A troubling metamorphosis

A strange and sometimes terrible thing seems to happen to ideologues when they cease to be outsiders and become insiders. This seems particularly so when they are political animals. History is full of examples of this uncanny metamorphoses. Seemingly idealistic freedom movements slouching to their goal, when once they reach it, turn into either apathetic onlookers of the very evils they formerly raged against – or worse, they become replicas of the very monsters they formerly fought tooth and nail.

Modern republicanism probably begins with the French Revolution. The American Republic is of a gentler lineage, bred out of a pragmatic response to a frustrating contre temps with a myopic British parliament and a somewhat disturbed king. The French version was similar in some ways but was fatally laced with an ideological potion which for a time led it down the path of wanton savagery, rescued only to become another kind of tyranny under the aegis of the practical genius who was Napoleon Bonaparte. But while it pursued its Rousseaunian ideological course, and gained power, it truly became a monster. It was the first of a long line of idealist ideologies to do so in modern times. The latest example of this degeneration is now again exercising its mad and lethal power on a people to whom it would have initially presented itself as saviour – the People’s Republic of China.

Among the more apathetic exemplars of this withering of idealism might be found the Republic of Ireland.

In the late 18th century the Irish patriot, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was in France seeking to enlist the forces of the French Revolution to help liberate Ireland from the laws imposed on it by the British Crown. Unlike Edmund Burke, Tone saw no hope of reforming the system which had imposed murderous penal laws on catholics and manipulated an exclusively protestant land-owning class in Ireland as its willing tool in keeping the status quo.

It is hard to read accounts today of what the people of XInjiang province or of Hong Kong are experiencing and not hear echoes from the suffering of the Irish of the 18th Century. These were set upon and oppressed by the victors of England’s own ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the late 17th century, another movement claiming freedom as it goal but then morphing into a woeful tyranny. 

Wolfe Tone, the acknowledged father of Irish republicanism, succeeded in getting French help. His and their efforts were, however, a miserable failure. He was captured, convicted of high treason and condemned to death by hanging. He asked to be shot as a soldier and when this was refused, died by his own hand. Nevertheless, he lived on as a potent symbol of republicanism for 150 years and has served as such for the eventual republic which Ireland became.

The late Seamus Deane, poet and literary critic, in an essay on Wolfe Tone (now published in Small World – Ireland 1798-2018), examines the motivation which drove this Irish hero in the direction which he took. At the heart of Tone’s political experience was his acute analysis of the condition of Ireland and the Irish – a condition he defined as one of slavery. Deane universalises this and says that all republican theory is permeated by this “whole concept of dependence and slavery… To be dependent on the wish, caprice, or undelegated authority of someone else is to lack autonomy and to be a slave. It is corrupt and corrupting, especially when sustained by violence and an endless bombardment of propaganda and threat.” This, he says, was Ireland’s condition. Such, history shows, is the ground in which so many ideologies bent on achieving freedom for peoples are nurtured. What, however, can explain the subsequent degeneration of so many of them to a condition where they now tolerate and cooperate with perpetrators of the very oppression they fought against so heroically? Or worse, how can so many of them perpetrate on their own people the injustices they once raged against?

Mao Zedong was a hero for his people – and for a time in the West, to young idealists, seemed also to be a hero. But he then turned into – and turned his Republic into – a cauldron of death. Xi Jinping can only be described as a worthy successor. What is happening in Xinjiang province, documented now in increasing detail, can only be described as slavery.

Ruth Ingham, in a recent post, quoted Geoffrey Cain, author of The Perfect Police State, who earlier this month gave evidence at the second series of hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal in London. He detailed how China’s access to an arsenal of intrusive novel technologies has enabled the state to monitor the minutiae of everyday life of each one of its citizens. These means are nothing more or less than the modern equivalent of the cadre of informers Lord Castlereagh used to dismantle Tone’s insurgency in 18th century Ireland. With these weapons the CCP, in its war on its insurgents, are spying on 15 million or so potential “terrorists” and “extremists” among the Turkic peoples of its North Western Frontier. Cain explained how these people are spied on “from the moment they leave their house, whether from the back or the front door, whom they meet, whom they might text or call on the way, what they might download on their phone and who might have sent.” All is monitored. And that is just the spying operation. The ‘re-education” atrocities come afterwards.Wolf Tone’s Ireland took 150 years to complete its journey to full republican status. Today he must be turning in his grave. The Irish Republic not only turns a blind eye to the atrocities in China, it actually cozies up to its leaders. It builds Confucian institutes on its university campuses which serve as apologists for the very evils Tone railed against when he died an ignominious death in a Dublin prison.

Alexander Dukalskis and David Farrell, political scientists in University College Dublin, in an Irish Times piece have put in focus the threats to academic freedom in Irish universities posed by China. Charles Moore, in the Spectator and in the Daily Telegraph, has been highlighting what he sees as the sad and dangerous manipulation of Cambridge University by the same kind of fellow travelling.

