I’m ambivalent about statues and J.K. Rowling being torn down, but terrified of the thought process behind the destruction. Decisions should never be made by mobs.
Is America on the edge of a cultural revolution?
The historical namesake and obvious parallel is the Cultural Revolution in China, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Its stated goal was to purge capitalist and traditional elements from society, and to substitute a new way of thinking based on Mao’s own beliefs. The epic struggle for control and power waged war against anybody on the wrong side of an idea.
To set the mobs on somebody, one needed only 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 that “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 their power and subjugate the people.
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 and so churches were destroyed—even the Temple of Confucius was wrecked. Eventually the Red Guards moved on to openly killing people who did not think as they did. Where were the police? The cops were told not to intervene in Red Guard activities, and if they did, the national police chief pardoned the Guards for any crimes.
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 eventually closed down and over 10 million former students were sent to the countryside to labor under the Down to the Countryside Movement. A lost generation was abandoned to fester, uneducated. Red Guard pogroms eventually came to include the cannibalization of revisionists. 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 possible death toll ranging from one to 20 million. Nobody really knows. It was a war on the way people think. And it failed. One immediate consequence of the Revolution’s failure was the rise in power of the military after regular people decided they’d had enough and wanted order restored. China then became even more of a capitalist society than it had ever imagined in pre-Revolution days. Oh well.
I spoke with an elderly Chinese academic who had been forced from her classroom and made to sleep outside with the animals during the Revolution. She recalled forced self-criticism sessions that required her to guess at her crimes, as she’d 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 was personally held responsible for 4,000 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 now how similar it all is.
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—this topic is not widely taught in American colleges, never mind in China.
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