There are two ways to be great.
The first is by actually being great, doing great things, winning victories, achieving big goals.
That’s the hard way.
The second path is to be great by pretending to be great, insisting you’re great now and always have been, while ignoring or denying all the stuff about you that isn’t so great.
The easy path.
Look at Communist China.
Much about China is truly great: a civilization nearly 5,000 years old. Culture. Cuisine. More than a billion citizens. Proud, strong, rising.
Not great enough, apparently, for its totalitarian leadership. They demand that everything be considered great, and banish all that is controversial, complicated or embarrassing.
In April, China’s cyber censors set up hotlines that allows citizens to denounce each other, turning in those who “defame national heroes.” Questioning the party’s version of the past is branded “historical nihilism.” People go to prison for quips about history.
This is not great, but petty. Not strength, but weakness. There is a reason our nation’s First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
The idea was that dictating what religion to practice, or what citizens can say or not say, is the work of tyrants. The reason we broke away from England is because we were sick of that. And because permitting all kinds of speech is like permitting free scientific inquiry: It allows ideas to compete, and the best to rise to the top. It fosters greatness.
Or at least it did, before social media put its thumb on the scales and encouraged Americans to isolate themselves in their own personal echo chambers.
In China, there is a list of 10 historical “rumors” that cannot even be discussed — “Did the Battle of Luding Bridge actually happen?” To do so is to risk prison.
“The purpose of Party history inside China is to correct ‘mistakes’ and promote a ‘correct’ story that affirms the Party’s greatness,” Jeremy Brown, a historian at Simon Fraser University, told the Chinese Digital Times.
“Affirms the Party’s greatness.” Rings a bell, doesn’t it? A poll came out Wednesday showing 78% of Republicans are against teaching “critical race theory,” their version of China’s “historical nihilism.” Jargon for plain old racial history. Sometimes Republicans try to explain the difference; 43% don’t even bother. They baldly admit that they don’t want to teach any racial history. Clashes with our supposed greatness.
This is all part of their general retreat from the world of fact. A tendency to cover their ears and shout down any troublesome opinions that, alas, is not confined to the right. Just try to be a conservative speaker on a liberal college campus.
I don’t get it. Sunlight is a disinfectant, and the truth will out. That’s the main reason I don’t worry, too much, about my children living in the Midwest American Agricultural Zone of the Sino-Global Empire. Don’t worry, too much, that the Trump brand of fact-free totalitarianism will dominate our national discourse forever. Because reality intrudes, eventually, as COVID taught us.
Some of us, anyway.
The final irony is that the racial history of America is a tale of greatness. A story of people brought in chains to a nation where slavery was baked into its Constitutional DNA. Of people who, less than a century after our nation’s flawed founding, established themselves as free citizens, in theory, then spent the next century and a half fighting the most powerful, treacherous, toxic foes. Peacefully and with tremendous effort and will, and faith in a country that, frankly, often didn’t deserve that faith. Often betrayed it. The only reason that isn’t an inspiring American tale is if you are rooting for the bad guys. Not wanting to teach America’s racial history is like not wanting to teach the history of the Civil War because the Confederates lose at the end.
Not to give Republicans any ideas. They might start clamoring to teach children that the South won the Civil War. Which, looking around at many parts of the country today, they might as well have. How else could they dare talk national greatness out of one corner of their mouths, and sedition out of the other?