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Conservatives Are Comparing Racial Justice Protestors to Maoists

In their effort to transform their discomfort with the current #BlackLivesMatter protests into a superficially sophisticated critique, right-wing “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have latched onto a dubious historical analogy.

When former congressman Newt Gingrich, the National Review’s David Harsanyi, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, and other right-wingers look at the protests against police violence, they see the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, turned China upside down. Initially instigated by Mao Zedong to outflank his more liberal opponents, the Cultural Revolution drew millions of young people into a bewildering assortment of Red Guard factions that purged “reactionary” elements from institutions, destroyed irreplaceable historical treasures, and even fought pitched battles against each other. As Mao quickly lost control over the movement, the Red Guards threw China into such chaos that even the country’s nuclear weapons complex was at risk.

The Cultural Revolution lasted a decade, resulted in at least a million deaths, and led to the destruction, in Beijing alone, of nearly 5,000 of the city’s 6,800 officially designated sites of historical interest.

Keep that in mind as you read what Joel Pollak, an editor-at-large at Breitbart, has to say:

Black Lives Matter” has become America’s version of China’s Cultural Revolution — a radical, youth-led purge of the vestiges of traditional culture and authority within a one-party state.

In this case, the one-party system is the “blue archipelago” of Democrat-run cities, most of which have not had Republican leaders for decades, and likely never will again.

But whereas China’s radicals helped Mao consolidate power, Black Lives Matter may destabilize the entire country.

The most striking similarity between the two movements is the ritual humiliation of individuals seen to represent “the system.” Mobs of demonstrators have marched up to police and demanded that they kneel with them, or to them. Some officers, in a bid to defuse tensions, have obliged.

What a fascinating set of comparisons.

Only a white conservative born in South Africa would equate the traditional culture of ancient temples with statues of white racists. The United States is a one-party state, oops, can’t say that, since the Republicans control the executive and the Senate, so Pollak immediately pivots to something very different, a “blue archipelago” of cities, even though #BlackLivesMatter protests took place in plenty of “red archipelago” towns and cities as well: Wilmington (North Carolina), Odessa (Texas), Grand Island (Nebraska), and dozens of other places that voted for Trump and have sent Republicans to Congress.

The Red Guards didn’t help Mao consolidate power because they in fact destabilized the entire country. But Pollak has to make out that the current U.S. protestors are worse, so the former helped a dictator while the latter “may destabilize the entire country.” But wait, isn’t the United States already destabilized by a pandemic and an economic collapse?

And now for the only concrete comparison, which revolves around ritual humiliation. The Red Guards put dunce caps on their professors and leading cultural figures and forced them to engage in self-criticism sessions. It was quite easy to do that, since the Red Guards had larger numbers and sometimes weapons as well and their opponents were unarmed. Today’s protestors, meanwhile, are the unarmed ones, and they face the armed representatives of the state, who don’t have to defer to the protestors if they don’t want to.

No one has placed dunce caps on their heads. When they kneel, they do so out of actual solidarity, which probably troubles Pollak a good deal more than the imaginary humiliation, or else in a cynical play for the cameras.

Statues and Op-Eds

If it were just one crazy Breitbart writer, it would be easy to dismiss the violence that Pollak has committed against the art of analogy. But various conservatives, libertarians, and even a “libertarian Marxist” have seized on the Cultural Revolution analogy — probably because they believe that any associations with China are by definition bad and no one really understands references to Jacobins and the French Revolution any more.

The Cultural Revolution comparisons usually fall into two categories. In the first, the analogists want to demonstrate that the current protestors aspire to expunge the past. In the second, they want to prove that the protestors aim to prohibit free speech.

In the bizarre UK magazine Spiked!, the editor and former Trotskyist Brendan O’Neill lays out the first kind of comparison:

Britain is in the throes of a Cultural Revolution. Statues are being tumbled, past art erased, people cancelled. Wide-eyed Woke Guards, heirs to Maoist-style intolerance, are compiling lists of monuments to target and individuals to humiliate. They are remorseless. Nothing old that runs counter to their newthink can be tolerated. Tear it all down.

Sounds pretty scary. What’s actually happened is that protestors have dumped one statue — of slave trader Edward Colston — into the drink and spray-painted “racist” on a statue of Winston Churchill. The UK is now having a discussion about history and how to commemorate it. That’s not exactly Cultural Revolution-style anarchy. Rather, it’s a rather commonplace occurrence.

Even the statue-toppling is more common than O’Neill suggests. It’s not like Stalin statues still look down on people throughout Eastern Europe. Statues of ruthless colonial oppressors were pulled down throughout Africa as part of the independence process. Oh, and what about Ozymandias, the once powerful King of Kings that the poet Shelley discovered as just a pair of legs in the sand?