Dukalskis and Farrell tell us that “In February 2021, this paper reported that the head of Huawei Ireland wrote privately to Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, regarding an academic article by our colleague Dr Richard Maher about the Chinese telecoms giant. The letter said that academic freedom was a “two-way street” and requested the Minister’s “full support in mitigating the damage that has been done”. He secured a meeting with the secretary general of the department to discuss the matter. When the School of Politics and International Relations privately signalled its concern to the university leadership, the university president described our concerns as an overreaction.”

They then recount how in July 2021, the Irish Times reported on a story that involves the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies (IICS), a spin-off of University College’s  Confucius Institute, which is teaching a class in Chinese politics for UCD students. The School of Politics objected because Confucius institutes are Chinese state-affiliated entities.  The IICS and the UCD Confucius Institute were established at the same time, have the same director, the same email address, the same phone number, the same building, overlapping senior staff, and share the same mission to promote Chinese studies.

They anticipate complaints about their complaints – that it is a storm in a teacup.

“But, you might be asking yourself, what is the fuss? The problem is that the ruling party of China is a profoundly illiberal entity when it comes to the education sector. This has always been the case to varying degrees, but under current leader Xi Jinping the party has turbo-charged its control over intellectual inquiry. As part of its ‘comprehensive reassertion of control’, in the words of expert Carl Minzner of Fordham University, the party-state has focused on the social sciences to strengthen political training for faculty and standardise reading materials. Student informants and placing CCTV in classrooms to monitor teaching have increased. ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ research institutes have proliferated. Students have been arrested on campus for activism. Scholars such as Ilham Tohti remain jailed for criticising party policies.

“Nor is this just a higher education trend. For example, this summer the Chinese ministry of education announced that Xi Jinping Thought will be introduced into the national curriculum. Yes, this is the same ministry that Ireland’s own Department of Education agreed in 2019 was a suitable partner to influence Ireland’s own Chinese language curriculum.” To top it all off, they remind us, the 2020 Hong Kong ‘national security law’ effectively criminalises dissent globally, including on campus.

Part of the answer as to why and how this sad process of aversion and reversion seems to keep occurring is probably contained in another essay by Seamus Deane in Small World. In this essay, ‘Imperialism and Nationalism’, dating from 1995, he examines the complicated relationship between these two primeval phenomena, he finds nationalism’s opposition to imperialism, in some perspectives, nothing more than a continuation of imperialism by other means. Perhaps the analysis can offer an explanation of the strange outcome of so many victories of the oppressed over their oppressors. 

Of nationalism, Deane writes,“It secedes from imperialism in its earlier form in order to rejoin it more enthusiastically in its later form. In effect, most critiques of nationalism claim that, as an ideology, it merely reproduces the very discourses by which it had been subjected. It asserts its presence and identity through precisely those categories that had denied them — through race, essence, destiny, language, history — merely adapting these categories to its own purposes. It also accepts the requirements of ‘civilization’ – modernization, development, and class and gender divisions, which are integral to the system from which it ostensibly seeks to liberate itself. In brief, in the name of emancipation for itself, it joins with the global system of late capitalism and the multinational companies, becoming economically subservient while endlessly asserting cultural independence.” 

The end result, he suggests, leaves us with this: “An intellectual proletariat, with bourgeois pretensions, that claims it has achieved national consciousness is substituted for a non-intellectual sub-proletariat that once was the national consciousness. In such a situation, many forms of reaction are justified on the grounds that they are ‘national’. External domination has been introjected to the point that a nation, so construed, may be said to have learned nothing from oppression but oppression itself.” 

That the Republic of Ireland, tracing its inspiration back to the man who suffered and died to liberate a people from the most abject oppression is cooperating with this Marxist regime should dismay Irish people. It does not. That this Republic, and certain of its established state-funded institutions are now hand in glove with one of the planet’s great oppressors should be seen as a gross contradiction of everything in the inspiration which was of its essence. It is not. Sad metamorphosis indeed.

Addendum:

Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room of the Irish nation and its relationship with oppression – as an oppressor.

First Things@firstthingsmag·

For the first time in history, a nation has voted to strip the right to life from the unborn.

Things might be better than we think they are

people-who-wonder-whether-the-glass-is-half-empty-or-half-full-330

The culture war is getting more intense not less so. Both sides are indulging in an orgy of recrimination, each telling the other what a mess they have made of our world. And yet, in many respects, as Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister of the day, reminded the British people back in 1957, “most of our people have never had it so good”. Mind you, while some chuckled at that, others were outraged.

In our time President Trump is expanding the culture wars, pouring more fuel on the fire every day. It’s like a boxing match without a referee as he lands punch after punch on the institutions that he views as liberal, elitist or both. It is so relentless that we are left wondering will it ever stop and whether he is doing it out of conviction or just to keep himself amused and keep his base alive.

