Will Our Barriers To Chaos Hold?

A couple of weeks ago, I read a column by Catherine Rampell that I can’t get out of my mind. Rampell began by recounting a remark by a Chinese venture capitalist who had opined that America was going through its own “Cultural Revolution.”

I remember China’s Cultural Revolution: Ushered in during the late 1960s by Chairman Mao, it was an incredibly tumultuous, traumatic period of political turmoil, supposedly intended to cleanse the People’s Republic of “impure and bourgeois” elements.

Universities were shuttered. Public officials were purged. Youth paramilitary groups, known as Red Guards, terrorized civilians. Citizens denounced teachers, spouses and parents they suspected of harboring capitalist sympathies.

Millions were uprooted and sent to the countryside for reeducation and hard labor. Millions more were persecuted, publicly humiliated, tortured, executed.

As Rampell notes, the reality of what happened in China seemed so remote from our current, relatively tame upheavals in the U.S., she laughed.

And yet I haven’t been able to get the comment out of my head. In the weeks since I’ve returned stateside, Li’s seemingly far-fetched analogy has begun to feel . . . a little too near-fetched.

Li said he saw several parallels between the violence and chaos in China decades ago and the animosity coursing through the United States today. In both cases, the countries turned inward, focusing more on defining the soul of their nations than on issues beyond their borders….

“Virtually all types of institutions, be it political, educational, or business, are exhausting their internal energy in dealing with contentious, and seemingly irreconcilable, differences in basic identities and values — what it means to be American,” he said in a subsequent email exchange. “In such an environment, identity trumps reason, ideology overwhelms politics, and moral convictions replace intellectual discourse.”

We may not be exiling our academic “elites” to rural farms, as the Chinese did, but higher education is being demonized. Suddenly, what Rampell calls “cultural artifacts”– the Statue of Liberty and the American flag–have become politicized. Specific words and ideas–climate change, fetus– are stricken or banned from government communiqués.

Both Mao’s decade-long tumult and today’s Cultural Revolution with American characteristics also feature cults of personality for the national leader, who thrives in the surrounding chaos. Each also gives his blessing, sometimes explicitly, for vigilantes to attack ideological opponents on his behalf.

But the most troubling parallel is the call for purges.

Then, Mao and his allies led purges of political and military ranks, allegedly for seditious or just insufficiently loyal behavior. Today, White House officials, right-wing media hosts and federal lawmakers have called for a “cleansing” of the nation’s top law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, because the “deep state” is conspiring against the president.

Rampell ends her column with an observation that I have made on this blog more than once: our institutional arrangements–Separation of Powers, federalism, etc.– have thus far kept America from engaging in truly cataclysmic behaviors. I would add to that list respect for political “habits not embedded in the law, but compelling enough to be considered democratic norms.”

What differentiates the (fully cataclysmic) China then from the (only relatively chaotic) United Status now is, among other things, our political institutions. Our system of checks and balances. And perhaps a few statesmen willing to keep those institutions, checks and balances in place — occasionally turning their backs on their own political tribe.

The question we face is pretty obvious: will those institutions and norms hold?

The answer, unfortunately, is less obvious.


  1. I remember as a child listening to Nikita Khrushchev, speaking at the UN, he took off his shoe and banged it on the podium!… All you ever heard on the political ads was “Khrushchev has said, ‘We will bury you!”… However what he really said was: “We will bury you, through your own ignorance!” I remember the broadcast.
    And again. Vladimir I Lenin is quoted as saying: “I have been asked about the Capitalists, I say not to worry, they will feed us, they will arm us – and we will destroy them!”…
    History can be a real nasty animal – when you don’t learn from it.
    In contrast – read Benjamin Franklins address to the First Continental Congress on the ratification of the Constitution(!) They may have been living in the 1780’s but I guarantee you that was a Man who learned his history and knew what the chances of our democracy’s survival were…

  2. Today: “Will Our Barriers To Chaos Hold?”
    “We may not be exiling our academic “elites” to rural farms, as the Chinese did, but higher education is being demonized. Suddenly, what Rampell calls “cultural artifacts”– the Statue of Liberty and the American flag–have become politicized. Specific words – are stricken or banned from government communiqués.”

    Today’s blog takes me back to Sheila’s earlier blog after the Women’s March here and the millions across this country who marched together.

