As many American universities in the early twenty-first century witness episodes of violent chaos, it is worth recalling that much of what is happening now has happened before. I do not refer to the usual comparisons between the campus Brownshirts and the real ones. Instead, I suggest that we look to China for keys to understanding how we got to, say, April’s Battle of Berkeley, and for glimpses of how it will all probably continue to get much worse before it gets any better.
There are broad and disturbing parallels between a ruthless court eunuch named Zhao Gao’s aggressive hijacking of a Chinese dynasty more than 2000 years ago, and the New Left’s reprisal of that theme in the 1960s in the United States. More than the violence of the counterculture (although there is still plenty of that to go around), what remains most salient are the techniques of herding, culling, and mental disorientation and debilitation—practices perfected in ancient China and now practiced by the academic left.
Zhao Gao was central to the rise and fall of the Qin Dynasty in China in the third century BC. An expert in criminal law, Zhao’s advice on using brute force to corral a wary population under the iron authority of the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, was instrumental to Qin Shi Huangdi’s success in turning a bloody revolution into something resembling a dynasty.
But as Zhao and Qin pushed deeper into the maelstrom of recrimination, retribution, and paranoia, in an attempt to shore up political power, they found that they had to kill an increasing number of people in order to maintain what they called “order” among the court and the realm. When Qin Shi Huangdi died, Zhao forged documents commanding Zhao’s potential rivals to commit ritual suicide. Zhao also used the emperor’s death as an occasion to exact revenge upon his former tormentors, the Meng family. Zhao then arranged for Qin Er Shi, Zhao’s protégé, to become Qin Shi Huangdi’s successor, thus ensuring a pliant presence on the Son of Heaven’s throne.
Soon, however, the inevitable rebellions against the Qin dynasty’s monumental cruelties began to overtake the ability of the central government to suppress them. Zhao Gao, the real power behind the throne, rightly feared that he would be blamed for the breakdown of military discipline in the borderlands. So he preemptively had his protégé Qin Er Shi killed, too. The replacement whom Zhao selected was understandably wary of what Zhao intended to do to him, and so, finally, Zhao himself was assassinated by enemy forces inside the imperial court. Just as Zhao had done to his own victims, Zhao’s family line was annihilated, root and branch, in order to erase both the danger and the memory of Zhao’s dark influence over Chinese politics.
This hijacking of institutions did not end with the downfall of Zhao Gao. At the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), for instance, Howard Zinn, a radical leftist historian, and John King Fairbank, an apolitical scholar of Ming history, famously wrestled over the use of a microphone. Zinn, along with fellow far-left activist historians Jesse Lemisch and Staughton Lynd, were attempting to drive through resolutions on overtly political issues such as the American bombing of North Vietnam. (Earlier proposals, which died in committee, also called for supporting the terrorist activities of the Black Panthers.)
Many other historians, Fairbank included, thought it would cheapen the profession to turn the annual meeting of scholars into a platform for political grandstanding. Even slavery historian Eugene Genovese, himself a Marxist-Socialist who had caused trouble in the past for publicly supporting North Vietnam, warned against the politicization of a body of scholars holding diverse views. When Zinn became impatient with parliamentary rules, he simply grabbed the meeting’s microphone from Fairbank’s hands and attempted to browbeat the committee through sheer volume of voice.
Fairbank won the battle but lost the war. Zinn’s forces were defeated, and the apolitical candidate, historian (ironically) of the French Revolution Robert Palmer, was elected president, but the avalanche of politics continued to pour into both the AHA and the wider historical profession as a whole. Even before the contentious AHA meeting in 1969, for example, the 1968 meeting of the Association for Asian Studies witnessed its own civil war and bitter secession, as a radical contingent of younger scholars broke away from the AAS due to that organization’s failure to “take a stand” against the war in Vietnam. The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars—the flagship vessel of the radicals—was only the beginning of the tidal wave of politics that finally swept over the bulwarks of scholarship and swamped the academy in its current quagmire of self-righteousness.