In The Hill, Jonathan Easley observes that “With his agenda stalled in Congress and his poll numbers sagging, Trump has kept his base engaged and the left inflamed by escalating feuds with key figures in sports, entertainment, tech and media, effectively dragging politics into every corner of public life.

Easterly says “Trump’s aim is straightforward: To convince voters that there is a privileged class that scoffs at their patriotism and cares more about political correctness and diversity than ordinary Americans, their traditions and their economic plight.”

But is all this about the real world? Is there not something suspiciously unreal about everyone getting worked up about footballers gesturing on a pitch. Why are we paying such attention to entertainers using their narcissistic photo opportunities to spout their ad hominem invective at us. Not to mention the new phenomenom of celebrity colonialism.

On one level, Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the National Review, sees all this as a recycling of the crisis of the 60s and 70s which broke out across the globe in 1968. In that iconic year, the United States seemed to be falling apart, he says.

“The Vietnam War, a bitter and close presidential election, antiwar protests, racial riots, political assassinations, terrorism and a recession looming on the horizon left the country divided between a loud radical minority and a silent conservative majority.”

The concerns of that time seem a good deal more real than much of what is preoccupying most of these celebrities we have to listen to now.

“The United States avoided a civil war. But America suffered a collective psychological depression, civil unrest, defeat in Vietnam and assorted disasters for the next decade — until the election of a once-polarizing Ronald Reagan ushered in five consecutive presidential terms of relative bipartisan calm and prosperity from 1981 to 2001.”

In Europe the students set out to upset every apple cart in sight and already in China the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution had been set in motion by Mao in 1966 and continued for ten brutal years up to his death.

So is it a case of what goes around comes around? In America, after the stability of those conservative and semi-conservative years came the Presidency of Barack Obama, the would-be apostle of peace and unity who split America in two. The East and West coasts were at daggers drawn with Middle America by the end of his two terms. All this was documented by Michael Kirk (without and “e”) in his superb two part PBS documentary, The Divided States of America.

Britain had a relatively peaceful 1968. The London Times did not have much time for students who thought they were more important than they were. It ran an editorial under a heading reminding us that “A student is a student is a student.” But it is not a little ironic that her troubled exit from Europe is to a large extent being made more troublesome by the generation of Marxist revolutionary street-rioters of ’68. They eventually calmed down and then proceeded to nurture and indoctrinate those running the European bureaucracy today.

But Hanson fears that in America this time the divide is far deeper, both ideologically and geographically. It is also more 50/50, with the two liberal coasts pitted against red-state America in between. The same percentages seem to be prevailing in Europe. In Britain the more radical pro-Europe young are at loggerheads with their elders, so much so that with Brexit negotiations staggering along some feel the whole process might be reversed. If that happened who knows what the unintended consequences might be?

As Hanson sees it in America, politics – or rather, a progressive hatred of the provocative Donald Trump – permeates almost every nook and cranny of popular culture.

“The new allegiance of the media, late-night television, stand-up comedy, Hollywood, professional sports and universities is committed to liberal sermonizing. Politically correct obscenity and vulgarity among celebrities and entertainers is a substitute for talent, even as Hollywood is wracked by sexual harassment scandals and other perversities.

“The smears ‘racist,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘white privilege’ and ‘Nazi’ — like ‘commie’ of the 1950s — are so overused as to become meaningless. There is now less free speech on campus than during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s”

Yet for all the social instability and media hysteria, life in the United States quietly seems to be getting better. The same is true in most parts of Europe.

The fact is that across the West – and in the East as well – economies are growing. The lessons of the last recession may or may not have been learned. There is no doubt but that a good deal of the public distaste for the warring political class stems from a public memory of how they fell asleep and allowed it to happen.

Hanson wonders if “the instability is less a symptom that America is falling apart and more a sign that the loud conventional wisdom of the past — about the benefits of a globalized economy, the insignificance of national borders and the importance of identity politics — is drawing to a close, along with the careers of those who profited from it?”

As we watch the spectacle of identity politics unfold and the political elites consume their energies on their palpable hatred of one another – while the media cheers on one side at the expense of the other – we wonder whether the real world is just getting on with the job of living while they squabble like adolescents suffering from arrested development.

The evil that men do…

mao_zedong_quote

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. But in too many cases there is not even a modicum of good to accompany those bones. So, it seems, it was with Mao Zedong, the “father” of modern China.

Just last week we were again reminded of the evil influence of this man and how that evil still lives among us when, heroically, Katy Morgan-Davies, enslaved since birth in Britain by her Maoist-inspired cult leader father, said she forgave him after a judge condemned him to die in jail for his decades of abuse in which he had robbed her of “family, childhood, friends and love”.