    January 22, 2018, “We Hang Together Or We’ll Hang Separately”
    “Let me make this clear: there are all kinds of injustices that Americans absolutely need to address. There is an ugly history we need to recognize, especially when it comes to the treatment of people of color–African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants. These issues are critically important–but they will not be addressed, let alone remedied, if Republicans are still in control after the midterms.

    You don’t win elections by unnecessarily alienating your friends and allies.”

    As I have mentioned before, sans the term “cultural revolution”; in my small neighborhood alone the Trump majority is “hanging together” in the positive sense of that terminology. The neighborhood minority; as with the Democratic minority in Congress is “hanging separately” in the meaning used by Sheila on January 22nd. They are aiding and abetting Trump and the White Nationalist Republican party and we are beginning to pay the price for their politicized in-fighting, ego above democracy. We have not been handed the final bill yet but it is coming; as daily, Trump and his minions strip us of our religious freedom. civil and human rights in the name of their personal christian beliefs. They have control of the economy, our health care, the education system and will now allow infrastructures across this country to continue to deteriorate and our environment to become more polluted with hazardous waste to fill the coffers of big business. There is no need to “send us to the countryside for reeducation and hard labor”; they are allowing us to remain in our own homes to accomplish the same end.

  3. Sheila,

    “The question we face is pretty obvious: will those institutions and norms hold?”
    “The answer, unfortunately, is less obvious.”

    It’s pretty obvious to me. Without a strong dose of CIVIC COURAGE, our institutions and norms won’t have a “snowball’s chance in hell” of holding against the REPUBLICAN ONSLAUGHT.

  4. When someone criticized decisions Lenin made, his aides asked how they should reply. He said that they would not reply, because that would generate a counter-reply, and the sequence would go on forever, and the people would pay attention to the controversy – which he did not want to happen.

    Lenin just said “We will brand him as an enemy of the people. Then, no one will pay attention to him.”

    Fake news, anyone?

  5. I see many more parallels with fascism of the 30s than Mao’s cultural revolution. While F.A. Hayek is not on many progressive’s reading lists he observed the following in “The Road to Serfdom”.

    “Hitler did not have to destroy democracy; he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of the many to whom, though they detested Hitler, he seemed the only man strong enough to get things done.”

    Our critical moment is at hand.

  6. The following is from “The Nazis’ March to Chaos: The Hitler Era Through the Lenses of Chaos-Complexity Theory” by Roger Beaumont [understanding this might be our best chance for saving our democracy]:

    “A generation ago, Arnold Toynbee tried to discern meaningful patterns over time by looking at civilizations as complex organisms struggling to adapt, survive, and grow. Like Marx and other advocates of “covering laws,” he treated the working of slight forces as twigs swept along in the flood. Chaos-complexity raises the question of whether that view of causal dynamics is right, and cluster of similar but not identical elements converge in the TURBULENT FLOW OF TIME, like clumps of boulders formed in the bed of a raging river that form rough approximations, like the English and American civil wars, the Romanticism of the early 1800’s and 1900’s, or ancient and modern imperialism. If historical events are analogous to chemical reactions produced by roughly similar convergences of elements, temperatures, and pressures and if some patterns do reappear, in the manner of echoes, then chaos-complexity might help us identify ATTRACTORS [i.e. anti-Semitism and racism] around which horrors and wars take up their orbiting and plot the roughly common conditions—the “fuzzy sets’—that lead to that. Isaiah Berlin’s claim that there is “no sharp break between history and mythology or ….metaphysics” brings us back to the question of whether it might be possible to FRAME A VIEW OF HISTORY ENCOMPASSING ALL THE CAUSES OF A PARTICULAR EVENT—OR THE MOST CRITICAL ONES. Might we, then, be able to chart enough details of German, European, and world history to find out why things really went the way they did in the Hitlerzeit? That is certainly not a trivial question, considering that AFTER-IMAGES of those events seem to be looming ever larger as we move farther away from them in time.

  7. Thank you for your observations this morning, John Neal. It has helped me to see something that has eluded me since Trump came on the political scene. And that is the why so many people supported him and continue to support him. I think I now know why. Wait for it… wait for it… THEY DO NOT KNOW HISTORY!!!!!

    They were either never taught or they paid no attention to the subject They know so little about the world events of the 1930s they see no correlation. They are incapable of seeing the danger, and so they march on into fascism and their own destruction. This is the damning evidence of the failure to educate out children.

  8. Theresa; I agree, those people do not know history, our own or world events. Nor do they know of Trump’s history…but every Republican official in this country did and somehow found it useful to meet their own ends. They found it not only useful but a financial boon for them personally as well as for their private owners whose continued support they rely on.

  9. Sheila’s topic for the day is one whose vestiges we have seen since Reagan, who introduced the Randian notion of total greed which in turn destroyed remnants of New Deal thinking and the idea that “We’re all in this together” goodwill following WW II versus “I’ve got mine and I’m going to get yours” thinking of today. We are aware that Reagan was influenced by the infamous Powell memo of 1971 and the trickledown nonsense of Friedman and his Chicago School of Economics, among other blueprints for greed mongering.

    However, a mere thumbnail recitation of economic history does not treat the trip to the Mao cliff Sheila notes today, which involves political history, both past and present. I think that our Randian culture of Reagan-inspired greed began with the advent of the Tea Party hardliners who view compromise as evil and who, though a minority, make the critical difference in proposing and fashioning legislation, and that such adherents are oblivious to outcome and slaves to ideology.
    I think further that their steadfast and unyielding refusal to compromise has created a certain paralysis in governing, which explains why the popularity of Congress is even below that of Trump. The libertarian (see Mercers and Kochs) idea is to make government look bad, overreaching, controlling and against freedom for its citizenry. All of us remember Reagan’s declaration that “government is the problem.”
    Given such a do-nothing background and the political vacuum thus created, Trumpism or something like it had to happen, as not only does nature but politics also abhor a vacuum, as we have seen with Lenin, Hitler and Mao. The modus operandi of these three and now Trumpists is to incite hatred of government and sew doubt and confusion in its institutions (FBI, CIA et al.) in order to create a situation calling for “a strong man” to ride in on his white horse (apologies to Sir Walter Scott) and save the day. Trump is the horseman. Our task? Resist the horseman and his fellow conspirators in the defense of our most important asset held in common – our democracy. How? To the Bastille in November, 2018.

  10. Gerald,

    Thanks for corroborating my latest book. The lack of statecraft in our so-called leaders is a function of how corruptible they are as people. Clearly, there are FAR more Republicans who are bought and paid for by the plutocrats and oligarchs than Democrats. That fact alone corroborates what Theresa said, “they do not know history”. The chase for wealth and “success” has become the mantra of the now and to hell with the past.

    So, as a result, we find ourselves bereft of quality government, replaced by a collection of idiots and clowns who are an embarrassment to all mankind. Trump and his cronies are spectacularly unqualified to govern anything, never mind directing the world’s most destructive military force in history. That fact tells the world that we’re not that strong as a people. It tells them that we are scared to death of anything that could threaten profits.

    The current “cultural revolution” is directed by our industrial lust for energy, i.e., oil. The luxury that oil brings to our lives encourages the “extraction industries” to do nothing to plan for alternative energies. Therefore, having no plan, they buy the politicians that will preserve the status quo and ensure their wealth. The wealth monster has now taken on a life of its own – as it usually does – and will soon create a massive collapse of economies around the world. That cyclical stupidity of capitalism, also as mentioned by Gerald, is the culture we’ve invented only in the last 45-50 years.

    It will end soon, one way or another. I suspect that Robert Mueller will cause a Constitutional crisis by indicting Trump on all sorts of criminal conspiracies, money laundering, obstruction of justice, etc., etc. No, Trump will not resign. He will bluster his way for as long as he can hoping that the 30%, his gun-toting friends out there on the fringes of Redneck Nation will come riding to his rescue.

    That will be quite a climax to our cultural purges and revolution, won’t it?

  11. FWIW, if you are not of the geezer era like I am, take a quick peek in this for a quick summary of the “Cultural Revolution”:
    I still have my copy of ‘The Little Red Book’, but I’m not sure where it is.
    I hope I never have to get it out, and probably won’t, because they’ll just reprint it with some current updates, like the title being changed to “Quotations from Chairman Donald John Trump” and things like that, but it will still be called The Little Red Book, after the color of his party.

  12. We have had Corporatism here in AmeriKa for some time. Our political system for the present seems to be hopelessly mired by the corruption of big money in politics.

    When Trump (aka Agent Orange) emerged his opponents in the Republican Primary vastly underestimated him. It made no difference how often he was fact checked, or how he backtracked – Remember Mexico was going to pay for the wall. The Trumpet is a con man first and foremost, his primary concern is lining his own pockets, by branding and marketing himself.

    As Andrew Helms put it: “President Trump ignited a national controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. In an act of Twitter jujitsu, Trump turned Colin Kaepernick’s protest against social injustice into a referendum on patriotism, the military and the flag, opening the latest front in his ongoing culture war”.

    In another act political jujitsu a purge of the FBI is being demanded. The Republican Party and above all the Trumpet are masters of deflection.

    DACA is one of the latest illusions The Trumpet has seized upon. DACA and the Wall have been intertwined. The Wall is being sold as necessary for national security. Thus, opponents of The Wall are being attacked for not wanting to protect AmeriKa.

  13. Were it not for a free press, I strongly doubt our system of checks and balances would overcome the current tribalism.

    I often ask myself why Special Prosecutor Mueller keeps investigating since Donald Trump has admitted to firing James Comey to stop the investigation and bragged to the Russians about it. But then I surmise that the special prosecutor wants to confirm or deny to his own satisfaction whether Donald Trump has been compromised by a hostile, foreign government. Given Donald Trump Jr.’s statement that a lot of Russian money is sustaining the Trump organization, the answer seems obvious.

    Anyone – foreign or domestic – having that kind of leverage over the President of the USA would put the President in a compromising position. That’s why Presidents need to put any and all financial interests into a truly blind trust – not one controlled by family members. I hope Mueller will be able to demonstrate why that’s SO important.

  14. A local paper published the following article on their opinion page; “TERESA MULL: Why the “War on College” is growing more justified”. This was a rant against (liberal) colleges today. I thought is was rather ironic that the author has a college education. Upon further investigation, all of the people listed on Heartland Institute web site, who Teresa is affilliated with, have college educations.

    According to Teresa, a college education nowadays should only prepare you for a job in hard sciences. Several idea offered by Teresa are; 1) The reason most kids go to college is that society tells them they have to if they ever want a job 2) Employers just want to hire people who are competent, reliable and trainable, not necessarily pre-programmed with the “skills” 3) Most college courses, especially when it comes to getting a job, are a waste of time. Teresa also points out that the liberal arts are intended to transport a person’s soul to a higher plane.

    I believe a majority of companies have made it clear that they pay more to those with a college than those without, making it Corporate America, not society, mandating higher education. I have people in my family that are competent, reliable and trainable but have been passed over for career advancement because they did not possess a college degree. Liberal arts should make a person more well rounded but how can that happen if there isn’t exposure to mulitiple and opposing ideas?

    I believe Teresa’s rant to be nothing more than an attempt at opportunity hoarding. If she, like others, can make people believe that a college education is bad, then fewer people will want a college education and her college education will continue to be of more value. She will then continue to have more opportunities than those afforded to those without that education.

  15. @Theresa. They may actually know history as there were hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who gathered and marched in support of Hitler’s Third Reich right here is the good old U.S.A. We see the remnants of those NAZI sympathizers marching today. Did they learn the hate and bigotry they proudly and publicly display from history books? Or, did they learn those hateful and white supremacist ideas in their homes from family members? Charles Lindberg was an American hero who was not shy about his support of Hitler’s regime. His legacy is still his incredible fete instead of his political betrayal of our values. We seem to be repeating more what was taught in family history than what has been taught in schools.

  16. I think that anyone who stumbled across this site for the first time today would be immediately impressed by how much a group of average citizens have been able to diagnose about this America from the lessons of history. It is complex and less the plot of evil persons and more the unraveling of American culture by corrosive trends made powerful by their coincidence more than by their individual intent. Like Mao didn’t invent the Cultural Revolution he encouraged and took advantage of it, so many players today see opportunity rather than drive for takeover.

    It is complex and by our poor means to add or detract chaotic, out of control like California wild fires or contagious viruses.

    That’s why I’m so convinced that at this stage of cultural deterioration we need simple solutions to stop the spread followed by complex ongoing strategies like the ones that birthed our nation.

    Vote only Ds in ’18 and ’20 to stop the chaos dead in its tracks. Sort things out later.

