Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lessons not learned

Of course I was 100 percent behind everything that happened in the Cultural Revolution — it was a terrific experience.

To offer some perspective for Americans (or other Westerners), the Cultural Revolution is a mix of the most radical aspects of the upheaval of the 1960's and 70's combined with some of the heartbreak that tore families apart during the Civil War (or the War between the States, as it is sometimes known). It would be useless to offer more substantive details when there are several books that detail that lost decade in Chinese history where the country essentially went crazy. A Google search is a good place to start. I would also recommend Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, a very moving, personal tale of survival during the Cultural Revolution.

Regardless, I digress. The above quote is attributed to Joan Hinton, a physicist who helped to work on the Manhattan Project who grew disillusioned and subsequently moved to China. Reading the quote at the end of her obituary in the New York Times, however, floored me for two reasons. First, I find it hard to believe that anyone could see any good in the Cultural Revolution - particularly anyone forced to live through it. Second, for anyone to make a comment like that, regarding a decade-long event that ultimately cost the lives of untold numbers of millions and refashioned its survivors into the "Lost Generation", shows a glaring inability to rationalize the theoretical with the practical.

Rarely does anyone who lived through the Cultural Revolution have any desire to discuss it or its impact on their lives. The actions that people took during that time revealed the lowest depths to which people would sink in order to survive. If anything, the survivors have striven to forget. Ms. Hinton's comments reveal a shocking inability to relate to the horrors that others lived through. That Ms. Hinton should have so overtly praised an event (and its creator) that caused so much suffering to an entire nation is, well, mind-boggling. Further, they indicate that she is more tied to an abstract world of theoretical ideas than their impact on the real (and often practical) world and that the reality of the practical application of said ideas apparently held no burden for her whatsoever. While it is one thing to adhere to a particular ideological worldview, it is quite another to impose it upon others when the adherent is unwilling to participate in the suffering if (or, in this case, when) it should go awry. But to praise the Cultural Revolution in the face of overwhelming evidence of its terrible impact is evidence that the power of the idea was more important to her than its practical application.

And yet, it seems that she was more practical than such a comment would otherwise indicate. After all, though she spent most of her later years in China, she never gave up her US passport, claiming that it made travel easier for her. Yet she never failed to condemn US actions regarding the nuclear weapons (her thoughts on the Chinese possession and use of nuclear weapons apparently remains unknown); actions that were, and still are, allowed under US law but would not have been permitted in China under Mao - or any subsequent leader since his death.

While Joan Hinton may have passed on, the ideas in which she believed so fervently over the practical realities of an existence she obviously wished not to see, persist with others who deliberately choose to remain similarly obtuse.

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