A bad analogy that reveals something important about the social justice/anti-woke debate
I think John McWhorter's new book, "Woke Racism", provides a good counterweight to your essay.
Having gone through diversity training at one of the most prestigious companies in the world, I can tell you that there is much in the training that reminds me of the kind of rhetoric that my parents and I heard in Cuba. Some of the training was benign, but there was much condescension and ultimately, an effort to push on employees world views that were hugely antithetical to their conscious and religion.
So, Is what is going on in the United States a carbon copy of Mao's Cultural Revolution? Of course not. Does "wokeness" now use soft-power to force employees and students to bend their conscious to capricious rules and dehumanizing rules (ie. telling children they are evil because they are white, and if not explicitly so, then implicitly)...or else be ostracized or fired, and possible lifetime work exile? Yes, it does.
And that is no mere anecdote.
First of all, didn't the first "cancellation" of Confessions of Nat Turner come from those ostensibly on the left? Anyway, undoubtedly the overall point you're making is fair: in the political climate created by the constant bombardment of "bidirectional digital media" (Will Self's preferred term) concern about moral panics can easily become itself a moral panic. To be fairer to the anti-"woke," with whom I tend to agree, greater emphasis should be placed on the idea that the expression of opinions can be "violence." This has become disturbingly common and if you disagree with it, as you suggest here, can you not be said to be anti-"woke"? Also, thankfully you point out the absurdity of Ibram Kendi's proposals--if they are to be considered realistically--are they? Yet there is no mention of how ubiquitous he and his approach has become. I work at a public library, and because of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Kendi's book 'Stamped' is being given away for free and promoted extensively and exhaustively via online discussions; this has been going on for a year at least. At libraries, the great defenders of free speech, and which still raise awareness about banned books. You acknowledge here that Kendi's suggestions would violate the First Amendment. These broader, long-term implications of "woke" mania are most troubling, not necessarily the anecdotal evidence. Your point, though, about how Republicans are more willing to employ governmental force to restrict speech and inflame their own moral panics is of course spot-on. But for leftist anti-"woke" people like me, given the advantages Republicans currently hold at the state level and at times nationally due to gerrymandering and the non-democratic nature of the Senate and Electoral College, the need for our younger, race-obsessed compatriots to consider the practical import of what they're doing is paramount. As we have seen yesterday in Virginia, just as in 2010 and 2014, Democratic-leaning voters get apathetic because, compared to Republican voters, they cannot seem to play the long game. They need to win elections, not just control the New York Times, a few elite universities, and CNN.
First off, here’s an ongoing list of people who have been fired, forced to resign, had their careers snuffed out before they’ve begun or ended after decades of service, it truly runs the gamut:
Secondly, the argument that liberal anti-woke make when comparing to the Cultural Revolution isn’t that only conservative viewpoints are under attack, far from it. It’s that woke dogma creates villains for *any* deviation from its directives, even if the heretic’s differences are small. In fact, because such small differences will be most likely found in the same social circles, such purging of other left liberals is *more* likely, and would explain the larger decrease im absolute terms from that cohort.
And the whole “only .8% of professors got cancelled!” schtick is just dumb. FIRE, the same organization where these numbers are culled from, started noticing the uptick in issues around free speech on campus coming from students around 2013; Greg Lukianoff has been clear about this many, many times. It’s blatantly obvious to us Gen X’ers, who remember when students would routinely tell administrators to fuck off for trying to suppress what they said, that this culture of recrimination based solely on speech, with a large side order of conformity, is new to our post-60s culture.
You want to say that students ratting on their teachers isn’t reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution because “ackshully, that was run by the state!” This is reminiscent of that abominable xkcd cartoon that pretends things like blacklisting or the CCC don’t exist. Obviously, power exists outside of the state as well, otherwise boycotts wouldn’t even be considered.
Mr. Grossman, In exploring a "bad analogy" it's important to understand what the analogy is to. The Cultural Revolution was not a Maoist extension of state power: it was a Maoist attack on state power, from which Mao and his closest associates had been excluded after the early 1960s. The period of 17 years you refer to (1949-76) was not a unified period wherein Mao built power and Maoism increasingly became orthodoxy. The Chinese Communist Party was not monolithic, and Mao's wing faced periods of opposition from more "conservative" CCP leaders (Deng Xiaoping was associated with that group). Enormous missteps during a period of rising Maoist power in the late 1950s led to economic results so disastrous that Mao was induced to "retire" in their wake. "Mao Zedong Thought" was deemphasized as orthodoxy, and his successor's ideas ("Liu Shaoqi Thought") were published and officially endorsed.
During the summer of 1966, Mao and his associates mobilized their connections, primarily within the Party (not the government), to bring Mao back to Beijing and to government power by inciting a non-governmental mass political campaign, which came to be called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. To pick out a few points, Mao's writings were anthologized and republished as the essential weapon of the Maoist forces (the "Little Red Book"), and students were targeted as the ideal group to deploy as missionaries for the campaign for a variety of reasons, including their general tendency towards idealism and the low cost of their disengaging with their "labor" function. Relative to their parent, students fit Mao's ideal of "blank slates" on which a new morality could be inscribed.
The government was the target, not the sponsor, of the CR. In the CR's early stage, the government was so effectively demolished that in some cities social order devolved into factional street war among student "Red Guard" groups, a chaos that only ended when Maoist leaders, still in the process of purging their enemies and reconstructing the government, authorized the army to restore order.
The resemblances between today's campus-based movement and the CR are not dominant, but they're not insignificant. I'm sure they struck many who had studied the CR before it became a common trope among journalists. I think it's really hard to escape seeing them when you look at the way DEI training sometimes seems to be carried out; the parallel could be applied to Maoist reeducation campaigns from the pre-revolutionary period through the late '50s as well (and that is independent of the worthiness of the goals of DEI). It's fine to stress, as you do, that the analogy has very limited validity. But I think it would be good to reexamine the basis you use for making that claim.
Good article. This article and a previous one about the Harper letter signatories really put into words how I feel about the whole "woke"/"anti-woke" discourse.