In the second category, the analogists are particularly exercised by The New York Times backtracking on a Tom Cotton op-ed it published on June 3. In “Send in the Troops,” Senator Cotton (R-AR) urged the use of the U.S. military to quell the unrest surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter protests.

“What you are seeing is Maoism, people who are supposed to be in public confess that they’ve been guilty, people who have to toe whatever the party line is,” opined Newt Gingrich on Fox News. “When we see an institution as famous and as powerful as The New York Times collapse totally in front of the mob, it tells you what’s going on in terms of American elites.”

The mob? The New York Times made its decision to retract Cotton’s op-ed because, first, it contained factual inaccuracies and language unbefitting The Gray Lady’s editorial page. Second, it received pushback from its own staff.

The editors concluded, “the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.”

And unlike Maoist China, the Times published several pieces — by Brett Stephens and Ross Douthat — that supported the publication of Cotton’s op-ed.

None of that has stopped the National Review’s David Harsanyi from concluding during the Cotton affair that “we’re in the dawn of a high-tech, bloodless Cultural Revolution; one that relies on intimidation, public shaming, and economic ruin to dictate what words and ideas are permissible in the public square.”

Now, if Harsanyi were talking about the impact of the Koch brothers on public debate in the United States — trying to intimidate and publicly shame money in politics journalist Jane Mayer in an attempt to stop her investigations, spending millions of dollars to dictate acceptable discourse — then maybe he’d be on to something.

Which leads us to a much more apt Cultural Revolution analogy.

Trump Plays Mao

A powerful leader appeals to a group of crazy, gun-toting followers to go after his political opponents. He pits the anarchy of the mob against the level-headed policies of experts and sensible politicians.

Definitely Mao.

But also Donald Trump.

When militia members showed up outside state capitols and the houses of governors to protest stay-at-home measures, the solidly Republican head of the National Association of Manufacturers called them “IDIOTS.” In a video call, Jay Timmons continued, “These people are standing so close together without any protection — with children, for God’s sakes. And they have no concern, and it’s all about them, and it’s all about what they want.”

Donald Trump, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the protests. He called on his followers to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. For Virginians, he had an extra message: “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The Second Amendment pertains to the right to keep and bear arms.

When the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death overwhelmed the anti-quarantine actions, Trump displayed the other side of Mao by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the U.S. military to suppress the demonstrations. Tom Cotton’s vocal support for the action notwithstanding, Trump got serious pushback from former generals and active duty military. Thanks to Pentagon chief Mark Esper refusal to support Trump’s move, America was saved from a Tiananmen Square scenario.

Rebuffed, Trump has retreated to his previous position of backing America’s version of the Red Guard. Marjorie Taylor Greene is running for Congress in Georgia on the Republican Party ticket. If she wins — and she has a very good chance — she’ll be the first member of Congress to believe in the QAnon conspiracy (think: “deep state” times crazy). In June, she posted a video of herself wielding a semi-automatic and a message for “Antifa terrorists to stay the hell out of northwest Georgia.” Trump endorsed her and then congratulated her for winning the recent primary.

After The Washington Post recently published an unflattering profile of her, Greene tweeted, “The Chinese propagandists at the Washington Post are attacking me the same way they attack Donald Trump, and other conservatives.”

I always knew that the 2020 elections were going to feature some back and forth about China. But I never could have imagined Donald Trump as Mao teaming up with Republican wackos in the garb of the Red Guards to fight the reformers who are trying to save the country from a lacerating Cultural Revolution.

And conservative pundits have the gall to twist the very same analogy into a pretzel to throw against their enemies?

Only in Trump’s through-the-looking-glass America.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 17, 2020

Articles Featured

What Happened to Brazil?

In the 2014 World Cup, Germany not only ousted Brazil from the semi-finals. It gave the legendary team a drubbing, 7 goals to 1. For most of the match, Brazil faced a shutout: Only in the last minute did Brazilian striker Oscar manage to put the ball in the net.

The staggering loss was all the more painful because it took place in Brazil, which was hosting the World Cup. Brazil’s national football team hadn’t lost at home in 62 matches going back to 1975. It was a very public humiliation that took place before heads of state and millions of people watching the televised match.

The World Cup was supposed to be a crowning achievement, the proof that Brazil had made it to the club of advanced nations. It was an opportunity for the world to acknowledge all that Brazil had achieved in the previous 15 years.

