I was watching the documentary Morning Sun and was struck by something the narrator said near the end of the film. Near the end of China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, something odd happened. People began to believe in increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories. After almost a decade of cultural revolution, they had failed to root out their enemies and in fact their enemies seemed ever more present. Certain high ranking leaders were “revealed” to have been traitors. Something was wrong.
Regular purges didn’t work. The mythology of the revolution was under attack. The core, almost spiritual principles of the revolution were in danger. People were straying from the “true path” and must be brought back into obedience to it. And yet no matter how many enemies were named, how many punishments meted out, there was never success.
The only explanation the people could accept involved conspiracies, subtle, complex and successful, to undermine the revolution. And they began believing those theories. What made them dangerous was the fact that people in charge, people with power, actively believed in these conspiracies and they had the power to harm, to punish, to even kill, those the believed involved in the conspiracies.
As part of the Cultural Revolution, everything, even seemingly insignificant things, became massively significant. A stray word, singing the wrong kind of song, wearing the wrong kind of hat, everything was loaded with significance. Things which had been unremarkable before were now invested with massive importance. Words and gestures were examined for hidden meaning.
I found myself pondering something. At some point early in his presidency, Barack and Michelle Obama did a playful fistjab. The kind people do fifty times a day. The American right went crazy. Was it a signal? What did it mean? Barack Obama addressed school children via satellite – just as many previous presidents have done – and the American right went crazy. What subversive message was he going to give? Can we trust him to speak to our children? Good, patriotic parents should keep their kids home! And so on.
Whether it’s bizarre theories about Barack Obama’s citizenship, odd conspiracies about using the White House to institute Islamic Law in the US, or whatever unfounded conspiracy the right is spinning today, since the moment he was nominated for the Presidency, the American right has engaged in a series of increasingly unhinged discussions of wild conspiracies. When confronted, conservative politicians have either embraced those conspiracy theories (see Bachman, Michele) or refused to say that they know they aren’t true (see Boehner, John).
On a fairly regular basis, febrile emails spread across the American landscape, breathlessly claiming to report on the latest conspiracy to destroy America. All the while, very real social, economic and political problems remain unresolved.
I’m not saying that the Tea Party is the American version of Mao’s cadres. Yet, I find it provocative that both groups trade in conspiracy theories, engage in mythologizing revolutionary leaders, react to the world in similar ways. It seems to me that both are reactions to failures of ideological policies to produce the expected results. The Bush administration followed conservative doctrine almost to the letter and it ended in failure. Worse, a black guy with a funny name won the Presidency. The rightward tilt of the Republican congress, seeking ever more ideologically pure solutions to social problems, seems to me a strangely parallel response to the world as those who led the Cultural Revolution.
Nobody ever looks like Joe McCarthy. That’s how they get in the door. The true believers can’t believe it didn’t work and the only explanation must be some hidden, heretofore unexpected conspiracy to undermine the Reagan Revolution.