Cultural Revolution USA

Lessons from China and Cambodia

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The Cultural Revolution was a misguided political/cultural policy which lead to the deaths of millions in China. It was exported to Cambodia where it killed nearly about twenty-percent of the population. The recent protests, riots, and cultural shift in America, while based on some very legitimate grievances, are following a similar pattern. Once begun, this type of movement is difficult to stop because, eventually, the zealots turn on the moderates. Freedom of speech and the press become so restricted that anyone who says anything which is remotely perceived as being against the movement is branded an enemy.

The Four Olds

During the Cultural Revolution, society was urged to purge itself of the “Four Olds”: Old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.

In China, statues were torn down, books burned and history rewritten. Certain words and phrases were vilified and could no longer be uttered or printed, while a new vocabulary and slogans were invented which had to be shouted, to show one’s devotion to the movement. In Cambodia, the leaders went to such great lengths to erase history that they declared the Year Zero, making it a crime to mention anything that came before.  

In the US, National Public Radio (NPR) has called for people to “decolonize their book shelves.” A Defund STEM movement has been launched. Streaming platforms are removing old movies, such as Gone with the Wind, which are not in line with the movement. The Sacramento Kings announcer Grant Napear was forced to resign after Tweeting “All lives matter.” L.A. Galaxy soccer player, Aleksandar Katai, lost his job because his wife sent several Tweets against the riots, written in Serbian language.

This current US movement began, as these movements always do, with attacks on obvious targets that zealots supported and moderates tolerated, such as taking down statues of Confederate soldiers. But, like a boulder rolling down a hill, it gathered steam. The definition of enemies of the movement further expanded until they felt the need to destroy statues of American patriots such as George Washington, the father of our country, and Francis Scott Key, the composer of the National Anthem. They both owned slaves, so some would say that they are not statue-worthy. However, moving further along the spectrum of accusation, they defaced the statue of Captain Robert Shaw who lead the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the second African-American regiment in the Civil War, made famous in the film Glory. Shaw was killed along with nearly half his men.

They have even torn down statues of Ulysses S. Grant, who lead the Union Army which freed African-Americans and permanently ended slavery.

This momentum is aided by self-censorship, as the establishment attempts to placate the movement by voluntarily removing the iconic statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has stood in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York for the past 80 years.

Guilty By Accusation

Those accused by this new social movement are automatically guilty and have been subjected to losing their jobs, their money, or their peace. The Washington Post fired a staffer named Sue Schafer because of a 2020 letter that surfaced revealing she had worn blackface at a Halloween Party in 2018. UCLA professor, Gordon Klein, was put on suspension and later needed police protection for failing to cancel final exams in the wake of the George Floyd Killing.

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No Appeasement Possible

Self-censorship and appeasement has become the norm as public figures, politicians and corporations struggle to avoid accusation. The irony that we can learn from similar movements of the past is that no matter how much you yield, no matter how much you self-censor, you will eventually become a target.

As a case in point, Quaker Oats removed Aunt Jemima from their packaging in an act of self-censorship, publicly stating that the image was racist. The family of Anna Short Harrington, the real woman who portrayed Aunt Jemima is now accusing the company of erasing their family history. Harrington worked for the company after slavery had ended and the family felt that the image represented an independent black female, making an honest living.

Indoctrinate the Young

The Cultural Revolution was launched in China in 1966 by Communist leader Mao Zedong beginning with a massive mobilization of the young people who became known as The Red Guards. These indoctrinated youth marched through the streets shouting slogans, destroying statues, looting shops and even looting private homes. If people tried to oppose them, even those who attempted to keep them from wrecking their home, the Red Guards would ask if they supported the movement or if they were an enemy of the movement. Of course, being an enemy carried such grievous consequences that people claimed they supported the movement and allowed the rioters to steal or destroy what they wished.

The Red Guards denounced professors, getting them fired or arrested. They burned books until, eventually, all schools and universities were closed to prevent anti-revolutionary ideas from being disseminated. The only media were controlled by the party as was the recording of history.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four

The Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge appeared in Cambodia in the 1960’s, recruiting young people who they believed would have the least memory of history or traditional culture. After taking control of the government in 1975, they immediately purged the previous government. Next, they purged all of the military officers for fear they would still hold allegiance to the ousted government. The new regime decided the soldiers might have allegiance to the former officers, so they were also killed. Those now in control decided all civil servants, from the postman to the garbageman, might harbor feelings for the government they had served so they, too, were killed. Civilian employees of government agencies such as book keepers and typists at the Ministry of Water were executed for the same reason. Employees of foreign firms were killed for fear their thinking had been polluted by outside ideas. Intellectuals, doctors, and professors posed a threat because they might secretly teach counter revolutionary thought. So, they were killed. School teachers commanded respect in the traditional society. Breaking with tradition meant killing them, too. People who could speak English or French were a threat because they could secretly be listening to foreign broadcasts or colluding with foreign governments. So, they were executed.

Intellectuals were killed, which initially meant professors and authors, but then that was extended to people who wore glasses. People with skilled, professional jobs like doctors and lawyers were killed but, eventually, they even killed mechanics and boat repairmen.

Next, the movement turned on itself. Early leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement had studied communism in the former colonial master country France so they were killed. Many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers and lowlings who had served under the French-educated Khmer Rouge leaders were killed. Those Khmer Rouge members who had been appointed by, spoke up for, or defended those who were killed, were also killed.

It Only Took 4 Years

In just over a period of about 4 years, The Khmer Rouge had destroyed every school, every university, every museum, and nearly every statue, artifact, photo, painting and book in the country. They had also killed an estimate 1.7 to 2.2 million Cambodians, roughly 20% of the population.

And it all starts with the destruction of statues, banning books and movies, rewriting history, prohibiting free speech, mass looting and destruction…and then it becomes nearly impossible to stop.

Antonio Graceffo
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