Peggy Noonan wanted her readers to be afraid of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Reagan speechwriter turned Wall Street Journal columnist spent 10 paragraphs describing the violence that convulsed China from 1966 to 1976 (she added two years to its length and called it a dozen years, for some reason), when Mao Zedong decided his revolution had been insufficiently revolutionary and told the country’s youth to rise up and overthrow society.
Noonan explained how mass ideological terror was waged:
In the struggle sessions the accused, often teachers suspected of lacking proletarian feeling, were paraded through streets and campuses, sometimes stadiums. It was important always to have a jeering crowd; it was important that the electric feeling that comes with the possibility of murder be present. Dunce caps, sometimes wastebaskets, were placed on the victims’ heads, and placards stipulating their crimes hung from their necks. The victims were accused, berated, assaulted. Many falsely confessed in the vain hope of mercy.
Also countless people were tortured and killed, ancient architecture and literature were smashed and burned, and basic professional competence was destroyed for a generation. This all reminded Peggy Noonan of Twitter.
“I don’t want to be overdramatic,” Peggy Noonan wrote, before she proceeded to compare people arguing with each other, mainly by typing words online, to the complete self-demolition of a society under the orders of a totalitarian government:
The air is full of accusation and humiliation. We have seen this spirit most famously on the campuses, where students protest harshly, sometimes violently, views they wish to suppress. Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.
Nobody is dragging Peggy Noonan to Madison Square Garden in a dunce cap so that 20,000 teenagers can pelt her with garbage, even though she is in fact a ghastly reactionary who propounds a dead and worthless culture.
This was all comical, on the surface. Here was Noonan offering a litany of vivid, terrible things that had actually happened in the world, and then asking the reader to consider whether something like that might be happening right now, around us. Obviously, no! No such thing is remotely happening. Nobody is dragging Peggy Noonan to Madison Square Garden in a dunce cap so that 20,000 teenagers can pelt her with garbage, even though she is in fact a ghastly reactionary who propounds a dead and worthless culture.
Twenty-first century America has not even had the first revolution, let alone the vicious secondary revolution to revivify its flagging revolutionary spirit. The Republican Party still controls two and a half branches of the federal government. Rather than devolving political power to marauding teenagers, we are in a time when elected officials—some of them in their 20s or 30s, like James Madison or Thomas Jefferson in 1776—are suggesting we pursue policies other than the ones we’ve been pursuing. Also the young-adult fiction industry is attempting, awkwardly, to engage with audiences outside its overwhelmingly white industry demographic, and sometimes seeing those attempts backfire. And people are rude, often disproportionately so, on Twitter.
But the disconnection between Noonan’s analogy and observable reality was so vast that it wasn’t really funny, in the end. This argument keeps coming up—that the Red Guards or the Chavez regime or the Holodomor are all about to land upon America, because the Democrats might begin to reverse some of decades’ worth of cuts to the top marginal tax rate, or because people get piled on for tweeting dumb things—as an expression of something important to the people who keep raising it.
Noonan herself gave it away, projecting it out onto Chinese history: “it was important that the electric feeling that comes with the possibility of murder be present.” The plutocratic right is obsessed with this feeling, with fantasies of the inevitability of violence. If the slightest political step in the direction of Sweden leads off a cliff to Venezuela—to blood on the ground in Worker’s Stadium—to the killing fields—then anything and everything is permissible in the fight against it. It is absurd as an argument, but it isn’t meant as an argument. It is a dream and a threat.