At the beginning of the 20th century, philosopher George Santayana warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” More than a hundred years later, his words still resonate.
In 1966 I sat at a desk at NSA scratching my head, along with more seasoned China watchers, over peculiar developments coming to light in the People’s Republic. We later learned that we were witnessing the early shock waves of Mao’s effort, known as The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to re-establish his waning power by attacking China’s pragmatists and intellectuals.
Humiliated by disastrous policies that had caused the starvation of more than 30 million people in the late ’50s, Mao asked more practical thinkers to put the country on its feet economically. When their success threatened the personality cult he had carefully nurtured, he struck back by unleashing the homicidally anti-intellectual Red Guards. Millions of China’s finest citizens were slandered and humiliated, tortured, and condemned to back-breaking labor. The Red Guard succeeded in terrorizing China, but made no positive contributions.
Though they lack a charismatic leader, it’s hard not to draw a parallel between the America of the tea party and the China of The Cultural Revolution. While mocking science, repudiating the very mechanisms that make democracy function, denigrating a president whose race makes them feel superior, and masochistically supporting the agenda of a handful of very wealthy people, America’s tea partyers have, astonishingly, achieved a level of political power that turns congressmen into sycophants. They seem, for the time being, to have mutated a respectable country into an asylum that bewilders most sane Americans and fills the rest of the world with horror.
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There is little doubt that they will eventually come to their senses and beg those who understand government to put the pieces back together. Yet tea partyers have it in their power to make that process more damaging to America and more painful to the world. If they will read a page or two about how the Red Guards devastated China and how long-lasting the effects were (there are dozens of books on that subject), perhaps they may come to understand the lessons of history well enough to halt the carnage.
The Red Guard had one idea: Let’s dedicate our lives to the glory of Mao.” The tea party’s one idea is “Let’s reduce the deficit.” It’s worth discussing, but in terms of effectiveness it ranks right up there with “Everyone should be nice to everyone else” and “If only everyone shared my values…” A thought is not a big idea unless there’s a path to implementation. Pig-headed bullying is not a path that will get us there. Can the tea party spell compromise? That was our Founding Fathers’ big idea.
The writer lives in Pawleys Island.