China lectured us; are we listening?

Yang Jisheng published another honest and, to the Chinese government, irreverent history of China during the Mao years.  The subject of his historical curtain-pulling is the Cultural Revolution which broke out among the Chinese youth between 1966 and 1976.  Barbara Demick does an admirable job of reviewing the book – I will leave it to her.  My interest in his book may be the one glaring topic that he seems not to address (I will read the book to find out…)  According to Demick, the book reveals the chaotic and costly revolution which Mao manically launched.  

In 1966 Mao had just returned to power after pulling out of public life.  He instituted a reform movement in 1958 which was meant to build a new industrial and agricultural system that would, as he said, take China to the stars.  The reform was so thorough that it destroyed an entire nation’s economy that led to the starvation of somewhere in the vicinity of 35 million people.  I would ask you upon reading this, or reading it in Demick’s piece, to pause for 15 seconds – 35 million human beings.  Humiliated by the abject failure of his reforms, Mao bowed out of power then handed Chinese government over to his associates led by Chou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi, among others.  These men curbed some of the more socialist controls on the Chinese economy.  In an economic, social, and cultural turn-around that can only be described as a miracle, China recovered after 5% of the nation’s entire population starved to death.  But Mao smelled a rat – recovery was instigated by people not dedicated to Chinese Communism.

In order to right the national ship, Mao roared back into power.  He refused to rally a group of like-minded politicians through party machinery (as Soviet leaders did).  Instead he led a rally of the youth who, from their new university classrooms, felt they were being left out of the economic recovery.  He called a large and poorly defined teen movement called the Red Guard, to rise up and attack all the adults who were benefiting from the economic recovery.  Somewhere around 1 million teens and young adults gathered in Tiananmen Square clutching the Little Red Book of Mao’s sayings.  He came out on their side, thus justifying their rage – they were unleashed.  What ensued was one of the most complicated and destructive civil wars of the modern period.  He called them to destroy the Four Olds: ideas, culture, customs, and habits.  By the time he exiled the youth to the countryside and then subsequently died, somewhere around 1.5 million had been killed, many in very personal murders, some of which entailed a vengeance-styled cannibalism

Yang Jisheng tells the story.  However, what must be said is that such unimaginable violence was not just the result of Chinese culture or life.  It was the impact of a set of ideas that has been swirling in the West since 1966.  By the words of Mao’s sayings and the lessons of Chinese communism, the youth came to see the world in a certain way: history and the people in power made human progress impossible.  In their minds, and in Mao’s words, the youth were the only ones who had spirits revolutionary enough to destroy history and reset the human story around equality.  

We ought to read this book and study the Cultural Revolution – it has many difficult and frightening lessons to teach; I am not sure that we are listening.

Civic Virtue as Moral Facts

Daniel Mahoney is a clear voice of sober political thought in this turbid tumultuous environment.  It seems like the history as well as the nature of the American republic has been willfully forgotten by our self-acclaimed elites.  Mahoney draws the outlines of the historic republic in such a way that even those of us who live in a world run by electronic signals can understand.  In one of his latest articles, Civic Virtues as Moral Facts, Mahoney reframes the republic around its keystone – self-government.  There is nothing more clearly missing from our present iteration of the American republic than self-government, but its absence is less a curiosity than a crisis.  The monarchies of the Middle Ages had solved the problem of unruly citizens by lodging all moral authority in a person whom God chose to rule.  Pope and King together could sustain European societies even if they were made up of bad people.  But republics, modern and ancient, require moral people to elect good governments.  Thus, the self-government of the republic’s citizenry is the keystone of the entire arch.  Should it fail, so will the building upon which it rests.  Mahoney states it clearly: “The idea that moral judgments are utterly arbitrary, that distinctions between right and wrong, and better and worse ways of life, are wholly subjective, was completely alien to (the founders.)  Almost all of the spoke of a human ‘moral sense’ without which freedom degenerates into moral anarchy and despotic self-assertion.”  The thing about Mahoney’s words that worries me is that the very ideas that threaten the republic the most are the very things that our present culture promotes as uncompromisable doctrines.  I am concerned less what the founders would have thought than I am the risks posed to a republic that is itself a historical anomaly.  Depots who govern un-virtuous people is the norm in history.

Democracy may not be all that it is cracked up to be

In the modern world we tell ourselves, and often, that democracy is the solution to our problems. When the economy falters we blame the elites and those in power.  When social unrest destabilizes an inner city, the media decries the silencing of the “voice of the people.”  The message is the same for Right and Left even if the “people” each wants heard is different.  It seems that we have an obsession with direct democracy.  It is always the elites, the swamp, the powerful, the rich, or the shadowy organization that is to blame – not the people.

But the history of the west does not support this way of looking at the world.  We have told ourselves that political institutions lie on a continuum between democracy and tyranny.  On the one side is the tyrant or the oligarchs who use power to insulate themselves from the people.  These despots use laws, militaries, and money to silence the people or pay them off.  The only way to rectify this natural tendency and restore human equity is to give the people power.  Such an explanation ignores the history of Western government.  The founding of democracy in ancient Athens offers a very different explanation – democracy is the last stop before a country descends into tyranny.

Through the collapse of classical Greece, the rise and fall of Rome, the destabilization of Medieval governments, and the revolutions of the Modern world, Western governments have swung between the poles of tyranny and oligarchy.  On the one hand the oligarchs build their power on hallowed traditions and family rights.  They are the heroes of a noble rank which protects the nation from dissolution and destruction.  On the other hand stands the tyrant who attacks the oligarchs to assume control of the entire government.  But the tyrant cannot grab power by sheer strength – that would be impossible.  The tyrant is only able to grab that much power when he has become the voice of the people.  The more direct the voice of the people, the power the tyrant gains.  From Pisistratus to Pericles, the Greeks learned this very hard lesson.  The people became frustrated with inequality and abuse.  They overthrew the oligarchs and gave power to a single individual who could work on their behalf.  Democracy is the last stop before tyranny.

The modern world has proven this point.  The French Revolution of the 1790’s was a populist revolt that created Robespierre; the Russian Revolution birthed Lenin; the Khmer Rouge invented Pol Pot.  These leaders had ideas, but it was the direct voice of the people against abusive oligarchs that granted them the right to be tyrants.  The American Revolution was a very different moment.  While the tyrant hears the cry of the people and is able to enforce their will, the American republic muted the people’s voice.  The founders feared the tyrants who laced the pages of history.  They tried to build a system that would sit somewhere between the historic poles of Western government: the influence of the people insulated from the tyrant balanced against the traditions of elite leaders. 

There is no doubt that our system does not work for all people.  But before we decide that we can just manufacture any solution we choose, we ought to look at the patterns of history.  We might avoid a very predictable disaster.  I harbor no real hope that we will be that wise.