Lectures to the Chinese by Alfred De Grazia

PART ONE:  The Eight Bads

1. Living in the Past

The Chinese experienced something called "the Cultural Revolution" between 1967 and 1969. Holding back the Army, Leader Mao unleashed a horde of youngsters and students upon the land, telling them they must destroy the four olds: old thought, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Scrambling over the country, the "little generals" of the Red Guards attacked thousands of agencies of government, of faculties of schools, of provincial and local Communist Party hierarchies, of factory managers, and of community leaders. They "struggled" every leader they could find who was in the least vulnerable--kidnapping them, brainwashing them demoting them, sometimes killing them. An immense purge and destruction occurred. The whole apparatus of society was rudely shaken. The economy was disrupted.

Most of you were either Red Guards or were "struggled"--in America we say "hassled"--by the Red Guards. Now it seems like a frightful and incredible dream that you once had and may have again. Strangely, in America, about the same time, we experienced a "New Left" wave that resembled the Red Guards' Cultural Revolution. It was smaller, less destructive, and less thoroughgoing. Yet the same "four olds" were the targets of the attack of the American New Left, and the methods that were used paralleled those of the Red Guards of Mao.


There was one crucial difference. The American Presidents and politicians in this period were hostile to the New Left, and the authorities everywhere used armed police and soldiers to crush the New Left wherever it seemed to be winning. If the presidential party had been favorable, and had restrained the armed forces and police, America would by now be halfway into a revolution that must come about anyway.

Nevertheless, the New Left shook up a great many particular elements of the four olds--old thought, old culture, old customs, and old habits--especially in the schools, but also in society as a whole. Business corporations, state bureaucracies, and churches were just beginning to feel the impact when the movement subsided.

It may interest you to know that very few people were killed or injured in this movement, far fewer than in China, despite the frequent intervention of police and Army. Almost no artistic treasures were destroyed. But unquestionably the mind of a whole generation was loosened from its moorings and turned partially around. The more recent reactions of America to new problems, such as removing a President before his term of office is up and the handling of shortages of energy, are conditioned by the years of attacking the four olds.

However, as in China, so in America. The tightening and hardening grip of bureaucracy over society was only momentarily shaken. Lacking skill, knowledge, and positive purposes, neither movement could divert this monster's encroachments. Furthermore, neither movement turned the mind of the people away from material desires and amusements toward the creation of a new society. Societies are enormous machines that limber along through time, accumulating great momentum. If we trust the history of revolutions, the most that can happen is that the machine can be slowed down, at enormous cost, in lives, property, and anguish. A quick turning of the machine of society to a new set of ideals and practices has been impossible in history.

Moreover, even if the Red Guards and the New Left had been multiplied a hundred times, they would not have made a beneficial revolution. They could not. They had no concrete image of the future. They lacked the ability to apply systematic intelligence to creating the future. Unfortunately the old society which still dominates America, as it does China, is both unwilling and incapable of turning the machine and moving it into the future. So in America, as in China, people ask, "Where do we go from here? What now?


China has the oldest great culture of the world. The United States has the oldest democratic regime. It goes back at least as far as the Revolution of 1776 when the States began to write constitutions resembling the present Constitution. When the approach of the two hundredth anniversary of this Revolution began to tickle the collective memory, Congress set up a commission to get ideas and spend money on celebrating the event.

I am embarrassed to say that almost without exception the projects offered were trivial and silly. Some people wanted to put up special kinds of Disneylands, with actors dressed in old costumes cavorting in fake villages. Others thought of parades with firecrackers. Some wished to publish histories recalling past glories. But some of these "glories"--like the Indian wars, the Mexican wars, the Spanish-American wars, the old slave plantations, or the invention of the atomic bomb--ought better to have been forgotten. Or they should be reconstructed because they are the kind of regrettable behavior that is to be avoided in the future.

Only a few voices from the fringes of power asked the country to think of projects confronting the major needs of the country. Could America build a new city or restore at least one old city in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of America? Could a serious last-minute attempt be made to relieve the poor of their poverty? Might not a prize competition be offered for a low--energy substitute for the gasoline motor car? Would this not be the occasion for some immense gift to the poor world--say $100 billion--in appreciation of all that the world has given us? Could not a general plan for the future be adopted? Not at all. Instead, slippery words; self-delusion; pride for the wrong achievements; life as usual; life in the past; escapism. Many Americans believe that they can still afford such luxurious vices. They have not heard the ancient warning of Mo Tzu:

Can the chaos in the world be put on order by striking the big bell, beating the sounding drum, playing the ch'in and the she, and blowing the yu and the sheng? Even I do not think it is possible.


