: someone who advocates and possesses the power to actualize the deaths of those he dislikes.
We’re talking Goebbels, Himmler, Pol Pot.
Those kinds of people.
I have met one such person, very briefly, when I earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this essay, I’m going to compare this person with an essentialist feminist I met much later in my academic career—during my Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota. I’ll argue that the thought of the war criminal bore a striking similarity to that of the academic feminist I met and worked with.
This similarity of thought, especially in its tendency to essentialize others—in one case Bosnian Muslims and in the other men—has given me pause.
It should give all of us pause.
In the fall of 1987, I took a class on Marxist philosophy with a professor whose life seemed to come straight from the big screen: Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, and Dr. Zhivago all popped into my head when I thought of Dr. Mihailo Markovic. During World War II, Dr. Markovic, who hailed from Serbia, led, on horseback, I believe, a battalion of partisans against the Germans laying waste to his country. After he pushed the Nazis out, he went to graduate school and became a well-regarded professor of philosophy in Yugoslavia.
He had certainly met Tito and possibly, according to a classmate who knew Dr. Markovic better than I did, Stalin himself.
Dr. Markovic also served as the editor of Praxis, perhaps the best-known Marxist journal in the world. In his spare time, he had become a chess grandmaster. When he lectured, he seemed learned, urbane, witty, and charming. At the end of the course, he told us all if we ever came to Belgrade, we should look him up. He seemed like a very smart grandfather.
After the course, I thought no more of Dr. Markovic, even though I made two trips to the former Yugoslavia myself: one in 1988 and another in 1995, shortly before the Dayton Peace Accords.
A year or so after he taught me, Dr. Markovic went back to Serbia, shortly before the civil war occasioned by Tito’s death and the fracturing of the Republic of Yugoslavia. He became a close adviser of Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of practicing the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Muslims.
Apparently, Dr. Markovic, who died shortly after Milosevic did, served as one of the architects of the intellectual underpinnings of the extermination perpetrated by the Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. He wasn’t indicted for crimes against humanity, but all accounts (including those of his former colleagues) strongly suggest that the head of Serbian Socialist Party (not a member, but the leader) was complicit in ethnic cleansing.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally thought about Dr. Markovic, sometimes in bewildered wonderment. He was a Marxist. Marxism stresses the brotherhood of all mankind. National origin matters not. Class solidarity counts. But Dr. Markovic, despite his propensity for dialectical materialism, possessed an older identity, an ethnic one. And this Serb ethnicity trumped his intellectual commitments to a class-free world.
And, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said, so it goes: the death squads fired away until NATO, the UN, and the U.S. intervened with airstrikes and troop insertions.
Dr. Markovic’s problem, I think, involved the tendency of those with very strong ethnic or gender identities to essentialize the other. Essentialism implies that somebody is all of who he or she is because of a part of his or her identity. That part or portion determines, in the eye of the beholder, the full nature of the person.
As a very obvious example, a person can be an architect, a vegetarian, and a reader of detective stories, but for Dr. Markovic, if that person were also a Bosnian Mulsim, that part of the person’s identity determined, in a very lethal way, how he would think of him or her.
When he taught me, I would never have thought that Dr. Markovic was “that way.” He seemed very kind. And he was probably very kind to people he considered fully human. But those not so considered belonged, in his view, in camps or in front of firing squads.
To put it mildly, Dr. Markovic possessed a cultural blind spot.
When as a literature professor I teach Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I often talk about these blind spots. Not all (or even most) slave owners existed as monstrous psychopaths who wanted to murder, whip, sexually abuse, and destroy people. Most of them attended church, practiced kindness to their neighbors, fed their dogs, and played with their children. They were basically decent human beings. But they also had blind spots. They didn’t see Africans as fully human. This viewpoint allowed Southerners to enslave Africans for hundreds of years. In other words, Southerners essentialized African Americans. These people certainly possessed other qualities, but the color of their skin overdetermined how they would be treated.
If you think that these blind spots have disappeared in the contemporary world, you would be incorrect, as the curious case of my former professor demonstrates.
