I give her a blank stare over our eggs and toast at the Ideal Diner. In the last twelve minutes, I explained, in bombastic detail, how the unique communism of the former Yugoslavia died along with its dictator Tito. “And what a waste too,” I say, “because, for once in the history of communism, it actually attempted to give power to the people!” My wife rests her head in her hand and replies, “Do you think anyone really cares about Titoism?”
Blank stare. Obviously my wild gesticulations have not won her over.
But it’s a fair question. Why should anyone (beyond those it affected directly) care about ideas that exist nowhere but in the dumpsters of history?
My podcast, Dead Ideas, dives into that dumpster. A team of co-hosts and I explore thoughts and practices that have gone extinct. Each dead idea is explored in all its glorious eccentricity.
For example, we did a series on “hysteria,” the medical diagnosis that believes a woman’s womb wanders around her body, causing trouble. We’ve also done serfdom, the legal condition of being bound to the land, and miasma, the scientific theory that plague is caused by stinky air. Our current series on Titoism explores the recently-extinct Yugoslav brand of communism, where workers self-managed their own enterprises while enjoying Levi’s jeans and Coca-Cola, as the country holds both the Eastern and Western Bloc at arm’s length.
Many of these ideas have a quaint appeal, as curiosities fit for a museum, and we employ plenty of humor as a way in to the topic. But that’s not why we do the show.
On the contrary, the show is all about perspective-taking. It’s about imagining what it was like for a people who believed ideas entirely different from your own. Each time we explore an idea, we choose a people who believed it, and go deep into their time and place, learning what made them tick and why until, finally, we can almost feel how the idea might have made sense to them at the time.
The people of Tito’s Yugoslavia, for example - what made them tick? To find out, I read every book I could find, listened to Yugoslav rock and roll, cruised Internet groups and forums, and interviewed former Yugoslavs.
Those who talked to me were eager that I tell both sides of the story, both the good and the bad.
For example, a Montenegrin by the name of Srđan Perišić told me he remembers “the freedom.” Srđan overflowed with memories of backpacking through Europe, moving freely between both Eastern and Western Bloc countries at the height of the Cold War thanks to his Yugoslav passport. He remembered, too, the music, singling out Yugoslav rock bands like Bijelo Dugme (White Button). Life under Titoism was, for Srđan, a life of freedom.
That’s not the whole story, though. Another former Yugoslav came to me with a different experience. This Slovenian (referred to here only as Edward John) called me up via Facebook to divulge a harrowing story. I barely had time to press record on my laptop, as he told me his father had to flee the country in fear of his life, merely for requesting to stay in civil service, rather than go into the military (as was compulsory for males of his age). Decades later, when they returned to Yugoslavia for the funeral of Edward’s grandfather, his father was snatched from the streets and beaten by Tito’s agents. This was a very different experience of life under Titoism. “Freedom” hardly captures it.
Yet, if both Srđan and Edward could speak to each other, I don’t think they would disagree per se. Both shared both good and bad. Edward acknowledged that most people passed their lives in prosperity, without ever knowing the horrors his family endured, while Srđan pointed out the “brainwashing” of children in a mandatory youth group called Tito’s Pioneers. The good and the bad together – that’s what people wanted me to share.
As these brief snippets show, this extinct way of life called Titoism was different from anything we in the West normally associate with a communist state. Former Yugoslavs today look back on it with both nostalgia for the “good old days” of peace and stability, and a shudder for those who disappeared.
That’s all over now, though. Titoism died in 1980 along with Tito, all too soon overshadowed by the horrors of the Yugoslav War. Whatever joys and sorrows were experienced under Titoism, it’s all so much trash in a landfill now. So, what does it matter that Titoism ever existed? What does it matter that any dead idea ever existed?
That’s what my wife asked over eggs growing cold: Will anyone care?
I suppose you could say that Titoism is more relevant today than ever, what with a brand new Cold War brewing between Trump and Putin (with a dash of Kim Jong Un). How many countries must feel, like Yugoslavia, caught in the middle and reluctant to throw in with either side? How many wish they could, like Tito, hold both at arm’s length? That’s one reason to care.
You could also point out how Tito took a region divided by nationalistic rivalries and somehow held it together for thirty-five years. Analogies to today’s European Union are not hard to see. With the Syrian refugee crisis, Brexit, and a nationalist candidate nearly elected to the French presidency, it couldn’t hurt to see how a guy like Tito dealt with such problems. That’s another reason to care.
The most important reason, though, is simply exercising the human ability to see the other side, to imagine another’s perspective, to empathize. That’s the whole point of exploring dead ideas. It’s about putting yourself in another’s shoes – and not just any other, but a radically different other. Their shoes may feel more like moon boots to you at first. The more you get to know them, though, the more comfortable they feel. Pretty soon they almost feel like your own.
If there’s one thing we gain from dumpster-diving in the intellectual refuse pile, it’s that. We learn who we are by who we are not. We gawk at something that looks nothing like ourselves, yet somehow find ourselves staring back.
That’s why I care.
Vote in our Who Should Play Tito in a Hollywood Movie? contest to win your portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing.