Perils of wokery, &c.

A customer eyes replica posters of the Cultural Revolution at a flea market in Beijing in 2006. (Jason Lee / Reuters)
On whiffs of the Cultural Revolution; the musical Hamilton; Dr. Anthony Fauci; college daze; and more

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P eople are often too quick on the Nazi trigger — too quick to make comparisons to the Nazis. But sometimes they are too slow. Too reluctant. I think of what the Chinese government is doing to the Uighur people in Xinjiang Province, or East Turkestan.

Two years ago, I was talking with Jerome A. Cohen, the venerable China scholar here in America. (For my resulting piece, go here.) Discussing the situation of the Uighurs, he said he thought of his relatives in Austria and Germany, who were rounded up and slaughtered. That made me take notice. Cohen is a very, very serious man. He would not say such things lightly.

Just as you can be too quick on the Nazi trigger (or too slow), you can be too quick on the Cultural Revolution trigger (or too slow). We conservatives like to compare today’s wokery to the Cultural Revolution, that spasm of violence, depravity, and ideology that took place under Mao from 1966 to 1976. America today is far from that, thank heaven. Still, there are whiffs and glimpses — things to make you shudder.

Some of us noticed a tweet from Phillipa Soo, which went,

Cancel culture: If you are “cancelled” but do not wish to be, you must WORK to EARN back people’s respect by owning up to the thing that cancelled you in the first place, LISTENING to others, EDUCATING yourself, and ADVOCATING on behalf of the people that you have offended/harmed

That’s not so bad (stacked up against the horrors of the Cultural Revolution). Still, you can envision dunce caps and struggle sessions.

Did you see this obituary in the New York Times? It relates the life of Li Zhensheng, the photographer who chronicled the Cultural Revolution. Amazing.

Last week, I was talking with Mona Charen about today’s wokery — the cancel culture and so on — and the Cultural Revolution. We agreed that, at one time, it might have been easy to think, “Gee, those Chinese people are weird. Very alien from what we have in the West.” But no: The Cultural Revolution was not so much Chinese as human. This is something that ought to make all people gulp.

• Have you heard of “safetyism”? What you do is charge that someone, or something, is making you feel “unsafe.” It occurs to me that “I feel unsafe” is just the latest variation on “Shut up” — an age-old demand.

• Above, I referred to Philippa Soo — who is a Broadway performer, a singer-actress. She is a star of Hamilton. I saw it (on video) the other night. For my money, Philippa Soo is the best performer in it. Or if not the best, certainly unsurpassed.

I would like to say just two things about Hamilton — two further things. The composer and lyricist, Lin-Manuel Miranda, pays homage at least twice to lyrics past. He has his Burr say, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” (That’s from South Pacific, of course.) And he has his Washington say, “I’m the model of a modern major general” — just a tad off from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I am the very model of a modern major-general.”

Hang on, was that “two further things,” as I said it would be, or just one, with two quotes? Anyway . . .

• President Trump, his staff, and their amplifiers have turned their guns on Dr. Anthony Fauci. For fun, I went to see the statement that George W. Bush made, in 2008, when he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Fauci. Bush began,

Three decades ago, a mysterious and terrifying plague began to take the lives of people across the world. Before this malady even had a name, it had a fierce opponent in Dr. Anthony Fauci. As the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for more than 23 years, Tony Fauci has led the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Later, Bush said this:

The man who would lead the fight against this dreaded disease came from an Italian-American family in Brooklyn. Even as a boy, Tony was distinguished by his courage. In a neighborhood full of Brooklyn Dodgers fans, he rooted for the Yankees. Tony earned a full scholarship to Regis High School, a Jesuit school in Manhattan. And he still quotes what he learned from Jesuit teaching: “Precision of thought, economy of expression.” And now you know why he never ran for public office.

Twenty years before, in a presidential debate, Bush’s father, Vice President George H. W. Bush, had cited Fauci when the two debaters — Bush and Michael Dukakis — were asked about contemporary heroes. “I think of Dr. Fauci,” said Bush. “You’ve probably never heard of him. . . . He’s a very fine researcher, a top doctor at the National Institutes of Health, working hard, doing something about research on this disease of AIDS.”

