During and immediately after Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), agrarian land reform was initiated by the Communist Party. It was an ugly episode in Chinese history, and one to be repeated again and again until the reforms of Deng Xiaoping after the Great Leader’s death. This policy, however, was much more than a simple matter of taking land from the rich and distributing it among the poor. According to Chang and Halliday (2005):
[L]and resdistribution was not the main aspect of Mao’s land reform. The part that really mattered was a practice called dou dizhu, “struggle against the landlords,” which in reality meant violence against the relatively better-off….The violence typically took place at rallies, which all villagers had to attend. Those designated as targets were made to stand facing large crowds, and people were pysched up and organised to come forward and pour out their grievances against them. The crowds would be led to shout slogans while brandishing fists and far tools. Village militants and thugs would then inflict physical abuse, which could range from making the victims kneel on broken tiles on their bare knees, to hanging them up by their wrists or feet, or to beating them, sometimes to death, often with farm implements. And there was often torture of even more ghastly kinds (Mao: The Unknown Story, 315).
What Chang and Halliday don’t focus on in their damning biography of the founder of modern China is the pyscho-social conditions that made his atrocities possible. I read this book several years back, but I recall being bothered by the narrow focus of the work: the authors’ intent seemed simply to condemn Mao rather than engage in a deeper investigation of his influence on Chinese society. But I digress.
My point in this post is to identify anger, and how it works in the mind of an oppressed class. Without a doubt, American school teachers are such a class, albeit far, far less oppressed than the Chinese of sixty years ago. I do not mean to draw that correlation. Rather I mean to point out that even Mao couldn’t have gotten the peasants to brutalize their neighbors if there wasn’t a torrent of rage and powerlessness coursing through their lives. Mao was a genius manipulator of social discontent, of a caliber that makes his contemporaries, Hitler and Stalin, appear amateurish. Latent anger was the fuel. Mao was the match.
Now we have the Badass Teachers Association, its emergence a remarkable phenomenon. Rather than a catalytic proto-movement, however, I am beginning to fear it will shape up to be little more than an outpouring of denunciations by the disenfranchised. Yes, teachers in this country are terribly abused by business and governmental figures who use the media as an instrument of that abuse. On the other hand, such power has always been pitted against teachers in one manner or another throughout time. Again, and again I read posts and comments by BATs justifying their cacophony of ranting by claiming the need to express their frustration. This state of affairs is not the makings of a mass movement, but rather the makings of mass petulance.
The founders of the BATs can congratulate themselves on bringing thousands of teachers together, but now they must steer the major conversations, focusing them into practical actions that can be long lasting. Simply asking everyone to bombard perceived enemies with phone calls will, at best, bring only temporary recognition; Warhol’s famous fifteen minutes.
So what is the correlation between the BATs and Chinese anti-landlordism? Both rely on anger, which is a short term expedient at best. Where do the two differ? The Maoists were highly organized and the whole atrocity was carefully orchestrated from above. With the BATs, so far, it is really quite anarchistic. They would do well to consider the limits and ultimate destructiveness of anger, then turn to reasoned dialogue and the search for wisdom. The enemies of public education can be teachers’ greatest allies in empowering them to bring out their better selves. Instead, too many of are caving into their lesser selves, because it is easier, and it feels right for the moment. After all, if one’s enemies are going to engage in slander, would it not be better to rebut them from a position of great inner strength and resolve, rather than going after them with the same dark impulse that compels their assault?