Years after my encounter with Dr. Markovic, I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where I worked with a noted academic feminist, Dr. Ellen Messer-Davidow. She became my adviser largely because I couldn’t find anybody else who seemed appropriate. She could be charming and funny. But she was also, when it came to men, an essentialist. Her thought came very close in many ways to that of Dr. Markovic.
Dr. Messer-Davidow targeted not Muslims but men. I watched her base her decisions almost entirely on gender. Women always had “good heads on the shoulders.” Men—especially men she disagreed with—existed as “oily” brutal bullies.
If there were a choice between believing something a man had said and something a woman had said, she always believed the woman.
Female students needed a place to say what was on their minds, no matter how outrageous or the wrong the statements might be. Male students had to toe a politically correct line.
Dr. Messer-Davidow liked self-deprecating men and always proved willing and able to help them to be self-deprecating. Men would receive lectures in class about making sure that they helped their female partners with chores.
One graduate student I knew—a male—asked Dr. Messer-Davidow, in a very tight job market, to help him secure an academic job by making some phone calls for him. She remained loyal to her feminist values and said that for her to make such calls would disempower women and minorities. Yes, that’s right. Such phone calls would wipe out the gains of the Enlightenment, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Nineteenth Amendment.
Dr. Messer-Davidow possessed an interesting moral calculus to determine whether men were “okay”: their stance on feminism. There existed the good guys (feminists) and bad guys (anti-feminists).
Yet, even if a man were “okay,” that is, believing in many of the tenets of feminism, he could never be completely all right. Dr. Messer-Davidow once ran a feminist group. A man I know wanted to participate in the discussions. Even though he believed in much of feminist ideology, she wouldn’t allow him in the group because he possessed male genitalia. He would, according to her, make the women feel uncomfortable by his very presence.
Imagine if a man in any group ever said, “I’m sorry, you can’t attend our study group because the presence of a woman will make us uncomfortable.” Dr. Messer-Davidow would have called the man a “sexist pig” and immediately formed a campus-wide protest and probably called for litigation.
We’ve arrived at the point at which Dr. Markovic and Dr. Messer-Davidow join in a kind of hellish essentialist dance. Feminism, like Marxism, is an ideology. Being female, like being a Bosnian Muslim, is an identity. Yet, the worldview of the man didn’t matter for Dr. Messer-Davidow, just as it didn’t matter for Dr. Markovic. For Dr. Messer-Davidow, the very fact that a man possessed genitalia made the student suspect and a potential enemy, just as the very fact that a person was Bosnian Muslim made that individual human garbage for Dr. Markovic.
We’re in very, very dangerous territory here. These are the intellectual outlands of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of the African Diaspora.
Both Dr. Markovic and Dr. Messer-Davidow, while in some ways very sophisticated thinkers, adopted essentialist worldviews that represent ways of knowing and classifying that go all the way back to the cave.
Let’s pan back from Dr. Messer-Davidow for a second and look at the bigger picture. She represents merely a symptom of a huge problem in the academy: the essentializing and marginalizing of men: rape culture; all men are bullies; all men should pay for thousands of years of patriarchy; men don’t have emotions; gender-based hiring quotas.
We’re departing from the world created by the Enlightenment and moving back into the very bad territory of tribalism and group guilt, the world of Dr. Markovic and identity-based politics. This world creates only pain, suffering, and injustice.
I’m not saying that I ever heard Dr. Messer-Davdiow proclaim that all men should be herded into death camps. She never said that, at least to me. But her thinking possessed the same essentializing tendencies of that of Dr. Markovic: totalization and, I believe, hate.
Now, for the record, I actually believe in some of the tenets of both Marxism and feminism. Should we be moving toward a more economically just society? Yes. Should gender not play a role in hiring decisions, promotion decisions, and pay decisions? Of course it shouldn’t.
Beyond these basic agreements with Dr. Markovic and Dr. Messer-Davidow, I don’t think much of the essentialist thinking that either of these academics swaddled themselves in. Such thinking leads us backwards as a species, not forward toward any kind of just society.
In fact, this kind of essentialist thinking leads us, ultimately, only to very bad places, ones that should be consigned to the horrors of history.