Anyway, enough Memory Lane, for now . . .

• On Trump and Roger Stone, I have just two remarks, for this lil’ column. (1) Trump’s bailout of Stone was not surprising, of course. But I continue to be surprised — to a degree — by Trump’s army of defenders, excusers, and enablers. It includes many people who, for years, mouthed support for good, clean government. You should go back and see what they said about Clinton!

To borrow an old line: If it weren’t for double standards, there’d be no standards at all.

(2) Our system has “guardrails,” as people say. There are formal restraints in the Constitution and in our general body of law. But these restraints cannot do everything. Our system also depends on self-restraint: on a modicum of honor, decency, and patriotism in our officials.

Without that, we are cooked.

• The other day, a colleague of mine posited me as an extreme: There’s so-and-so on one hand, and Jay on the other. I had a memory, from way back. (I told you I wasn’t through with Memory Lane.)

There was a course on post-war American foreign policy taught by Ernest R. May, the eminent diplomatic historian. One portion of the course was on the origins of the Cold War. There were several schools, said Professor May. I think there were four, but I remember only three.

One was the traditional American school, holding that the Soviet Union started the Cold War, necessitating a response from the United States and its allies. Another was the Soviet, or Communist, school, holding that it was Washington’s fault. A third was the “revisionist” school, led by New Left historians such as William Appleman Williams and Gar Alperovitz.

I asked Professor May, “Could you explain the differences between the Soviet school and the revisionist school?” He smiled — warmly, knowingly — and did the best he could. (May was an excellent teacher and historian, and a very good guy.)

In the class was a German kid — West German, surely — who was either a Communist or a Communist sympathizer. I don’t say this in any McCarthyite way; he just was (straightforwardly). On one memorable occasion, he referred to the Katyn massacre as “the Katyn accident.” Maybe it was a problem of language, I’m not sure. Anyway, the young man espoused strongly leftist views.

One day, Professor May called him and me to the front of the class to have a little debate. He was obviously pitting us as extremes, or poles, let’s say. I don’t blame the professor for doing this. And I think he thought I was in the right. (He was very discreet in class.) But I resented, a bit, being paired with this Red. There was nothing far-out about my views. I thought a simple reading of the facts placed responsibility on Moscow.

At different points in my life, I have been posited as an extreme. (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” I can hear Barry Goldwater say.) Yet my views were always pretty mainstream.

Some months ago, David French and I were having a conversation. He said that he had been a Reagan conservative since he was 14; I have been one since I was 19 or 20. We said that we felt very boring — square. Around us, everyone else was changing his views, adapting to the times and so on. And our worldview had remained basically the same.

Oh, well.

• In the late 1990s, I read and reviewed Patrick J. Buchanan’s book A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny. He was saying some surprising things about the Cold War — surprising to me, that is, coming from PJB. I checked the footnotes: He was citing those New Left historians, such as Williams and Alperovitz. That made me say, “Whoa.”

• Victor Cha is an Asia scholar, once an adviser to Bush 43. He teaches at Georgetown. And last week, he tweeted,

DHS restrictions on intl students’ participation in virtual course instruction at universities during our pandemic this fall is reckless, xenophobic, and heartless. Students from around the globe enrich every single campus in the US. Period.

Yes. I was one of the enrichees. I learned a great deal from the foreign students around me — a great deal about the world. I think of someone from China. Another from France. Many Middle Easterners. A Japanese kid, who became a good friend of mine. I learned a lot.

Even the West German lefty enriched my experience, in his own way. I’m talking about him all these years on, am I not?

• Let’s have a little music. President Trump tweeted, “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!” I thought those last three words — “BUT NOT ME!” — had the makings of a song. I had the Gershwins in my head: “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me. A lucky star’s above, but not for me.”

For a little post of mine on virtuosity — citing Grigory Sokolov, chiefly — go here.

• Vladimir Horowitz (or someone) said, “If I go a day without practicing, I know. If I go two days, my colleagues know. Three days, the public knows.” Does something like that apply to hygiene in these pandemicky times?

Sorry to end on a gross note. I never promised you a rose garden. But thank you for joining me regardless, and I’ll see you later.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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