Americans, it would appear, suffer from hysteresis, a looking backward that causes governing organs to misjudge the changed movements of the body of society. In October 1973, Arabs and Jews fought a war in the Near East; the supplies of oil from the Near East were halted. It is the rule in the U.S.A. at this time of year to set its clocks back an hour to gain more early-morning light. This was done. In November, Congress and the President passed a law to turn the clocks ahead again in order to conserve energy. One per cent of the illumination of the U.S.A. was saved.

Obviously a government without the foresight to conserve energy beforehand by such an obvious trick was not prepared in any respect for the energy crisis in general. The country's attention was devoted in the preceding year largely to the question of whether to get rid of the president and what to do about a serious inflation.

If one were to flip back through the pages of the country's leading newspapers before November 1973 to examine their leading domestic and foreign stories, almost none would be found that dealt with energy. If one examined the videotapes of the three great television networks' evening news programs in the same period of time, one would find that almost none of the news dealt with energy problems.

Not Congress, not the president, then, and not the mass media were visibly at work on the future of the American or world energy system. In the recesses of certain government agencies would be found unread reports, notices of aborted discussions, and sporadic attempts at calling upon public attention.

Of hundreds of thousands of magazine articles and books that were published meanwhile, only a few dealt with energy problems. These exceptions were mainly the work of conservationists and oilmen battling over questions of ecology.

A book called The Limits of Growth had received some play in the press for two years. Its projections showed that petroleum and other minerals and metals that form the basis for the industrial world will run out shortly. The Growth Economy must collapse. A collapse would occur even if energy were abundant, because the damage to people, animals plants, and property caused by pollution was rising sharply, and elsewhere in the world a fearful crisis of overpopulation was arriving. Moreover, an exhaustion of arable land was soon to occur. This book was abusively reviewed in the New York Times and elsewhere treated cynically by many leaders.

In the executive offices of some industrial and oil corporations, the coming energy crisis caused concern. Practically nothing was done for fear of dropping a stone that would start an avalanche. The National Petroleum Council, the organ of a group of oil companies, issued in 1972 a report, prepared with governmental encouragement, that painted the alarming picture and urged steps to increase supplies and appease the rulers of the Arab countries. In many school districts and towns, officials wondered when the next mild restrictions of supply would occur. Their concern did not excite the press and public.

In brief, the American involvement, intelligence, and problem-solving systems were as inactive as the American forces in Hawaii on the eve of the disastrous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Before World War II, a decade of public opinion had been told of the "have" and the "have-not" countries of the world, and of the failures of both capitalist and socialist countries. The great war, despite protestations by the Euro-Russo-American alliance that it was a war for freedom from fear and want, buried such sentiments in slaughter and nationalism. Frenzy came to substitute for foresight and amity.

The energy crisis will take its own form. War may be part of it. But the energy crisis, more than any other set of events, will toll its bells over years and years, warning: "Foresight must become an inevitable necessity of all everyday politics. Otherwise the world and America will slide back into the Stone Age."

Yet to put the burden of avoiding such dire prophecies upon foresight alone is impossible. Foresight does not turn society on and off like a lamp. To change the future, it depends upon other elements to be discussed in this book. It depends upon how fast the world is moving if, as in the case of America, a country is tied to the world.

If America were as self-contained as China, it would not have to solve so many of its problems in futuristic terms of a single united world. True, China, fearful of its borders, has developed a nuclear bomb, only a few of which are enough to deter potential nuclear aggressors. But, in general, China can organize itself and let the world be chaotic. Not America.

America has a hundred huge corporations doing business abroad, These companies produce far more goods and use far economy. The U.S.A. has an absolute requirement to import fuels and raw materials. It guarantees the frontiers of nations across the Atlantic Ocean, at the end of the Mediterranean Sea, across the Caribbean Sea, and even yet across the Pacific Ocean. The annual direct and indirect energy demands of the American military alone would supply the fossil energy needs of China's quarter of the population for many years.


