The Woke Mob: Echoes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

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America is in the throes of an attempted cultural revolution that has parallels with the Cultural Revolution in China. Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, and it lasted until his death in 1976. It paralyzed China for a decade and caused the death and dislocation of tens of millions.

While it seems unlikely that America’s own cultural revolution will result in quite the same level of anarchy and insanity, there are similarities to the current cancel culture proceeding apace in this country.

The Woke Mob has turned everything on its head. It is questionable whether the United States of America would even exist without the leadership and character of George Washington, known as the Father of His Country. But the Red Guards here, and their fellow travelers, portray Washington solely as a slaveholder and want to efface him from the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In fact, the Red Guards want to efface the entire memorial, as the sins of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt are, according to them, even worse than Washington’s.

The Boston Art Commission recently voted 8-0 to remove the city’s statue of Abraham Lincoln, a copy of the one in Washington, which was paid for by donations from freed slaves. Mayor Marty Walsh pusillanimously approves of the decision. Those in favor of removing the statue maintain that the statute depicts a freed slave in a subservient posture at Lincoln’s feet and therefore implies that slaves played no role in their emancipation.

That’s not what the artist meant or depicted. Nor is it what the Woke Mob particularly cares about. They’re after Lincoln. Is he a hero of Americans? That alone qualifies as being part of our “systemically racist nation” which was founded on slavery and has enshrined the “white privilege” which endures to this day.

Thus, up is down, and down is up. Lincoln, whom history has seen for the past 150 years as the Great Emancipator, is now suspect. The man whose assassination the ex-slave and arch-abolitionist Frederick Douglass called “to the Colored people of the Country … an unspeakable calamity” is now somehow portrayed as part of a corrupt anti-black power structure. Lincoln, who from his earliest years abhorred slavery, and who for generations has widely been believed to be one of our two greatest presidents, is now trashed as a leading representative of an inherently evil nation, which allowed slavery to flourish for 245 years and treated other minorities deplorably as well.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, everything was turned on its head. Citizens were instructed at traffic lights that they were to go on red and halt on green. In the same manner, many of us will have to be unlearn our belief that the United Kingdom and the United States were the two nations that over a hundred-year period from 1765 to 1865 put an end to the institution of slavery which had existed on every continent and in almost every tribe and nation for 4,000 years.

The great Christian parliamentarian and reformer William Wilberforce spent 50 years battling slavery, achieving first an end to the British slave trade, which happened in 1807, and then the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, which happened in 1833.

In the United States, the Founders declared in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator by certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While only partially living up to that principle, it was a “promissory note,” as Martin Luther King Jr. called it, that was ultimately fulfilled by a series of events in our history:  first, the act passed by Congress to end the U.S. slave trade in 1808; second, the decades of work by American abolitionists who raised consciousness of the evil of slavery (using tools such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin); third, the Civil War in which more than 600,000 Americans died – more than the total dead of all the other wars America has fought; and finally, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, led predominantly by heroic Christians exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr..

During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, Red Guards (usually boys and girls in their teenage years or early 20s with little to do, as schools and colleges were closed for years) rampaged through the cities pillaging cultural symbols that were deemed unrepresentative of Maoism.

Sound familiar? Widespread protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in late May quickly turned into the toppling of statues of some of America’s greatest statesmen and leaders. Even the statue of Frederick Douglass, the Martin Luther King Jr. of the 19th century, was toppled in Rochester, New York – a city where he lived for more than two decades.

In China, the Red Guards made “shaming” their political and class enemies into a form of diabolical drama. Out-of-favor Communist Party officials and class enemies would routinely be seized at home or at work by Red Guards. Then they would be paraded in the streets wearing dunce hats with signs around their neck labelling them as “capitalist dogs” or “imperialists” in front of crowds. Often the crowds would demand that they be beaten, tortured, or even killed.

The Woke mob shames in a different manner. Public shaming is accomplished through the use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media. Those who push back against the cancel culture are labelled as racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic. Their reputations in certain circles are ruined. To question any purported social justice movement is likely to incur the wrath of the Mob.

The Woke Mob has reached into corporate America. A Boeing executive was forced out recently after being found to have written disapprovingly about women in combat — almost 33 years ago.

College employees are fired for little or nothing — as M.I.T. Catholic chaplain Father Dan Moloney was, for sending an email message that reasonably questioned whether George Floyd died because of racism. At Michigan State University, Stephen Hsu, senior vice president of research and development, was forced to resign recently after statements he made about intelligence and genetics were considered by members of the Graduate Employees Union to be “sexist” and “racist.” The dean of the nursing school at University of Massachusetts Lowell was fired after writing in an email message “Everyone’s Life Matters.” (The university hasn’t explained why she was fired, but has unconvincingly suggested it wasn’t connected to the email message.)

In the academy, conservative professors cannot find jobs. More broadly, those who question any of the various purported social justice movements keep quiet, fearing to draw the Mob’s attention to themselves. Widespread censoring or self-censoring occurs. This is how the power of the Woke Mob increases.

When does this end?

In China, the Cultural Revolution lasted ten years and ended only with the death of Mao. The French Revolution, which used similar methods based on fear, ran on for almost ten years, but the Reign of Terror, during which approximately 50,000 were executed, was over with the death of Robespierre in less than a year.

What about America?

Nowadays, the country is split roughly 50-50 in this ideological civil war, but the Woke Mob has a power base in the key institutions of the mainstream media, the academy, Hollywood, and the giant technology companies. Elements of the Democratic Party seem to be tied at the lip to the Woke Mob, so the cancel culture may persist a while.

Yet as distressing and sad as these attacks on America and honest Americans are, they would be more worrisome if they were true. But they aren’t true. History, complicated though it is, vindicates the traditional judgment of Americans that theirs is the kindest and most decent society ever. It’s also the most committed to freedom and fairness.

Moreover, although it sometimes takes a while, lies run before truth, evil runs before goodness.

What to do until that happens?

What’s needed now is the same spirit that was needed during the Civil War at Little Round Top in 1863. On day two of the Battle of Gettysburg, a little-known college professor,  and unlikely commander of a regiment, Joshua Chamberlain,  knew he couldn’t retreat, because the whole Union Army would be outflanked. So he had his men repulse attack after attack, for as long as they could, and then, when their ammunition ran out … he had them charge.

Charging just wasn’t something Union soldiers did. And yet the same men who couldn’t believe what their leader was asking them to do in short order couldn’t believe how quickly they won.

Or consider a Polish cleric, whose country during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s was dominated by totalitarians within and without. The odds seemed overwhelming.

And yet, upon becoming Pope John Paul II, his message to his countrymen and to people everywhere else in the world had no hint of retreat in it.

Here’s one version of it:

“I plead with you — never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”