Not only had the Brazilian economy grown at a rapid pace in the first decade of the 21stcentury — averaging between 4 and 5 percent — but it had dramatically reduced its inequality. The policies of President Lula da Silva, the charismatic leader and former trade unionist, had pulled 26 million Brazilians out of poverty. The Bolsa Familia — the family allowance of direct cash payments to the poor — helped to swell the middle class from 45 million to 105 million in just 10 years, a truly remarkable development in a country of 200 million people.

The Brazilian model didn’t just offer hope for other countries facing underdevelopment and economic inequality.

Along with the other BRICS — Russia, India, China, South Africa — Brazil was leading the “rise of the rest” that would dethrone the United States and usher in a truly multipolar world. Lula, the left-winger turned powerbroker, epitomized this new post-post-Cold War world, negotiating deals with both George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez, Germany and China, the mandarins of the international financial system and the poorest inhabitants of the urban slums. He had turned a country best known for Carnival, samba, and beaches into a serious global competitor.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, took over in 2011. Going into 2014, the Brazilian economy wasn’t performing at quite the same levels as in the Lula years, but it was still registering modest growth. Rousseff had reasonably high approval ratings in her first term and polled a still-respectable 40 percent at the end of 2014.

All of that has changed.

Today, Rousseff’s approval rating has nearly bottomed out at 8 percent, and the Brazilian economy is set to shrink by nearly 3 percent this year. Anti-government demonstrations brought several hundred thousand protestors into the streets of more than 200 cities in March and August to demand that Rousseff step down. In the economic equivalent of the 2014 World Cup loss, Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded Brazil’s bonds from investment-grade to “junk.”

Critics have taken aim at the Rousseff administration for its corruption and mismanagement. Analysts blame the collapse of the commodities market and the slowdown in Chinese imports. Still others identify Brazil’s persistent poverty and inequality as the culprits.

Brazil was heading into the semifinals of world development as an odds-on favorite. How did the country go from world-class performer to global embarrassment in what seems like the blink of an eye?

There Will Be Blood

The most violent cities in the world aren’t in the war zones of the Middle East. Nor are they, by and large, in the poorest parts of Africa.

In the most recent UN report on global homicide figures, Africa was overtaken by a surprise entrant: Latin America. One-third of all world’s homicides take place in a region that contains only 8 percent of the global population. And of the top 50 most dangerous cities, in terms of homicide, an astounding 19 of them are located in Brazil.

In the United States, Detroit has the worst murder rate: 44.9 murders per 100,000 people. For the Brazilian city of Ananindeua, it’s nearly triple that: 125.7. The murder rate overall in Brazil is 29, making it more dangerous even than Mexico. Writes Suketu Mehta in The New York Review of Books:

Four Brazilian cities had a murder rate of over 100 per 100,000 residents. Between 5 percent and 8 percent of Brazilian homicides are solved — as compared to 65 percent of U.S. murders and 90 percent of British murders. Most of the victims are male and poor, between fifteen and just shy of thirty. The homicide rate has shaved seven years off the life expectancy in the Rio favelas (slums).

Prior to the 1980s, Brazil was not an especially dangerous country. But the rise of the drug trade, the involvement of organized crime, and the spread of gangs all contributed to the spiraling violence. It’s also been increasingly dangerous to write about Brazil’s dangers. As John Otis of the Committee to Protect Journalists has written, “at least seven Brazilian journalist were killed in direct relation to their work between January 2011 and November 2012, making the nation one of the world’s deadliest for the press.”

Brazilians might take some comfort from the fact that, as a whole, their country comes out pretty well in the Global Peace Index. In 2015, Brazil ranked 103 out of 162: not great, but better than Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. It’s also a far cry from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the worst performers on the list. Brazil isn’t that far off from the United States, ranked 94, either.

On second thought, these ratings are only good news in the sense that Brazil is better off than countries at war and states on the verge of failing altogether.

After all, these relative rankings don’t really convey the atmosphere of pervasive violence in the country, even during the Lula years, when the economy was expanding and the poorer population was getting more of a share of the pie. During Lula’s first term, for instance, rural violence actually increased as disputes over land spiraled up 83 percent. Despite his commitment to greater income equality, Lula failed to address the enormous concentration of land in the hands of large farmers and landowners. He did try to reduce the deforestation that was eating away at the Amazon and other parts of the country, but that trend reversed after 2012.

Meanwhile, police brutality has reached epidemic proportions. In 2013, the police in the United States killed about 768 people (and 1,100 in 2014). In Brazil, with two-thirds the population, the police killed over 2,000 people in 2013. Extra-judicial killings escalated during the lead-up to the World Cup, as the military police and affiliated death squads tried to “clean up” the slums surrounding the stadiums.

