A new article in New Yorker chronicles the “Cultural Revolution” – the Chinese Communist Party’s revolving round of purges that wracked China in the decade before Mao’s death in 1976.
Tell me – what does this scene look like?
Red Guards—a pseudo-military designation adopted by secondary-school and university students who saw themselves as the Chairman’s sentinels—soon appeared all over China, charging people with manifestly ridiculous crimes and physically assaulting them before jeering crowds. Much murderous insanity erupted after 1966, but the Cultural Revolution’s most iconic images remain those of the struggle sessions: victims with bowed heads in dunce caps, the outlandish accusations against them scrawled on heavy signboards hanging from their necks. Such pictures, and others, in “Forbidden Memory” (Potomac), by the Tibetan activist and poet Tsering Woeser, show that even Tibet, the far-flung region that China had occupied since 1950, did not escape the turmoil. Woeser describes the devastation wrought on Tibet’s Buddhist traditions by a campaign to humiliate the elderly and to obliterate what were known as the Four Olds—“old thinking, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes.” The photographs in Woeser’s book were taken by her father, a soldier in the Chinese military, and found by her after he died. There are vandalized monasteries and bonfires of books and manuscripts—a rare pictorial record of a tragedy in which ideological delirium turned ordinary people into monsters who devoured their own. (Notably, almost all the persecutors in the photographs are Tibetan, not Han Chinese.) In one revealing photo, Tibet’s most famous female lama, once hailed as a true patriot for spurning the Dalai Lama, cowers before a young Tibetan woman who has her fists raised.
Does it remind you of…:
- A “Struggle Session” at in the humanities department of an exquisitely expensive private university – like Hamline or Saint Thomas?
- A Pacific Consulting Group workshop on cis-privilege
- An “Anti”-Fa coffee shop after hours?
Hah, silliy peasants. It reminds the New Yorker of…
Why did a rich and powerful society suddenly start destroying itself?
The Trumpian assault on the West’s “olds” has long been in the making, and it is, at least partly, a consequence of political decay and intellectual ossification—akin to what Mao diagnosed in his own party. Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, a consensus about the virtues of deregulation, financialization, privatization, and international trade bound Democrats to Republicans (and Tories to New Labour in Britain). Political parties steadily lost their old and distinctive identities as representatives of particular classes and groups; they were no longer political antagonists working to leverage their basic principles—social welfare for the liberal left, stability and continuity for the conservative right—into policies. Instead, they became bureaucratic machines, working primarily to advance the interests of a few politicians and their sponsors.
In 2010, Tony Judt warned, not long before his death, that the traditional way of doing politics in the West—through “mass movements, communities organized around an ideology, even religious or political ideas, trade unions and political parties”—had become dangerously extinct. There were, Judt wrote, “no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself.” Trump emerged six years later, channelling an iconoclastic fury at this inbred ruling class and its cherished monuments.
I suppose in the interest of intellectual self-review, I need to ask – is it gaslighting? Or is it just the sort of stupendous self-unawareness that seems to be a condition for joining today’s “elites”?
Point toward the “lack of self-awareness” thesis – they don’t seem to realize this sort of cultural slander is how we got Donald Trump in the first place.
(Hat tip to regular commenter Max Overlord)