If America were to confront the future frankly, it would have to make decisions for which it is psychologically unprepared. Its actual risks would not increase: it is important to realize this fact; no decision that America might take to realize a new peaceful world order would require more sacrifices than the future will demand of it in any case. Still, especially when a person is already trapped by his familiar problems, it is easier to move into the future like a sleepwalker than to wrestle with it. In such times, people are possessed by historicism, tribalism, chauvinism, cynicism, and alienation. The American legalist tradition, by the way, is like the old Chinese legalists. It too is most powerful, looks back to precedent, and blocks progress.

An American philosopher, George Santayana, once said that those who do not read history are compelled to repeat it. Sigmund Freud would say that the essence of traumatic neurosis is the compulsion to repeat in open and hidden ways the painful events that caused it in the first place. So it is that many Americans are historical in the sense that they cannot escape from history. They cannot escape because they read their history wrongly; they are therefore afraid of their history; they are therefore afraid of their future.

The traditionalist, dragged down by his personal and group history, decides the future in terms of the past. No matter to him that the future makes its own demands. He reverses the rational method of making decisions, which commands: first, what should be done? then, what does history tell us about how to prepare for the encounter? As Confucius said, "He who by reexamining the old can gain knowledge of the New is fit to be a teacher."

The pride of America once was a Young idea called organization and a behavior called know-how. Today the country has developed into bureaucracy. If you were to watch a typical American group go to work on a new project, you would be astonished at how huge a nest they build to lay the smallest egg.

They call this planning, but it is mostly legalism and red tape. All of these bureaucratic nests are aided by foresight machinery-research offices, statistical gathering agencies-but rarely do they have motive power. They are as useful for planning ahead as the wings of the penguins for flying.

If the last of the Americans were to be huddled in final communion, they would perhaps be comforted by the flicker of the last computer recording the latest statistics, to wit, that "the population consists of fourteen children, women, and men, of such and such ages, marital condition, and occupations, sharing four rooms and a leaky toilet," etc. Statistics have a backward side that makes them dear to bureaucrats and pedants. You hear often "I don't know what we'd do without the figures." The worst, and most common, use of statistics is to prove what has already been decided. The next worst and equally common use is to prove that what-has-been must be. Like librarians who spend their last dollars on continuing bad serial magazines because they hate to break a series, bureaucratic statisticians hate statistics whose collection is shaped by the future because the old series must be altered or destroyed.

A system, to conclude, has foresight only if it has attitudes and mechanisms that support foresight. Without a general revolution of mind and conduct, there will be no effective foresight but only voices from the bottom of the well.


A recent popular book on America is entitled Future Shock, and the phrase has itself come into use. Future shock is a state of bewilderment over a multitude of changes, most of them quite meaningless but nevertheless seductive and compelling. It is a false futurism; to recognize and adapt to jostling, everyday changes so heavily occupy and obsess people that they lack time to reflect upon where they were, or are, and where they are going. Future shock actually breeds future fear. Necessary great changes in society are evaded by dealing with many small changes.

This nervous preoccupation with trivia suppresses the realization that many parts of the past must be denounced in order to free one to assume a greater future. Puritan and evangelist Americans have long used the technique of denunciation of the present and past to overleap the earthly future of heaven. But when it comes down to confessing secular errors for a secular purpose, the courage to confess is deflated.

Life for many people in America (I can't say about China) is largely taken over by covering up the errors they or their loved ones have committed. But everyone has made many past errors whose confession is essential if one is to change oneself and look into the future. Unfortunately the same twist of mind that covers up past personal sins covers up national and group sins. "Love of the past" becomes pathological, a compulsion to repeat what one is ashamed to admit to have done. But the future can only be addressed correctly in a confessional mood.

To a country that professes Marxism, like China, all of this bewilderment and confusion of Americans seems a sign of weakness. But Americans have watched the Soviet experience; they know enough about forced collectivism to reject it. They also have passed by militaristic dictatorships like Nazism and realize how futile and wrong they are. When Americans consider the communist, the fascist, and the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, they are disturbed. They feel like Dante reading the message before the gates of hell: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." They want to turn backward. America, you see, is in the unenviable position of a country that must move ahead but has no models to follow. It has to invent the future.


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