Are we all familiar with the philosophy of that great US military genius and human philosopher, General “Buck” Turgidson? No? Shame!
How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb
OK: he may be but a fictional character, acting both as inspiration and explanation for the chaos that unfolds in the course of Stanley Kubrick’s great anti-war film, “Dr Strangelove”. But if he doesn’t exist, one has a sneaky feeling that his thoughts live on in the TEA Party and in US thinking somewhere to the right of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann.
For those unfamiliar with the movie: General Turgidson has concluded that “those commie bastards” are sapping the very essence of americanhood. How? Well, amongst other dastardly commie plots is the fluoridation of water, leading to a sapping of manhood and an inability to perform in bed.
Armed with this insight, General Turgidson launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia and the rest, as they say, is the end of history. The recall code for this apocalyptic mission – which never quite gets through – is an acronym based loosely on the phrase “Purity of Essence”..
A neat juxtaposition: purity and essence. Co-incidence? I think not. Because whilst it is perfectly possible to advocate a scientific theory in a vacuum: to claim its truth or falsity without then going on to demand that it have some very real, very nasty, non-scientific effects, the, er, essential nature of essentialism seems not to follow that path.
Essentialism and purity
Those who believe in essentialist models do seem to crop up on the fringes of our politics: and where they do, they come with some pretty nasty ideological baggage in tow. I’m sure the cleverer advocates of essentialism would disown any claim that they think the essential is “better”. But still, they do seem to act as though it has primacy, which ends in much the same place.
Nazism would seem to be essentialist in nature: the idea of a pure Master Race based around essential Aryanism and the inferiority of other races.
The various incarnations of English Nationalism, from the National Front to the English Defence League also look like they’re signed up to essentialist beliefs.
US homophobes seem, too, to have some idea of what it is to be essentially male (and that definitely excludes sleeping with other males!). Though there does seem to be a confusion here that i’ll explore later.
Norwegian nutter, Anders Breivik, seems, at core, to have clung to a raft of essentialist beliefs, from the need to prevent the pollution of the Norwegian gene pool by Muslim infiltrators, to his own personal objection to “feminising” education.
Over and over, this appeal to the essence of things and an accompanying moral drive to preserve purity.
Religion is an odd place when it comes to essential creeds: on the surface, it gets used as cover for some pretty sturdy non-compromising beliefs about the way things are. But that’s not true of all religions and even within the Christian diaspora, those familiar with modern moral philosophising will be aware just how unessential a great del of catholic doctrine, f’rinstance, actually is.
Zionism probably counts as essentialist in nature.
As do the various mystical male separatist movements: and some bits of radical feminism, at least when it comes to talking about the nature of womanhood.
In the end, then, this seems to be the biggest issue. From my own personal perspective, i encounter belief systems based in essentialism, normalisation, purity – and wherever i find such systems, i seem to encounter intolerance, bigotry and practical discrimination.
Perhaps somewhere, somehow, essentialism does not give rise to such nastiness: but so far i haven’t found many examples of such.