This hostile takeover of the academy, while less spectacularly violent than Zhao Gao’s “long knives”-style takeover of the Qin court, was effected through similar methods of intimidation and score-settling. One method in particular shared by Zhao and the New Left stands out: the use of obvious absurdities and highly contentious positions as a means of gauging who among the intellectuals is pliable enough to be easily controlled. For Zinn, pinning the academy down on the questions dearest to the New Left’s political program was essential to mapping out the academic takeover. In Zhao’s case, he once famously led a deer into a hall of officials engaged an imperial audience and insisted that the deer was really a horse. Everyone who pointed out the obvious to Zhao—that the quadruped was cervine and not equine—was later targeted for assassination.
Zhao preferred to work with the easily duped, and had no spare time for critical thinkers. Those who were willing to commit intellectual suicide in order to maintain their positions were precisely the kinds of people whom Zhao Gao knew he could manipulate into doing his bidding.
This method of introducing an offensive proposition in order to identify and eliminate potential resistance to one’s hostile takeover of an institution hardly ended with the downfall of Zhao Gao. Time and again, beginning with the politicization efforts of Howard Zinn and the New Left, waves of de facto purges have swept through American academe, each purge more violently transformative than the last. After tiring of the direct confrontations that rocked campuses in the late 60s and early 70s, the left adopted Zhao Gao’s tactic of pressing shibboleths—usually the sacred cows of identity politics—on faculties in order to mark for elimination any who seemed willing to fight.
For example, over the past few years, scholars at U.S. institutions have increasingly been faced with a Zhaoian dilemma. On the one hand, it is certainly possible to acquiesce in the insistence by administrators, gender and women’s studies departments, and other members of the faculty, that human beings can become anything they wish simply by willing it to be so. Men are women, women are men—or anything else one might imagine, the Zhaoian proposition goes. One visiting scholar at the University of Arizona who publicly identifies as a hippopotamus (yes, the giant pinkish-gray creature which enjoys floating around in lazy rivers) was warmly welcomed by his colleagues as such. (No word on whether he received an extra stipend for bushels of watercress.)
On the other hand, some foolhardy scholars may run the gamut and point out that these kinds of assertions fly in the face of reality. The price for doing so, however, is steep. Usually, such protestations are rewarded with Star Chamber Title IX trials, public pillorying by a thoroughly Zhaoist press, and immediate dismissal from one’s place of employment. Those who manage to survive the initial wave of political correctness are left to face years of ostracism and shunning, until, inevitably, they are denied tenure and sent quietly on their way. Everyone else quickly learns that it is far, far easier just to call a deer a horse.
Outside observers almost always mistake the internal dynamic of these witch hunts. In the academy today, witches are not burned at the stake over politics, but over insufficient displays of gullibility. Politics provides useful indices for gauging others’ willingness to be cooperatively disingenuous, but when we hear that the groves of academe are politicized, what is really meant is not so much partisan politics per se as the politics required to maintain the academy’s carefully fortressed mendacity.
The reason for all the hullaballoo—and all the professors encouraging violence like Melissa Click and Mireille Miller-Young—is that academics no longer deal in truth. They deal in something much more fungible: lies, told boldly and couched in the proper jargon, make for lucrative careers. The protection of tenure comes to those who do not disrupt this counterfeit economy by asking hard questions about highly questionable research. In a redux of Gresham’s Law, ostracism flies like Hermes to the doors of the honest, driving them out and maintaining the essential impurity of the money supply. The least tolerable thing in such a system is the unbiased seeker. The Grand Guignols of tragicomic campus paranoia that are now daily news stories in the American press—Yale undergrads going berserk over Halloween costumes, St. Olaf undergrads going into full meltdown mode over obvious hoaxes—are the sad results of decades of driving truth far beyond the castle walls.
Interestingly, it is increasingly the liberals who are under the most vicious attack at colleges and universities. At Providence College, Anthony Esolen was hounded mercilessly for his conservative views, but Professor Esolen is now the outlier in yet another way. Most scapegoats today would probably find themselves in disagreement with him on any given political point, such as Duke theology professor Paul Griffiths (offense: ribbing the inanities of diversity training), Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis (offense: mentioning campus sexual paranoia in public), Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen (offense: teaching rape law in a law school class about criminal law), and Evergreen State professor Bret Weinstein (offense: reporting to work). Impeccable left-wing voting records are no protection against the atavistic tribalism of the chalk-dust mafia. I have personally known devotees of the Frankfurt School (true believers in Engels and Sanders and Jill Stein) who have publicly been called bigoted for even privately questioning not whether, but how diversity sessions should be carried out. Surely not a single one of those listed here is a Trump supporter. Politics is no protection from the anti-thought police.
