Notes From a Cultural Revolution
There are tedious parts to a college graduation no matter how proud you are of the graduate in question. The University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee – an Episcopal school established in 1857 – is a beautifully secluded liberal arts university that looks and feels the epitome of Ivy League minus the institutional douche-baggery. Mostly. The salutatorian’s speech was in Latin but, I kid you not, actually funny. And a guy who can pull that off is going to do just fine in the world. The valedictorian’s speech, on the other hand, was fashionably grim. Not for her was the “great triumphs and stumbles of Sewanee’s Class of 2022 sustaining this happy few as we stumble out in the wide scary world” tone, she chose instead to go with a self-indulgent elegy on a horrifying past we can never escape save by erasing it and purging the soul. And you need to purge yours too. On balance, she was a bit of a wet sandwich.
Undergrads are like that though. Well, the ones that tend to make speeches are. Littlebit had been on The Mountain – as the Sewanee kids say – for four years and as near as I could tell the grim social justice whoopsies committed by this diverse, liberal student body fell into two categories: either blown so out of proportion as to have no bearing on reality, or entirely made up.
The real problem with modern academics is that the professors and staff are like that as well – the feel the need to manufacture fashionable “incidents.” The year earlier the school’s vice-chancellor, Ruben Brigety, an aspiring diplomat, engineered himself as the victim of a hate crime and got himself appointed as Ambassador to South Africa. Career-wise, I suppose this was a clever gambit, but after some broad-based, if informal interviews conducted by your correspondent, the students had an entirely different take on the incident: Some kids, cheesed about COVID party restrictions, had thrown a whiskey bottle in Brigety’s front yard.
I’m not trying to give Sewanee a hard time – it’s a very impressive school with a student body that’s even more so. I can say the same about Rhodes College in Memphis. And I will. In 2015, Professor Zandria Robinson tweeted openly about killing White people and – a little less homicidally, a little more “cringey” – about how said honkeys aggravated her PMS. No one at the school even considered asking her to cut it out, or even that her tweets were “unhelpful.” Now she’s at Georgetown.
It’s hard not to suspect that academia hasn’t got some Cultural Revolution ups its sleeve if it could only develop the practical skills to pull it off. Which, more than anything else, is reason why Higher Ed should not be free. The knee-biters need to get out into the real world to learn that their professors were full of shit.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that just because a movement is largely delusional, doesn’t mean that it won’t spread to real terror. In May of 1966 posters went up around Beijing declaring war on the past, encapsulated in the “four olds”: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs and Old Habits. The students called themselves the Red Guard: youthful activists who attacked anything that smacked of the old way of doing things including, but not limited to: monuments, statues, temples, flower beds, barbers for some damn reason, high heels and cats. It’s the regular stuff of the modern student activist… well, maybe not the bit about flower beds. It was never a grass roots movement. Chairman Mao had engineered the fracas as a way to get the youth jazzed up for the ideals of the revolution that, he thought, had gone soft.
In fact, after 17 years, the government had gone a little soft - on Mao. In 1949, when the Communists took power in China by running the Nationalist over to Taiwan, they found themselves in that awkward spot where the social theorists are forced to apply their ideas in real-world situations. The results were not good (they rarely are). A dismal decade later, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, triggering a famine that killed some 20-30 million people. Conveniently for the educated elite running the place, the aforementioned dead people were out in the stix where they were neither seen nor smelled, thus saving them the indignity of having to revise their ideas in the face of empirical evidence.
It’s never good for your career to kill 20 some odd million people in an ill-advised social program. Fortunately for Chairman Mao, he was better at managing his Cult of Personality than, say, reality. As a cult hero, he was in no danger of arrest or ritual humiliation (even communists know the value of good branding) but the party had made it clear that they’d like to see a little less of the man. Well, Mao hadn’t engineered a cult just to be sidelined by some bureaucrats. So he started telling undergrads something too good to ignore: The kids are right, and it was their patriotic duty to correct – forcibly if needed – all the middle-aged squares currently telling you what to do, including teachers, parents, anything they like, and while you’re at it, any “bougie” party officials who what me to be quiet. Or words to that effect.
Because the kids had the protection of the state, this wasn’t the tedious screaming at anyone with a job the way the way Western youth will. The corrections included the infamous “airplane position” where old people (what is Chinese for “Boomer”?) were trotted out in front of a yowling mob to be abused while forced to stand upright with their arms held out straight: painful after a minute of two, after hours, it’s torture. Then things really escalated. What started as a summer pep-rally to keep Mao’s name in the spotlight morphed into a decade of violent turmoil that left even the Chairman himself baffled.
You could easily be forgiven for thinking that a hemisphere world away and half a century later, we are on the verge of a repeat of this foolishness. Maybe, but a truly terrifying Cultural Revolution has some practical problems. For one thing, it’s hard to tell with undergrads what is self-indulgent passion and what is actual conviction. The Mickey Moaist Club progressives are too infantile and scare easy. It won’t come from the other side either, as the alt-right can’t get out of their parent’s basements.
Every generation wants to think it had it hard, but the truth is, in one respect, things were much easier for an undergrad arriving in Tuscaloosa in 1988. Hazing was practically legal, but no one in my fraternity forced anything like “the airplane” much longer than it took to drink a beer. The Liberals were focused on sensible causes like clean water and on the misery of humans whose rights were actually being violated. They left the economics to all those cynical investment banker sorts. Sure, we were asses in our own adorable way, but across the board the world and the people in it got richer (and the water cleaner). Even if the wealth distribution was lopsided, it was a hell of a lot more equitable than the Big Tech crowd has managed.
Then everything changed, for me at any rate. Some adorable creature started calling me “Daddy”, and what seemed like three weeks later, she was graduating from college. Getting to know these grads about to be loosed on the world is comforting because I suspect that the rumors of the next Cultural Revolution are greatly exaggerated. Most of them are not as crazy as social – or any other media – would lead you to believe. Silly sure, but so was I once upon a time.
Still the world outside of school has a brutally efficient habit of correcting a great deal of the more foolish academic ideology and social theory. True, if the establishment gets behind it, they might start a movement to drive the country into the Stone Age, but I doubt it. The smarter bet is that without vicious level of social engineering, when those terrible ideas are unleashed into the wild of a free society, they’ll be choked off by rent, food and regrettable, but necessary, entry-level jobs.