Aravindan Balakrishnan was found guilty of horrific assaults against two female followers and false imprisonment and child cruelty against his daughter.

At Southwark Crown Court, Judge Deborah Taylor said: “You were ruthless in your exploitation of them. You engendered a climate of fear, jealousy and competition for your approval. The judge said Balakrishnan had treated his daughter like “a project”.

A project? Therein lies the pernicious influence of Mao Zedong, the man whose dedication to a utopian project was pursued at the cost of the lives of more than 45 million of his countrymen.

Yet this man, of whose ideology Balakrishnan is a micro representation, inspired some of Western Europe’s most famous intellectuals for some of the seminal decades of the last century, the 1960s and 1970s. In fact recent studies reveal that in its essence Mao’s legacy was as brutal and his personal life was as vicious as that of the man who was last week condemned to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Mao was not only the man who set China on her ruthless totalitarian path. He was also the man whose ideology has inspired his successors to continue to pursue social and population control policies which seem set to plunge China into a demographic catastrophe. Furthermore, in his personal life he was a voracious and utterly abusive predator of the women in his life – and there were multitudes of them. He would put Caligula to shame.

A review in the Times Literary Supplement of a recent biography of a Belgian writer who died in 2014 reminds us that:

 In the 1960s and 70s, a nation that saw itself as the most sophisticated on earth fell under the spell of the greatest mass murderer in history. Mao Zedong had admirers in many places, but only in France did his appeal stretch beyond small bands of revolutionaries. The cream of the progressive intelligentsia – from Jean-Paul Sartre to Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Godard – as well as pillars of the conservative establishment enthused about him. André Malraux was Mao’s most fulsome eulogist. Alain Peyrefitte, another Gaullist grandee, published a bestseller in 1973 arguing that under Mao’s stewardship China was destined for greatness. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called Mao a “beacon” for humanity.

Pierre Boncenne, the author of the biography of this Belgian, Simon Leys, tells us that he should be remembered as one of the earliest voices to be raised against the adulation of this tyrant. He tells us of the moment when Leys was first alerted to the atrocities perpetrated by Mao. He was pursuing his day job, the study of Chinese art and literature in Hong Kong when a car bomb exploded outside his apartment and killed a famous critic of Mao. This was 1967 and this was just one atrocity of the many that made up Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Within a year of that explosion students were on the streets in Paris, London, Dublin and other cities around the world, accompanied by some of the aforementioned intellectuals, acclaiming Mao Zedong as a hero for our times. It was too much for Leys. He wanted to put the record straight and began the first of the three books he published between 1971 and 1976 – Chairman Mao’s New Clothes. Then he followed with, Chinese Shadows and Broken Images. In these books he told the story of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution as he saw them unfold, exposing the naivety of Mao’s Western acolytes.

Boncennes’ biography, Le Parapluie de Simon Leys , tells us that while some acclaimed the books, they made little impact on the Western cult of Mao. The TLS review summarises the moment when the penny finally dropped:

Their public shaming did not come until Leys’s first television appearance in May 1983. Other guests on France’s prestigious cultural show Apostrophes that evening included Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, who was promoting her unrepentant autobiography of a Mao fan. Leys took the opportunity to tell the Red Guards of the Left Bank to their faces what he had been thinking of them for so long. “I think idiots utter idiocies just as plum trees produce plums – it’s a normal, natural process. The problem is that some readers take them seriously”, he said. “The most charitable thing you can say about [Macciocchi’s book] On China is that it is utterly stupid; because if you did not accuse her of being stupid, you would have to say she’s a fraud.”

Sales of Macciocchi’s book plummeted after the show – which ironically she appeared on to promote.

The reviewer tells us that Leys’ writing on the subject still repays reading because of his power to tell simple truths. Forty years on, researchers have shed light on key episodes and updated the death toll – as high as 45 million for the Great Leap Forward of 1958–61 alone – but few, he says, have painted the overall picture with such limpidity and depth. “Leys brings not just factual but moral clarity to the story of Maoism. His notes on a hellish utopia and the fascination it can exert make him a significant figure of anti-totalitarian literature.”

True religion, G. K. Chesterton wrote, was a way of stopping the mind from spinning out of control and of anchoring it in reality. This appealed to Leys, who was a devotee of G.K. and also a devout Catholic. In his view the political monstrosities of the twentieth century were rooted in a failure to acknowledge reality and this was particularly true of Maoism, which stated the absolute supremacy of the leader’s will: if you followed Mao’s teachings, – and remember how many students in the 60s and 70s were intrigued by his “Little Red Book” – anything was possible. Imagine and design your project and pursue it to the death, the deaths of millions if necessary. For Leys the sophisticates of the West who refused to pay attention to real events, lost in their abstract thoughts, idiotically surrendered themselves to one of the greatest evils the world has ever seen.