history, the real world today

The Red Guards are coming

Since posting Is America reliving the 1917 revolution? a few days ago I have noticed numerous other commentators make similar comparisons between this induced insurrection and earlier revolutionary prequels. Just to be clear, in my mind, “revolutionary” is stripped of all romanticism, and is viewed with an historian’s tragic sense of life.

Turley writes:

“Welcome to the American version of the French Revolution. The horrible killing of George Floyd sparked an important focus on race relations and justice in this country. However, it is being lost to an emerging radicalism that challenges people to prove their faith by endorsing farce. Politicians and commentators are outdoing each other to demonstrate fealty to this new order by attacking key institutions and values. Politicians are calling to defund the police and commentators are calling for censorship. Most moderate voices seem to be fading under escalating demands.”

Jonathon Turley, “Can this American version of the French Revolutiuon bring change? The Hill 2020

I am deeply troubled by events in recent weeks. There is a troubling coincidence of riots on the street, propaganda for the revolution taking over the media, open advocacy of the overthrow of a democratically elected president, sabotage of the institutions of public order like the police (“All power to the Soviets”), the intellectual corruption of professors and media identities (even a magazine like Slate) advocating rebellion and the legitimacy of political violence, reactivation of the impeachment rhetoric of the Democrats, and now most troubling of all the emergence of former generals and security state operatives who claim Trump is dividing the nation, breaching the constitution, risking national security, and… you fill in the blanks.

Now I observe a troubling resemblance between the disorders and ideological waves of recent times and China’s Cultural Revolution. In the early 1960s, after Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and Kruschev’s 1956 condemnation of Stalinism, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party began to edge Mao out from his dominant position. Threatened by this elite power struggle, Mao mobilised his favoured factional leaders and the zealotry of young people in a frenzy of ideological possesion that aimed to “Bombard the Headquarters” and denigrate Mao’s enemies as all kinds of traitors in a “nationwide civil war”. Many names were used: rightists, capitalist-roaders, counter-revolutionary elements. Today new toxic terms are used: fascist, nationalist, Trump supporter, racist. New counter-truths emerged, just as today some ephemeral leaders of a frantic crowd might declaim that “Silence is Violence,” and looting, burning buildings, destruction of monuments, throwing projectiles, beating people prone on the street, even the shooting of David Dorn (and then streaming his last moments as he bleeds out live on Facebook, just like the infamous New Zealand terrorist attack) – all these terrible things – are not violence, but “largely peaceful protests”.

In the Cultural Revolution bands of students came together and formed a militia to harass all forms of culture, other than party propaganda. They burned down the house, as we might say today, and denounced all things old. They tortured, humiliated and publicly shamed teachers, professors, bureaucrats or anyone who wanted to lead an orderly life. They admitted their brokenness and their white privilege, on their knees with an auto da fe cap and placard with a slogan hung around their necks. The great film, Farewell My Concubine, portrays the horror, devastation, vandalism and terror of this period in the most intense, beautiful way. The cultural and intellectual heritage of China was under siege, and almost went under.

Let there be no doubt: The Red Guards are coming for us again today. They are bringing terror. Kneeling will only mean a bullet in the back of the head, mostly symbolically, and for some in reality. I am genuinely terrified. I grew up amidst leftist authoritarianism; knew great combatants of this scourge; and read deeply in its history, traditions and iconography. I can feel the chill of these undead in my spine today. In response, I can only remember the importance of courage for all other virtues. With courage comes the ability to live in truth, as Vaclav Havel said.

Perhaps the most important and inspiring words I have noticed in recent times on twitter – before I deleted the sewer pipe from my phone in an act of self-protection – were tweeted out by the admirable Rod Dreher of The Benedict Option. It is an essay – Live not by Lies – written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a samizdat in 1974. Solzhenitsyn wrote:

“When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: “I am violence. Run away, make way for me—I will crush you.” But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally—since violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies—all loyalty lies in that.”

Solzhenitsyn, Live not by lies, 1974

And then Solzhenitsyn provides important advice for us to resist the Red Guards in our writing, our workplaces, our schools, our streets, our culture, our hearts and our minds. With this courage, I shall end:

“So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.And from that day onward he:

– Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.

– Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.

– Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.

– Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.

– Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.

– Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.

– Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.

– Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed. Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.”

Solzhenitsyn, Live not by lies, 1974

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