Indeed, there is something disturbingly anti-intellectual and anti-political afoot in the American academy. This brings me to the second half of my compound metaphor: Lei Feng Shushu, or “Uncle Lei Feng.” Lei Feng was a People’s Liberation Army soldier who was killed rather unheroically when a telephone pole fell over and struck him after it was hit by a truck. After his death, it was discovered that Lei had kept a diary in which he recorded his deep personal devotion to Chairman Mao Zedong. Lin Biao, an ambitious PLA general who would later die in a mysterious plane crash after allegedly attempting to overthrow Mao’s government, made use of Lei’s diary as a way to divert criticism from the Communist Party after the Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese people. Lei Feng’s face, shining with selfless dedication to Mao, was emblazoned on countless propaganda posters exhorting the masses to serve, cherish, and sacrifice for the Party.
Despite these political messages, the defining feature of Lei Feng was that he was quite innocent of political conviction. His politics, in a word, was Mao. Apart from that, he was as unburdened by political artifice as a newborn babe. In fact, it was with Lei Feng Shushu that “redness,” and not adherence to any kind of Marxist or socialist line, grew to be the shibboleth non pareil among the Chinese people. Lei Feng was lionized, as it were, for being a political lamb. Whatever Mao wanted, Lei Feng wanted it, too. The last thing the Chinese Communist Party needed was a debate on first principles. (The Hundred Flowers campaign had taught Mao better of that idea.) Unthinking obedience to a charismatic leader was the real goal of the Cultural Revolution, and Lei Feng Shushu was the model for the “herd of independent minds” to follow.
Likewise, despite what seems like politics uber alles on the quad these days, it is increasingly taboo to speak of political principles on American campuses. Privilege, triggering, microaggressions, misgendering, safe spaces—these are marinated in the language of politics, yet at bottom they are not political ideas but politicized emotions. Like Lei Feng, “red” to his (airbrushed) core, the modern American university prizes abandonment of cogitation, not cleverness in understanding doctrine. Redness today is about emotivism, just as in Beijing in the 1960s redness denoted emotional investment in the cult of Mao. It is worth remembering that, in the propaganda posters, Lei Feng Shushu was sometimes shown reading Mao’s Little Red Book, but that the Red Guards taught to emulate Lei Feng were almost always shown waving the book around apotropaically above their heads. As the Berkeley feminist Judith Butler might say, redness is not principled, it is performative.
These two sets of tactics—the negative one of forcing out potential dissidents with shibboleths, and the positive one of ensuring compliance by incentivizing absence of thought—form the yin and yang of mind-policing in the American academy. For example, on the one hand, as happened once in my former academic department, a colleague clearly of one sex was introduced as being of the other sex. As everyone will now long since have figured out, it is career homicide to call a deer a deer in cases such as these. On the other hand, incessant low-wattage propaganda campaigns constantly reinforce the party line that both sexuality and gender are social constructs. Those who somehow miss the shibboleth session are reminded just by walking the halls what the official position is on pelvic issues. Under Mao, redness was red. In the U.S., it is rainbow colored. The difference goes no further than the chromatic.
There is an antidote to all of this, but it will require courage to speak the truth. Those who do so on campus are going to be dunce-capped and frog-walked. It is no coincidence that social justice warriors, of whom Zhao Gao is the prototype, are forever accusing others of bullying. Jung used to call this kind of thing “projection.” It all comes with the territory these days, but the mob never has the final say. With courage, patience, and sacrifice, it is possible to take the academy back from the Zhao Gaos and the Howard Zinns, the high priests and priestesses of the cult of Lei Feng.
Perhaps the motto of the underground resistance could be zhǐ lù wéi lù: “Calling a deer a deer.”
Jason Morgan is an assistant professor at Reitaku University in Japan. He specializes in Japanese legal history, and is currently researching pro-life Japanese doctor Kikuta Noboru. Morgan’s work has appeared in venues such as Japan Review, Modern Age, Chronicles, Crisis, New Oxford Review, Japan Forum for Strategic Studies Quarterly, American Thinker, Michigan Historical Review, Ethika Politika, Japan Forward, and the Journal of American-East Asian Relations. Morgan’s book, Amerikajin ha naze Nihon wo mikudasu no ka, is available in Japanese from Wani Books.