Is America on the edge of a cultural revolution? After the failure to change so many times (say their names for a complete list) is society ready to take action against racism? Or is it just about statues again?
I’m ambivalent about statues being torn down per se, but terrified of the thought process behind the destruction. Decisions should never be made by mobs. That happens alongside the rewriting of history to fit a narrative (see The 1619 Project) and the banning of books which challenge the conformist view of Blue Check Twitter. To hell with the statues of J.K. Rowling, but fear the thought which destroys them.
The historical namesake and obvious parallel for all this is the Cultural Revolution in China, 1966-1976. Its stated goal was to purge capitalist and revisionist/traditional elements from society, and to substitute a new way of thinking based on Mao’s own thoughts. The epic struggle for control and power used the currency of the way people thought, seeking to emulsify meaning by waging war against anybody on the wrong side of an idea.
To set the mobs on someone one would only have to tie him to an official blacklist like the Four Olds (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.) China’s young people and urban workers formed Red Guard units to go after whomever was outed. Violence? Yes, please. When Mao launched the movement in May 1966 he told his mobs to “bombard the headquarters” and made clear “to rebel is justified.” He said “revisionists should be removed through violent class struggle.” The old thinkers were everywhere and were systematically trying to preserve the elements of their power, subjugation of the people through culture being one of them.
Whetted, the mobs took the task to heart: Red Guards destroyed historical relics, statues, and artifacts, and ransacked cultural and religious sites. Libraries were burned. Religion was considered a tool of capitalists so churches were destroyed, and even the Temple of Confucius was wrecked. Eventually the Red Guards moved on to openly killing people who did not think as they determined. Where were the police? The cops were told not to intervene in Red Guard activities. Enforcement hardly mattered; the national police chief pardoned Red Guards for their crimes anyway.
Education was singled out, as it was the way the old values were preserved and transmitted. Teachers, particularly those at universities, were considered the “Stinking Old Ninth” and were widely persecuted. The lucky ones just suffered the public humiliation of shaved heads while others were tortured. Many were slaughtered or harassed into suicide. Schools and universities were eventually just closed down and over 10 million former students were sent to the countryside to perform hard labor in the Down to the Countryside Movement. A lost generation was left to fester, uneducated.
The Red Guard pogroms eventually included cannibalization of revisionists in Guangxi. After all, as Mao said, a revolution is not a dinner party.
The Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s economy and traditional culture, leaving behind a death toll ranging from one to 20 million. Nobody really knows. The Revolution was a war on the way people could think, and the Red Guard a mob set loose as its warriors. It failed. One immediate consequence of the Revolution’s failure was the rise in power of the military when regular people had had enough and wanted order restored. And oh yeah, China became even more of a capitalist society than it ever imagined in pre-Revolution days. Oh well.
That’s probably a longer version of events than a column like this would usually feature. A tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust in terms of human lives, an attempt to destroy culture on a level that would embarrass the Taliban and titillate BLM, this topic is not widely taught in American colleges. I had the honor of speaking to an elderly Chinese academic who had been forced out of her classroom to the countryside and made to sleep outside with the animals during the Revolution. She recalled long forced self-criticism sessions which required her to guess at her crimes, as she had done nothing more than teach literature, a kind of systematic revisionism in that it espoused beliefs her tormentors thought contributed to the rotten society. She also had to write out long apologies for being who she was. She personally was held responsible for four thousand years of oppression of the masses. Our meeting was last year, before white guilt became a whole category on Netflix, but I wonder if she’d see how similar it all is.
And small world — students in China are again outing teachers, sometimes via cellphone video, for “improper speech,” teaching hurtful things from the past using the wrong vocabulary. Other Chinese intellectuals are harassed online for holding outlier positions, or lose jobs for teaching novels with the wrong values. Once shunned as anti-free speech, most UC Berkeley students would likely now agree such steps are proper. And in Minnesota To Kill A Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn are banned because in historical settings fictional characters use a racial slur sadly common then.
There are no statues to the Cultural Revolution here or in China to trigger a discussion. Nobody builds monuments to chaos. But it’s never really about the statues anyway. In America we moved quickly from demands to tear down the statues of Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson to basically any Caucasian, including “White Jesus.” It was never going to stop with confederate generals because it was not really about racism, any more than the Cultural Revolution was really about capitalism. This is about rewriting history for political ends, both short-term power grabs (Not Trump for 2020!) and longer term societal changes one critic calls the “successor ideology,” the melange of academic radicalism now seeking hegemony throughout American institutions. Author Douglas Murray is more succinct. The purpose “is to embed a new metaphysics into our societies: a new religion.” The ideas — centered on there being only one accepted way of thought — are not noble. They are a cynical tool of control.
It remains to be seen where America goes next in its own nascent cultural revolution. Like slow dancing in 8th grade, maybe nothing is going to come of it. These early stages, where the victims are Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, someone losing her temper while walking a dog in Central Park, and canceled celebrities, are a far cry from the millions murdered for the same goals in China. Much of what appears revolutionary today is just Internet pranking and common looting amplified by an agendaized media. One writer sees “cancel culture as a game, the point of which is to impose unemployment on people as a form of recreation.” B-list celebs and Karens in the parking lot are easy enough targets. Ask the Red Guards; it’s fun to break things.
Still, the intellectual roots of our revolution and China’s seem similar: the hate of the old, the need for unacceptable ideas to be disappeared in the name of social progress, intolerance toward dissent, violence to enforce conformity. In America these are well-set in our universities, and spreading outward so that everywhere today — movies, TV, publishing, news, ads, sports — is an Oberlin where in the name of free speech “hate speech” is banned, and in the name of creating safety dangerous ideas and the people who hold them are not only not discussed, they are canceled, shot down via the projectile of the heckler’s veto, unfriended, demonetized, deleted, deplatformed, demeaned, chased after by mobs real and online in a horrible blend of self-righteousness and cyber bullying. They don’t believe in a marketplace of ideas. Ideas to the mob are right or wrong and the “wrong” ones must be banished. The choices to survive the mobs are conformity or silence. In China you showed conformity by carrying around Mao’s Little Red Book. In America you wear a soiled surgical mask.
The philosophical spadework for an American Cultural Revolution is done. Switch the terms capitalism and revisionism with racism and white supremacy in some of Mao’s speeches and you have a decent stump speech text for a Black Lives Matter rally. Actually, you can actually keep Mao’s references to destroying capitalism, they track pretty closely with progressive thought in 2020 America.
History is not there to make anyone feel safe or justify current theories about policing. History exists so we can learn from it, and for us to learn from it it has to exist for us to study it, to be offended and uncomfortable with it, to bathe in it, to taste it bitter or sweet. When you wash your hands of an idea you also lose all the ideas which grew to challenge it. Think of those as antibodies fighting a disease. What happens when they are no longer at the ready? What happens when a body forgets how to fight an illness? What happens when a society forgets how to challenge a bad idea with a better one? Ask the dead in China.
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