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Be Violent!

Updated: 7 days ago

When ‘progressive’ academia substitutes one flawed and fatal moral maxim with another – “might makes right” with “the strong is wrong” – the custodians of Enlightenment betray their mission. The Clotting of the Academic Mind, Part II


A daughter of one of China’s Eight Immortals, Song Binbin could have attained no better education than at the prestigious Experimental High School, attached to Beijing Normal University, which many high officials’ children, including Mao’s two daughters, attended. In 1966, the seventeen-year-old Song became the leader of the school’s Red Guards, and soon found her first public enemy: Bian Zhongyun, the headmistress and a fifty-year-old mother of four. In March, amidst an earthquake near Beijing, Bian told her students to run for shelter, and when some asked her if they should carry Mao’s portrait, Bian just kept telling them to run out of class.

On August 5, Song’s superior seismograph led her, and her peers, to finally avenge the portrait’s lonesome humiliation. The girls kicked and trampled Bian, poured boiling water over her, then ordered her to carry heavy bricks back and forth; as she stumbled past, the girls thrashed her with leather army belts with brass buckles, and with wooden sticks studded with nails. Bian soon collapsed and died.

Two weeks later, Song got what she deserved. She was led to Tiananmen Gate, where Mao Zedong himself stood, dressed in army uniform for the first time since 1949, reviewing hundreds of thousands of Red Guards – and Song was given the signal honor of putting a Red Guard armband on The Great Leader. A lovely dialogue ensued: “Chairman Mao asked her: ‘What's your name?’ She said ‘Song Binbin.’ Chairman Mao asked: ‘Is it the “Bin” as in “Educated and Gentle”?’ She said: ‘Yes.’ Chairman Mao said: ‘Be violent!’.” Song obeyed and changed her name to “Be Violent”; the school’s name was now proudly “The Red Violent School.”

The Cultural Revolution’s Red Terror would soon spread to schools and universities across China. (As for Song, worry not – in 1989, while Chinese students were massacred in Tiananmen Square, Song completed her PhD at MIT, without even killing a single professor, and later became naturalized as a U.S citizen).

We have advanced much over the past sixty years, in China, and certainly in the west. For one, we rarely use red armband or change our name to “Be Violent!” For another, liberal campuses have become such safe spaces, that no one dares pouring boiling water over you for stepping out of line. Indeed, rather than joining Mao’s Red Guards or reading his Little Red Book, we’ve become expert in detecting red flags waving all around us – bad people, toxic personalities, dangerous ideas that can imperil our fragile selves, which we so well veil that we may wonder if we can still recognize them as ours. From such stifling cocoons, how can any butterfly ever spread its wings?

Ours is a generous, gentle-hearted generation. We sublimate Mao’s sublime violence. We rhetorically slap your face as an act of grace – to keep you safe and save you from yourself. What Song did for herself, we do for you: attune your seismograph to the tectonic intellectual movements of today, and help you gaze into the moral crystal ball of tomorrow, and righteously rage.

Nowadays, anti-Zionism seems to be all the outrage on the ivory tower’s dance floor, the intoxicating cause of choice for the contemporary circles of “radical chic.”

Nowadays, anti-Zionism seems to be all the outrage on the ivory tower’s dance floor, the intoxicating cause of choice for the contemporary circles of “radical chic.” Granted, there are always party poopers. Some faculty and students might feel ungrateful, even disgruntled, but after all, as Mao’s comrade, Joseph Stalin, was fond of saying “When you chop wood, splinters fly,” and Zionism is apparently one thick demonic forest.

How ‘safe’ – and away from Enlightenment’s credo – have we come. In a previous post, we discussed Kant’s “dare to know!” imperative, and how it requires, à la Levinas, face-to-face encounter and responsibility. I would have liked to discuss the matter with members of the numerous students' organizations, like those at Harvard, who on the very day of the October 7 massacre, not even awaiting Israel’s’ response, adamantly declared that they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence… Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum… The apartheid regime is the only one to blame.”

