In February 1984, the world was introduced to the city of Sarajevo, the capital of one of the “Socialist Republics” of Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Sarajevo had been chosen to host the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Sarajevo was more like West Berlin than East, a cosmopolitan city that had industrialized and grown rapidly after the second world war. LIke the rest of Yugoslavia, and indeed much of Europe itself, Sarajevo hosted a diverse collection of ethnicities and religions with a sometimes violent history, but under Tito’s leadership they had coexisted for nearly 40 years.
At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Katarina Witt, who had won gold in Sarajevo, returned to figure skating, closing out her performance with a very moving tribute choreographed to a special arrangement of “Where Have all the Flowers gone?”, a protest song against war written by Pete Seeger.
It was so moving, because it was a memorial to Sarajevo the city, now in ruins.
Tito had led Yugoslavia after its liberation from the Nazis, steering an intrepid if dangerous path between the two cold war blocs. Stalin had even attempted to assassinate him, and Tito responded in a way Stalin would understand, “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them (…) If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”
But now Tito was dead. A new, ambitious partisan, Slobodan Milosevic, had his own ideas about how to get to the top.
Where Tito had expertly balanced ethnic and religious tensions to the point that intermarriage had become common, Milosevic understood them as political tinder that could be used to ignite a conflagration. This was not, of course, his own unique insight, but he had the ruthlessness to use it to maximum advantage.
The conflict that Milosevic and his allies stoked has been called a ‘civil war’, but the term does no justice to the fanatically systematic murder and rape of civilian populations. The horrors have been well-documented.
In a retrospective, the British Telegraph interviewed a survivor:
“Even now I cannot understand how people we lived with all our lives, our neighbours, turned on us and wanted to make us disappear,” she says. “All we can do is educate our children to make sure they never have to go through what we did. But I still lie awake at night thinking, how did this happen? Where did this hatred come from?”
Of course, the tinder is always there. Perhaps not in every human soul, but in enough that once ignited and fanned, it can burn everyone. An endless cycle of vengeance and score-settling. Of brutality, dehumanization, and further brutality.
Many, many leaders understand this, but not all use it to advance their ambitions at the cost of lives. Countries all over the world, beginning with South Africa, have instituted their own “truth and reconciliation commissions” to defeat the politics of tinder by breaking the cycle of score-settling. It is a very difficult thing to do, especially when feelings run raw, and the number of these commissions is a little staggering.
Meaning no disrespect to people who have suffered horrors such as ‘ethnic cleansing’, we in the US are no stranger to the politics of tinder. We have seen it in its most basic form in lynch mobs and riots, as well as callous stoking of resentments for political and financial gain. We can at least be thankful that the rule of law prevails.
The modern Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915 by William Simmons, who stoked the tinder of resentment against Catholics, Jews, and immigrants generally. After the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew, Simmons and his followers burned a giant cross on Stone Mountain, the first use of that symbol outside the movies. Thrilling, indeed.
From the 1960s through the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans engaged in their Southern Strategy, using racial resentments to realign the south, a strategy explained pretty baldly by GOP strategist Kevin Phillips:
The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.
Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed and others have all found their own sources of tinder, much to their personal fortunes.
The common thread in these examples is that the politics of tinder works, at least to advance the interests of those who successfully practice it. Even Milosevic got what he wanted despite NATO intervention.
But the politics of tinder is a weakness, a fatal flaw, a dead-end. It was not Milosevic who stood up to a nearby superpower and led his country into the modern world. It was not William Simmons or Richard Nixon who helped bring African-Americans into the mainstream of American society.
And it will not be people like Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove who show the 21st century that America is still worth watching, that there is greatness to come, that the American experiment has not run its course.