  17. I’m afraid I agree with the comments made by John Neal and Marv and their comparisons with what is happening today with the rise of Hitler and the NSDAP in Germany now nearly 86 years ago. I can’t help but compare all of us to all those well read and socially aware Germans that could not bring themselves to believe that such rabble would come to power and as a result did not mobilize themselves against it in whichever ways they could back then. Then as it was manifesting itself and showing its true self, it’s coarseness and racist undemocratic ideals, they stood back incredulously and let it happen. The next step being that they then rationalized how they might be able to coalesce with those that were taking power and find peace and common ground with them when, in reality, there was no such thing.

    13 years later they were picking up the pieces of their shattered and defeated country, living on handouts and garbage in a world that they had allowed two collapse entirely up on them due to their acquiescence and cowardice in the face of what proved to be one of the most evil political systems in the history of man. Here we sit right now pondering our own version of what ended up to be their ultimate nightmare and something that shame them all to the grave, knowing that they have allowed this to happen and did essentially nothing. Given how off balance we are right now to both to what is happening and what is being sourced by media manipulation on a scale that Josef Goebbels could only dream about. If we just sit back and watch and continue to allow ourselves to be twisted in the wind as we are now we may soon find ourselves in the same position yet with if a great deal more its stake than ever could be dreamt of in 1932.

    Given how interconnected the world is today and how this country is at the very core of the world order that keeps things from running totally amok worldwide, the dangers and impact inherent of all of this will be magnified geometrically to a level that most of us still do not understand. We are the verge of ceding our preeminent position in the world because of the chaos that is been inflicted upon us from outside in been magnified by all the long lasting deep divisions that have been in this country all long being brought to the forefront to cripple us even further, keeping us from understanding and appreciating the true import of what is happening and the damage that it incur globally.

    We’re on the verge, if this isn’t stopped soon and decisively, of facing an abject catastrophe where it’s true ramifications have yet to be realized. This gives us precious time to stop this “thing” but we need to move soon since the longer it goes on and a deeper it gets the harder it will be to stop and recover from. Add to that what the rest of the world will be going through as we are going through the internal political and social gyrations we may be facing. As this is going on the world order as we have known it will have no rudder that we, nor any of our various global partners, will want and that will make things even worse. One gigantic and very destructive feedback loop of monumental proportions.

  18. Tom,

    Thanks. No one can say it any better than you. It needs to be repeated:

    “Here we sit right now pondering our own version of what ended up to be their ultimate nightmare and something that shame them all to the grave, knowing that they have allowed this to happen and did essentially nothing. Given how off balance we are right now to both to what is happening and what is being sourced by media manipulation on a scale that Josef Goebbels could only dream about. If we just sit back and watch and continue to allow ourselves to be twisted in the wind as we are now we may soon find ourselves in the same position yet with if a great deal more its stake than ever could be dreamt of in 1932.”

    If you don’t believe this to be true then have the courage to speak-up and say why you don’t agree.

  19. Well now this is bizarre. >>

    The New York Times reported Friday that Hillary Clinton personally intervened on behalf of a senior campaign advisor who was accused of sexual harassment during her 2008 presidential campaign. Burns Strider, the campaign’s faith advisor, was accused by a 30-year-old subordinate of rubbing her shoulders and repeatedly sending her suggestive emails. Clinton’s campaign manager recommended he be fired. Clinton overrode the recommendation, and Strider remained on staff. Strider was Clinton’s faith adviser, sending her scripture readings.

    The Times reports that Strider was docked several weeks of pay and ordered to undergo counselling but declined to attend.

    He subsequently led Correct the Record, a group supporting Clinton from which he was fired for what the Times, citing three sources close to the group’s management, called “workplace issues, including allegations that he harassed a young female aide”.

    The episode remained quiet for years, in part because the accuser signed a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her from discussing the campaign’s internal dynamics.

    Hillary needed a “faith advisor” who could not keep his hands to himself???

  20. The following is from “Ur-Fascism” by the Italian author Umberto Eco:

    “Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist [this is not the case with the term Nazism]. Take away imperialism from fascism and you have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalisn (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound. Add a cult of Celtic mythology and the Grail mysticism (completely alien to an official fascism) and you have one of the most respected fascist gurus, Julius Evola.”

    “But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them [ he lists 14] be present to allow fascism to COAGULATE around it.”

    [For example #3 “IRRATIONALISM also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.”]

    “We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words [freedom, dictatorship, liberty] will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent o DISGUISES. Our duty is to uncover it and to point out any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4,1938, are worth reading:

    “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward
    as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens,
    FASCISM will grow in strenght in our land.””

Comments are closed.