And not, of course, Hamas. This vast political-military organization, which commands the Gaza Strip for seventeen years, which heralds a fundamentalist fascist and genocidal ideology, which has destroyed the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians for nearly forty years, that Hamas bears no responsibility for planning and executing horrendous acts of massacre, rape and kidnapping of mostly civilian Israelis, many from communities actively working toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. Apparently, rather than a baby-killer, Hamas is like a baby, or at most a toddler, yet to form conscience and possess enough power to be held accountable for its actions. Song - “Be violent!” – Binbin might as well have gone to Harvard.

Michael Ramirez, “Human Shields”, 2023

Ramiraz was commenting on Hamas Official Ghazi Hamad's response to Oct 7: "We are the victims... everything we do is justified." His cartoon was pulled off the Washington Post for being "racist."

In the realm of moral maxims, down with “might makes right,” long live “the strong is wrong”!

How did it come to this? What moral movements does the students’ seismograph capture to relieve Hamas of responsibility for its atrocities, effectively endorsing them?

Uncle Ben holds part of the answer, memorably advising his Spider-Man nephew, “With great power comes great responsibility!” (a proverb that made its way to the US Supreme Court).

In our algorithmic age, this equation has a great appeal: to ascribe responsibility, ascertain one’s power. Substituting materiality for morality, arithmetic for ethics, one need not engage dilemmas, simply run the numbers. The “balance of power” will explain it all. In the realm of moral maxims, down with “might makes right,” long live “the strong is wrong”!

But the later pervasive precept is merely the flipside of the former. Both are about seeing the world through the prism of power. Both amounts to the same control coin with which we pay for the comfort of binary moral and emotional clarity, eschewing doubts and quandaries – and ultimately, our soul.

For Noah, Israel is a teenage boy hitting his four-year-old brother, and that just ain't right.

Trevor Noah’s guide to a previous iteration of the Israel-Hamas clash is one excellent example of this infantilizing morality Mao’s Cultural Revolution would have been proud of. For Noah, Israel is a teenage boy hitting his four-year-old brother, and that just ain't right. Deliberating the morality of the rivals, Noah tellingly concludes: “The main question that I ask myself is about power.”

Responsibility should be primarily about choice, not control. However weak you are, you are responsible – not least for your violence.

I do not know how many times Noah’s young brother tried to kill him, or whether Noah still believes Hamas “can’t hurt you.” But the Oct7 massacre should urge us all to rethink “the strong is wrong” precept, and not just because Hamas is evidently far stronger than its facile depictions – even after eight months of heavy fighting, the mighty Israel has yet to crush the supposedly feeble Hamas, let alone release the hostages.

We should rethink this precept because it leads us to a moral pit. Responsibility should be primarily about choice, not control – about humans owning up to their unique capacity to reflect, imagine crossroads, and opt for one path over another. However weak you are, you are responsible for your actions – not least for your violence.

The balance between our navigational aids is shifting: the social seismograph and the emotional gyroscope rise, while our individual moral compass falters. Enter the crystal ball...

Ultimately, the students’ seismograph captures the shifting balance between two other navigational aids of our life: the rise of emotional gyroscope and the demise of moral compass. We prefer the cult of (self-)confidence over individual conscience, emotional certitudes over heart-wrenching dilemmas. We prefer the assurance of ready-at-hand identities over the dangers of personal doubts.

With the advent of social media, a fourth navigational aid is bursting on the scene: the crystal ball. Turning any fleeting present into a past projected onto your prospects, the crystal ball fore-casts a giant “shadow of the future” over you. When every move we make is registered by others who warn us to “be on the right side of history,” what chance do we stand to take chances, to make mistakes as we figure out who and what we truly wish to become?

Little chance, it would seem. As if inhabiting an echo chamber, Harvard-like declarations often start with the pseudo-intellectual and banal observation that “these events did not unfold in a vacuum,” a preamble repeated verbatim by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Perhaps in 1940, he would have said “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Nazis did not happen in a vacuum. The Germans have been subjected to the unfair Treaty of Versailles. They have seen their army defeated, their lands taken from them, their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

Had Guterres said those words, he would not, however strong, be wrong: WWII and the holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. But historical context mustn’t turn into a moral pretext to “be violent!”

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