As in the United States, people of African descent face a much greater chance of dying in Brazil — at the hands of police or in homicides — than white people. This summer, a version of the Black Lives Matter movement, called React or Die, began to gather steam in Brazil. It was about time. For a country that was the last in the Americas to give up slavery, that imported 10 times more slaves from Africa than the United States did, and where Afro-Brazilians make up more than half the population, Brazil has long been in denial about its structural racism.

There Will Be Corruption

It’s a safe bet that where there’s oil, there’s corruption. Even in Norway, which generally gets reasonably high marks from Transparency International, the country’s oil company Statoil has been embroiled in a corruption scandal around its dealings in Angola.

Brazil’s government-controlled energy company, Petrobras, is involved in a set of scandals of much greater magnitude and impact. The company, beginning in 2004, orchestrated a series of kickbacks in which contractors colluded in overcharging for services and then shared the proceeds in the form of, essentially, bribes. A handful of Petrobras employees enjoyed huge windfalls, as did a cadre of officials from the ruling Workers’ Party.

The estimated size of the corruption: $3 billion. In comparison, the much more widely publicized corruption in FIFA, the international football federation, has reached only around $150 million.

Petrobras’ self-inflicted wound coincides with a significant drop in world oil prices. Since the company represents an astonishing 10 percent of Brazil’s GDP, the fact that it lost half its value in the last year has had a disproportionate effect on the country’s economy.

Unlike many oil-exporting countries, Brazil isn’t dependent entirely on the market for crude. It has a rather diverse portfolio of goods that it sells to other countries, from soybeans to iron ore. But it did develop a dependence on one country to buy those goods: China. Between 2000 and 2013, Brazilian exports to China rose from $2 billion to $83 billion, and more than half of all exports began to flow to that country. A drop in commodity prices in the spring followed by Beijing’s devaluation of the yuan — which made Brazil’s exports more expensive — was a devastating one-two punch.

Widespread violence, structural racism, endemic corruption, and a set of external economic shocks have all contributed to Brazil’s fall from grace. Can the country recover from such a public embarrassment?

Lula’s Legacy

When asked about Brazil’s current travails, former president Lula remarked that “the poor helped save Brazil. And today I say that to take care of the poor is the solution.”

The Bolsa Familia will likely continue, since it enjoys broad political support. It’s not just a handout. Payments to mothers are contingent on children going to school, getting proper meals, and receiving adequate health care. It’s an early-intervention program that works.

But the larger legacy of Lula remains at risk: for instance, the nature of the state’s involvement in the economy. Ideally, the state can play an important role in stimulating the economy, putting resources into such sectors as sustainable energy, and providing a measure of stability to counteract market volatility. But that assumes a “clean” state. The Bolsa Familia has been a critically important program, but what’s the point of redistributing wealth to the poor while at the same time redistributing wealth to the wealthy through corrupt practices?

And what’s the Brazilian state currently planning to do to pull the country out of recession? The Rousseff administration would like to reintroduce the financial transactions tax that was rescinded in 2007, but that proposal faces stiff resistance in the legislature. So instead, the government is looking into legalized gambling, a recipe for more corruption and impoverishment of the populace.

Even an uncorrupt state invested in oil and gas is likely to make policy decisions slanted toward Big Energy. If the state has a vested interest in fossil fuel companies, like Petrobras, it may be less willing to forgo profits by putting more investment in renewable energy sources. Indeed, despite an impressive record of expanding electricity use without acquiring the carbon footprint of comparable countries its size, Brazil has also witnessed a decline in the proportion of renewables in its energy portfolio. Oil and natural gas are powerful drugs, and the Brazilian state is hooked on them.

Finally, the BRICS model, including a new BRICS bank, sounds like something new and different. But in reality, the BRICS basically just want to change the nameplates on the existing international financial system. This isn’t South-South cooperation as imagined in the New International Economic Order of the 1970s — an envisioned restructuring of the global economy for the benefit of the South as a whole rather than just a few leading players. When push came to shove, Brazil under Lula engaged in the same ruthless scramble for resources in Africa that the United States, China, and other powers have engaged in for years.

It’s not too late, of course, for Brazil to make a major, mid-course correction. The Petrobras scandal is already prompting a major anti-corruption drive. China’s economic slowdown is pushing the country to seek a more diverse set of trading partners. And in response to the omnipresent violence in society, various civic initiatives are addressing the nexus of police, gangs, and poverty. Still unknown is whether Brazil can pull this altogether as a credible development alternative, which can then perhaps influence the trajectory of the BRICS.

A poor performance in front of a global audience can have long-term psychological impact. But fortunately, in life as in sports, countries get second chances. Brazil has all the right ingredients to be a world-class performer. It just has to clean house first and come up with a different strategy.

World Beat, September 23, 2015