Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Our Toys

On my trip to Serbia in 2005, I picked up a Serbo-Croatian translation of a 1980s He-Man comic at a flea market outside a church. It barely holds together, but it spoke to me. I watched He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985) when I was a kid. I had a huge collection of He-Man toys which I'm pretty sure my mom gave away to Goodwill.

Two years ago, I travelled to Rijeka, Croatia, which had a few museums, among them one dedicated to computers and calculators in Yugoslavia and abroad, and the other a museum of toys. The one for computers had a full display case of all the personal computers that were produced in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, all of them the product of someone the curator described as the Steve Jobs of Yugoslavia. The computers weren't very good. The curator himself had owned a Commodore 64 that his father had bought with a two-months salary on a trip to Vienna. The toy museum had several toys, most of them taken from homes in Yugoslavia. There were Mickey Mouse dolls and, yes, He-Man toys. There were two set pieces in the toy museum, one a large LEGO sculpture of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, the other a decayed train model of an East German town that had won a major award in the 1970s. Most of the rest was not region-specific, which is to say, that the cultural fruits of globalization had existed long before the end of the Cold War and -- this would not be surprising to anyone who has read the history -- had creeped into Yugoslavia.

In the late '90s, Thomas Friedman peddled a theory that no two countries with McDonald's had ever gone to war since they had both gotten a McDonald's. His argument was that economic ties trump violent, nationalist urges. Free trade saves lives. Not long after he peddled this claim, NATO began its bombings in Serbia, a country that had a McDonald's.

Patrick Hyder Patterson argues in Bought and Sold that the hyper-consumerism of the former Yugoslavia brought on the economic catastrophes of the 1980s which led in turn to the civil wars. His argument is more nuanced and his book is quite dense with information, but you get a moral: A country that gets drunk on nice shoes, good cars, He-Man toys, and Commodore 64s while never fully accepting the fundamentals of capitalism can't survive forever.

We've been trying to process what we've been seeing this past week. I guess I was taken aback to discover that the children of the people who entered into a savage genocide in the 1990s were playing with the same toys I played with. I'm looking around at all our toys. I'm not ready to argue that our addiction to these toys caused this crisis. I just know that our toys can't protect us from ourselves. I must be an idiot to think of this as a revelation.

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